Salvador and Noriega

by John Caldwell

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 15-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006


War makes good television. Especially if by good one means spectacular, visual and all-encompassing. But looking at the coverage of the Gulf War, we can see there is more to the politics of war on television than objectivity, censorship, and "coverage." Even though many accounts rightly criticized the way television covered the war, and the way the government managed information about it, fewer dealt with the effect the conflict had on programming in general.[1][open notes in new window] Wars have become special events that send ripples throughout programming. Broadcasters (not just Pentagon briefers) have become spin-doctors for such events and learn to exploit unfolding conflict in the name of viewership and ratings. Not only have wars become media texts, they have become contexts that transform other texts in substantive ways.

In this essay I will examine the formal ways that television appropriates, resuscitates and redefines dated films in response to fast breaking historical and political events. Television does not just gather and re-present selected films around contemporary events. It also encroaches upon and stylistically reworks those earlier films into fundamentally new and hybrid forms. After reviewing some of the issues involved in this kind of broadcast adaptation, I will closely analyze, with images and transcriptions, eleven specific ways that visual and videographic style is used to transform the feature film on television. As feature films are broadcast nightly to mass audiences, they are extensively interspersed with "reality" material. My hope in this study is to come to a better understanding of the ideological effects of such a hybridizing process. Videographic and electronic production equipment has evolved to provide more and more stylistic options for programmers. Because of this, the actual visual and narrative presentation of features also becomes increasingly complex. A closer look at these stylistic operations suggests that more is at stake politically than television's avowed interest in the present and the current. "Urgency" merely indicates the broadcasters' explicit motives for and interest in the transforming process. The televisual soup that results from broadcast hybridization involves a play and conflation of cultural signs this production of signs has far wider social implications.

Mass culture in the past decade has been particularly fond of turning history (war) into fiction (film and television), and fiction into history. This same late cold-war period has also witnessed a string of imperial "practice wars"—the Falkland Islands, Lebanon, Granada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. In the absence of anything larger, more nuclear or more apocalyptic, first world governments have repeatedly used provisional conflicts to test out new, expensive and otherwise unused hi-tech weapons, military tactics, and global political strategies. These neo-colonial practice wars clearly bring practical and economic benefits. Such wars justify military budgets (along with hardware), and the resulting globalism legitimizes continued military growth.

But broadcasters who cover or even refer to such events also benefit. In the analysis that follows, I hope to show how one recent practice-war, Panama, honed broadcaster's programming and aesthetic skills by economically resuscitating "dead" media texts. Spin doctoring and impression-management are used as stylistic and aesthetic processes as well as political tools.

Consider the following three incidents.

1) A Los Angeles news anchor appears in a newsbreak during the broadcast of a film and asks viewers to "stay tuned following our movie" for a major expose on the mob in Los Angeles. The film interrupted by the newsbreak is THE GODFATHER II.

2) After over three years in captivity, a second U.S. hostage is released by Islamic terrorists. KTLA Television programs and broadcasts its mini-series VOYAGE OF TERROR: THE ACHILLE LAURO AFFAIR the same week. The station advertises its mini-series as "a remarkable true story" of Islamic terrorists, with "new facts never before released." Along with these proclamations of the real, less visible disclaimers within the program suggest that portions of the show are "dramatized" fictions.

3) Finally, for weeks preceding the premiere of the miniseries DRUG WARS: THE CAMARENA STORY, NBC heavily promotes the broadcast event as having broken "Long before Noriega." The mini-series itself dramatizes covert actions by the U.S. government with D.E.A. operations in Mexico. However, advertisements and promotions for the show refer instead to the unfolding U.S. invasion of Panama, an operation launched to depose accused drug lord, President General Manuel Noriega.

All three incidents suggest the varying degrees to which television is fueled by textual shifts between fiction and "reality." In one instance, the station uses a fiction film to contextualize a "factual" expose on the mob. In the second docufiction, the historical climate of contemporary terrorism infiltrates to promote both the station's news and programming departments. In the third case, the station makes explicit reference to current military events and Noriega's history as an interpretive allegory for understanding NBC's previously produced, reality-based, fiction on Camarena.

Curiously in each case television does not try to hide its ontological and textual distinctions. Rather, it flaunts and exploits the distinctions: news vs. film, history vs. entertainment, and reality vs. fiction.[2] The terms in each of the polarities are wielded by stations as part of a process of self-interpretation and self-valuation. Such distinctions are in fact explicitly part of the language of programming and marketing.

This phenomenon suggests perhaps that good viewers are in part "good" because they know and can value such distinctions. In a volatile and shifting process, television assigns historical and fictional status. Late-breaking historical events can rapidly change the value and currency of pre-existing fictional texts. Good broadcasting in this respect, and in an economic sense, is like Claude Lévi-Strauss' "bricolage" — it can fabricate new value out of existing and outdated textual material. In programming, bricolage, history and reality are frequently marshaled as the material stuff of refabrication. Television's process of assigning fictional and historical status, and the formal ways that it transforms texts, deserve to be looked at more closely.

I have chosen the broadcast premiere of Oliver Stone's film SALVADOR as a basis for analysis because of the important role that televisuality plays in its adaptation. "Televisuality," as I am using the term in this article, refers to the growing tendency of U.S. television to "perform and flaunt excessive visual style." I argue in more depth elsewhere, that since 1980 this "self-consciously aesthetic" stance, represents an emerging and dominant paradigm in U.S. broadcasting. Stylistic and televisual excess challenges many popular academic views of the medium as glance-like, low-resolution, rhetorical, transmissional, live, and instantaneous.[3]

SALVADOR is significant for my study since it makes explicit reference to recent historical events. It was also clearly programmed in and around the U.S. involvement in Central America. It was also tied specifically to the U.S. invasion of Panama. KCOP-Channel 13 in Los Angeles aired and adapted the film, in fact, on the very day Noriega was brought to arraignment in Miami. Along with numerous references to current events in Panama, the broadcast also functioned as a mechanism to set up and promote other programming on Channel 13.[4] As we will see, national distinctions of the sort that separate the countries of Central America seemed, in this case, to have little value to US. television programmers. El Salvador, SALVADOR, Nicaragua, and Panama, appeared as one and the same phenomenon in this week's multi-textual programming soup.

