Bardic Function: Ephemeral or Enduring

By: Kevin Currie


In Chapter 6 of Reading Television (1978), the British Authors, John Fiske and John Hartley, analyze television’s relation to society by coining of the term “bardic function”. Essentially ancient storytellers, bards are the mediators of the spoken language and are responsible for structuring messages about the community. Fiske and Hartley use this metaphor to stress that television is simply a messenger that must compile information from fragmented sources to be published, implying that televisual viewers are the ultimate authority with regard to content selection and are heterogeneous in their views (85-86). Fiske and Hartley further argue that the televising of society’s central ideals has a powerful and unifying property that they call “claw back”. In order to assess Fiske and Hartley’s preceding arguments’ applicability to modern television, I will consult How I Met Your Mother throughout this essay.

In proposing their argument of television’s multi-originating message, Fiske and Hartley discuss “the classically conceived bard function as a mediator of language, one who composes out of the available linguistic resources of the culture a series of consciously structured messages which serve to communicate to the members of that culture a confirming, reinforcing version of themselves” (85-86). Viewing How I Met Your Mother’s content as reflexive of society allows us to equate the personality differences amongst the main characters to the fragmented nature of its viewers. As is popular with sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother follows the adventures of stereotypically normal friends, allowing the viewer to easily relate to at least one of the five main characters. Each character has his or her own unique and minor quirk, establishing varying personalities. Fiske and Hartley would assert that the show’s variations in personality are attractive to the viewing populations of modern television because it is representative of them. For example, a real-life bachelor may identify with Barney in the show and a couple may be drawn into the show because they can relate to Marshall and Lily’s relationship.

Fiske and Hartley state, “The bardic mediator occupies the centre of its culture; television is one of the most highly centralized institutions in modern society” (86). Instead of analyzing dialogue for this section, I would like to consider the sound effects in How I Met Your Mother, particularly the laughing. As is the case with other sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother features soundtracks of audience members’ laughing played over the acting. It is the timing of these laughs that reflects what jokes television production teams believe the general population finds funny (by presence, intensity, and duration of laughter). Other television shows may, in fact, have a live audience. Both instances establish a central concept of what society believes to be funny. For a more detailed discussion on the laugh tracks, check out this external blog.

It is the publication of these ideas central to society that Fiske and Hartley believe has a unifying effect on viewers. For example, in Season 1:Episode 4 of How I Met Your Mother, Ted finds an old shirt that he really likes and wears two days in a row. ted old shirt

On the second day when he first sees his friends, Lily says, “Hey Ted! Nice shirt! Is it yesterday already?”  The sarcastic ridicule of Ted’s decision to wear the same shirt two days in a row reflects a cultural tradition among the target audience that it is not customary to wear a shirt two days in a row. Through watching this episode, all viewers become aware of this social norm. This effect can be applied to a wide variety of situations with associated social norms. For example, later in the same episode, Ted is telling Lily about how he broke up with his ex-girlfriend on her birthday through an answering machine. Outraged, Lily yells, “Who breaks up with someone on their answering machine on their birthday?!” while hitting Ted repeatedly. As briefly mentioned in the introduction, this unifying effect is what Fiske and Hartley refer to as “claw back”.

This culture-originating, team-based approach of televisual content development according to John Fiske and John Hartley is still very applicable to this day as demonstrated by examples from How I Met Your Mother throughout this essay. The show features resemblances of society’s fragmented state along with television’s codification and subsequent dissemination of cultural values. It is by these discoveries of modern examples from television in support of Fiske and Hartley’s “bardic function” and “claw back” theories of the intricate relationship between television and society that I conclude the aforementioned theories have withstood the test of time since their publication in Reading Television in 1978.


Works Cited

Fiske, John, and John Hartley. “Chapter 6: Bardic Television.” Reading Television. London: Methuen, 1978. 85-100. Print.

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