Three Evasions of the Future of Television
Jason Mittell / Middlebury College

individualized audience

Television’s Increasingly Individualized Audience

When I give a presentation about contemporary television, I am frequently asked to predict the medium’s future. This is a dreadful question, as it literally fills me with dread. Predictions are for suckers, primarily functioning as an opportunity to make time-delayed mistakes, or improbably to demonstrate good fortune in the form of lucky guesses. So whenever I am asked to predict the future of television, I evade.

Flow has asked me to weigh in about the future of television. I accepted the invitation months ago hoping to arrive at some well-reasoned predictions, but now, predictably, I can only offer evasions. But perhaps articulating such evasions could be more productive than predictions and speculations? (Or maybe that is just another evasion disguised as a rationalization…)

Television has no future

A future seems to imply a predictable forward-moving path, as we think of future plans, future results, or future goals. Five years ago, could we reasonably have predicted our televisual present as the future? I certainly couldn’t, as evidenced by my book Television and American Culture, completed five years ago. Where I did point toward future developments, today they seem quaintly dated (such as mentioning Joost as a major player in streaming video) or misguided (highlighting Netflix only as a DVD-by-mail service). Nowhere did I imagine that online-only services like Netflix or Amazon would become major producers & distributors of original television series, nor that DVDs would wane in significance as the major way to access broadcast and cable programming off-air. Instead I pointed to the growing importance of datacasting and multicasting as facets of digital television; today, those practices are still waiting their moment in the spotlight.

Another way of imaging television’s lack of future is that television as we have traditionally conceived of it is unlikely to matter anymore—the mass-medium, family-bonding, shared cultural sphere commonly thought of as the essence of television’s social function in its first few decades is a distant image in our rearview mirror. Likewise some of the core concepts in television studies are becoming less and less relevant to the medium’s present and future, whether it is the breakup of the cultural forum in the era of narrowcasting, or the decentering of flow as the primary way that television is scheduled by broadcasters and consumed by viewers. In short, what television is today requires new critical paradigms as our old models are ill-equipped to either analyze or predict future developments.

Television has many futures


Multi-platform Television Viewing

Television has never been singular, so why would its future be? The cultural forum has always been contested and fractured; flow has always been ruptured and shifted. Television’s next big thing perpetually co-exists with other big things that challenge our notion that television has any one unified identity at any given moment. I’ve written about the trend of highly-serialized complex storytelling in contemporary television, but just as that format has thrived, we have seen the simultaneous growth and prominence of numerous forms of reality TV, the continued dominance of live sports broadcasting, and the ratings success of more conventional series like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory. Television’s pasts and presents are always plural, so we must assume that its futures will be too.

This pluralization provides some cover for making predictions, as it is more likely that whatever trend we imagine might happen will actually happen, even if it is alongside its opposite. A decade ago, I assumed that the long-awaited adoption of digital television would lead to larger, high-definition televisions, reasserting the role of the single dominant television set in American households. That trend did happen, with rise of media rooms and newer HD forms like 3D and 4K, but it was paralleled with the spread of small-screen television viewing on mobile devices and computers. Unpredictably, both trends have co-existed and thrived, making “television” even more ubiquitous and relevant across technological platforms, modes of viewing, and industrial sectors. The era of digital convergence has also featured a great deal of divergence, making traditional television practices less of a uniform norm, but also part of a wider range of media practices. Thus the futures of television seem to suggest that the medium will become both more and less important as part of our media ecosystem.

Television’s future will draw upon its past


New Technology Like Slingbox

Television, like most cultural forms, constantly recycles and revisits its past to generate future content, and I sincerely doubt the future of television will be one of pure originality and innovation (if such a thing even exists). Technological innovation seems to draw directly on television’s past as well—at least in terms of the cultural circulation and practices of technologies, if not their technical designs. In one obvious example, YouTube’s name references not any “tubes” in the site’s architecture, but rather the technologically (yet not culturally) obsolete cathode ray tube that provided television’s nickname in its heyday. In a McLuhanesque formulation, the nickname of a previous technology provides the cultural reference point for a new platform that aimed to upend its referential medium.

