The Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Television

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

I run the Bachelor of Creative Industries (Television) at Queensland University of Technology. Our students want to work in the industry, and we give them a class called (with due deference to the decades of R and D conducted by the public intellectuals working in the self-help movement, who discovered the importance both of ‘steps’ and of the number seven) ‘The Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Television’. They are as follows.

1. Make sure you want a job in television.

1. Make sure that you want a job in Television

What does that mean, exactly? Tell me – from start to finish – what a typical day ‘working in television’ involves? When are you going to get up? What are you going to do when you get in to work? Who are you going to be working with, and what kind of interaction will you be having with them? And the next day? And the next day?

Every year, dozens of students arrive in our degree, convinced they want to work in television. And yet their behaviour as they study makes me suspicious about what they think that actually means. They don’t like being bored – they won’t come to lectures if they are boring. They don’t like doing menial work. They don’t like taking responsibility for things, or having to work things out for themselves. Which makes me wonder – what exactly do they think that jobs in television involve? If you love television, then making a television program is a wonderful, exciting, rewarding, challenging thing to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that much of the time, most jobs in television are just that – jobs. Like any other jobs, they involve long periods of doing dull, repetitive or menial work. The vast majority of the people in the production office are doing precisely the kind of work that student usually hate. Cataloguing tapes. Printing out contracts. Filing paperwork. Doing research. Paying invoices. Updating databases. There’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing. There’s a lot of answering phones, or chasing people for their ABN numbers. Working out petty cash. Making tea and coffee. Phoning bookshops to find copies of out of print books, or haberdashery stores to find stocks of discontinued material. Typing names and contact numbers for a hundred people.

So – bearing that in mind – do you think that you want to work in television? Can you do these jobs? Can you do them with commitment, knowing that it’s part of creating a TV program? Can you do them with passion, knowing that you’re learning about the nitty gritty of how to run a production? Can you do them for many years?

2. Accept that, however you get into TV, you will start in an entry level position.

2. Accept that, however you get into TV, you will start in an entry level position.

Our Television degree is doing well. The first group of students graduated in February this year, and already several have jobs in television. These are entry level jobs – as production assistants, researchers, runners and tape loggers. This is how things work.

One of the problems with traditional Film and Television degrees is that they train students to want to be directors. That’s a fine ambition. But two points. Firstly, you will not, and should not, emerge from Film School straight into directing. No matter how good your degree, there’s still a lot of learning about the industry to be done – particularly if you want to make something more than just an art film. There’s no way that you’ve run anything to the scale and scope of a mainstream television or film production. And secondly, an industry can’t survive only on directors. You need hundreds of other people doing other jobs, just as important, just as creative in a variety of ways. You need production assistants and runners and line producers and executive producers and editors and key grips and camerapeople and lighting assistants …

This doesn’t mean that a university degree is useless. Our students graduate with a series of vocational skills – a solid understanding of how the industry works, technical skills, research and writing skills, communication skills, knowledge of the laws that impact on television production, the history of successful TV programs … All of these are useful. They will serve them in good stead as they progress in the industry. But they still have to start at the bottom and work their way up. And it is quite right and proper that they do so. The skills and knowledge we give them will help them to work their way up, and may even let them do it a bit more quickly. Accepting this fact is vital if you want to get into the industry. And it will help you with the next step.

3. Lose the attitude.

3. Lose the attitude.

Producers have told me that they hate people who come into the industry telling everybody who’ll listen ‘I really want to be a director’, and give the impression that doing the everyday work of running a production – answering phones, keeping databases updated, filing invoices, making coffee, doing the lunch run – are beneath them. If that’s your attitude, you’re not going to get anywhere. Doing such work is a vital part of learning – the everyday logistics that hold a project together. And more than that, it’s a vital part of getting yourself into the industry. Television projects are massive logistical exercises, which bring together huge numbers of people in complex, almost military-style organisations. For each new program, and each new season, new crews are put together. They are highly structured, but also flexible organisations. And when they’re putting their crews together, people tend to choose crew that they know, or who are recommended to them by people that they know – people that they trust, and know will do the job well. That is something that you have to earn for yourself in the industry. Again, a University degree can be useful here. This is particularly the case if your teachers have earned the trust of people in the industry. I am commonly asked for recommendations of students to take up television positions. Whenever this happens, without exception, I always recommend the students who have worked hard, been enthusiastic and friendly, who work well in a team, and who have a good attitude.

4. Meet People.

4. Meet People.

So you know you want a job in television, and you’ve got the attitude that you’re going to have to start at the bottom. How do you get in there?

The most important thing is to meet people. This will already be obvious from the previous point. It’s all about networks. You need the people who are looking for crew to know that you exist. How are you going to meet them? Again, a relevant degree can be useful – if it’s the right degree, and you are being taught by, introduced to, and generally meeting, people in the industry. And if your lecturers know people in the industry. Secondly, don’t underestimate the importance of your fellow students in this process – the first one who gets a foot in the door then knows about you if the company has to take on an extra receptionist. Thirdly, find ways to make contact with and get involved with industry bodies – in Australia, think about SPAA Fringe (Screen Producers Association of Australia). Fourthly, get involved with Community television – it’s a separate sector, but as well as gaining experience and skills, there is some crossover (in Australia, see Blokesworld, Rove).

