M. Štoll: Television and Totalitarianism

Television and Totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. From the First Democratic Republic to the Fall of Communism

Štoll, Martin
Sydney 2018: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
XXI, 279 S.
$ 210.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Rosamund Johnston, East and Central European Studies, Charles University Prague

„The history of Czechoslovak Television is parallel to the history of the Central European country“ (p. 241), argues Martin Štoll in Television and Totalitarianism. To understand the history of television in Czechoslovakia, Štoll charts the medium’s institutional organization, its technological foundations, programme content, and the relationships that television employees cultivated with Czechoslovak authorities. He shows how these fields impacted one another: political decisions led, for example, to particular forms of technological development, which in turn set parameters for programming. The book opens with a general, introductory chapter on East European socialism, before tracing television’s development from the interwar First Czechoslovak Republic until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It has something to offer both media scholars and historians. By focusing on the infrastructures constructed to facilitate television’s spread, Television and Totalitarianism joins an expanding body of research on media infrastructures. Štoll’s reflections on how television was watched, and what television meant to Czech and Slovak viewers during socialism, will prove valuable for historians of Eastern Europe assessing the role of state media in citizens’ everyday lives. His attention to television’s shifting position within the broader Czechoslovak media landscape furthermore provides a case study in media’s historic entanglement and, more specifically, the changing relationship between television and radio.

Television was devised by radio amateurs in interwar Czechoslovakia, and initially conceived as a „welcome supplement“ to the wireless (p. 52). It was understood to be radio with added visuals – „a technical curiosity on the flourishing radio market to which nobody ascribed much importance“ (p. 34). Development of the medium sped up in 1951, when Radio Free Europe began regular broadcasts to Czechoslovakia and Information Minister Václav Kopecký sought to „distract“ audiences from „listening to foreign propaganda“ (p. 110). Štoll thus shows how „stodgy“ Communist apparatchiks turned to new media, as well as the secret police (a subject which has been more frequently researched), to shape and monitor their citizens’ media habits. The seven years that followed are characterized by Štoll as the „golden age“ of television experimentation. During this period, television staff explored the „expressive and organizational possibilities of the new medium.“ They experimented with „new genres, new footage, new combinations of broadcasting techniques.“ That they were able to do so was due to television’s relative obscurity. As Štoll notes, the medium’s „factual reach […] was quite small,“ with television sets still prohibitively expensive for the average household in Czechoslovakia (p. 242).

During this period, Czechoslovak Television fell under the control of Czechoslovak Radio. The television borrowed some programming from its parent organization, in particular news bulletins, which could be more rapidly prepared in audio (rather than audiovisual) form. The two institutions ultimately split in 1959 (p. 151). By excavating radio and television’s long intellectual and institutional overlap, Štoll enhances our understanding of how television was historically made and watched. He highlights the assumptions that Czechs and Slovaks brought to television based on their previous experiences of media production and consumption (for example that certain known voices would speak in certain ways, or that television viewing – like radio listening or cinemagoing at the period – constituted „a social event,“ p. 129). By examining different media in concert, Štoll captures important shifts in twentieth-century Czechoslovakia’s media landscape. He avoids a teleological narrative of television’s inevitable rise and highlights the contrast between the media hierarchies of the past and present.

Television and Totalitarianism explores the technical side of television’s development in depth. This reveals tensions and allegiances which may not be made apparent through content analysis alone. In one example, Štoll discusses the introduction of colour television across the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s and 1970s. He notes a lack of uniformity in the systems of colour scanning and transmission that different Eastern bloc states chose (p. 93). The Soviet Union opted for the SECAM system and expected its satellites to do the same. Czechoslovakia invested in incompatible PAL equipment, but dutifully installed a SECAM decoder to harmonize its broadcasts with the Soviet Union’s. Poland and Yugoslavia opted for the PAL system without any such conversion. From this, Štoll concludes that the Eastern Bloc never came to „form a compact whole“ and that a degree of „autonomy was traceable in those countries which were not directly incorporated into the Soviet Union“ (p. 93). While Czechoslovak Television broadcasting „was teeming with Soviet elements,“ an examination of the technology it used tells a more ambivalent story of bet-hedging, or at least of other considerations (perhaps economic, perhaps aesthetic) trumping orders issued from Moscow (p. 92). The example of the Eastern Bloc’s variegated, and remarkably uncoordinated, colour systems additionally provides an alternative to the more common view of socialist television’s integrative tendencies that studies of international co-productions tend to underscore.

Štoll’s emphasis on the technical side of broadcasting offers valuable insight into programme production. He notes how the shortage of film, space, time and staff in the early 1950s led cameramen to develop a technique of „continuous film storytelling by changing the size of shots and using different angles, so that the sequence of pictures did not have to be further edited“ (p. 126). „Technological possibilities“ paved the way for new forms of journalism again in the 1960s, with programmes such as Zvědavá kamera (Curious Camera) taking advantage of recording devices’ increased portability to leave the studio and bring whole new constituencies (such as adolescents, military wives, prisoners, and those excluded from higher education) to the Czechoslovak screen (pp. 160–161). Rather than fixating on the journalist in front of the camera, Štoll’s focus on technology helpfully reminds his reader of the broader team – including the non-human actors – involved in television production.

Many of Štoll’s findings have the potential to unseat conventional narratives of communism in Czechoslovakia, and the author could have emphasized this point further. According to his own analysis, the 1950s constituted a peak moment for experimentation, improvisation, and innovation in television in Czechoslovakia. The unprecedented room to maneuver enjoyed by television professionals during Stalinism challenges more widely-spread notions that most work at the period took place under close supervision, indeed often under duress. Štoll’s thoughts on how representative television was as a Czechoslovak institution at this period would clarify the scale of his historiographical intervention. Was television a privileged island of creative autonomy, or would an in-depth analysis of any Czechoslovak institution at the same period in fact yield similar results? My own research into Czechoslovak Radio likewise finds the institution to have been an important site of technological and generic experimentation during Stalinism, revealing radio workers (rather than apparatchiks and the secret police) as the champions of such innovation.1 Simultaneously, Štoll notes that the tenets of socialist realism provided a strict set of criteria for Czechoslovakia’s cultural professionals to follow. But his analysis shows that adherence to a socialist realist style did not constitute a particular concern for television workers. Further discussion of how (and whether) socialist realism translated to the new medium of television could upend our understandings of the importance of Communist ideology for Stalinist-era cultural production in Czechoslovakia.

Štoll transmits a more nuanced, and more interesting picture of socialism in Czechoslovakia than Television and Totalitarianism’s title suggests. Rather than presenting the history of television „in parallel“ to the state’s history, his work nudges the reader towards a rethink of the history of Czechoslovakia during the socialist period. His research raises the question of whether totalitarianism as an analytic framework is capable of capturing the contours of and changes in Communist Czechoslovakia he describes. In Television and Totalitarianism, Czechoslovak Communism appears less like the monolith of Stalin on Letná Hill that he evokes as its metaphor, and more like the shifting pattern of light and dark spots on a Tesla television screen.

1 For more on this point, see Rosamund Johnston, The Peace Train. Anticosmopolitanism, Internationalism and Jazz on Czechoslovak Radio during Stalinism, in: Alice Lovejoy / Mari Pajala (eds.), Remapping Cold War Media. Institutions, Infrastructures, Networks, Exchanges (forthcoming with Indiana University Press).

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