Is There a Detective in the House?

by: Chandler Harriss / Alfred University

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Genre and Television

Genre and Television

What does the word genre mean? In Genre and Television (2004), Jason Mittell argues the genres should be considered cultural categories and are used to help audiences categorize and make sense of different types of programs. In essence, he contends that genres are not components of texts, but instead are categories of texts generated by audiences. Thus, he denies the text's capacity to fully determine its genre. This is apparent when he writes, “Although genres are categories of texts, texts themselves do not determine, contain, or produce their own categorization…Genres exist only through the creation, circulation, and consumption of texts within cultural contexts” (11). It should be acknowledged that Mittell does agree that structural components may help define a text's genre, but only if the audience recognizes the connection between structure and genre. In the end, it is the audience that wields the generic power.

In contrast, Vladimir Propp (1968) contends in Morphology of the Folktale that genres are recognized by groupings of fixed and constant structures. Propp's argument emphasizes plot structure based on character actions while dismissing character attributes. In other words, Propp would likely argue that Mittell's acceptance of popular beliefs will deny the pursuit of a structure's genesis and will fail to recognize when a structure has been adapted for a new and novel presentation. In other words, dressing up textual structures in new clothes does not change the genre it merely defamiliarizes it. This leads to the false belief that there are more genres than actually exist. Ronald Tobias (1993) takes up this issue in 20 Master Plots. In Proppian terms, some popularly accepted genres like Westerns might not be genres at all. We need to look no further than the multiple structures Will Wright attaches to Westerns in Sixguns and Society (1975) to see that the Western structure is not stable or fixed in the way that Propp requires.

Western

Western

At the root of debate is a fundamental discussion over what the word genre means and in many respects both Propp and Mittell are absolutely correct. The answer to this dilemma might be as simple as dividing the term genre into multiple components with different, yet specific, purposes. I suggest that we begin to think of structural genres and cultural genres as equally acceptable categorizations. In short, it should be acceptable for one program to be defined differently depending on the purposes of the scholar; this may even lead to other uses of the word such as stylistic genres where film noir springs directly to mind. It might also be expected that the text's structure will influence the cultural categorization, as Mittell suggests in his discussion of police programs. For example, programs like CSI, Crossing Jordan, and Dexter take what Tobias (1993) calls the “riddle” plot a few steps away from the prototypical “cop show” by divorcing their lead characters from guns and the physical apprehensions of criminals. However, these characters still carry badges and many of the discourses embedded within these shows are linked directly to their representations of the State. On the other hand, a program like House uses the very same plot structure, but in large measure divorces its discourses from the cop show. Of course, some discourses are present across these boundaries. House, CSI, Dexter, and Crossing Jordan all place the scientific discourse in the foreground, but unlike the others House possesses no discourse of justice and provides viewers with no representation of the State. This has led some reviewers like Diane Werts of Newsday (2005) to tag its genre as a medical mystery.

House

House

It would be difficult for Mittell to argue that House is part of the same genre as Dragnet, but it would be quite simple for Propp to illustrate that it is. This is precisely why scholars need to stop the debate about what the single word (genre) means and begin to qualify it. The idea behind a generic categorization called medical mystery implies this distinction while simultaneously conflating it. Medical is based on the show's setting and its characters' attributes. However, mystery is based on the structure of the plot. In short, House is not a “cop” show, but it is very much structured like one. In fact, Paul Attanasio the executive producer of over 50 episodes of House cut his teeth as a writer for the critically-heralded cop show Homicide: Life on the Streets so there is no surprise how strikingly similar the plots' structures are.

In the end my point is simple, the multiple levels (plot structure, style, and ideology) of any televisual text require us to think about genre on multiple levels. In the song “Achin' to Be” Paul Westerberg and his band The Replacements sung, “In a black and white picture there's a lot of grey bunk.” These lyrics could easily be applied to the discussion of genre. It is not black and white and likely never will be, but this is not an indictment on using generic categories. We can define the grey bunk even if we focus on different levels of greyness. This essay is simply a recognition that most generic categories never have been and never will be universally accepted. It is interesting that Mittell devotes just over 200 pages to his discussion of generic delineations, but never successfully answers the question that opens his book. Is Northern Exposure a sitcom or a drama? Can the answer be both or is it neither?

Works Cited

Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. Lawrence Scott. Second ed. Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.

The Replacements. Achin' to Be. Compact Disc. Sire Records, 1989.