And more than this – you also need to meet people in the creative industries outside of the television industry – because television is a voracious consumer of content, and it’s always bringing in new creatives. Musicians, animators, fashion designers, graphic artists, performers – the more people that you know, the more chance that somebody you know at some point is going to get asked to do something on a television program. Go out every night and do something. And be nice to everybody you meet and smile and chat. Don’t be fake, obviously. Just enjoy people’s company. Look for what’s interesting about them and ask them about it. Find the local networks for creative people – email lists, organisations local venues, festivals, events – and get involved.

You will also quickly learn to spot people who actually have talent and get things done on the one hand; and losers who just complain about how nobody recognises how great they are on the other hand. Focus your time and energy on the former; but don’t alienate the latter. Sometimes talentless people will get into the TV industry, and it doesn’t do any harm to keep them onside.

5. Get your own projects running.

5. Get your own projects running.

Don’t wait until somebody employs you. Right now you should have creative projects running. You probably can’t make your own TV programs – that takes a lot of money and people. But get involved in creative projects. Ideally, not just doing things by yourself – making short experimental videos, drawing pictures or writing poetry are fine, but they don’t help build your networks or project management skills. Much better are projects which involve other people, and which have public outcomes. Again, community TV is good. So are film festivals, and comedy galas, and fashion events, and dance parties. Organise an art show, or a performance event. Shoot a music video for a local band or put together a music festival. Something that’s creative, and involves people, and allows you to build your own networks, and show your initiative and leadership skills and ability to work as part of a team, and inspire people and organise things, and actually make things happen. Plus, harking back to the previous points, it lets you meet lots of new people, who may at some point get work in the industry, and remember how great you were.

6. Show, don’t tell.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Which brings me to a more general rule. Once you are in the industry, in an entry-level position – show, don’t tell. Don’t go around telling everybody you meet how talented you are, and how you’re going to be a great director, and the industry is fucked, and you’re going to fix it, and you’re only doing this Production Assistant job until you get your big break. It may be true – but telling everybody about it isn’t going to do any good. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, Alan just told me he’s a great director. I had no idea– we should let him direct the shoot next week’. Rather, what you need to do is show people how good you are. Do this by excelling at everything you’re asked to do – and by sometimes going a little bit further. Initiative is a hard one. Because television is a massively complex machine, with hundreds of people all interacting, there’s a necessary and rigid hierarchy of decision-making. For each decision in the process of making a television process, from the biggest – who to cast in the lead role – through hundreds of intermediate decisions – what colour of paper to use for which draft of the scripts – to the most minor – what to have for lunch – it’s somebody’s job to make that decision. So you can’t really just decide things for yourself and go off and do them. But sometimes you will see ways to show initiative – do more than is asked of you, produce the outcome you were asked to do but more quickly and cheaper than was expected, offer an idea to a discussion. People will notice that. And if you have previous work to show – you’ve produced a comedy gala, you’ve organised a series of dance parties – not only will you have the skills and networks from that, but you have those successes to show. Remember – there’s nothing less interesting or impressive than somebody with lists of great plans of things they’re ‘going to do’, when they’ve never actually done any of it.

7. Grasp every opportunity.

7. Grasp every opportunity.

The capstone, the key, the one thing you mustn’t forget. It follows on logically from all of the points above, but it still surprises me that some students don’t follow it. Whenever you get any opportunity to do anything in television or related to television, do it. Whatever it is. Even if isn’t paid.. Even if you have to do night shifts. Even if you have to drive for two hours every day each way, or sleep on a friend’s floor. Even if you have to teach yourself to drive. If you want to work in television, this is what you will do. Whatever the opportunity – take it, energetically, and with a smile. Because this is how you will meet people, and that is how everything happens. And do it all with a great attitude.

There you go, simple really. Follow the seven steps, take it seriously, live, work and breathe television for years and years of your life, and go for it.

Good luck.

Image Credits:

1. Intern with coffee.

2. Man Climbing Ladder

3. Arrogance.

4. Shaking Hands

5. Stack of tapes.

6. Man with megaphone.

7. Intern grasping every opportunity

Please feel free to comment.




Will BitTorrent Change Television? A Luddite’s View

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Photo collage by Peter Alilunas

Photo collage by Peter Alilunas

And so we hear that convergence technologies such as BitTorrent are going to change television. Marketing Week, for example, tells me that ‘viewers are rejecting the schedules created for them by channels in favour of constructing their own via BitTorrent’ (2007, 20). It all sounds very exciting. Well, I’ve finally begun to BitTorrent, among the last of my peer group to do so. I’m a Luddite, a late-adopter of new communications technologies – not proudly so, but without any particular shame. I don’t yet own an iPod, although I’m reliably informed that it will change my life when I finally get around to it.

