Chapter 8

The Structural Constraint of "Concision" as it is Used in the Discourse Style of American Commercial Broadcasting

by Brett Dellinger, University of Turku, Finland

The chart depicts the 44-minute hours of American commercial television, its "given normal flow," and the embedding of the commercials (lighter areas of the clock-wheels) within the programming (darker areas) to create a "symbiotic whole."

The following is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s Chronicles of Dissent: Interviews with David Barsamian:

Concision, the 44-minute hour and "structural constraint "

Commercial broadcasters in the United States have developed many intricate procedures for rhetorically creating and signaling to audiences that the appropriate environment and mood for a particular television program or commercial is in place. Such procedures are structurally designed to facilitate a particular relationship between program content and advertising which Postman has so aptly called "symbiotic."

Good commercial television, to be successful in a competitive environment, must adopt proven competitive structures, including discourse, which can significantly contribute to creating, pulling in, and retaining audiences. Capable commercial television hosts and their guests, if they are to succeed in the highly competitive world of the commercial media, must also learn to adapt their style of discourse to the advertising environment. They must learn to modify their speech registers and diversify lexical and semantic items in a way which provokes feelings of intimacy, excitement and anticipation among audiences. By choosing to use innovative lexis (including hyperbole, derision, alliteration) or by assuming the appropriate appearance (depending on the message and inferences to be created) or by adapting the appropriate body language (including hand gestures and other body movements demanded by the particular format, including the right facial expressions), a popular television personality or guest will be able to successfully refer commercially targeted audiences to specific ideas, emotions, other popular media frames, and even points of view.

While a commercial television host must be semantically skillful, the choice of a suitable and proficient guest is just as important. Such guests should be experienced with the commercial media or they should at least be competent to choose the proper lexical items, or the right gestures, or the right intonation and vocabulary to "carry" the audience to the next commercial--and the next program. The goal, therefore, is to deliver a certain number of a certain type of viewer to the sponsor’s sales pitch (represented on our graph by the lighter shaded areas between the "spokes," or actual programming) and to "tease" them back again for the next broadcast element in the hour’s "wheel." Ultimately, a good commercial 44-minute hour of broadcasting will be able to hand over the targeted television audience to the next 44-minute hour and the accompanying commercials.

The purpose of this study is to investigate separately one of the "spokes" in the 44-minute hour (as shown on the chart), which has been criticized as causing "structural constraint" by Noam Chomsky. The programming will be considered as discourse and, above all, it will be considered in relationship to its function within the structure of the commercial environment. To overcome the problem of implicitness, a Finnish audience will assist in the investigation.


In their research, Halliday, Strevens and Fowler have found that discourse strategies used in the broadcast media are not the same as those used in writing. Thus, they have revealed that radio programming, including news, is "cued," by which is meant that contrastive stress in speech is used to underline or call special attention to a sentence or a phrase with the purpose in mind of establishing for audiences a feeling of intimacy, or a "one-on-one" relationship between the program and the audience. Other discourse strategies may be included as a component of cueing, such as adjusting intonation and various forms of paralanguage and kinesics—including voice pitch and gestures—which can be very effective in calling attention to certain concepts on radio or television.

Other "special effects" also contribute to cueing, including sound, video editing and certain visual effects, including rapid videotape editing techniques or voiceovers, which can break up the monotony and uniformity of a long speech. Cueing, as an artificial contrivance used primarily in radio and television broadcasting, has become a complex but essential element in modern public discourse, especially when entertainment and competition are involved, and after years of exposure to this modern commercial discourse style, audiences take it for granted.

Thus, on American television, commercial television talk purposely mimics real interaction in order to present television audiences with the illusion that they are indeed witnessing a spontaneous event which should not be missed. To accomplish this purpose, commercial television’s writers and producers use various discourse strategies, including content arrangement, inclusion of sensational remarks, music, banter or some personal exchange between a news anchor and the weatherman, to emphasize the familiarity of the situation or to establish a certain "feeling" or a certain point of view for the audience.

The development of the "magazine concept"

The commercial style of discourse has its origins in American broadcasting. During the 1950s sponsors and television executives discovered that the "magazine concept" in on-the-air television productions was a more effective way of using air time for selling sponsors’ products. In the earliest days of commercial television, the traditional means of on-the-air advertising consisted of on-the-air discourse strategies which were devised during radio days and therefore actually resembled more closely a stage production or, in the case of news, a Movietone newsreel. Usually there would be only one or two sponsors for a television play, variety show, or other program, and the sponsor would be identified, among audiences, directly with the show itself. The sponsor’s commercial breaks, therefore, were inserted into the program at irregular and, most significantly, appropriate intervals. By "appropriate," we mean that commercials were timed to accommodate program content, and not the other way around. This system, known as the "gratitude factor," had the adverse effect, from the point of view of the sponsor, of making the sponsor appear to be directly responsible for the quality, the content and even the political inclinations of the show. Audience irritation over any matter concerning the content of the program, such as too many commercials in a variety show, or the political flavor of a particular television play, could appear in the form of letters sent in directly to the sponsor, lost sales in the marketplace—or, even worse, through audience product boycotts. Gradually, as production costs for the growing television industry began to rise, the "gratitude factor" was abandoned for "alternating sponsorships," which became the norm. ABC was the first to use two or more sponsors within only one segment of a program.

A new production concept which centered around the selling of spots, or inserted commercial messages in programs produced by the networks or some anonymous independent producer was gradually developed. Live television was able to exploit the "magazine concept" on two of NBC’s most successful weekday programs during the 1950s, Today and Jack Paar’s Tonight show. Jack Paar’s "style" of interviewing several witty, entertaining guests on stage, then leading them through carefully coordinated periods of light conversation, with a touch of music, sandwiched in between two commercials, represented the discovery of a breakthrough formula for commercial television’s new selling concept. Sponsors loved the new, fast paced, "upbeat" style which emerged and, as Barnouw expressed it, "flocked to television." Many fortunes were won, especially in the drug and cosmetic businesses. Today, Paar’s style of television discourse, which he helped pioneer, remains the model for modern commercial television talk shows.