The broadcast of SALVADOR is only one example of fictional programming presented around the theme of U.S.Latin American relations. The week of January 1-8, 1990, in fact had many fictional broadcasts on related themes. In this context, the first week of January and the second week of the invasion included programming rife with references to Latin American relations, politics, and mythologies. Within the four day period in which SALVADOR was broadcast twice, the heavily advertised and promoted NBC mini-series DRUG WARS: THE CAMARENA STORY premiered on January 7.[5] In the face of the same recent historical events, ABC came up with their own timely offering, the fictional allegory, HEARTBREAK RIDGE. Clint Eastwood's version of the 1983 Grenada invasion offered to programmers an explicit and accessible foreign-policy map of the Panama action. Both as a generic update of the war picture and as Hollywood's vision of gunboat diplomacy in the Reagan era, the film helped "naturalize" the more recent invasion. Granada, El Salvador, and Panama became interchangeable names in the "reality-based" archetypal program formula at work during that week.

Other films also kept Hispanic and Latin American issues on the "fictional" agenda. The films LA BAMBA, and THE BORDER were broadcast at that time. In addition, the "news" discourse during the week constantly referred to and tied together the fictional films and historical realms. SALVADOR aired the day Noriega was introduced to U.S. justice. The film was repeatedly interrupted by news footage of Noriega being taken from Panama Television as an institution was clearly pondering recent media and political events. It did so by resuscitating and working over old fictions.


Televisual adaptation is not a subtractive process. Many viewers do assume that the broadcasting of a film is by nature reductive, since "missing" scenes elicit obvious protests from fans of certain films. However, a much more additive process also functions within the broadcast of films. My present analysis is directed at this additive, hybridizing process. Such a process characterizes and defines broadcast adaptation. A more complete analysis would show that even subtractive operations (e.g., those involving the elision and deletion of source material) create new structures and relationships within adapted texts. Space limitations, however, prevent me from fully discussing here the hybridizing results of those subtractive processes. I will also be unable to discuss other important hybridizing operations, such as censorship-related post-dubbing and automatic dialogue replacement (ADR).[6] Apart from those devices, however, a close analysis of the televised SALVADOR reveals a rich array of stylistic operations which expand the original film and recombine it with other elements. Such processes redefine and pm-interpret adapted works for television viewers.


Marketing and promotion function both before and within the adaptation. Consider the station promo "setting up" the broadcast. The announcer states: "Tomorrow at 8:00, James Wood stars in the Oliver Stone production offering a scathing look at a torn country's social injustice, as seen through the eyes of as news photographer, in SALVADOR." The promo does not just emphasize time/place information but also, through narrative synopsis, offers interpretation. Several factors in this promo create an interpretive frame, and it is a frame that works to personalize the political dimension of the film. First, the promo uses the stardom of James Woods to set up the show. Second, the synopsis sets up a hierarchy of point-of-view. It does not focus on El Salvador as a country, but on the journalist's distanced and personal ("through the eyes") perspective. Third, the promo gives a personal spin to the film by making reference to it as an "Oliver Stone production." This tactic clearly links the televised film with Stone's media notoriety. His award winning film BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY was released in December and January, and Stone's activities both on and off-screen were newsworthy events during that time.

By promoting and framing itself in this way, several things happen to the television text. First, the program pitches itself as a directorial statement and a star vehicle. The plot synopsis emphasizes the "statement's" subjective and personal nature. Because of this, from the start the viewer's experience of the film is heavily mediated by frameworks that distance him/her from any Central American "reality." Directorial framing also sets up the broadcast event as an aesthetic phenomenon. An overtly political subject becomes transformed into an aesthetic framework, and this kind of process aptly characterizes much in the program text that follows. The aesthetic "pose" of the film is its pre-text and pretense. Such an aesthetic emphasis focuses first, on the director's special aesthetic status, and second, on the nature of the film as a visual and eye-dependent spectacle. Both hybridizing traits hint at the degree to which televisuality (e.g., television's preoccupation with formal excess and aesthetic consciousness) is an integral part of broadcast adaptation.


This televisual adaptation, like others, includes a hybridizing operation that one might not expect to find in the textual reduction of a film for television. KCOP first "removed" a scene from the film but still used it for other purposes within and for the broadcast. In the sequence described above, a promo used by the station to advertise the broadcast of SALVADOR, one image is particularly curious.

Consider this image of execution, for it suggests that an iconic and narrative power survives in some footage even after abridgment. Of all the other images in the film, KCOP-13 chose this image to advertise the broadcast even though the station deleted it from the broadcast version of the film entirely. The scene depicts a government soldier being executed by a leftist guerrilla — a scene apparently either too graphic or too political for station censors/revisionists. Why would a station advertise the broadcast of a film with an image that it had first censored from the film?

The formal properties of the shot give some indication of the privileged status the shot has in the film. It has an odd, violent power, taken as it is in close-up, from a low-angle, and with a wide angle lens. In fact, this shot, along with one other, suggests an important "subtext" initiated by the film's characters. Early in the film. Boyle's buddy Cassidy, a more successful professional photographer, asserts that his ultimate objective is to get shots equivalent to the powerful images of Robert Capa taken during the Spanish Civil War. Those were shots taken, as Cassidy states, "while looking into the face of death." Boyle underscores this ideal by acting out the gesture of one of Capa's victim's caught at the moment of bullet's impact (fig.5)

Cassidy eventually gets what he wants. His final exposure is aimed at a strafing fighter that he photographs head-on. This photograph costs the photographer his life. Shortly before this scene, Cassidy photographed the shot used in the station's promo. There, he secretly used his 35mm rangefinder Leica, concealed and held at the waist, to photograph the execution.