An even more interesting case is Slingbox, the device that allows you to stream your own television or DVR over the internet. This seems to be a forward-looking convergent technology, allowing viewers to remediate television onto the newer platform of online video streaming. But it is also connected to the earliest definition of television itself—the word “television” denotes “seeing at a distance,” as the technology was first framed as a way to view live events from afar. Slingbox doubles down on this definition, as we are not only watching distant events on a television, but we are seeing our television set itself at a distance—a window on a window on the world. Seeing at a distance pervades many new media platforms, from FaceTime and Skype video calling to the shared vision of a virtual space in a multiplayer game or virtual world; Slingbox highlights how the older medium still helps to structure our visual practices, inviting us to effectively tele-vise our televisions. And thus we can see that even so-called disruptive technologies are less radical breaks with the past than synthetic rearticulations and recombinations of the old and new, suggesting that television’s central role in both media practice and cultural imagination will remain for the foreseeable future.

I hope I have been sufficiently evasive in predicting the future of television, but that these evasions can help us understand futures as they happen. The future of television is neither singular nor predictable, not uniform nor fully disruptive. But after evading, I will conclude with one prediction that I offer with some confidence: when television’s futures become its multiple presents, there will be ample reason and opportunities for media scholars to argue why such new developments can be best understood in relation to television’s multiple pasts.

Image Credits:
1. Television’s Increasingly Individualized Audience
2. Multi-platform Television Viewing
3. New Technology Like Slingbox

Please feel free to comment.

The Best of Television: The Inaugural Flow Critics’ Poll

The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report on Comedy Central

Welcome to the first (perhaps annual) Flow Critics’ Poll. Polls of critical evaluations have a long tradition in nearly every medium, with annual rankings of film, music, and literature serving as seasonal rituals of discussion and debate. Television, as typifies its lowbrow status, merits only one noteworthy poll, Television Week’s Critics’ Poll, which garners none of the prestige of the major polls for other media. Even academics get in the act in other media, via polls through the AFI or Sight and Sound. Given that Flow’s mission is to bridge the gap between academic and popular writing about television, a critics’ poll seems like an excellent conduit both to help general readers regard television from a critically informed perspective, and to push scholars to address one of the major concerns of general viewers: what’s good on television?

Based on this poll, quite a lot. I asked Flow writers and editors to provide a list of ten items (non-ranked) that they believe represent the “Best of Contemporary Television” from the period between July 2005 to June 2006. Twenty-four responses came in from a range of contributors (listed below), and the votes are suggestive both in terms of depth and breadth. The programs receiving the most votes were not terribly surprising–academic viewers clearly appreciate the narrative complexity, sophistication of cultural allusions, and attention to detail demanded by shows like Lost, Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, and Deadwood, and the political engagement and humor of The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and South Park, all programs that have been discussed here on Flow in some depth. While these top-rated programs might suggest nothing more than a shared taste culture of highly-educated TV scholars (who certainly share other demographic attributes I dared not ask), I do think they are indicative of a shared sense of excellence and quality that must be asserted into a cultural milieu where television is still assumed to be lowest-common-denominator ideological drivel, not (arguably) the most vibrant and creative storytelling medium of the day, or home of some of the most engaged social commentary to be found.

Notably one of the most cited titles, Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Press Corps dinner from April, aired in the US on C-Span, a nearly-unwatched public service cable channel; however the video went viral via BitTorrent and YouTube, becoming a must-watch item amongst politically savvy surfers. Thus one of our examples of the Top Ten Best of Television was hardly seen on television itself, suggesting the medium’s transformation into its on-demand downloadable form is clearly upon us. Likewise other examples of “television” noted included a YouTube video of a confrontation on a Hong Kong bus (“Bus Uncle”) and the digitally shared “Lazy Sunday” clip that rejuvenated Saturday Night Live. Additionally, numerous critics suggested that the categorization of “new programming” by markers of the traditional TV season was less relevant than ever, as shows on DVD, VOD, and digital download services make scheduling almost irrelevant. Certainly had such requirements had been opened up, The Wire would have been atop many lists (and we can project it as an early favorite for next year’s poll). As distribution, scheduling, and transmission technologies shift control away from the traditional industry and toward viewer preferences and viral buzz, we may see the role of the critic gain more centrality–if sites like Flow can help guide viewer attention to the best television outside of the typical mainstream network flow, I believe we provide a useful public service.

