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By Ana T. Johnson

The Definition of “Media Events” by Dayan and Katz.

In order to get a full understanding of the contemporary usage of the term “media events” it appears opportune to dwell upon the History of this term. The media events analysis performed by Dayan and Katz, in which the authors attempt to provide a comprehensive definition of media events, was a follow-up to a number of works dedicated to the role of television. The article by Shils and Young (1956), shedding light on the Queen’s Coronation and its affect on the post-war society, sparked off the discussion. The authors dwelled upon the adjustments made to the traditional coronation ritual and their impact on the reaction of the society to it. The coronation was viewed as a ritual and the way of reporting it was also somewhat ritualized.

Later on Chaney (1983), as well as Paddy Scannel and David Cardiff, developed the point first touched upon by Shils and Young, that is, the wonderful possibility provided by the media to enact a ritual for an enormous audience simultaneously. Mention must be made of the following fact: the authors of the abovementioned publications come to the conclusion that television no longer concentrates solely on exceptional events. It stretches the scope of its attention to everyday life routine. However, it retains the right to present the national rituals.

An important transition is also mentioned, which lies in the very nature of public ritual

changing drastically through television. The influence of the television in this case consists in involving large audiences in the ceremony, which were not in fact present there.

At this point we will look closely at the definition of media events, provided by Dayan and Katz. The authors themselves state that their book “Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History” is dedicated to the historical, epic events, which have a profound influence on the life of the society in a particular country or in the world. Among those occasions that always attract public attention are political and sports contests, life-changing missions, etc. All of these events are called by the authors “Contests, Conquests and Coronations”. One could argue that the abovementioned events are drastically different in their nature, however all of them manifest the new and unique narrative genre which makes the most of the media potential to attract the attention of the public universally and transform the experience of the viewers by making possible their participation in the event. The idea that Dayan and Katz are suggesting is that due to television the ritual doesn’t lose its local affiliation, but still acquires the status of a universal narrative. This way spectators, who are not present at the event, have a special way of participating in it. Television creates the context for the ritual by highlighting the preparation for it, various reactions to it, etc. Dayan and Katz state that a number of considerations have to be taken in account in order to make a media event succeed. There is always a risk that a media event might fail, but if it is a success, it serves the purpose of integrating the society.

Dayan and Katz have chosen the term “media events” among the possible synonymous terms, such as “television ceremonies” or “cultural performances”. The intermediate goal that the authors are pursuing is to define the common features of such telecasts. One of the common attributes that has to be mentioned is that the audiences feel that they are invited even commanded to abandon their everyday routine and join the ongoing event, even if it means being seated in from of the TV screen. Such festive viewing as opposed to the usual viewing can be compared to holidays which are scattered among the normal ordinary days.

Speaking about concepts, the authors are attempting to view mass communication in the light of theory of anthropology. Touching upon the issue of the television genres, Dayan and Katz note that the traditional classification of television programs into types is accepted by everyone uncritically, whereas there is no distinct description of the characteristic features of each type. The majority of studies dedicated to television genres concentrate on the hidden stimuli of the media as a whole and neglect to investigate its components. Dayan and Katz give credit to Newcomb (1974), who was the first scholar, who drew up a systematic classification of television programs by category, accompanying it with the general description of common attributes within each category. Newcomb also approached televison programs in terms of sequences of discreet stimuli (such as stories, messages, images), etc. The authors do not deny the existence of the so-called continuous supertext in television, but they firmly state that certain programs, such as media events, command direct and focused public attention. The Royal weddings, funerals of presidents and celebrities, political debates, notorious court hearings could all serve as example of such media events.

In order to differentiate media events from other television genres, it has to be stated that the former are as far from routine as can be. They break into normal broadcasting, interrupt the routine. Media events give the audience an opportunity to detach from the familiar, think about the extraordinary and witness it. Suspending the ordinary broadcasting serves as a prelude to something exceptional, which is about to enter the routine lives of the viewers. After the event is through, the audience is transported back into their familiar reality. When we are talking about the most exclusive events, which are a must for everyone to see, all the channels switch off their planned programming and dedicate the air time to the special event. Such cases can be described as monopolistic interruption. The essential element characteristic of the media events is that the broadcasting is live. The important event is televised in real time. This adds a strong coloring of unpredictability to it, even if the subject of the telecast is not such an intense event by its nature. According to the definition provided by Dayan and Katz, the media has no influence whatsoever on the event happening or not. The only contribution to be made by the media to the event, is televising it. Not only is the event independent of the media, but it also takes place in remote locations. The ultimate importance in broadcasting of the media events is attributed to this exceptional union of real time and remote place. This combination is highly appreciated by the audience. In order to make the media event successful, it is essential for the media to cooperate with the organizers of the event, which could be political parties, governments, sports committees, etc. All the abovementioned bodies have the right and the authority to draw public attention. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule of the media not intruding into the very organization of the media event. The Eurovision Song Contest can be listed as one of such exceptions, as media has a direct input into organizing it. But in the prevailing majority of cases, broadcasters do not participate in organizing the event, but are invited to televise it. Sometimes, the needs of the broadcasters are taken into the consideration while conducting the events, but it is usually the case that the broadcasters are challenged to provide a high-quality telecast on their own.