My move to BitTorrenting was driven by two factors. Firstly, I run an undergraduate degree in Television. And if the media reports are to be believed, BitTorrenting is already changing the face of television, and will only continue to do so in the future. I need to know what’s going on, so that my students don’t embarrass me in class.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who

And secondly, I’m a little bit addicted to a British television show called Doctor Who, which has been an embarrassingly large part of my life since I was seven years old, and shows no sign of abating. New episodes play in the UK about three months before they reach my homeland of Australia, and the wait was quite frankly becoming unbearable. Besides which, it was silly getting my parents to video every episode and post them out to me by airmail. (which is what I’d been reduced to).

So now I BitTorrent. Two important points about me as I explain this experience.

1. I am old. 36 at last count, and too old to be truly part of a digital generation, although we did get ‘computer studies’ when I was at school and I learned to write basic computer programs as part of my secondary education.
2. I am a tertiary-educated, middle class male, and thus have resources both financial and cultural that allow me to have privileged access to computers.

So I am both less well fitted, and better fitted to engage with this new digital world than other citizens in Australia and similar developed countries.

And so – BitTorrent. Will it change television?

Well …

I am very happy to have new episodes of Doctor Who mere hours after they broadcast in the UK. And, following the model of consumer awareness and value adding, I still buy the official DVDs when they’re released, for the commentaries and extras, as well as the nice packaging, so it’s not disadvantaging the BBC.

But beyond that …

As I say, I am a Luddite, and so I expect that many of the people moving into BitTorrent won’t have the same technical nightmares that I faced setting it up. I’ve never bought a laptop before. The whole process – getting the laptop; getting the Internet connection; getting the program for downloading the files; finding the website with the Torrent details; getting the program for burning the files onto disc; then getting another program for burning the files onto disc when the first one didn’t work – took several weeks, and lead to much crying. How on earth do people cope if they don’t have my financial and cultural capital, not to mention my lovely, computer-loving friends who are willing to put up with late-night, teary phone calls trying to work out why the hell the file I’ve just downloaded won’t even play?

bittorrent

And when I actually got the thing set up … I had vague dreams, as a late-adopting Luddite, that BitTorrent would open up a whole world of television programs to me. There are a number of shows that I have been seeking for years for my teaching and research. Finally, I thought – finally I would be able to find them.

Well, no. That was the first surprise – just how little material is available on the Internet. I was particularly keen on The Good Old Days, a British variety show recreating music hall acts, which ran from the 1950s to the 1980s. It would be perfect for teaching students about the continuities between Victorian popular entertainment and television.

It doesn’t exist on the Internet. I had this idea that it would only need one other keen viewer in the world who had posted an episode on the Internet for me to be able to find it. There exists, it appears, not a single one. The utopian promise of so many millions of people around the world, engaged in this community of sharing a passion for films and television – failed me at the first hurdle. I am, it appears, the only person in the BitTorrenting world interested in this show.

There were a number of current shows I was desperate to get hold of, which currently haven’t been released on DVD in Australia. One was Agatha Christie’s Marple. Guess what? Not a single Torrent available. How about my other favourite shows from my years in the UK, the soap operas EastEnders and Coronation Street? They get up to 10 million viewers an episode. Surely there would be some enterprising soul among those millions uploading it to the Internet so I could indulge my fantasy of keeping up with these programs on a five times a week basis?

Nope.

Spaced

Spaced

Other shows were also limited. Even the ones that have already been released on DVD, which I could get from Amazon and ebay. Spaced is only easily available as complete season files of over 4GB – that’s a good part of my monthly download. I can’t get the single episodes I want. The Stone Tape is only available from a single seeder, who then went offline after two days of downloading 95.57% of the file, and never reappeared. It’s a frustrating mess.

In short, there’s a limitation on the kinds of programs that you want to BitTorrent. Basically, we’re looking at two main parameters. Firstly, it should be programs that have a large pre-existing cult following. Secondly, you’ve got the best chance of finding a decent number of seeders (and thus getting the download in a reasonable amount of time) if you are looking for recent episodes. Because of course, people don’t keep the material stored and accessible for posterity. Things vanish fairly quickly.

Which means that BitTorrent is currently – for those who can get in there (and as I say, even for a well educated and well off middle aged man, it’s not easy) – great for building cult communities around cult television shows. But it’s still a very limiting experience if you try to go outside of those shows. I can’t build my own schedule. And this isn’t just about technology. Even as that develops and becomes easier, cheaper, more accessible, the problem will remain: the content of BitTorrent relies on a pre-existing community of fans. And it is ephemeral. The purpose of BitTorrent might most accurately be described as globalising the release dates of new episodes of cult television series. That’s about it.

Overall, it’s been a frustrating experience. As I say, I’m delighted that I’ve been able to see Doctor Who season 3 (it’s a corker. The final episode had me crying with delight, which is always a good thing). But I’m reducing the download limit on my Internet account now the season is finished. I really don’t feel like there’s any need to keep it. It’s quicker for me to get a bus into town and buy a DVD box set of a show I want to see than to download a season by BitTorrent (I can get there and back in 30 minutes). And for DVDs that aren’t available in town – I’m more likely to get them from Amazon than from through BitTorrent.