The film places heavy directorial emphasis on these two shots as the Capa-like images aspired to earlier. Stone sets up the last incident with a heavy interchange of shot-reverse shots between Boyle and Cassidy. In addition, the leftists violently prevent Boyle, the main character, from witnessing the execution itself. Cassidy, on the other hand, senses the ensuing violence and risks his life to get the shot Stone underline's the Capa-like decisive moment by sealing it with an extreme close-up reaction shot of Cassidy quietly firing off his shutter.

Why is this scene "too hot" for the broadcast, yet useful in broadcast promos? It may lie in the nature of a "decisive moment" shot. This photographic aesthetic privileges the smallest slices of time as the most profound and the most visually dynamic instant as the truest. Such an aesthetic characteristically downplays context, background, and political understanding. The decisive moment aesthetic privileges accidental compositions, extreme visuality and spectacle. In a phenomenological sense, then, decisive moment images typically remain open to diverse ideological readings and interpretations. As an existentially based aesthetic view, the theory dominated mid-twentieth century photojournalistic practice. It has since been criticized as naive and apolitical. However, such ideological naiveté and apoliticism give decisive moment imagery significant value within the operations of televisuality. The image that is censored is then reused because more than other images in the film, it remains open to appropriation precisely because it is fragmented and stripped of context. Television will present the image's violence as a frozen and emotional composition rather than a political act. As my analysis of elision will show, this kind of fragmenting and freezing operation are highly valued in televisuality. The film sets up Capa's decisive moment as part of its overall design strategy and then dramatizes that aesthetic at key moments. In this way, the film's cinematography begs for appropriation by the televisual text. In digital video effects terms, the frames are there for broadcasters to "grab." It does not matter whether or not the image is included or deleted from the final televised scene. Televisual adaptation does not cower or subordinate itself to broadcastings standards and practices editor. Censorship is a mute issue in cases like this one. Televisuality finds alternative ways to hybridize and reuse questionable, censored material.


Like many televised movies, SALVADOR is graphically "stapled" to its programming slot. Various devices signify ownership. Chief among these graphic displays are the station ID's keyed or burned into the film's imagery in the lower third portion of the picture. One cannot imagine this sort of stamp of ownership being allowed in other art forms (e.g., the signature of the purchaser rather than the maker stamped into the art form itself). However, this is an almost universal practice in both broadcast and cable television.

Mise-en-scene in television is obviously not considered sacred or inviolable ground. In practice, the appropriated film offers broadcasters a kind of open, visual terrain. Upon this cinematic and visual turf, graphic signs promoting the station are erected. While the situation in El Salvador may be confusing, and the social implications of both the movie and recent events threatening, this graphic insemination of the spectacle works to mark, identify, and distance any horror that might reside in the original film. The televisual operation of graphic stapling implies two things. First, it suggests that the unfolding spectacle is "known," and second that it is also apparently "owned" by KCOP. The ideological packaging of film does not just happen through a process of extra-textual promotion. The process also occurs visually within the frame. Graphic packaging further reduces the televisual spectacle to a known and owned status; to that of object and commodity.

The most repetitious graphic hybrid in this adaptation comes from the "8 O'CLOCK MOVIE" identification. This icon precedes each program break as well as each of the film's televised segments. The shift from dramatic scene to advertisement does not then occur directly. The segue from program to break and back only occurs through the agency of a program identification graphic. Whereas in previous examples, keyed graphics infiltrate the film directly, here connection with the film is enacted through visual and verbal reference. In each 8 O'CLOCK MOVIE identification, the station announcer repetitiously intones that "we will return to the KCOP presentation of SALVADOR after these messages." The audio reference changes each evening to a new and different film title, so even the repeated visual ID is redefined by narration on a nightly basis. There is a nightly process of renaming. Numerous films are lifted and verbally framed over the singular and unchanging station graphic. The infiltration of texts however becomes bi-directional. Keyed ID's over dramatic scenes redefine the fiction world, and audio references to the fiction world laid over graphics redefine the "real" world of broadcast. The process is two-fold and complementary. The seeming redundancy of this graphic/sound liturgy in station/program ID's might suggest that the industry fears the user's short term memory. The tactic also clearly demonstrates however that the "super-text" does not simply result from programming proximity or the juxtaposition of diverse texts within the broadcast "flow."[8] The super-text involves an active and aggressive process of formal and textual infiltration.

Other graphic operations work to secure and orient the spectacle. The late night news show NEWS 13 follows the film and immediately responds to it with a graphic/verbal sequence thick in image and sound. The first shot in the sequence captures a freeze frame graphic of Noriega taken during his arrest and incarceration. The image is presented to viewers as a "mug shot" (fig. 8). Broadcasters add colored video borders to either side of this televised "photograph." The title "TV-13" is visually keyed into the mug shot in the lower left corner of the frame. By doing this, Channel 13 in effect takes visual possession of the "real" Noriega for its programming purposes, much in the same way that it earlier appropriated the "fictional" SALVADOR. The pictorial convention of the police mug shot carries with it a heightened impression of the real. The visual conventions of the date, frame and wall suggest that Noriega here functions as a hunting trophy. In these ways, graphic appropriation bestows upon KCOP more authority, skill, and ownership.