The breadth of selections was quite surprising–94 different items were cited on at least one ballot, running the gamut of genres from sports to advertising, news to cooking shows, plus the standard issue of comedies and dramas. As the comments of critics reprinted below attest, the notion of “Best” is somewhat under debate, as some programs were cited for what they represent or marking social trends or achievements. Some cited personal pleasure as their primary criterion, while other critics highlighted how such choices stand-in for larger valuations and taste systems, and some just let their picks speak for themselves. Although Flow’s group of writers span the globe, all but one ballot came from US scholars–unlike film, music, or literature, distribution of television is still nationally segmented and determined enough that it is difficult to imagine how an international panel of critics could evaluate a common body of work, although certainly programs were hailed from non-US (mostly British) sources.

Natalia Portman raps on SNL

Natalie Portman raps on SNL

Obviously such a list cannot be seen as either definitive or evidence of anything larger than the eclectic rankings of a somewhat arbitrary sample of media scholars. However, as I will discuss more fully at the upcoming Flow Conference and have discussed previously on Flow, television scholars should not hide their tastes and value judgments away in the closet, bringing them into public only when off-duty. I believe that our opinions about and evaluations of television are worth sharing, arguing about, and explicitly incorporating into our scholarly and pedagogical practices. Television has been too easily dismissed as disposable and not even worthy of evaluation–let the debate focus on what should be valued rather than whether we should value, and I believe both the medium and our field will gain importance and legitimacy.

The Rankings

Rank Show Votes
1 Lost 12
2 Arrested Development
  The Colbert Report
  The Daily Show
5 Veronica Mars 8
6 Stephen Colbert’s White House Press Dinner Speech 7
7 Deadwood
  Project Runway
9 Battlestar Galactica
  The Office
11 Big Love 4
  Entourage 4
  Grey’s Anatomy
  Rescue Me
  South Park
  The Countdown with Keith Olberman
  The Shield
  The Sopranos
19 24 3
  Doctor Who
  Katrina News Coverage 3
  My Name is Earl
  Rome 3
  Scrubs 3
  Six Feet Under 3
  The West Wing 3
  Weeds 3
28 30 Days 2
  American Idol 2
  Boston Legal 2
  Bus Uncle 2
  FIFA Football World Cup 2
  Frontline (votes for both The Age of AIDS and The Meth Epidemic) 2
  House 2
  Monk 2
  Nip/Tuck 2
  Roller Girls 2
  The Amazing Race 2
  The Boondocks 2
  The Hills 2
41 “Head On” commercial 1
  “Lazy Sunday” Saturday Night Live skit 1
  2005 Ashes cricket series 1
  Absolute Power 1
  Alias 1
  America’s Got Talent 1
  America’s Next Top Model 1
  Barry Chappell’s Fine Art Showcase 1
  Bleak House 1
  Bodies 1
  Charlie Rose 1
  CSI 1
  Curb Your Enthusiam 1
  Dog Bites Man 1
  Dog the Bounty Hunter 1
  Drawn Together 1
  Everybody Hates Chris 1
  Extreme Home Makeover 1
  Feasting on Asphalt 1
  Fox News Watch 1
  Ghost Hunters 1
  Gilmore Girls 1
  Good Eats 1
  Huff 1
  Hustle 1
  I Love the 80s 3D 1
  Iron Chef America (but not when Bobby Flay is cooking) 1
  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia 1
  Life on Mars 1
  Mad TV 1
  Mythbusters 1
  No Reservations (with Anthony Bourdain) 1
  Numb3rs 1
  Proving Science Wrong 1
  Psych 1
  Queer Eye for the Straight Guy 1
  Reno 911 1
  Rocket Man 1
  Seventh Heaven 1
  So You Think You Can Dance 1
  Spicks & Specks 1
  Spooks/MI-5 1
  That’s So Raven 1
  The 4400 1
  The Closer 1
  The Comeback 1
  The DL Chronicles 1
  The Girls Next Door 1
  The Look for Less 1
  The Power of Nightmares 1
Time Team 1
U.S. of Ant 1
What Not to Wear 1
Work Out 1

The Critics’ Comments

Tim Anderson, Denison University

A few comments: Six Feet Under, the final episodes of the final season of the only program that made me want to become a better person. The “Head On ” Commercial is the only commercial in the last three years I actually remember. The stupidity of its design and execution makes the “Head On” commercial almost profound. Almost. Countdown with Keith Olbermann gives MSNBC an anchor and a formula that allows them to recycle content and hosts in an a way that is both entertaining and informative. The World Cup 2006 Championship Match — Four words: Zinedane Zidan’s head butt. Colbert’s press dinner: Something I have not seen much since 9/11… someone with the intestinal fortitude to speak Truth to Power. After The Office’s second season one could make the case that this is perhaps the best adaptation of a British television show since Til Death Us Do Part was transformed into All in The Family. My Name is Earl is where Buddhism meets “red state” America. The result is a wonderful comedy about the necessity of making amends and the laughter that can accompany forgiveness. After the 2004 election, my British colleague, Kay Dickinson, recommended that I view the BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares in order to better understand the American neoconservative movement. I BitTorrented the files and was reminded that very little has changed since De Toqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 19th century: if you are an American and want to know why your country is the way it is, ask a European.