As I say, the only really use for BitTorrent is in globalising the schedules of new cult shows. And there aren’t any other shows around at the moment that I’m passionate enough about to need to see them as soon as they’re broadcast (I still love My Name is Earl and Drawn Together and Trinny and Susannah Undress, and many, many others, but I don’t need to keep up to date with every new episode in the same way). (And, in passing, I’ve gone off Battlestar Galactica. I kept waiting for a happy ending, and it never seemed to come. Also, I never liked The Sopranos. The only word I could think of to describe the single episode that I watched was ‘nasty’).

Trinny and Susannah Undress

Trinny and Susannah Undress

It’s a difficult, frustrating experience. And as I say, I can’t imagine that I’m the least competent person to be engaging with it. I’m on the right side of the digital divide, at least.

All of which makes me think that broadcast television is here to stay. Maybe not unchanged, but certainly with the basics still in place – a schedule of broadcast programs, aimed at a cross-demographic, national audience, presented on a cheap, accessible and easily navigated piece of technology. There is no ‘television divide’ in developed countries – or, to the extent that there is, it is exact reverse of the digital divide. The only people in a society who don’t have television (about 2% of the UK population in 2003 – Bailey, 2003) are those with the highest levels of formal education – intellectuals, artists and knowledge workers, mostly. Television is an incredibly accessible device. And accessibility is a grand thing.

I’ll return to BitTorrent on December 25th, when the Doctor Who Christmas special (starring Kylie Minogue – hurrah!) is broadcast. But until then, it’s back to the television set. We’re reaching the end of season 7 of Big Brother in Australia, and the gay corsetier is still in with a chance. I don’t have to wait for two hours to download the episode, and I don’t have to spend weeks setting up the technology to view it. I just switch the telly on, and there it is.

I love television.

References

Bailey, Eleanor (2003). Do not adjust your mind set. The Observer, 13 July 2003, 4.

Marketing Week (2000). Why broadcasters need to turn into content retailers, Marketing Week, 8 March 2007, 20.

Images

1. Photo collage by Peter Alilunas

2. Doctor Who

3. BitTorrent

4. Spaced

5. Trinny and Susannah Undress

Please feel free to comment.




The Edwardian Country House: An Exegesis

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Sometimes, television producers are more intelligent, more informed, and present their ideas through more convincing forms of argumentation, than academics studying the same area. Take the example of The Edwardian Country House.

The Family and Staff

The Family and Staff

In this 2002 British reality series, 21 people live in an Edwardian Country House, just as they would have done in the first decade of the twentieth century. Six of them take the role of the family who own the house. Fifteen take the role of the servants. And they live those Edwardian lives – strictly – for three months. The servants have to get up before dawn, working all day for 120 hour weeks. They have no regular days off, and their behaviour is rigorously controlled by the housekeeper and butler. The family of the household are dressed by the servants, spend their days reading and relaxing, going out with friends, being fitted for dresses, and hosting dinner parties for politicians and other ‘great men’, for which, of course they do none of the preparation.

Produced for Britain’s upmarket minority channel, Channel Four, it’s a series that takes its research and its advisors very seriously, drawing on the expertise of a range of historical consultants in order to cover every aspect of life from etiquette to household management to the practice of cookery. And it provides a fascinating insight into cultural history.

We all have some understanding of what working class life was like in previous decades. We know the conditions of life for the poorer members of society were appalling compared with those in current forms of social organisation. To be working class now means to live longer, with better health, to be better educated, to have more control over all aspects of one’s own life, more free time and more choices about what to do in that time, to live in a more equitable world and to have more say in its running that at any time in the last four hundred years (to stick only to the period of modern Western history with which I am familiar). We know this – but all the same, to see it played out so vividly, and to see and hear what twenty-first century humans make of it, of living it – is a revelation.

In the final episode, the participants leave the house. There is passion, regret and sadness. The participants speak out about the experience as they leave. And what is inescapable is just how differently the two groups – the upper class and the servant class – feel about their time in the house, and what these differences in experience tell us about cultural change over the last hundred years.\

Becky, the first housemaid

Becky, the first housemaid

The servants – who in the real world hold working class or middle class occupations, who are shop assistants and secretaries – are clear. After three months of waking before dawn and working relentlessly until after dark, of having every aspect of their lives, including romantic relationships, work, pleasure, eating, and sleeping, routinised, scrutinised and controlled by authority figures, with no regular time off and no control over any aspect of their lives – after this, the working class participants are desperate to return to the twenty first century.