While critics of broadcast journalism frequently attack television's penchant for decontextualizing interviews into sound "bites" and for simplifying complex stories, little has been done to explain the way that the news appropriates and manipulates "visual" bites. For example, what does it mean symbolically to imprint the local station ID over an international figure like Noriega? Appropriating and fabricating a sign in this way does several things. It suggests that the station now owns the story and also controls the figure's persona for its own ends. Both effects help legitimize the station's angle and coverage of the event. Certainly this kind of keying, framing, and bordering represent forms of claim-making. Televisual claim-making devices like these announce to viewers that a "special" relation exists between station and story.


Increasingly, both television and film today use visual imagery borrowed from each other. From music videos to commercial spots, filmed images of scan lines, video pixels, and videotape shuttle effects frequently become mixed with cinematic images. This tendency suggests that television and film viewers apparently understand media-specific production elements and technology-dependent production styles. SALVADOR also exploits a consciousness about distinct film and video "looks." During the film's broadcast, the station airs a "newsbreak." The voice of Madison Avenue commercials is thus briefly set aside for that of history and "reality." After the break, the station chooses to "return" to the film by fading up not on an image of cinematic spectacle but on a "videotaped" scene from within Stone's original film. Both the placement of this video footage within the original film, and its selection and isolation by broadcasters as a lead-in to the next segment of the film are significant. The transition back into the film could have happened at almost any scene in the film, but the broadcasters chose to link their video imagery with video footage from the film. The net result disguises the transition between media.

This hybridizing strategy exemplifies a process by which stations strategically reposition film footage during adaptation. They do this so as to blur and camouflage distinctions between program and program breaks; between filmed and televised material; between present and past The television viewer has just seen a long sequence of station materials and ads and then sees a "televised" head shot of President Reagan on videotape. The source of the footage is obvious. This is archival "news" footage of the "real" Reagan. However, it has undergone a "double appropriation." First, Stone's original film utilizes the video footage in order to contextualize and legitimize the film's fiction. Secondly, television isolates and utilizes the same scene to further deteriorate distinctions between television station and television text. The footage's ontological status is ambiguous to viewers since

(1) it is television footage,

(2) that has been filmed on motion picture stock, and

(3) that is subsequently re-broadcast on television. This footage carries the aura of presentness and the kind of direct address that one associates with video news. Such traits are also noticeably present in the broadcast newsbreak and anchor that directly precede the cinematic news scene. Because of this, the broadcast newsbreak also manages to take on and exude the epic proportions of the cinematic context from which it comes.

There is, then, a double appropriation. Stone strips the credibility and urgency signified by video for his own diegetic ends. KCOP in turn strips off the film's epic pretense in order to validate and bolster its own speaking position. The formal process goes through three stages, television-to-film-to-television. This double appropriation offers a clear example of one way in which the televisual text "spreads out" The program spreads into program break, and the break spreads into program. The textual ambiguity that results from this "spreading out" helps create a context essential for effective broadcast adaptation. In short, by leveling categorical distinctions that exist in the source film, televisual adaptation can better "re-animate" and "resuscitate" the older text for its own ends. Textual spreading and ambiguity mean, in effect, that the source material no longer stands as the master of its meaning. Furthermore, this leveling and reanimation process uses televised political footage, footage that we associate with history, to realize its ends. The actual verbal content of the doubly transformed footage is Reagan articulating xenophobia about communist hordes "on the banks of the Rio Grande." And that comment raises issues to which I will return later, for it implicates another important televisual operation.


Blurred media boundaries and textual ambiguity create a general context from which hybridization can take place. The source film used historical footage from television to give itself currency. Broadcast adaptation utilizes a counteracting process. Other televisual operations, however, are less passive in the way they "work over" source material. For instance, broadcast news forms constantly work to mirror or infiltrate the fiction of the film — either by narrative analogy, specific reference, or hybrid televisual forms. Chief among the latter category of hybrid visual forms is the use of a "picture album" style graphic box, typically inserted over the film's end-titles. This device brings the broadcasting station "into" the film before the movie is "completed." As the end-titles roll and the theme song plays, the female news anchor from the upcoming 10 O'CLOCK NEWS show, previews the coming programming around three points. From a graphic box on the right half of the image, set back from the screen at a 45 degree angle, she comments: "Up next on News 13: We'll tell you how a suicide and a new suspect may help solve a headline making murder. Consumer reporter Ken Daly tells you about the "best buys in tiny TVs." Also, "…a surprising change in...child support."

After these three stories are previewed, the graphic picture box rotates back toward the picture plane, and the end-titles and theme music continue without further displacement. Apart from giving a general sense that television has encroached upon the fictional world, this operation suggests two specific effects. First, the anchor appears over the graphic field while the swelling and tragic orchestral score continues underneath. As a result of this fluid operation, the anchor woman's place and import become heightened to epic and tragic proportions. She appropriates the film's rich connotations of history, tragedy, and passion for her own ends. Her news discourse gives to itself the kind of earth-shattering import that viewers confronted during the previous two hours.

Whereas music conventionally functions as an emotive or editorial device that "comments" on the film/video program, in this case reality/news seems to editorialize and comment on the music. The anchor's presence becomes literally imaged- and voiced-over the film's footage and soundtrack. By forcibly infiltrating and unseating the signified of the film music in this way, the anchor's presence allows itself to become the new target and referent of musical connotation. Formal devices within the film then, like music and titles, are fair game for appropriation by television in its repertoire of adaptation.


Another, less obvious but pervasive form of stylistic revision involves the electronic "splitting" of audio and video tracks in post-production. Splitting is typically used to conceal elision. Several of the source film scenes have major portions deleted in broadcast adaptation but through splitting, retain a sense of continuity. Given the fact that a great deal of dialogue is lost in these sections, the way that continuity is maintained is worth noting. In one scene of the film, the character Boyle seeks identification papers for his Salvadoran woman-friend by offering U.S. advisors secret photographs of leftist weapons.