Christine Becker, University of Notre Dame

My favorite show of the year was Veronica Mars. My love for TV has grown exponentially with the rise of prime-time serials over the last decade, and VM is the best of the lot for me. I know some fans complained that the 2nd season plotlines were too hard to follow across the season, but I ate that up with a spoon. I just adore the fact that there could be some largely anonymous character in season two who says cryptically to Veronica something along the lines of, “Hey, I kept your secret,” and to make sense of that comment you had to drag your brain back to season one and remember this extremely minor character’s promise to her to keep a hugely crucial plot event under his hat. That kind of multi-episode/season connectivity is the divine beauty of series TV for me, and Veronica Mars just nails it. Lost is good for that too, but I think the Lost writers could take lessons from the Veronica Mars writers for compelling plotting. Plus, what Jason Dohring does with Logan Echolls should be taught in acting classes.

Jonathan Gray, Fordham University

It hurts not to put The Wire on this list, but I just discovered it on HBO On Demand, and have only watched two thirds of Season 1, so although it’s new to me, and in look and delivery seems remarkably original/”new,” the rules stymied me here. (But they allowed a belatedly-OnDemand-watched Rome on, so HBO wins one, loses one.) There are also other shows (like South Park) that I feel *should* be on the list, but I somehow tend to miss too often for me to honestly put them on.

John Hartley, Queensland University of Technology

Of my ten: 2 were international sporting events; both screened on “multicultural” SBS-TV; 2 were drama series (one comedy, one fantasy) made by BBC Wales; shown in Australia on the “national broadcaster” ABC-TV; 2 were drama series (one comedy, one costume) made by the UK BBC; shown on the ABC; 2 were non-broadcast TV (one “anthropological” the other “viral”); circulated via YouTube and/or Google Video; 1 was a documentary series made by UK Channel 4 (commercial minority-taste broadcaster); shown on the ABC; 1 was a comedy quiz show; made in Australia by and shown on the ABC. None of them was broadcast on commercial TV, and only Time Team was made by a commercial TV broadcaster (albeit the unusual Channel 4 UK). None originates from US Network TV. That said, I did include the clip of Colbert at the Washington Press dinner (which went out on C-SPAN at your end). Also, America’s Next Top Model did make it to about Number 13 in the Top 10 list; and we also enjoyed the second season of Dead Like Me, as I mentioned in one of my Flow columns. Both of these screened on subscription-TV Foxtel (channel Fox8 here). I guess the BBC is seriously over-represented, and I didn’t even mention David Attenborough’s valedictory voice-over, the very luscious HD Planet Earth. This must be because the Beeb made some great TV in an otherwise lean year (nothing to do with my origins, of course). One show on the list was made in Australia (which is probably one more than most of your critics). It must also be noted that two of the freshest drama series all year — the cult Dr Who and the ought-to-be-cult Rocket Man — were both made by TV-minnow BBC Wales. Innovation at the margins! I have not included any News shows or Reality TV shows, for fear of not being able to tell them apart.

Henry Jenkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

(see more at Henry’s blog)

Some have speculated that there is a kind of academic canon of television — certain shows that are watched by all academics but are not necessarily highly rated by the rest of the world (I sometimes wonder if everyone who watches Veronica Mars, for exmple, has a PhD or more importantly, if ever PhD in the world watches the series). Or conversely, that there are programs that are highly rated across the general public but which no academic will be willing to publicly acknowledge. For the moment, I am talking about academics who are proud to say they like television. Don’t get me started about the liars and hypocrites who claim not to even own a television set. So, as social experiments go, this looks to be a fascinating one. I know in my case, it has already forced me to think about whether my taste as a fan and as an academic are necessarily aligned: are there shows that interest me intellectually but not emotionally? Are there shows I love to watch but don’t really admire on that level? Are there shows I should be watching (and don’t) but might want to list anyway? Are there shows that don’t deserve the top ten but might benefit from my listing them more than the predictable choices that I know every other academic is going to list? (It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Lost is going to be in the top few vote getters here). Do I want to fall in line or signal my idiosyncratic tastes and interests? How do we pick the best in a medium whose cultural standing is still under question or where there are not widely agreed upon standards of evaluation? Writing these entries, I discovered a few things about my viewing preferences — the centrality of characters (especially witty and intelligent characters) whether we are judging drama, comedy, or reality television; the imaginative use of genre elements to explore aspects of the world around us; and the interest in serialization over self-contained episodes. I suspect that puts me squarely in the middle of academic taste culture — even if my fan boy interests in science fiction and superheroes push me to the outer edge. I will be most curious to see how others came out on the poll.