Antonia has been the kitchenmaid in the Edwardian House – in 2001 she’s a telephone operator in a police emergency room. As she considers leaving, she notes: ‘Here you can’t vote, you can’t speak to who you want, go where you want, just everything’s cut off, all the options we’re open to, they’re just not in existence, you think, gosh, you know, we’ve come a really long way since then’. Rebecca, the first housemaid (who works in tourist information in the real world), is amazed at just how hard servants had to work, compared to the working classes in the twenty first century: ‘My grandma was in service… I just thought, how could she have worked that hard that she [literally] wore her fingers down? And now I know how’. Rob the footman (currently looking for work) notes that: ‘Since I’ve been here I’ve lost 22 pounds. The food is enough for sustenance, but that’s all. If you’ve got a bit of a health regime you’ve just got to throw it completely out of the window’. Charlie, also a footman (sales manager) delights in regaining the simply physical freedom of movement, rejoicing in being able to sit outside to eat his lunch – which he has not been allowed to do for three months. ‘Rob and I have got a little room, and it’s ever so tiny, with our little straw mattresses, and we don’t get a wall, we just see a bit of wall about four feet away from the window, and occasionally we’ll see daylight for about two hours a day’. For all these people there is no question – they desperately want to return to the social and cultural forms of the twenty first century.

But what is really interesting is the perspective of the upper class as they consider leaving. John Olliff-Cooper – in the twenty first century a business owner, in the Edwardian era, the Lord of the house – is deeply upset. ‘It will be heartbreaking to leave’, he says. ‘The only people who will be diminished when they leave are my wife and I’. And Anna Olliff-Cooper – a doctor in the twenty first century, Lady of the House in the Edwardian version – is rueful. ‘It is one of these eternally difficult questions’, she says as she stands on the steps of the house where she has lived in luxury for three months. ‘If you level everybody out to the same level, you remove some of the highs of life. You also remove the lows. And I suppose each person has to make up their own minds about what they think is fair. You might think that in Edwardian times it was skewed too far one way. You might think, in fact, it’s skewed too far the other way now’.

It’s an arresting moment. It’s rare that you hear a voice on television explicitly claiming that democracy has gone too far … that people are treated too equally … a sense of nostalgia and loss for an era when hierarchy was more entrenched and servants laboured to provide the good life for the wealthy.

What this moment, and this program, makes clear is that cultural change has been good for some people and bad for others. For the working classes, it has clearly meant a huge improvement to their lives. To the upper classes, it has meant a massive loss. I think this is an important point. And it’s a point that academic writing has often forgotten or suppressed.

Sir John getting a shave from Edgar, the butler

Sir John getting a shave from Edgar, the butler

Academic analysis of cultural change tends to be stuck in a binary model – as I discuss in my book The Public Sphere (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Either you take the position associated ‘modernity’ – things have got worse, the public sphere is disintegrating, public culture has lost its golden age – or the ‘postmodern’ position – things have got better, public culture has become more open and thus improved. It’s a sterile debate, neither side ever managing to convince the other of its point of view. The producers of The Edwardian Country House offer a more nuanced, convincing and better researched position – that it depends on which social group you’re talking about. For the working classes, things have undoubtedly got better. Also for unmarried women of all classes. But for married upper class women, and upper class men, they have got worse.

These points are made in visceral, powerful and confronting ways. In order to keep upper class culture untouched, we must sacrifice the lives, the health, the sanity of the vast majority of the population who are not in that class. We see the servants trying to cope with these lives – the tears, the physical and emotional pain that they suffer. And we see the joy that it brings them as they appreciate just how much better life is now. Eva Morrison, the lady’s maid (in the twenty first century, a haberdashery shop owner) is strongly feminist, and throughout the series we see her reactions to reminders of just how much women were oppressed in the early twentieth century, and how far their rights have come in a hundred years. She reads the Daily Mirror from the 4 June 1913: ‘Woman rushes on the Derby course and snatches at the bridle of the king’s horse. The woman’s clothing was marked E W Davison and suffragette flags were found pinned under her jacket’. She holds it up to the camera. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. ‘Front page it made. But what a cost’. She looks at the paper, unable to speak, and taps the photograph with her finger. And nods, wipes the tears from her eyes, looks down. This matters. This is important. The changes are for the better. And when she leaves the house, her comments once again insist on this point: ‘We’ve came such a long way, women. I think we get loads of perks, don’t we? We get the babies, we get the careers, we get the education … Women are great, aren’t they?’

I have often wondered how academics can look back at the cultural and social change of the last few hundred years and see it as a decline. I can see how it would seem that way for the upper classes – but how could the massive improvement in the lives of working class people be invisible in theories about public culture? And The Edwardian Country House is such an intelligent piece of filmmaking that it proposes an answer to even this question.