Most of the original scene is deleted for broadcast. On the last line of common dialogue that occurs in both the film and televised version, the broadcast splits or separates sync audio from picture. For broadcast, the picture corresponding to the original sync statement disappears. Now the line of dialogue functions as a "bridge" for use at the end of the revised and greatly shortened scene. This split-off line of dialogue becomes "laid over" a completely different reaction shot of Boyle at the table.

As a result of this operation, Boyle's image no longer appears in its original shot-reverse-shot sequence, a sequence that had focused on heated political dialogue. Boyle's new image becomes instead an emotive "reaction shot," and the scene is re-defined in an explicitly psychological, rather than political, way. The scene, in its split and abridged form, now singularly and primarily deals with Boyle and his woman friend.

The simple operation of splitting off and later reusing existing dialogue as a voice-over bridge redefines visual images, but not in a syntagmatic or Kuleshovian way. It redefines instead by using new and simultaneous sound-image relations. Unlike censorship and automatic dialogue replacement (operations that typically flag themselves by mismatches in audio presence), the technique of splitting tracks results in a less obvious hybridizing operation. With splitting and bridging, the original audio presence or audio ambience in the scene remains. The film may include the same images and sounds but now in different relations. As a result, a film's meanings are volatile and prone to change. Here, in the same scene, a discourse about Latin American military involvement is transformed into a portrayal of "lost love."


One of the most overt and persistent stylistic devices that infiltrates the film is the practice of previewing the "upcoming news." Constant news previews keep the issue of historical consequence on the viewing agenda. Again and again, the fictional world is halted, set aside, and frozen while television shifts its discourse to the "reality" of ads and news. Within the televisual flow of a feature film, newsbreaks assume an attitude that is both catchy and exaggerated. With only a few seconds to "hook" viewers, news breaks typically start with an interview quote or sound bite presented out of context The break then states the challenge or premise that the news staff will tackle that evening, and then the anchor gives a "just plain folks" appeal and invitation to watch. Prominently displayed in newsbreaks during this broadcast is a tide graphic that repeats visually the same ponderous statement that the viewer hears on the soundtrack. In image and sound, this evening's newsbreak earnestly asks the following question: "Can Noriega get a fair trial?"

News previews are structured by their temporal proximity and sequential relation to important elements of the televvised film. The first segment of a film (or "Act I" in a classical dramaturgical sense) typically aims to set up a dramatic fiction by presenting the story's chief or underlying problem or conflict.[9] In the case of SALVADOR, the violent and confusing first act of the film seems to ask, "What in the hell is going on in this Central American horror?"

Television "answers" the film's dramatic hook and premise with a matter-of-fact news preview that questions whether Noriega can get a "fair trial." It is a commonplace of narrative theory that narrative discourse depends upon cause and effect relations. Elements in the story world, even fragmented and apparently discontinuous ones, are made "causal by the viewer's narrativitous countertendencies."[10]

Here, through televisual segmentation and through juxtaposition, the film's overarching dramatic premise or question is narratively answered by the news. That is, IF war in Central America is a nightmare, THEN (Can there be) "a fair trial for Noriega." Though both the film about El
raphy of Central America, the cause-and-effect relation between the scenes is absolutely artificial and textual.

Such a process uses fiction to set up, heighten, and enhance the vantage from which television sees and the authority by which television speaks. To a fictional world which provides no answer, television promises one. The issues of violence and war are tough and pressing. Yet the televisual response is polite, authoritative and helpful. The anchor smiles to the viewer and says "hello."

Other breaks continue the cause and effect pattern. In another instance, the break again raises the specter of Noriega as the issue by which the film's dramatized musings on Central America will be "solved." The fourth major station break includes a newsbreak that includes the following three items:

(1) "General Manuel Noriega faces the bench of justice in Miami...,"

(2) "Lunch at a restaurant in the Crenshaw district, ends in a hail of bullets," "And then...,"

(3) "Prostitutes and the spread of AIDS."

In this preview, the station again leads with the Noriega political "problem" and the news editor's narrative "answer." Notice the additional rhetorical "mileage" the station gets in its juxtaposition of film fiction, news, and local reality. The urgency of the Central American viewing agenda spreads out and affects other items on the news agenda. A hail of bullets in Los Angeles, and the issue of prostitutes and AIDS, the secondary stories, resonate by analogy to events in SALVADOR's fiction and Central America (e.g., urban gun battles, prostitution, and Noriega's "many women"). [11] Clearly, this sense of urgency permeates other items in the flow. Secondary stories become intertextually caught up in what appears to be a non-narrative flow. A sense of narrative causality results, however, through this kind of linkage and juxtaposition in news programming. Through this process, the station awards itself credibility. It does so by making more than just an overt link between the news' reality and the film's fiction. The station's own ostensibly tangential news agenda becomes recoded in an urgent narrative


Broadcasters are not the only agents of appropriation. Little would be gained by blaming television as the culprit responsible for the degeneracy of "higher" texts or by suggesting that a conspiracy of misrepresentation defines television. In fact, the process of appropriation characterizes much in the mass media. With broadcast adaptation in particular, the dynamic of appropriation also includes textual forays and investments by Hollywood's feature film industry. Film previews on television offer financial rewards to owners and marketers of past films. Contemporary trailers can, in fact, re-value "dated" films that are textually linked to those trailers in broadcast The following sequence aptly demonstrates how the inertia of contemporary promotion can re-value and resuscitate dated films and dead texts.

In a preview for the feature BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, graphic subtitles boldly announce the film's nomination for many awards including "Best Director, Oliver Stone." In shot 1 of the preview, the U.S. flag is superimposed over Cruise's face, and in shot 2, we see a news clip of Cruise stating, "People say if you don't love America then get the hell out. Well, I love America?"