One advantage, among many, of this new format was that it seemingly endowed the television production with more momentum. As Jay Rosen once observed, on American television, the most important thing is to enforce, as he described it, "a higher imperative than free speech," which is "to keep things moving." On American commercial television, silence seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part, the meaning of silence is a negative one.

Concision: "You can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision. That’s the genius of this structural constraint."

Producers of talk-show discourse on American commercial television are indeed obliged to keep things moving, not because Americans necessarily dislike pauses or short periods of silence in television programming, but because of the competitive nature of television programs which function to attract and hold audiences. Television writers and producers are compelled to compete vigorously in many media markets, often second-by-second, for audience market share, which will then translate into advertising revenues. The competition can offer similarly designed programs during the same time slot on up to 250 other channels, all available to audiences at the press of a remote control’s button. It is therefore crucial, as Jay Rosen once put it, that TV programs be created in such a way that they "leave the recipient dumb struck by the force of the superlative as it rushes toward exhaustion." Commercial television, therefore, especially when competing in the marketplace with other commercial outlets, must arrange its style of discourse around attractive images which are designed to leave the program saturated with as much visual and verbal expressiveness as possible because, "where language falters in conveying the essence of the spectacular," claims Rosen, "the visuals take over."

According to Columbia University’s School of Journalism professors Bliss and Patterson, the writer for broadcast television must be able to present information "in the fewest number of words," which means, "boiling down a flood of information into a concise meaningful trickle." Other textbook authors have made the same suggestion. The all-important rule for the broadcast television writer is: "Be concise."

Jeff Greenfield has labeled the style of talk used on many American public affairs television programs "concision." For Chomsky, however, concision has a much broader meaning than that suggested by textbook authors. For Chomsky, concision functions to "constrain" free speech by compelling television talk show guests to conduct themselves within certain prescribed parameters which are, for the most part, found within the commercial broadcasting environment and characteristically serve to measure and restrict a speaker’s ability to speak freely. The parameters of the soundbite, for example, function as one measure, standard or criterion, among many, which tests the ability of politicians to "project" their chosen "images" to TV audiences.

Chomsky has also imparted the term "concision" with a distinctly political dimension, one whose definition has yet to be explored. This political dimension of Chomsky's suggests that any discussion of discourse, when it comes to American television, must transcend a mere analysis of language based on discourse and grammatical rules. Chomsky is accusing American commercial television of purposely constraining free speech through its discourse style. Concision, so he claims, is a tool which can be arbitrarily applied by broadcasters to limit a broader discussion of ideologically charged issues.

Neil Postman is of the opinion that American television distorts meaning through its discourse style, but his concerns reflect more precisely those of an educator. Postman notes that Americans, on average, spend more time in front of their television sets than any other people in the world and the discourse strategies learned from television for acquiring knowledge and information have considerable influence over the kind of knowledge and the amount of knowledge Americans retain. Children, for example, learn from watching television and by doing what "viewing requires of them," says Postman. The reading of written texts, on the one hand, and watching television, on the other, are two activities which "differ entirely in what they imply about learning." The key element, however, according to Postman, is advertising. Postman goes so far as to claim that there is a "symbiotic relationship" between commercial television and advertising which has caused Americans to become "the least knowledgeable people in the industrial world."

Whether commercial television and advertising can actually cause audiences to become less "knowledgeable" remains to be proven, a task which lies beyond the aims of this study. Still, Postman, like Chomsky, Halliday, et. al., points to commercial broadcasting’s discourse style as being in some way "different." Postman attributes this difference to the "philosophy of television commercials," and also points out that this style of discourse is taken for granted by Americans and considered to be "a normal and plausible form of discourse." Postman offers some interesting insights into the search for the components which combine to create this American commercial news style. For instance, he points to the discourse strategies incorporated into argumentation in commercial television programs, strategies which cannot generally be used in print. These discourse strategies include the utilization of "vivid visual symbols," or images, which are combined with sound to create "short and simple messages" that do not engage the viewer in "wondering about the validity of the point being made."

It is indeed interesting to consider the possibility that the arguments contained within the style of discourse are able to influence the viewer to the degree that a statement’s accuracy and precision become totally irrelevant. The "truth or falsity" of claims made on television "is simply not an issue," claims Postman, and the interconnectedness of events and relevance of such things as history or economics are left unclear because of the arduous demands of this particular format. The discourse style used on commercial television is one which proceeds "without context," and even argues the "irrelevance of history," and explains nothing.

Concision: A closer look

Chomsky’s claims originate from a term which he adopted from Jeff Greenfield of ABC’s Nightline. Greenfield, in a radio interview, has explained how television producers choose their guests to appear on commercial news programs. According to Greenfield, it is essential for guests " be able to talk on television... That’s a standard that’s very important, to us. If you’ve got a 22-minute show, and a guy takes 5 minutes to warm up, now, ...he’s out."

Greenfield’s program, Nightline, has also been the object of a detailed study made by Fair and Accuracy in Reporting. In FAIR’s study, it was found that most of Nightline’s guests were government or corporate professionals, the overwhelming majority of whom were white men. It is significant that Nightline’s guests appear on multiple occasions, which is not exceptional among other American news-oriented talk programs. More significantly, and also typical of other political affairs programs in the United States, Nightline draws from a pool of "regulars," including such "experts" as Henry Kissinger who, FAIR has discovered, appears on the program several times a year. Concerning the criteria used when choosing guests to appear on American commercial television programs, Greenfield explained that:

Greenfield is, therefore, describing the phenomenon which he has named "concision." Concision, according to Greenfield, means that guests appearing on commercial television must also be endowed with certain capabilities, which include the ability to "make the point within the framework of television." That framework is what he calls the "normal given flow" of television. American commercial television requires, therefore, "that must meet the condition of concision. You’ve got to say things between two commercials, or in 600 words." The "given normal flow" of a commercial television news program requires that all guests be in the possession of the verbal competence to make their point within the time assigned, between the commercials, and in a few hundred words or less. Often, as Chomsky explains, it is rare that anyone would be in the possession of such communicative competence:

Cued spontaneity

One may therefore define concision as a strategy used in public discourse, particularly in commercial television, which constrains the speaker in such a way that he/she must concisely express an idea within a very limited time frame. If Chomsky is correct, however, there is more to this concept than just the ability to make your point and beat the clock. Primeau mentions the "rhetorical arrangement" of the words spoken on "high-priced air-time segments" of commercial television. Concision, therefore, is much more than just being concise, it is a way of talking which "seems to be spontaneity," and at the same time allows "a precise allocation of expensive time frames that must produce ratings to warrant the cost." For example, CNN’s popular political affairs program, Crossfire, has adopted a format which skillfully illustrates concision as a style of discourse. Crossfire can also be used to demonstrate the functioning and consequence of concision. Concision, as it is used on Crossfire, is a discourse style which is no longer the exception, but is becoming more and more the rule for television talk shows and other public affairs programming in the United States. It is becoming implicitly accepted by American audiences to be a style of television discourse which is used in television talk, and it is a style which is not difficult to accept because it has been used in commercials and is now applied to other programs as well. Although we are discussing talk shows and public affairs programs, visuals and music definitely play a major role while camera functions are successfully exploited, using such expressive techniques as close-ups of faces to emphasize emotions, or long shots to show group interactions. Crossfire’s "television talk" is designed to be as attractive to living room audiences as a party with friends, and lonely or bored viewers are made to feel as if they were invited to join in the fun.

To be able to entertain and "get your point across" within the "given normal flow" of commercial television—and say everything before the next commercial break--demands many of the same skills which are used in cueing. The ability, or talent, to express oneself successfully and entertainingly within this seemingly informal format is understandably a valuable and, in regards to the market for television guests, a much sought after skill. Television talk and "cued spontaneity," to combine Fowler’s and Primeau’s terms, has been unfavorably contrasted by Postman with what he terms "the typographical mind," which according to his definition was a common and even "natural" state among Americans, one which existed before there was commercial journalism. Postman’s contention is, in essence, that American culture, in contrast to some other cultures, is dominated by an implicitly accepted style of public discourse in which public discussions are modeled after those used in commercial television. For example, "In a culture dominated by print," he explains, "public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas," a process which "encourages rationality." Truth, however, "Is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression." Since "entertainment" has become the "supra ideology of all discourse on television," it is largely aimed at "emotional gratification," a "visual delight" to see, and has made "entertainment the natural format." "Entertainment," therefore, is the main goal, according to Postman. "There is no conspiracy," only "good television."

Confronting Finnish expectations

Finnish audiences are not yet accustomed to American commercial television's "flow," and when confronted with this style of television presentation, as seen on satellite and cable, Finns react to the more obvious structural differences. These differences, sometimes perceived by audiences as pace and rhythm, can be a result of verbal expression or other paralinguistic and kinesic phenomena, such as the lack of pauses, interruptions or simultaneous talk, shouts, music, exotic or attractive images, as well as other editing phenomena. "In Finnish culture," according to authors Laaksovirta and Farnell," silence is an act in itself." To consciously permit periods of silence in a conversation demonstrates wisdom and reflection on the topic. In Finland, one "comprehends" silence as a linguistic "act." In college seminars, the authors point out, it would be a sign of "impoliteness" for listeners to make unsolicited comments during the professor’s presentation. Silence "is an everyday thing; there is no mystery in silence" and, for the most part, the "meaning" of silence, in Finnish culture, is "mainly positive."

Our investigation attempts to benefit from the fact that Finnish television audiences are, for the time being, implicitly accustomed to a television format which uses a form of discourse closely related to written Finnish. Public discourse in Finland therefore, because of traditions more firmly rooted in the written word, tends to be more "formal" than the public discourse used in commercial television news programs in the United States. Finnish society, as far as its use of discourse in the public sphere is concerned, for the time being and with many exceptions, resembles Postman’s concept of a culture "dominated by print." Although the actual effects of this style of discourse are difficult if not impossible to measure, this study assumes that on Finnish public television (YLE) discussions of a serious and national relevance can be (as Postman describes it) "characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas." Using this implicit understanding and expectation of style in public discussions as a basis, the Finnish interpretation of Greenfield’s "given normal flow," and thus a clearer picture of the meaning of "concision," should be forthcoming.

The Finnish audience

To construct a cross-cultural definition of "concision," the assistance of forty Finnish university students was obtained from the Faculty of Education at Turku University. The object for viewing was CNN’s Crossfire, which can be seen live on cable or satellite in Finland five times weekly.

The students who consented to be a part of this study had successfully completed at least ten years of English in school and had taken one or two courses in English comprehension and conversation at university level, as provided by the faculty. As in our previous study, information was elicited by means of a series of intensive interviews in which each participant was queried individually and asked to comment on as many aspects of the broadcast as possible. Participants in this study were interviewed in groups of twos and threes, with each interview lasting from 15 to 25 minutes. The object, as before, was not only to elicit individual replies from participants, but to view Crossfire together with the group and then allow the group to describe for me their impressions, while giving as much information as possible.

In this study, as before, the use of a Finnish audience provides a useful opportunity to discuss cross-cultural differences with people who have had limited exposure to American commercial news. Reliance on public-service broadcasting, and its style of discourse, for public information made this possible.

Participants in this study were also attending the obligatory English oral skills course within the faculty of education, which made the use of longer interviews in English possible, as a part of the students’ language studies. Later, other students in subsequent semesters reviewed these responses and were asked to make comments as well concerning the validity of the observations.

Participants in the initial viewing were encouraged to draw independent conclusions about Crossfire and its style of debate. It was requested that participants discuss the program with others in the group during the class meeting only. The interviews had few constraints, other than the ability of the students to offer information.

The students were attending their second and third years as full-time students, and the average age was 25 (equivalent to graduate-level study in the United States). No one had actually seen Crossfire before. This can be explained by the program’s late scheduling and the fact that, although the majority of students do have access to basic cable, CNN does cost extra. After the viewing, most stated that they had "only minor problems" understanding the talk on Crossfire.

This particular edition of Crossfire was hosted by Michael Kinsley, who is presented as representing the "liberal" position on the topics presented for debate, and Pat Buchanen, best known for his "conservative" views as well as his political aspirations in the Republican Party. On this particular program, however, John Sununu, a well-known member of the Bush administration, was taking Buchanen’s place as the representative of the conservative side.