Because of the way the hierarchy is managed, the upper classes think that everything is OK with the system – that it works for everybody. And this is because it is purposefully set up in order to protect them from seeing the reality of the working class experience. The family live in the house for three months and never see the servant’s quarters until the once-a-year servants’ ball – just as would have happened in the real world. The butler – along with the housekeeper one of the two people who act as the interface between the worlds above and below stairs – ruminates on this quite explicitly. On the final day, as the family say their final farewells to the servants, tears falling down their cheeks, the butler’s VO provides a commentary: ‘I knew the family to be genuinely fond of the staff, even though they did not really know them. When I have problems downstairs, I shield them from them. I never tell them. So what they hear always is the nice moments. So they do become fond of them. I don’t think that fondness is reciprocated towards the family’. And indeed, we’ve seen a bonfire where the servants made the guy in the shape of sir John, cheering as it burned to death. This perhaps is how it is possible for academics to genuinely believe that the cultural and social changes that have elevated working class citizens have been a form of decline – because the representations of working class life that were available to educated writers in the past deliberately misrepresented it. The system was set up so that the educated classes would have no knowledge of just how awful working class existence was, and to maintain the fiction that everyone was happy, that the system worked for everybody. The Edwardian Country House systematically and powerfully demolishes that fiction for us.

Sir John and family

Sir John and family

Which brings us back to where we started. Sometimes, television producers are more intelligent, more informed, and present their ideas through more convincing forms of argumentation, than academics studying the same area.

Image Credits:

1. The family and staff.

2. Becky, the first housemaid.

3. Sir John getting a shave from Edgar.

4. Sir John and family.

Please feel free to comment.

 




Why Do I Love Television So Very Much?

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Federico Fellini 8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

[This document is an RFC. The RFC–Request For Comment–was the mode by which information was shared in the design of the Internet. Designers put out proposals, not claiming that they were the absolute truth, but offering them as suggestions, for others to agree, disagree, or use to think with. The idea appeals to me as a model for discussion in the humanities. By disseminating my own way of seeing culture as an RFC, I can avoid both arrogant assertions that this is the truth about a medium on the one hand; and a solipsistic ‘anything goes’ attitude on the other. I’m not telling people that this is the truth; I’m asking if anybody else thinks the same way, or finds this a useful approach. If so, let’s get together and agree that this is how we see the world.]

Why is television my favourite medium? Moreso than cinema, radio, even than books? An evening on the couch, mug of tea in my hand and the TV guide in front of me, favourite programs marked in yellow highlighter … This I love more than anything.

Why is that?

Can I find any insight in my relationship with other cultural forms? With art, say? Why does art make me so angry, television so joyful? Why is it, for example, that my experiences of art make me want to sign a petition calling for all its public funding to be cut?

No, that’s not quite true. Not all art makes me angry. After all, I like The Simpsons and Buffyand The Amazing Race, all of which are clearly art. Rather, it’s Art that upsets me – the institutions of turning beautiful things in culture (The Simpsons, Buffy, The Amazing Race) into something that must be regarded with reverence. The museums and galleries and Art magazines, university courses on Art Theory and people who call themselves ‘Artists’ as though that were an identity – these are what upset me. They make me want to scream.

Why is that?

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

I try so hard not to be prejudiced. I try to approach Art with an open mind. But I find, over and over again, that lovers of Art resist explaining their affection in terms of their relationship with their love object. They won’t simply say, I love this, this moves me, this excites me, this makes my life better – the kinds of insights that show a person’s humanity and promote fellow feeling. Rather, so often, in telling me about their passions they want to frame them in terms of their own superiority. Not only do they want to say, ‘I love this’, but also – ‘and if you don’t love this, then there is something wrong with you’. Not only, ‘This moves me’, but also, ‘and it moves me in a way that entertainment doesn’t move you’. Not only ‘This makes my life better’, but also, ‘If your life doesn’t have this in it, your life is less worthwhile than mine’. And when I say, but Big Brother moves me in the same way as Fellini moves you, I have had Art lovers tell me that it doesn’t. That there is no way that my response to that text could possibly be as subtle, as profound, as meaningful as is theirs to 8½. When I tell them that Battlestar Galactica excites me just as much as Barbara Hammer’s films do them, they disagree. They tell me that I’m wrong. That I don’t know true sublimity. As though they have lived inside both of our heads, and they know from comparison that their sensibilities are more profound than mine. Which makes me want to swear.

Watching television makes me a better person. It reinforces my best qualities. When I’m watching television I’m genuinely interested in the lives it shows me and the ways that are different from mine. I am joyful in the encounters it offers with difference. Because television doesn’t make Art’s claims that those who have different pleasures are inferior. Television is, as John Hartley puts it so well, the ultimate ‘cross-demographic’ medium, the host of ‘the smiling professions’. Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside. Television wants to bring everybody into the audience, smiling. Come in, sit down, laugh with me (except, of course, for Fox News. That’s an exception. It doesn’t represent television). The Simpsons may, quite rightly, mock intellectuals who think they are superior to everyone else (‘But you can’t hate me!’, yells Homer after his retreating friends, when the removal of a crayon from his brain boosts his IQ to genius levels and renders him an unbearable snob: ‘I’m your better!’); but it also includes jokes that only Art lovers will get (Thomas Pynchon appears in the cartoon, but only with a paper bag over his head). It speaks to different people, in different ways, at the same time. Television likes it audience, and flatters its viewers that their opinions matter – tell us what you think, says television, performing the belief that democracy is true and that what the individual thinks is important. And for television, it is true. It is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together. It is the ultimately civilized medium in that sense.