While the videocassette of the feature SALVADOR is still in circulation, its theatrical run is many years over. Studios can still make money on the past film, however, through a retroactive process of transference. (fig. 21) They can market not just a film but also a director's reputation and body of works. For the price of a 30 second spot on KCOP-13, the film studio gets two hours of viewer experience defined as coming from Oliver Stone. The preview makes the viewer to conscious of an Oliver Stone "package" of works that now includes the headlining star Tom Cruise. Whereas the programming of SALVADOR clearly referred to current events in Central America, it also referred to the release of Stone's new film, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. The latter film had become a media event by January of 1990. Images or sounds of Stone, Cruise, Kovic, or clips of the film appeared in almost every venue of the mass media that covered the entertainment industry.

Reminiscent of the way that Universal shielded itself from critics of the LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST — by marketing it as Martin Scorsese's "personal artistic expression" — BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY was pitched to the public as a true and personal story from Stone and Kovic. A composite image focused on the highly intense eyes of Stone-Kovic-Cruise, witnessing war's horror.. January's broadcasting "event" of the film SALVADOR clearly paled beside the simultaneous national promotion and release of BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Nevertheless, SALVADOR's broadcast adaptation afforded the producers a timely opportunity and site for marketing the later film.

A connection and similarity between the two films exists at more than the level of plot and scenario, although both works deal with "one man's journey through a violent hell and back" The films also share a similar, explicitly stated ideology. Promotional and on-air quotes by the marketers and promoters of the later film, however, went to extremes to contextualize its fundamentally anti-governmental stance as actually pro-United States. This repatriating tactic did not just depend upon having the characters of James Woods and Tom Cruise assert their patriotism within each film, although both do. Instead, televisual repatriation was also done in the context of politics outside of the film and broadcast. By January Kovic was being touted as the next important candidate of the Democratic Party in Southern California, while the Republican bastion that dominated Orange County attacked both Kovic and Stone's left-leaning liberalism. Published statements ripped Stone and his liberal boys from Hollywood. Given the possibility that the FOURTH OF JULY film might propel Kovic or Stone, or both, into office, arch-conservative U. S. Representative Robert Dornan dared Kovic and Stone to take on the Republicans:

"Kovic is going to have to defend the Hollywood far left. If he thinks he's going to recruit Oliver Stone and Top-Gun-turned malcontent Tom Cruise, and bring the whole Jane Fonda team down here to Orange County, I welcome it. Let's go." (Los Angeles Times, 5/1/1990)

The mass marketing of U.S. films depends upon an ideology of universal appeal. Probably because of this, marketing rhetoric effaces and neuters the obvious anti-status quo stance of both films. Both characters, Boyle and Kovic, are interpreted as having "loved" and sacrificed for their countries. Both films are presented as autobiographical and personal. Consider the strange and striking similarities between the following three "patriotic" public statements, all collaged together in this same broadcast event:

"Well, I love America..." — Tom Cruise, in film trailer.

"I believed in America..." — Dialogue from Stone's SALVADOR.

"Many Thanks, America" — Placard held by grateful Panamanian citizen thanking U.S. military for invading her country.

From such combinations, one might suspect that the Stone-Kovic-Cruise-Boyle persona had snowballed to hemispheric proportions, and was now also shared by the Panamanian citizenry. In this light, the plug for the more recent Stone movie during the hybridized broadcast of SALVADOR actually worked to stress not both films' anti-heroism but a corporate ideology of weathered and sacrificial patriotism.

Notice that while the main thrust of the programming related SALVADOR to Noriega and Panama, this secondary connection invoked a different kind of history, a biographical history. Personal histories effectively market the present by referring to the past, as BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY did by reference to SALVADOR; as Stone did by reference to Kovic; as the studios did by reference to Stone. Invoking the history of director Stone establishes the validity of both film accounts. Whereas television news appropriated the fiction to insure its own aura of urgency and import. Hollywood appropriated and infiltrated the same fiction to legitimize its current aesthetic and economic programme. This televisual text, then, is clearly open and receptive to appropriation on various fronts.


In addition to promos for the film being televised, and to previews within the broadcast for other features, the televised SALVADOR also included station promos for subsequent film broadcasts. The short promotional spot for THE BORDER, slated for broadcast two days later on KCOP-l3 is particularly instructive. Short and to the point, the promo for THE BORDER occurs as the 9th non-program item, exactly halfway through the 2nd television break. The ad presents a pressing voice-over appeal to the viewer:

"Saturday night at 5, personal problems force a border patrol officer to risk his career — and his life, in the exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants. Jack Nicholson stars in the action-adventure THE BORDER."

If one were to substitute the following words, the synopsis would apply as easily to SALVADOR's televised presentation — which contained THE BORDER promo.

"Personal problems force a photographer to risk his career — and his life, in the exploitation of illegal Salvadoran immigrants."

The border, exploitation, and immigrants, all function as overt themes in SALVADOR. Programming makes broadcasts congruent based on perceived similarities of plot and point of view. Significantly, the promo refers to the film as an "action-adventure" genie picture. Both by personalizing the story and by the self-conscious application of a genre category, television mediates and distances SALVADOR (even more so than THE BORDER) from its agressive political critique. The promotional language of the televisual text effaces politics and asks viewers to see such films as dramatized personal problems. I will show later that this hybridizing dialectic between the personal and the political also helps shape the program's various operations of elision.


Other additive elements are less obvious than promos in their reference to the televised film. Chief among these apparently obligatory additions to the broadcast are the large number of ads within the televised text While Raymond Williams referred to television advertising as part of the "flow" of programming, later theorists like Browne and others have embraced the idea that this infusion and expansion of the text creates a kind of "super-text." This academic vision of television as an expansive and unifying text contrasts with the industry's own explicit view of such ads as part of "program breaks" — that is, the material in between the show. Although critical theorists like Modleski[12] have clearly shown that a symbiotic relationship exists between ads and program, industry writers still conceptualize their task as basically intra-textual, as concerned with the narrative as a unit. An analysis of the first programming break in SALVADOR reveals some interesting and overt linkages between program and non-program material.