The program’s guests were Kim Gandy (introduced as this edition’s "liberal" and "feminist"). Gandy is also spokesperson for the National Organization for Women (NOW), America’s largest and most prestigious women’s organization. Janet Parshall appeared as the "conservative" guest, a representative of Concerned Women for America. Both guests were obviously experienced and able when it came to expressing and defending their opinions within the "given normal flow" of Crossfire, and both were considered therefore appropriate examples for giving more substance to our cross-cultural definition of "concision."

Crossfire’s format, as with most programs of this type which appear on commercial television, consists of a teaser, which trails the last part of the preceding program, just before the half hour, followed by commercials and, in the United States, possibly a break for station identification (if the program is carried by a local station, or CNN’s logo is shown). There were also commercials on CNN International, but during the "station break," Finnish viewers mostly saw advertisements for CNN (in this case Sumo wrestlers) demonstrating that Japan is "one of 210 countries and territories where you can watch CNN International."


The total time allotted to Crossfire’s guests before the first commercial break was only ten minutes, which is more than most commercial television programs of this nature. Kim Gandy, the "liberal" and "feminist" spoke for a total of 6 minutes and 5 seconds. Janet Parshall, the "conservative," spoke for 3 minutes and 55 seconds. The actual time frame used for this edition of Crossfire is broken down as follows:

[Preceding program]


teaser (about Crossfire)


Station break/commercials






Start ---->



      20 sec Two unnamed "liberals" and conservatives speak

      25 sec Announcer’s introduction with music

      50 sec Mike’s introductory monologue

      20 sec John’s shorter introduction

Total: (1 min 55 sec)

3 min. 20 sec John interviews Kim

3 min. 0 sec Mike interviews Janet

2 min. 45 sec John interviews Kim

      55 sec Mike interviews Janet

Total: (10 min.)

End ------> 8 sec John announces a commercial break and teases the TV audience for the next segment

Total: 12 min. 3 sec



"Excitement governed by order"

Crossfire begins with short takes of unidentified "liberals," American political personalities, the first of whom states emphatically: "Sexual harassment should be taken seriously. What we are not doing is rising to the right wing’s bait which says that we have to take one side or the other." The "liberal" was followed by an unidentified "conservative" (in this case former Vice President Quayle) saying, "It’s harmful, it’s sad, it’s debilitating to the White House and operations to the office of the President itself...," who followed by fast-paced music with a heavy background beat, crescendoing up to the announcer’s excited pronouncement:


Primeau refers us to Daniel Menaker who has shown how commercial television programs structure their openings in order to communicate "excitement governed by order." "The tone...usually communicates intensity and excitement," as well as the feeling that things are under control and structured, "what otherwise seem chaotic." Under such circumstances, says Primeau, "major events and trivial occurrences can often be reduced or raised to the same status."

MIKE KINSLEY: (50 seconds):


The theme is "sexual harassment," but the stated purpose of the debate is not to establish whether sexual harassment is a good or a bad practice. John Sununu, a conservative, makes it clear from the beginning that sexual harassment should not be tolerated. The purpose of this debate is to question the credibility of "liberals and feminists," who presumably backed Anita Hill (in her testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) and now oppose giving a hearing to Paula Jones in her accusations of sexual harassment against President Clinton; and "conservatives," who opposed Anita Hill’s accusations against Justice Thomas, but now support Paula Jones.

"Mike," in his opening speech, implies that there are only two sides to the political spectrum in Washington ("Both sides...) and only two sides in the whole country, for that matter (liberals and conservatives—as represented by those present on Crossfire). He also states that both are lying. Both sides are being hypocritical, or at least "not playing this one straight." The stated aim of this debate, therefore, is to expose which side is lying "the most."

The title of this particular episode of Crossfire is: "Hypocrites of the Paula Jones Affair," subtitled: "Can anyone be trusted? Are we all hypocrites?" The verbal ploys prevailing in the introduction to the debate, including most statements by the hosts, Mike and John, assume that "we" includes "hypocrites," "those in Washington," and even Crossfire itself! "Feminists" are "liberals" and they, together with "conservatives" are "all mired in hypocrisy."

Liberals and feminists, according to this reasoning, are hypocrites because they supported Anita Hill three years ago and now they do not support Paula Jones. Conservatives are also hypocrites because they were outraged over Anita Hill for telling her "naughty stories." Now, they "gleefully" support Paula Jones and her "lurid tales."

The topic, therefore, seems to reflect an ideology which has a rather narrow—and cynical—view of the American political spectrum, which, accordingly, consists of only "liberals" and "conservatives"—all hypocrites. This reflected ideology also re-enforces the concept that "we" (namely "liberals" and "conservatives") are all to blame. We are the hypocrites, and that, really, no one, especially in today’s Washington, is to be trusted. (See Finnish expectations in the discussion of liberals, conservatives, and feminists, below.)

Our excerpts, printed here, are taken verbatim from the first half of Crossfire. (See the time chart above.) Some segments, however, have been cut from this transcript. These cuts are marked as: ..........


The use of first names, the constant smiles, especially between political opponents, got the attention of our Finnish audience. "Either these people on Crossfire are not political opponents, or they are pretending," was a typical reaction among the participants interviewed. "John, your nose is growing, even as we speak!" seemed so absurd in a television debate that it evoked open laughter from the Finnish audience.



The first time she personally spoke publicly.



After the televised hearings....


The shouts, the interruptions and the general level of rudeness astonished our Finnish audience. Others called attention to the eye contact between discussion participants, and stated that, "On Finnish television, the guests would be looking into the evoke the acceptance of the television audience." In the case of Crossfire, the guests seemed to know each other rather well and they ignored the television camera.


Kim consistently interrupts John and constantly ignores most of John’s questions—only answering his questions directly when he seems to be getting the upper hand, as if in a game. Janet speaks in machine-gun fashion, rarely allowing Mike to break in. In fact, Mike, one of the hosts—and one of the regulars—is the slowest to get his point across. Try as he will to get a word in edgewise, Janet is always there with a fast reply. This adds to the definition of concision and Greenfield’s "normal given flow," which must mean that not one single second of airtime is allowed to be left unused, and in this sense, Kim is especially good at speaking with concision, in the Greenfieldian sense, while to the surprise of our Finnish audience, John never appears to be angered by Kim’s rudeness. A smile rarely leaves the faces of the concision combatants, who are all, no doubt, veterans of the TV talkshow circuit.



