Television communication theory can best be understood through a consideration of the relationship the viewer (decoder) has to the media apparatus (encoder).
Rooted in Marxism, Hall begins with an extensive discussion of semiotic theory, also using Eco and Barthes.
- It is important to recognize the inequality of the positions of encoder and decoder. Thus, the meanings produced by the encoder are not necessarily the meanings understood by the decoder.
- Misunderstanding - a result of this lack of equivalence
- The televisual sign is complex, in part because it is composed of both visual and aural signs.
- iconic sign - a sign that has some of the properties of the thing being represented (Charles Peirce), because it reproduces the conditions of perception in the viewer (Eco).
- visual sign - an iconic sign, such as the image of a cow on television. It is important to recognize that visual signs are arbitrary to varied degrees.
- linguistic sign - the word "cow," a much more arbitrary sign.
- denotation - generally understood to mean the literal meaning of a sign
- connotation - generally understood to mean less fixed meanings associated with a sign
- HOWEVER, Hall stresses that this distinction (denotation/connotation) rarely happens in real life
- Finally, he comes to the climax of his essay: the three hypothetical positions which television discourse is decoded:
- dominant-hegemonic - operating inside the dominant code, the viewer is able to take the full and straight meaning. i.e. Members of the ruling elite, members of the profession able to understand professional code.
- negotiated position - Most audiences understand what is being signified, acknowledgin the legitimacy of the hegemonic discourse while making exceptions for local conditions. i.e. Corporate positions, laborers who approve of a legislation for national interest while opposing in their own case.
- oppositional position - retotalizing of the message in an alternative framework. Don't identify with the message.