Of the commercial ads sold here the majority focused on domestic and hygienic goods and products. Of 11 ads, the four that appear during the first half of the break are broad in their address and appeal both to female and male consumers. These ads sell a variety of goods (food, audio tape, a charge card, snack cakes, and Italian sausage). During the second half of the break, the implied viewer is also broad-based (underwear, food products, cold medicine), although more of these ads clearly appeal to female consumers (feminine douche, finesse hairspray, etc.). Such ads do not have the clearly male focus one might expect to find supporting a violent boy-action picture like SALVADOR. The ads' emphasis on the familial, domestic, and hygienic (middle-class) goods and services may provide a key to the kinds of revisions that go on in the televised version of the film. The film SALVADOR explicitly attacks middle-class mores, decorum, manners, restraint, morality, cleanliness, and women in general. Yet the ads suggest that the televised version of the film is aimed precisely at an audience defined by those waits. The elided aspects of the film, in fact, are these most repugnant to the sanitized world depicted and idealized by the ads. When Doc is at his physically lowest, he is covered with filth and has amoebic dysentery and several sexually transmitted diseases. He steals food from a stranger's plate, then verbally erupts at Boyle:

"I'm stuck in the middle of this fucking country. I can't speak the language. I got the shits, and I only got 3 fucking dollars... I gotta get outta here, man..."

The downward trajectory of these characters toward amoral anarchy, is clearly at odds with the upbeat world of bodily and familial maintenance suggested by the ads. Flitterman and others have referred to the complementary relation between ads and program as resulting from a need to address and exploit the viewer's daily schedule and viewing habits.[13] In the case of daytime soaps, the continual lack of textual closure is solved in the falsely resolved world of the ads. For the daytime viewer, ads artificially pose a congruent relation between the world of soaps and the world of the homemaker. A different kind of viewing habit is implied by this broadcast, however. The cinematic fiction in SALVADOR, by contrast, signals its extreme dissimilarity to, and utter disregard for, the viewer's world. The net effect of the film text is less one of irresolution than of perpetual estrangement. As film, SALVADOR achieves its effect by alienating its characters from their increasingly bizarre surroundings. The viewer of the film has a similarly bizarre experience, since the film depicts the Central American physical and bodily "horrors" as absolutely alien to the North American suburban culture associated with mass market television.

Broadcast adaptation confronts SALVADOR's tactic of cinematic estrangement head-on. Whereas the original film exploits viewers' anxiety through extreme dissimilarity and dissonance, the interjected television station material does just the opposite. Added broadcast material tends to work by constant analogy to the film spectacle. It fills the emotional void caused by the film's acts of estrangement. It soothes and mediates the dissonance between the viewer's world and the world of the filmic spectacle. Broadcasting offers itself as the known and knowing agent capable of contextualizing and explaining the cinematic and political abyss. It continually broaches and barters connections to other programming forms in a process that directly promotes the station's other offerings. In fact, the site of televisual adaptation is a marketplace. The televised "film" is a product that is stylistically drawn, quartered and packaged under many different labels. A close analysis of SALVADOR suggests that the stylistic repackaging of the film works to make its cinematic spectacle more palatable and more universal. Feature films, it seems, are forever open to redefinition. Historical events change the viewer's agenda and expectations. In this particular ease, the visual spectacle of estrangement in the film SALVADOR actually intensifies the sense of congruence and comfort offered by broadcasting and televisual spectacle.


My primary interest here has been to examine formal encroachments that "add" to the adapted film text, but even "subtractive" or elided material re-constructs a new text for broadcast. Along with its general strategy of deleting personal, biographical, and causal motivations from character, the broadcast film consistently deletes all transit sequences. Any clear sense of geography for the viewer is lost as well. One of the earliest and most obvious elisions of film material that depicts travel and geography is the sequence dramatizing Boyle and Doc's down-and-out drive from California to Central America. In the original film version, 14 shots comprise the montage sequence and show the characters on their way to El Salvador. In the television version, however, the characters make this 2400+ mile journey in a total of three shots that last a matter of seconds. The car in each shot suggests a continuity of action. Time and space are filmically, massively condensed. Dialogue occurs entirely in voice over, the soundtrack is pop, and the few surviving shots are stitched together with video dissolves. A close analysis of this "problematic" transit scene is instructive. This massive geographical ellipsis, typifies a kind of narrative condensation pervasive in the first half of the film.

From a couple of traveling shots in the opening of the montage, filmed clearly in the deserts of Southern California, the television viewer immediately confronts a mileage sign in El Salvador itself. One wonders whether this televisual ellipsis (through video dissolve) implies that the men are traveling to "Santa Ana" in suburban Los Angeles rather than to a city in Central America. In any case, the net effect implies that the land where "they kill people" is actually just on our doorstep.

This hybrid montage visually creates and suggests geographical threat and xenophobia. The program repeats the threat explicitly two other times. News footage in the film of Ronald Reagan warns that the spread of Communism in Latin American will soon threaten "North America." Later, a U.S. embassy military advisor baits Boyle by suggesting the specter of "Cuban tanks on the Rio Grande." This isolationist model of fortress United States, threatened by communist conspiracy and the influx of illegal aliens, provided a common theme in U.S. mass media during the decade of the 1980s. Here, in the interest of narrative expediency, the mythology becomes perpetuated through televisual shorthand. Whereas the narrative "cause" of the characters' trip is shown through a series of dramatized personal rejections, the narrative "effect" is to step next door into the kind of hell known as El Salvador.