Margaret McLaughlin, in her book, Conversation: How Talk is Organized, has made a detailed analysis of conversational interaction. She points out that conversation, as opposed to narrative, includes the all-important element of interaction, where the roles of the speaker and hearer are frequently exchanged. Debate, however, in contrast to conversation, is characterized by a predetermined size and order in which the discussion takes place (emphasis mine).

In the case of Crossfire, the lack of a chairperson, and the relative freedom of guests to speak up at any time, makes the talk into conversation, as if it were an informal discussion at home around the kitchen table or in your living room, among friends and family. In other words, Crossfire mimics conversation, although it is a television debate requiring considerable verbal skills. This seeming lack of a predetermined size and order for public discourse is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of Crossfire for Finns to grasp.

Even though the talk on Crossfire cannot be categorized as a debate in the classical sense, every conversation, no matter how informal, has rules for turn taking. Analysis has shown that turns at speaking are "maintained," says McLaughlin, "until the first unilateral sound by another speaker, at which time the latter gains possession of the floor."


John shouts, "Hold on!" over the uproar. Rules about turn-taking only appear to have broken down in this debate because it is only mimicking conversation. Boundaries, however, can be very fluid in conversational turn-taking, and, not surprisingly, boundaries are mostly culturally determined. In some cultures, McLaughlin notes, longer periods of silence are tolerated before another turn is taken. This point is upheld by Philips, who discovered that, in the "talk patterns of Indians on the Warm Springs reservation," silence was "easily tolerated" and "interruptions...were rare," and that "replies" were often separated "from the utterance to which there was a response."


In any conversation, says McLaughlin, longer pauses can become "awkward." A three-second period of silence, in American culture, would signal some sort of breakdown in the natural flow of the conversation, and would cause the competency of the speaker(s) to be called into question, or even suggest, as in the case of Crossfire, that the topic "can no longer sustain interaction."

Lehtonen and Sajavaara quote a Finnish poem which can perhaps better illustrate the Finnish view of the cued spontaneity on Crossfire:


Concerning simultaneous talk within conversations, research has shown that a hearer can make a "credible demonstration that she already possesses information that the speaker is attempting to provide her with" and therefore, renders her contribution to the conversation even more credible. Another reason for speaking simultaneously is "the need of speakers to secure the gaze of their hearers." Simultaneous talk can, however, signify an intrusion, an attempt to establish dominance or power. However, interruptions seem to be commonplace, since people are able to carry out the tasks of speaking and listening at the same time. The attitude towards interruptions is also culturally determined.


While in the prevailing culture in the United States, interruptions may seem to be a conversational matter of some consequence... [One study shows that in an Antiguan village] ...not only were there no norms against interruption, but there also seemed to be a prevailing pattern of "counter-noise," such that another’s talking seemed to be a good enough reason for one to begin talking himself, at the same time.


In American culture, interruptions and simultaneous talk, other than that which is used to establish dominance by one speaker over the other, may also signify that "an incorrect statement by another" was made, and works to "secure the gaze of the hearer."

According to Lehtonen and Sajavaara, Finns use "vocalizations and verbal backchannel signals" less than speakers of Central European languages or English speakers do. "Verbal backchannel signals," do exist in Finnish, but "too frequent considered intrusive" and considered to be a negative trait of the speaker, "typical of drunken people." Finns, instead, nod their heads in approval and use eye contact with the speaker. "The typical Finn is a ‘silent’ listener."

Tannen’s study, in which she analyzed a taped, 2½-hour conversation among friends around the Thanksgiving dinner table, revealed that "subcultural differences" caused "misunderstandings." For example, three participants in her study, from New York City, "seemed to dominate" because of the "differences in their turn-taking habits and ways of showing friendliness."


According to a 1993 report by the Finnish Association of Language Teachers (SUKOL), "Finns have an especially sophisticated and well-developed body language to insure" turn taking. Finns, accordingly, "do not indicate verbally or prosodically" that "the right to speak is transferred to another person." Instead, it is indicated by means of the "glance."

      When we consider that the meaning of silence among us Finns is different from that represented by many other speech cultures, the length of a pause does not necessarily function as a signal to change turns when speaking—at least among us. To foreigners, however, a pause usually signals precisely that the turn is changing. The pauses in a talk and the pauses after the end of a talk have only a few tenths of a second difference, but suffice to mark turn taking.

Finnish expectations and audience interpretations of Crossfire

The forty students who were interviewed in groups of twos and threes after watching the first half of Crossfire were asked to express their own reactions to the "debate," based on their own experiences from watching television debates on Finland’s YLE. The following reactions were recorded:

1. The "pace" was much faster than any debate on YLE and there seemed to be no pauses or silence.


Camera shots lasted from 3-7 seconds throughout the debate. The music had a fast beat. The speakers allowed very short pauses between sentences, seemingly leaving little time for reflection.

2. The debate was very much like a commercial, and the beginning reminded one of a soap opera or a movie.


The announcer shouted, in a voice-over above a musical background, ""Live!" (followed by more music) "From Washington!" (more music) "Crossfire!" etc.

3. The audience was forced to devote total attention to the participants.


"Hand cam" shots were taken by the camera crew (to make the camera seem invisible to the audience). Extra close-ups and a dark background forced the audience to focus only on the participants. (YLE does not use this method and usually has background scenery, furniture, a window, or plants.)

4. The four talked to each other as if they were old friends. This "debate" was as informal as a family argument. There was no chairperson (as is the practice on YLE and in other formal meetings in formal situations in Finland).


Kim: " the Anita Hill case, we took no position until after both Anita Hill and Clearance Thomas had testified—we found her testimony .... credible..."

(John interrupts: "....Immediately after her statement you came out with a position...")

Kim interrupts John: It was only after testimony was completed...(more interruptions, ending in John having to shout to get his turn to speak:, no, no...her public statement the hearings...").

5. The "feelings," the emotions (anger, contempt, delight) seemed to be the most weighty matter of the debate, as opposed to the precise, academic logic of a more intellectual discussion, as would be commonly expected on Finnish state television. By Finnish television standards, the entire discussion was considered to be a bit naive, though entertaining.


