The practical criticism of unseen media texts lies at the heart of most media studies teaching. Practical criticism is at once both the subject's most important routine classroom activity and its most powerful method of evaluation.
Since the chief purpose of any form of media education is to enable students to make better and more informed sense of the newspapers and television, practical criticism has become an indispensable tool both for reaching and evaluating its success.
All the more surprising then that "How to . . ." guides to the practical criticism of media texts scarcely exist. There is textual analysis aplenty. But few sources put teachers, let alone students, on the inside of the processes involved. Indeed the most prevalent advice given to teachers has tended to be of the "read Barthes or Berger or Williamson and pray for osmosis" variety.
In this context, How to Study Television is a particularly welcome publication. Aimed at post-16 media and communications students, it is an admirably clear and user-friendly guide to the study of television programmes. It begins with an introduction to the key concepts which will underpin all of the analyses that follow (construction, audience, narrative, categorisation and agency). It then moves on to what is the best available introduction yet to the approaches and basic terminology necessary for the analysis of any media text.
The admirable introductory section is followed by detailed analyses of specific programmes from The Bill, Fawlty Towers, News at Ten and Neighbours, which form the heart of the book.
Some doubts then intrude. A certain lack of freshness characterises some of the programmes analysed. The Fawlty Towers programme, for example, was first transmitted in 1975. The programmes from The Bill and Neighbours are of more recent origin (1991 and 1992 respectively), but three years is a long time in the life of a soap and a long-running police series.
There are other difficulties inherent in this very undertaking. Most seriously, the anlaysis of programme transcripts is no substitute for dealing with the programmes themselves. When reduced to the printed word they are in danger of losing their life, vitality and much of their interest. Given these obstacles it becomes clear why guides of this kind are in such short supply.
It is to the authors' credit that they face up to, and eventually compensate for the inherent limitations of a book format. Neighbours is an excellent choice. Their analysis of The Bill remains relevant to the series' current output. Fawlty Towers is available on video and in script format.
Even more impressive is the way in which Selby and Cowdery move the reader on from the specificity of textual analysis to a consideration of the wider principles and issues raised by these texts.
It is this movement from text to principles which can be applied to a range of similar texts which is the hallmark of the most mature and effective nedia teaching. Nowhere is this vital process described more clearly than in this book. It is the authors' attention to structure, and their ability to communicate this to students which makes their book, finally, an impressive achievement.