Personal rejection, a car, a border mileage sign to San Salvador and Santa Ana. This is the symbolic route that television viewers travel in order to play the new narrative. Unlike the film's car trip, the televisual route is efficient, visual, depersonalized. Boyle's personal history is completely removed as a justification for the sequence. The textual vacuum created by this elision is filled by a mere transition. The original narrative flow, then, is subverted. The television program creates an artificial causality (and space) between the surviving visual and textual elements.


I began this article by reference to several broadcast incidents that betray television's appetite for shifts between history and fiction. I will end it by citing two additional examples that suggest the ideological stakes involved in this process of encroachment and resuscitation. On January 12, 1990, a KNBC Television correspondent covered the inauguration of Chile's newly elected government, and described Vice-President Quayle's participation in the event. Not once but twice the reporter mistakenly referred to Quayle as meeting with "Noriega" (the deposed president of Panama) rather than with his actual contact, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Although the two men's political positions could not have been more different, the names were apparently interchangeable to the news staff and editors. No retraction occurred in the news show that followed. Two months later, as the new government of Violeta Chamorra was being installed in Nicaragua, U.S. stations (and even local affiliates) sent their various headlining correspondents to cover the occasion and boost ratings. An on-air phone-in report by ABC commentator Bruce Herschenson from Nicaragua detailed the changing situation in Managua. After an extended discussion with Herchenson, perplexed studio anchor Paul Moyers asked, "Are you in El Salvador?" Herschenson responded, "No, Nicaragua" Only slightly less ambivalent, Moyers concluded, "You're in Nicaragua?"[14]

Countries, nationalities, leaders, political affiliation—all apparently are interchangeable when it comes to the worldly spectacle "out there." By leveling particulars and partisanship, televisuality makes the global spectacle open to infinite appropriation. I am suggesting that the process of appropriation and resuscitation does not just function as an artistic transformation that targets and revalues dated Hollywood products like SALVADOR. The constant unfolding and decontextualization of current historical events on television provides an ample resource, an excuse, for animating any dead cultural text. Through stylistic encroachment, televisuality adapts and hybridizes existing texts in a way that makes them acutely open to political appropriation. History/Text, News/Film, Reality/Fiction. In broadcast adaptation, these dialectical terms are used as currency in the televisual system of exchange. Yes, war makes good television, even as it remakes dead fictions.[15]


1. A good example that combines various accounts critical of Gulf War "coverage," balance and objectivity is "Screening the War. Filmmakers and Critics on the Images that Made History," International Documentary (Spring. 1991): 20-25. The analyses make no reference to the war's ideological effects on programming outside of the coverage itself.

2. I am drawing especially on the work of Mimi White, who in "Television: A Narrative, A History," Cultural Studies (1990): 282-300, describes the important process by which television both "produces" and "disperses" the idea of history.

3. See my Televisuality: The Emergence and Performance of Visual Style in American Television (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993).

4. Although it is likely, due to the lead time needed to schedule features on television, that SALVADOR was programmed in response to the December 1989 guerrilla uprising in Salvador (an event that only a few weeks before, shocked westerner "experts" by its ferocity), the actual week of the broadcast clearly placed the fiction within the context of the war in Panama.

5. CAMARENA followed weeks of promos that preceded it by proclaiming "Long before Noriega..." NBC, by the time it promoted the mini-series, apparently saw Noriega as the master paradigm for theft docu-fiction. Or at least the Camerena story became interchangeable with the Noriega story. To underline the extent and acceptance of this conflation of fact with fiction, the Mexican government responded to an NBC news special on corruption with adamant protests. To them, both Tom Brokaw's special, and the Camarena mini-series, to which it was overtly linked and programmed, in addition to its racism, unfairly indicted and linked the Mexican government with Latin drug corruption.

6. Operations which originate in "Standards and Practices" departments and involve the replacement of dialogue in video postproduction usually takes the form of "post-dubbing" or "automatic dialogue replacement," whereby narration is recorded later and inserted into the original audio mix to replace questionable language. The technical quality that results varies, and differences in ambient noise usually signals to an astute viewer that dialogue has been replaced. This type of substitution is widespread and can be accompanied by warnings that televised material is of an adult nature or that it is not for sensitive viewers. Since censorship-based ADR is acknowledged self-consciously by the industry, it lacks the apparent arbitrariness of many of the other, less obvious, hybridizing televisual operations that I focus on here.

7. SALVADOR includes the use of numerous clips and "actuality images" normally associated with fact, documentary and reportage — maps, tides, newsreel, and video footage — all examples of televisual language utilized within the film production itself.

8. I am referring here to Nick Browne's concept of the "super-text" as described in 'The Political Economy of The Television (Super)Text", Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 1984, and to Raymond William influential notion of the broadcast "flow" described in Television, Technology, and Cultural Form (New York Schocken, 1974).

9. This widespread view of narrative structure is found in many popular and "how-to" works on screenwriting and film, including Syd Field, The Art of Screenwriting (New York: Dell, 1979).

10. Robert Scholes' view of "narrativitous counter-tendencies" is described in, "Narration and Narrarivity in Film," Film Theory and Criticism, Mast and Cohen (eds.), (New York: Oxford Press, 1985), 390-403.

11. The line referring to his "many women" was used both by the mass media in reference to Noriega's lifestyle and as a condemnation by Maria of Boyle's lifestyle in the film SALVADOR.

12. Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance (New York: Methuen, 1982).

13. See especially Sandy Flitterman, 'The Real Soap Operas," Regarding Television (Los Angeles: AFI, 1983), 84-96.

14. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Friday 27 April, 1990. By June 1992 "reporter" Herschenson was the far-right Republican candidate for the California U. S. Senate seat. So much for journalism's celebration of neutrality.

15. I would like to thank the Scholarly and Creative Activities Committee, the Office of Research and the California Stare University, Long Beach for providing the time necessary to complete this research.