Another important characteristic feature of the media events to be mentioned is that such events are scheduled and advertised well before they actually take place. Such advance notice serves to build up the excitement and anticipation in the audience, accentuate the importance of the event about to take place. The media makes sure that the viewers have an opportunity to look forward to the exceptional experience of participating in the event while seating in front of their television screen.

Therefore, according to Dayan and Katz, media events are those events, which are remote from the audience they are broadcast to. The broadcasting is live and the event is real, taking place in the center of the society. The events occur independently, without the media setting it up. However, the media has to preplan the broadcasting. Media events present an interruption to the usual broadcasting. Public ritual television is far more than mere transmission of an unchanged event.

In order to draw an intermediate conclusion, it must be mentioned that the combination of such attributes as remote, live, preplanned and interruptive basically characterizes the nature of media events. Reverence, with which the media events are viewed, must also be added to the description. The journalists who receive the honor to comment on the media events express utter fascination with them and even awe. The very flow of media events evokes reverence. The media rarely interrupts such awe-creating elements as, for example, the national anthem being played. The commentary is usually reduced to brief informative messages. It stands to reason that the audience of the country where the event is actually taking place requires less explanation done by the media, while viewers overseas might need some background information in order to obtain a full understanding of what is going on. It is pretty telling that sometimes during media events broadcasting even commercials are suspended.

Media events command unquestionable attention of the public because they are viewed as crucial in the history of a particular country of even of the world. They are captivating, they keep in suspense. It is considered compulsory to view certain events, as they will be later on discussed by anyone and everyone. Unanimous broadcasting by several channels of the event stresses its absolute importance and calls the people to put aside whatever they are doing and join the experience. Curiously enough, sometimes the audience is encouraged to get dressed up before viewing the media event in order to enhance the feeling of participation. However, distinction must be clear between news events and media events. The major difference lies in the fact that the former depict catastrophes, disruption of order, while the latter praise its restoration.

Taking into the consideration everything mentioned above, it can be stated that syntactic description of the media events genre presupposes the following chief components: monopoly, interruption, live broadcasting, remote locations. These components also carry a semantic value, as they stress the importance of the event. Semantic meaning of a particular media event is suggested by the broadcasters and the organizers, but all of them are treated with reverence. In the pragmatic sense the media event commands the attention of enormous audiences, which due to the so-called norm of viewing think it absolutely necessary to participate in the event by watching it being broadcast. The pragmatic impact of media events lies in breaking up the broadcasting schedule and the routine of life. The viewers are also likely to create festive atmosphere around it by gathering in companies, cooking holiday food, etc.

It appears that the most comprehensive definition of media events can be given taking into account the three essential linguistic categories – syntactic, semantic and pragmatic.

In conclusion it must be mentioned that the book by Dayan and Katz “Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History” has acquired the status of classical literature on media. Their interpretation of the media events genre was mentioned in a number of research works. For instance, Nick Couldry believes that arguments introduced by Dayan and Katz could be very useful in elaborating the theory of media rituals. According to Couldry, the great contribution made by the authors of this book is the attempt to apply anthropological theory to media as opposed to concentration on textual analysis or general commentary. Nick Couldry believes that media events represent constructions rather than expressions of the order accepted by the society. They also give us an idea of the privileged position the media occupies in the social center.

In his work “Mediated Communication in Ritual Communication” Rothenbuhler generalizes the definition of media events provided by Dayan and Katz. He suggests three sets of qualifications describing media events. The first set (syntactic) has to do with the media events being interruptions, preplanned and live. The second set (semantic) has to do with them being presented with ceremony and reverence. The third set of qualifications (pragmatic) deals with attracting huge audiences. Based on the definition made by Dayan and Katz, Eric Rothenbuhler views media events as timeouts from the ordinary to the exceptional. An important aspect stressed by Rothenbuhler is that media events contribute to consolidation of society through implicit participation in the festive event.


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