Werts, Diane. “Glued to the Tube “House” Riding High…” Review. Newsday September 12, 2005, sec. Entertainment.

Wright, Will. Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975.

Image Credits:
1. Genre and Television
2. Western
3. House

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“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI

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More and more frequently the networks are scheduling encore presentations of certain television programs on nights other than when they are normally scheduled. Although it makes some sense to do this with heavily serialized programs that require repetitive viewing patterns so that the overriding story arcs can become coherent, this phenomenon is not relegated to these types of programs. In fact, it seems more common to implement this strategy with programs that are not serialized.

In order to illustrate this claim, a quick survey of the scheduling grid from epguides.com shows us that the networks have largely abandoned Saturday night programming. NBC has scheduled a repeat of each of the three variations of its Law & Order series. CBS responds by counterprogramming repeats of Cold Case and Numb3rs. ABC shows a movie of the week and FOX has relegated itself to providing Cops and America’s Most Wanted–two shows that are very inexpensive to create. In terms of content, this night of television viewing seems to share crime and justice as a common semantic thread. Furthermore, these shows are not heavily serialized. In fact, the Law & Orders are arguably some of the least complex shows — at least in terms of a serialized narrative structure — currently on the air. Viewers do not need to concern themselves with missing episodes because they can always revisit them later in syndication. Furthermore, they simply do not need to keep up with an ongoing storyline in order to comprehend them.

More importantly, the Saturday night programming grid illustrates the networks’ unwillingness to invest in this night of the week. This unwillingness emphasizes the industry’s reliance on a specific demographic category of viewers — 18-35 year-olds. These viewers are presumed to be involved in other activities on Saturday nights. This also indicates that the industry prefers urban viewers who have more options for Saturday night activities than their rural counterparts. In short, the networks’ nearly complete abandonment of Saturday night is a strong indicator of the disappearance of the mass audience in favor of niche audiences. Cable television’s wide acceptance and presence has permanently altered the televisual landscape signaling the end of the networks’ Golden Age. The networks are quickly becoming just one more channel option among cable and satellite television’s much larger complex of offerings.

Law and Order

Law and Order

Are increased channel and program offerings enough to cause this programming strategy? The short answer is no. Commercial television always has been and will be about the commercials not the shows. It seems logical to assume that the program offerings on Saturday night are more indicative of a lack of advertising dollars than a change in programming strategies. In other words, the advertising is the cause to the programming’s effect. If this were a matter of programming, then the networks would have chosen to schedule serialized shows during these times. This would make logical sense because then the networks could help to ensure that they continue attracting a stable and consistent audience to shows that require more dedication from the viewing public than those they have chosen. The networks’ choices to not do this may also tell us something about the changing technological landscape and viewing behaviors.

Beginning with video-cassette recorders and extending with the fairly rapid acceptance of black box technologies, like TiVo, viewers have begun to wield more control over their individual or even family viewing situations. The viewers have always been in control of the vertical axis of the programming grid (schedule) with their abilities to change channels on a moment’s notice, but these newer technologies have allowed viewers to step into the domain once controlled by the industry — the horizontal axis of the grid. In short, the viewer can alter time by skipping commercials or recording programs for viewing at more convenient times. This may be particularly important to families living in time zones that have been often ignored by programmers. Shows, like CSI or My Name Is Earl, that parents might have avoided in the past because their kids were in the room at 7 or 8 p.m. CST can now easily be shifted to later in the evening when the kids have been put to bed.

This level of viewer control represents a double-edged sword for the networks. Although these technologies may allow an increase in the cumulative audience size, they also allow viewers to avoid the networks’ primary revenue source — the commercials. In effect the potential advertisers must consider whether the various ratings reports they are presented by advertising sales people actually equate to increased viewers for the spots they purchase.

This means that other advertising opportunities, like product placement or outright program sponsorship, may become more enticing opportunities for advertisers, both now and in the future. We do not have to look much further than the overt sponsorships of programs like Extreme Home Makeover and The Apprentice to see this tactic coming to fruition. If the programs that rely heavily on these tactics begin to pop up on the Saturday night schedule in the near future, then we will begin to realize that time slots for programming, like most everything else on commercial television, can easily be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. More than anything, Saturday night programming can be used as a barometer for the industry — even if it seems unimportant or currently ignored. The bottom line for critics is that we should regularly emphasize the commercial in commercial television. This is aspect that steers the industrial ship. The scheduling grid is the destination to where we, as critics and audience members, were driven to in the process.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

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