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Television is civilized. But Art isn’t. If television is the natural home of the smiling professions, then Art is the world of the scowling professions. If television flatters its audience, then Art shouts at us. It tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m vulgar, that I’m not as good as Art lovers. That I have no soul and no insight and that therefore my opinions and views and loves and passions don’t matter. That I should leave the business of running culture–and, in an ideal world, politics and the public sphere as well–to my betters. To the poets and Artists who hate me and who will tell me what is good for me and what I am allowed to consume. All the while frowning and saying ‘should’ and waving their fingers at me angrily. Art–as I have experienced it in my years of study and social interaction with Art lovers–is about divisions, drawing lines in the sand–here is Art, here is not–and telling people that they are stupid and shallow and insensitive if they don’t like the same things as the Art lovers do. Art is, in this sense, barbaric. It’s full of hatred and it’s looking for a fight. It does not show us the best of ourselves. It shows us the worst. It makes me angry–pouring out expletives and invective in a way that lowers me as a person. Art brings me down to its own level. It makes me no better than itself.

While television shows us love and joy and intimacy and domestic lives and people listening to others.

Which may be at least one reason that I love television so very, very much.

Image Credits:
1. Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
2. The cast of Battlestar Galactica
3. Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Please feel free to comment.




Below Average

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Australian Idol 2006 was won by Damien Leith, a small, enthusiastic Irishman with a voice of extreme purity, a falsetto that could melt your heart, and a face like a robber's dog.

I was gutted. I was cheering for Dean Geyer. Dean's voice wasn't as strong, nor as clear as Damien's. He occasionally sang slightly flat. But he was a natural performer, integrating backflips into his act and throwing his guitar across the stage. And, most importantly, he was so beautiful as to drive a man insane. When he looked at the camera with those knowing, sad, beautiful eyes – and through the camera, straight into my soul – I cried. On more than one occasion.

Damien Leith Deen Geyer

Damien Leith (left) and Deen Geyer (right)

How could the people of Australia, faced with this man's beauty, soil themselves, and our country, by voting an Idol winner purely on the basis that he is a great singer with a wonderful voice, range, tone and expression? Once again, the masses, the mainstream of the viewing public, has proven themselves to be less superficial, less concerned with spectacle, and more committed to traditional values of what counts as art, than I am.

It’s a common experience.

Of course, we all write our philosophies (“theories”) of television based on our perspectives and pleasures. The theorists who write about the importance of state politics in the public sphere are people who are fascinated by state politics. Those who write bemoaning the lack of art on television are those who enjoy art. Our theories are the rationalizations that follow on from our own pleasures, justifying to others what we like, and explaining to them why our tastes are superior to their own. As a man with tastes that are middlebrow at best, and whose biggest pleasures include gossipy celebrity magazines with deliciously bitchy captions underneath photos of Paris Hilton caught unawares (under a photo of Paris holding a balloon: “Spot the difference: both full of hot air and tend to go down at parties”), I was never going to write books that condemned the masses for failing to understand what is truly important in culture. Rather, my own theories are relentless optimistic – simply because I look around me at a world where, on every criterion that intellectuals traditionally use to judge cultural worthiness, I am below average. The masses outstrip me.

I am amazed, for example, by how much interest your average citizen takes in news about national and international politics. I would claim, of course (we all justify our own pleasures) that I am indeed fascinated by politics – but my realm of expertise is that world of cultural politics where, for example, I noted with interest that in the magazine coverage of David and Elton's wedding around the world the ceremony was universally referred to as a “marriage”, although the civil partnership laws in Britain explicitly make it illegal to describe it in such terms in any formal context. That's an important political point, I say, and someone has to take note of it. The masses know this, and pay attention. But as well as this, also take more interest in international politics than I do. I'm humbled and delighted by this fact. Whenever I turn on the television news (only ever on commercial channels, and rarely at that), I'm impressed by how much more international news the programs cover than I would do were I in charge of programming.

Elton John and David Furnish

Elton John and David Furnish

And don't even get me started on “quality” drama. I really can't take The Sopranos. It's nasty, and disturbing, and I find it slightly sick. It’s true that I did enjoy the few episodes of Six Feet Under that I saw, but I knew that it wasn’t for me and quickly stopped watching. When a friend recently told me how depressing the final episode had been, I just shook my head in that “I told you so” kind of way, and reminded him that it's best to stick to television shows that have happy endings, or dancing, or preferably both. I even find that the complex narrative structure of Lost is too avant garde for my tastes.

I'm just delighted that we've got another season of The Amazing Race currently showing in Australia. Sometimes, when strangers are kind to the contestants, it makes me cry.

And sometimes it even has dancing in it.

Image Credits:
1. Damien Leith
2. Deen Geyer
3. Elton John and David Furnish

Please feel free to comment.