KIM: (smiling): "John, your nose is growing, even as we speak! " (This statement seemed to portray a feeling of ridicule, belittlement of John's position.) KIM: Hill was a conservative law professor ...(LAUGHTER FROM AROUND THE TABLE)...who served in the Reagan ...and Bush administrations, and that she was.... (INTERRUPTIONS ARE HEARD FROM A LAUGHING JANET PARSHALL) John (INTERRUPTS, WHILE SHOUTING AND REPEATING): ...And followed the man she accused around from job to job! (MORE LAUGHTER FOLLOWS) Kim (SHOUTS WHILE SPEAKING SIMULTANEOUSLY): She was a supporter of Robert Bork! Now, if that makes her a lib... (INTERRUPTIONS)..eral (KIM BREAKS OUT LAUGHING) symp(athizer)... (INCOHERENT SHOUTING FROM ALL SIDES....)

6. When compared with debates on Finnish television, Crossfire’s form of address seemed to be placed, from the beginning, on a very personal level, with very little distance established between the participants (and hopefully making them seem more accessible to American audiences). Direct answers were given in informal, colloquial language and participants looked each other directly in the eye while talking, and not into the camera, as would be the case in Finland.


Janet: "Mike, there’s a wonderful saying in the world of music..."

Mike: "But...but...look: Janet! ...Janet! Look Janet! "

Kim (as if addressing a naughty child): "Your nose is growing John Sununu! You know very well...."

It was in fact John, the conservative, who consistently avoided first names, and also announced the "breaks" (which were in fact commercial breaks. John: "we'll be back"...(No mention, however, of a commercial).

John, by not being as informal as the others, seemed to be asserting his own, conservative, authority. Everyone, as if on cue, stopped talking immediately at John's mention of a commercial break. His demeanor, since he also represented the sponsors, gave a measure of sobriety to the discussion--which only added to the feeling that the others were indeed only clowning.

7. Rude behavior, personal insults, accusations, and even name calling seemed to be the rule on Crossfire (not acceptable as "serious" behavior on YLE). Finger pointing and persistent interruptions seemed to be a constraint expected by the guests and encouraged by the hosts, meaning that the goal of the debate was: "Do not agree on anything."

Such behavior was exemplified by "sarcastic" and "testy" phrases which seemed abrasive to Finns. "Stronger" adjectives were used as well. It seemed that the hosts, Mike and John, were obviously trying to be as provocative as possible, leading the guests into verbal combat.


Mike: "They were outraged and contemptuous when Anita Hill told her naughty stories about their man Clarence Thomas, but they gleefully support Paula Jones with her lurid tales about their nemesis Bill Clinton.

Kim: "The other kind of little revisionist history that’s going on here is the story that Ms. Parshall started earlier today on Sonya Live..."

John: "...Hold on!... "

John: "We have night after night here on Crossfire, saying, "This is disgusting, this woman’s a liar, this woman’s a hussy, we don’t believe her for a moment. She’s tarring this public man unfairly. This whole thing is a circus."

8. Most puzzling for our Finnish audience was that in spite of the rude behavior and constant interruptions, everyone invariably smiled. This made the "debate" seem more like a show and, therefore, signaled that it was not to be taken seriously.

Concision defined

As Eugene Winter has so appropriately stated, evaluation of communication "often works by matching other related Situations from previous experience or knowledge with the present Situation being reported." In other words, "its Situation may be presented in a matching relation with another Situation." No television program, therefore, can say everything about anything, and that is why speakers must produce "unique sentences [emphasis Winter's] whose selected content has been in some way predetermined [emphasis Winter's] by that of its immediately preceding sentences or by the previous history of its larger message structure." By "Situation" [Winter's capitalization] Winter refers to what he calls "mutually expected text structuring," or "linguistic consensus," about what is to be said. Our Finnish definition of concision (above), is obviously derived from the perspective of the expectations of a Finnish audience. The basic structure of communicating information within this particular context was not one which proved to be "mutually expected," (in this case between the encoders, the producers of Crossfire, and the decoders, the Finnish audience). The debate does seem to present a matching relationship in so far as it is a political disagreement taking place on national or international television. It is, however, precisely this fact, that the "debate" was so obviously inhabiting the realm of public discourse, which caused a poor audience evaluation, and even rejection of its messages. The evaluation, therefore, is a negative one because the coding exchange did not fulfill implicit expectations of public discourse among the Finnish audience.

. Winter offers further insight into our investigation when he asks the reader to

      ...imagine a situation where you are desperate to find out something for the purpose of taking decisive action, and the information you want is contained in a text sixty sentences long which is available in two versions. Text A has no emphasis; everything is unmarked. Text B has the normal emphasis most writers would place: that is, we have both the unmarked (the so-called scientific objectivity) and the marked clause structure. Now which would you choose, the poker-faced text A which betrays no emotions, or the more human appropriately emphasized text B?

Winter assumes that text B is the text of choice because by "using the marked grammar of elements of the clause, the writer is drawing our attention to particular clauses in particular sentences as being more important at that point in context." Winter also assumes that every sentence clause matters in purposeful communication and that they cannot be random or haphazard because the clause is a "device which constrains lexical selection," and which is also itself constrained by adjoining clauses. Lexical selection constraint is present in every communicative utterance, but commercial television has its own predetermined criteria which do not match Finnish expectations. The simple fact is that Finnish expectations were not established by a commercial medium and Finnish audiences, therefore, do not share the linguistic consensus assumed by the encoders. For these reasons, Finnish viewers are more capable of pointing out those places in the text in which the coding is constrained to fit the commercial mold, thereby revealing its existence to those who accept this mold implicitly.

With these points in mind, it becomes clear why Crossfire is seen as a fast paced conversational interaction, resembling a commercial, in which participants have agreed, beforehand, to disagree. Informal language and first names are never the rule in a formal debate on Finnish television. Exaggerations, simultaneous talk, raising the voice, finger pointing, and insults are not considered "serious" discourse when on national television. For a participant in a debate to signal (perhaps by smiling) that all is only in jest goes against the logic of the encounter under circumstances of public discourse in Finland.

The topics chosen for debate, as in the case of Crossfire, seem to fall within the parameters of a particular media frame, one which is already familiar to audiences. The entire debate takes place within a certain time frame, usually much shorter than 22 minutes in length and sandwiched between two or more commercials. Music is necessary to generate excitement, or "cued spontaneity," and the feeling of action and forward movement. Camera close-ups and sets which focus audience attention on the participants are used to establish a feeling of intimacy. Postman's claims that the discourse strategies used in commercial television include "short and simple messages" that do not engage the viewer in "wondering about the validity of the point being made," are correct, but do not tell the whole story, especially when reviewing the communicative encounters on Crossfire. It would perhaps be better to draw on Winter's explanation in which he points out that in order to reveal the key linguistic structures of a communicative encounter, it is best to look at it from the encoding point of view first. The encoder will always bear in mind what the audiences already know (in American commercial television this means drawing on popular media images and a framed store of information) then tell the audience what they "want them to know, framing it in an acceptable linguistic or pictorial starting point," which he calls "Situation." Audiences are given the story and then presented with a "Reason or Basis" for agreeing. "Lexical detail" for clauses are selected according to their being relevant for the communicative purpose.

For example, if we recall the actual evidence presented by Kim and Janet concerning their points of view which they defended in such a spirited manner, Kim’s argument went as follows:

Janet’s argument was:

Neither argument appears to be in disagreement. Kim, the liberal, places more emphasis on sexual harassment as an act which should be punished, while Janet, the conservative, is "upset" that the President’s office is now "blemished" by scandal. That Paula Jones should have a fair trial does not seem to be a disputed issue. Mike Kinsley's introductory statement was substantiated by the debate. According to Kinsley,

      Both sides say there are differences between Anita Hill and Paula Jones, but they disagree about what those differences are. Is anyone in Washington playing this one straight? Or are we all mired in hypocrisy and double standards?

The encoder knows that American audiences are cynical and mistrusting of politicians. Audiences are given a "Situation" with which one can only be expected to agree. The message is that politics in America is indeed a dirty business "mired in hypocrisy and double standards." The result of such a discourse, that is, the message which is left unspoken by the performance on Crossfire, is that the only recourse is to remain a passive observer. Or, to quote George Orwell, "’Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him’ ...the moral in either case being ‘Sit on your bum’"..."Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it."

As Primeau has so aptly expressed it,

      In logical persuasion we state the case, present facts, draw conclusions, and tell our listeners or readers why they ought to arrive at the same conclusions. A logical, orderly presentation of messages is what first comes to mind when people think of strategies for arguing.

On commercial television, when constrained by the rules of concision, different strategies for arguing are in effect. As our Finnish (culturally uninitiated) audience could clearly see, logical persuasion takes a backseat to fast-paced conversational interaction, where participants have already, backstage, agreed to disagree. Good commercial television, however, is not easy to produce, and "staged spontaneity is not easy to achieve..." because "step-by-step planning" is absolutely necessary for good talk television. For audiences the illusion of "planless casualness....that all-important illusion," must be there, or there will be no good commercial television.

Lacking "linguistic consensus": American news Frames as lacunae in Finland

Before interviewing the participants in this study, and reviewing their reactions to Crossfire, it was revealing, from a cross-cultural standpoint, to observe that the journalistic frames attached to certain topics, such as "sexual harassment," or "liberals versus conservatives," were indeed perceived differently or not perceived at all by our Finnish audience.

Scandinavia and Finland have been framed in the American media as having tolerant attitudes toward sex (just one example of a series of images which have served since the 1960s as popular and profitable media frames attached to Scandinavia as a whole). The reality, of course, is something else. Finnish women are better represented in the national workforce and in legislative bodies than in most other western countries and union membership among women in Scandinavia is among the highest in the world. In fact, Finland leads all western European countries in the percentage of women who work outside the home. In contrast to the United States, more women than men are enrolled in higher education in Finland, including schools of medicine and dentistry.

At first our Finnish audience (thirty women and ten men) did not completely understand the significance of "sexual harassment" as it is portrayed in American media frames, and as it was used in Crossfire. Some women in our group boldly joked that, "Perhaps it’s a good thing to be sexually harassed by a man every now and then." "In any case," others pointed out, "the union would take care of the problem, if it became serious." After further discussion, however, one female student did, in fact, remember a case in her high school, in which a male teacher was accused of harassing a female colleague, and was dismissed.

During cross examination of the material, with another group of students, it became clear that the actual meaning of "sexual harassment," as an American media frame, was not entirely clear to our Finnish audience. The American audience’s understanding of this particular frame definitely represents a lacuna for Finns. Although there is no denying that the practice of men harassing women most definitely occurs in Finnish society, (and there is no scientific study of the differences between the two societies in that respect) this particular media frame, constructed around the phenomenon, does not entirely exist as discursive currency, in the Finnish media. It does not get the media attention that it gets in the United States, just as many American issues with media frames clamped around them are "non-issues" in Finland (such as the question of abortion).

Emmott has described this phenomenon as "frames of reference," in particular, the ability of the audience to "recall" certain implicit knowledge on particular issues. Emmott writes:

      There is always a possibility that a stored frame may be recalled. We might return to a location that we had temporarily left. ...Frame recall is of particular interest because...we need only mention a small amount of information about the stored context in order to re-instate the full frame.

"Frame recall," as Emmott describes it, can also account for certain rhetorical phenomena which, for the culturally uninitiated, would be difficult to explain. For example, as one student in our audiences stated publicly: "Perhaps it’s a good thing to be sexually harassed by a man every now and then" would not be an appropriate expression for the typical American college woman because it would not precisely fit her and her audience's store of frames.

In the United States and Finland, because the expertise of well-qualified women is very much in demand by employers in both countries, not only the higher offices of government, but also leading positions within corporate structures are being opened to some highly qualified women. For those women, after years of struggle for this right, it is important to be treated fairly. Sexual harassment, therefore, is being exposed for what it is: a crude, sexist tool. Sexual harassment is, however, assessed and evaluated by most American television audiences within a certain framework. The struggles of American women are reflected in these frames, not necessarily those from Europe. The women's movement is presented by the media, using much the same criteria that would be used to evaluate racial injustice. It is not difficult to agree in America, whether one is liberal or conservative, that discrimination should not be openly tolerated—just as the vast majority of liberals and conservatives no longer openly support racial discrimination. "Feminism," as it is used on Crossfire, like sexual harassment, is also something of a lacuna, particularly in this edition of Crossfire, and within the context of the sexual-harassment frame. "Feminism," in this context, causes misunderstandings among Finnish audiences because American feminists draw on a tradition which goes back to pre-Civil War demands for suffrage and sexual equality, and some of the content of the American movement for women’s civil rights was inspired by or at least related in essence to the struggle for the ballot and the suffragist struggle as it originated in England. In the United States this movement was both directly and indirectly implicated with the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, specifically abolitionism. Abolitionists in the north were inspired by women who actively led the moral fight against slavery in the south (with the "underground railroad," for example) from within northern church organizations before the Civil War began.