Wall to Wall

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Dallas

Dallas

We never did get ‘wall to wall Dallas, in the end. That was the phrase that was commonly heard during the early 1980s, as America’s premier prime-time soap moved from country to country, gaining hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. The vision of ‘Wall to wall Dallas represented the fear of educated intellectuals about the future of television – indeed, the future of culture more generally. They worried that this trashy, sensational vulgar entertainment showed us what would happen if America’s cultural imperialism were not stopped, if we did not fight the good fight for ‘quality’ television.

And yet, despite reaching over ninety countries at its peak, we never did get it wall to wall.

Yes, there was Knot’s Landing, that became its own, extremely valuable, piece of television real estate. And Dynasty, the show that pushed the genre just … one … more … NOTCH! from hysterical to self-combusting. And Beverly Hills 90210, which took Dallas to the kids, and Melrose Place that took it to the young adults. But all of these are gone now, leaving only fossils and The OC. And in the end, even Dallas ended – after only thirteen seasons (or twelve, if you don’t count season eight, where Bobby was dead, the whole season later revealed to be Pam’s nightmare …).

Dallas has been on my mind recently. There are the ongoing casting controversies of the movie version to keep it in the headlines. But more than that, I’m teaching a course on ‘television’s greatest hits’, and Dallas is, of course, right up there. And so, for the first time in my life, I’ve watched a full episode of the mommy of the prime time soap operas.

I approached the DVDs with an odd sense of apprehension. Like I Spit on Your Grave, this was a text whose reputation preceded it. Whereas Grave promises to be too disturbing for the average person, the reputation of Dallas was to be the herald of the end of civilisation. What could it look like? How bad would it have to be in order to draw the amount of vitriol that it has been subjected to over the years? When it started I was eight years old. Its reputation kept me away from it until the end of its run – it was a program that my mother watched; with all of the cultural sneering that implies for a young man. This was the program that terrified a generation of Euro-intellectuals, the program that confused and threatened them with a success they simply couldn’t comprehend. Downmarket, melodramatic glossy trash. Why would hundreds of millions of people around the world watch this? What strange hypnotism could it exude? It must, of course, be an expression of the unfettered power of America to impose its own culture on that of other countries. What other reason could there be for its success?

Watching the original 1978 series now, a quarter of a century later, a strange possibility emerges. Perhaps the reason this show was so successful the world over was because it was good. Really, very good.

For those who don’t know, the initial set up for Dallas was this: young, slightly white-trashy girl Pamela Barnes marries into the rich Ewing oil family. The twist? The Ewings destroyed her family years earlier when daddy Ewing stole an oil field from daddy Barnes (in a ‘re-envisioning’ of Romeo and Juliet). The stage is set for plots and double crosses and hysteria and love affairs and helicopters and expensive cars and everything that is great about melodrama.

The cast of Dallas

The cast of Dallas

The production values are wonderful. This in itself is not a precondition for success, or for making good television, but it is an important accomplishment – which critics often forget. Dallas looks beautiful. The lighting, the sets, the costumes are all of the most professional standard (even if they have a decidedly seventies hue – watch out for those collars!). This is also true of the acting. I wonder sometimes if television critics are aware how difficult it is to produce a television series which has a consistent tone in the performance of even a single actor – never mind an entire cast. This becomes clear if you try watching any British sitcom, for example (except for Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, or The Office), where you will commonly find some of the cast playing vaudeville, some doing naturalism, and others simply not bothering to act at all. The acting in Dallas is indeed melodramatic – that’s part of its charm. But it’s consistently melodramatic. It never sounds as though a cast member is simply standing there, reciting a line. There’s little in the way of subtext or psychological subtlety – but again, that’s generic. The program features great, consistent, hysterical melodramatic acting.

The narrative structure of the stories is fascinating – a series/serial hybrid where each episode has a self-contained story that contributes to the ongoing narrative (who would have thought that Dallas had anything to teach Buffy?). The melodramatic expression of emotion is passionate and moving. The cast are often beautiful to look at (particularly Steve Kanaly and Victoria Principal). For a mainstream success, the program also has a surprisingly ambivalent relationship to conventional morality – as in The Sopranos, our heroes are people who routinely flout the law and conventional ethical systems – although they may have their own ethical systems, based around family ties, in place. There are no truly good characters here – even Pam, who initially seems to be the virtuous outsider, is happily blackmailing Ray Krebbs by the end of the first episode in order to protect her marriage.

Now anybody who actually watched Dallas at the time will probably be disgusted by my tone of surprise here – because the viewers knew how good it was. I suppose that’s the point of this column. Looking back now, we can make a more mature judgement about the success of Dallas. Critics thought there was no rational, logical, justifiable reason for liking the program. They were wrong. The viewers were right in their viewing choices. This was good, melodramatic, television.

Perhaps in making aesthetic judgements about television, in short, we need just a little bit more populism? Let’s listen to the experts – the viewers who regularly watch the programs – and see what we can learn from them about good and bad television.

Image Credits:
1. Dallas
2. The cast of Dallas

Please feel free to comment.