Finnish women, on the other hand, secured the right to vote in 1907, an event which was inspired by, and had considerable support from, the Finnish labor movement and the Social Democratic Party. The striking feature of the women’s movement in Finland is that, instead of being centered in the church or around a moral issue, such as freedom from slavery, it has had links to political parties, mostly on the left. Finnish women, even without a strong "feminist" movement of the American variety, depending on their economic status, and despite many obstacles, have realized many of their demands for equality and in many areas of Finnish society, women have achieved as much or more than their counterparts in the United States.

This association of the movement for women’s equality with the movement for racial equality does not exist in Finland for obvious reasons. Finland is a comparatively homogeneous society, one which has not had much opportunity, with some exceptions, to examine its own ethnic and racial prejudices. In any case, there is no history of slavery nor even mass discrimination of civil rights based on race, which prevailed in the American South only a few decades ago. American civil rights legislation, such as affirmative action, a direct result of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and the 1960s, undeniably added to the status and power of women as a social group in the United States. Such legislation is unknown to Finns. Therefore, sexual harassment, as a form of discrimination against one’s civil rights—and as it is also framed by the American media—would be interpreted in a somewhat different manner by Finns, and in any case, the interpretation would not lie within the same social and historical precedents which predominate in the United States.

The liberal lacuna: Who is the conservative?

Again, an example of "frame recall," as described by Emmott, is that the hosts on Crossfire so intimately fit American "liberal" and "conservative" stereotypes. John Sununu plays the "heavy," (though not as well as his colleague, Pat Buchanan) and he is very accomplished at following one rapid-fire accusation with another--within the structural constraints of concision. The "liberal," Mike Kinsley, wears whitish, clear-rimmed glasses. Fulfilling the expectations of the liberal intellectual, he even looks frail and possibly somewhat arrogant—a good caricature of an "east coast liberal." In fact, the program seems to be offering audiences little more than parodies—almost as if watching a sitcom about liberals and conservatives and their little strifes and conflicts. In the case of Crossfire, the casting director could not have done a better job.

These frames ("the arrogant liberal," "the conservative bully") are recalled, as Emmott puts it, to compensate "for the lack of contextual detail." This "compensation" is accomplished by "bringing forward" information (e.g. the white-rimmed glasses of the liberal intellectual) about the broader context from a frame store. Such a feat allows us (the culturally initiated) to interpret the text and more quickly distinguish between certain ideas and concepts. It makes us (the culturally initiated) aware of the "covert participants in any situation." For the culturally uninitiated, the concept of "liberal" and "conservative," in particular these American caricatures offered us on Crossfire, was somewhat difficult to come to terms with—at least, within the American media’s framed context. This is another lacuna, of course, which presents us with a number of "gaps" where misunderstanding-understandings will most definitely occur. For example, Finland is a parliamentary democracy, and although there is a Liberal party in Finland, one would have to classify it as having a conservative program, one which would have little to do with "progressive" or "left-wing" issues, in the American sense. Finland’s equivalent "liberal" parties, if we think of "liberal," in the American sense, as being "on the left," or "tolerant," are the Social Democrats and the Left Coalition (Vasemmistoliitto), both heirs to 19th century labor movement ideology (including the remains of the former Finnish Communist Party).

For the culturally initiated, that is, from the point of view of many Americans, the thought of "liberals versus conservatives" can also be something of a lacuna, but in a different way. Liberal Democrats, in America, are often framed as being in support of "big government," meaning increasing government spending on social programs, support for minority groups, support and regulation of trade and trade unions, as well as all gender issues in a general way (heirs of the New Deal). Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, are known for their ideological support for the abstract concept of "free enterprise" (which included, at one time, "Reagonomics"), their indirect association with other right-wing religious groups, and their "hawkish" foreign policy, including support for military spending to build a "strong" America ("Star Wars," for example). "Liberals" are, according to the frame, the heirs to Roosevelt and Kennedy-style political "tolerance." "Conservatives" are framed as supporters of rugged individualism, an unregulated economy, a strong military—and, in extreme cases, advocates of authoritarian legislation (such as laws which totally ban abortion). American liberals, however, are also framed with the "East Coast Establishment," that is, the wealthy "Kennedy clan" and certain intellectuals (John Kenneth Galbraith, for example). The conservative frame could include southerners and midwesterners who scoff at "intellectual snobs" in the Northeast. When Jib Fowles criticizes "television prigs," he is also referring to "someone who is scornful...condescending...hostile to the growing majority...the better educated." He is definitely referring to the vague concept of "elitist northern liberals."

It can be a perplexing matter—and not just for Finns, Europeans and the culturally uninitiated—to distinguish between some American liberals and some conservatives because of their (for a European) eclectic and non-factional points of view on many key political topics. Granted, certain crucial issues are always argued, before the cameras and often with vehemence, as in this particular debate on Crossfire. But those who officially adhere to the dogmas of one or the other oppositional factions rarely take the time in public to penetrate beneath the surface of petty party issues and make a serious attempt to identify the real underlying causes. When we stop to consider the structural constraints of commercial television discourse, how could they? The ideological frame and the actual dialogue between liberals and conservatives in America is, at its best, a reflection of real grass-roots politics, but at its worst it is only a superficial dialogue between ruling elites and, when said with a smile, meant only to be good television entertainment.


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Finnish Views of CNN Copyright © 1995 by Brett Dellinger

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BRETT DELLINGER (1995). Finnish views of CNN television news: A critical cross-cultural analysis of the American commercial discourse style. Linguistics 6. (Väitöskirja). 337 s. 136 Finnish Marks.