Mary Celeste Kearney, University of Texas – Austin

Drama, darling, drama, particularly that involving smart girls with good quips. By the way, in the age of DVDed TV series, is a critics’ poll that includes only series airing new episodes appropriate? New to me isn’t necessarily new to the airwaves – for instance, I didn’t see the first season of Veronica Mars until spring 2006. Perhaps it’s time to expand what we mean by “new TV.”

L.S. Kim, University of California – Santa Cruz

My criteria include: 1) complexity of writing, 2) quality of execution (i.e., in production and editing) and performance/s, 3) significance in offering diverse perspectives, and 4) a sense of social critique or commentary. I wish there was a television program with an Asian American lead and recurring character that I could include. I expect others will nominate Grey’s Anatomy (Sandra Oh) or Lost (though the Asian characters are not portrayed as American whilst being played by Korean American actors, Yoon-jin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim); Gilmore Girls has had its moments, including a minor focus on a parallel mother-daughter relationship between a Korean immigrant mother and her second-generation daughter (Keiko Agena); and of course, the Law & Order juggernaut features B.D. Wong who is unequivocably talented but also ubiquitous as the Asian American nonsexual male on television, stage, and in film. Bobby Lee doesn’t quite help that cause (his performances include an unusually high number of disrobings, “exposing” sexual perversity rather than sexuality), and he appears past prime-time, but my vote will go to Mad TV (Fox).

Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University

(see more on Derek’s blog)

Looking over my list, I think it’s safe to say the 90s are over. Each of these programs illustrate, in widely different ways, the key cultural trope of our time: insecurity, or, to put a more positive spin on it, flux. The television of previous eras (especially pre-1980) was largely about policing difference. In contrast, television today (or at least the most interesting television today) seems to be about the process of forging new identities from difference. The demographic boxes advertisers and networks anxiously and aggressively place us in (especially every fall) may be more fluid and multiple than ever before, but they still fail to capture the degree and scope of the impact of some of this year’s most effective television. Moments like the Dharma Initiative’s incongruous orientation films (Lost), Number Six’s Baltar-infused “resurrection” (Battlestar Galactica), and the Doctor and Rose’s awkward goodbye (Doctor Who) work so well because we don’t see them coming. Not a bad year for a medium so many seem to be writing off.

Amanda Lotz, University of Michigan

First, the unquestionable top of my list, The Wire, is not eligible for competition because it hasn’t aired a new episode since December 2004, but September is just around “The Corner.” This was an interesting and revealing exercise. I first dashed off a list of eight shows that are my favorite, based on how much I miss them between episodes, speed with which I view them once loaded on the DVR, or level of devastation I experience should some sort of recording malfunction occur. I then quickly listed another seven that would fight it out for the remaining slots. And then I realized that I can’t defend some of my favorite shows as better television than some not on the list. So given the call, I amended the list. Deadwood is indisputably an incredibly beautifully shot (have you seen the opening credit sequence in HD?) and skillfully written show, and yet, it often languishes on on-demand, four episodes behind, as I know I should watch, but…while I never let so many episodes of Big Love–an arguably inferior show whose central premise and characters I nevertheless contemplate at least weekly–go more than a day. A few take-aways: favorite TV (even of a discerning and extensive viewer), is not necessarily the best; I easily could have listed twenty shows–these are good times to be a TV viewer; even I was surprised by how few broadcast network shows made my list.

Daniel Marcus, Goucher College

I picked the ones I watched the most, generally (proportionate to the availability of new episodes). Actions speak louder than words. I think there should also be a separate category for repeats in syndication, DVD, etc., with up to 3 choices. Mine would be Seinfeld and The Wire.

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College

Some moments of excellence to note: Colbert smacks down the press & gets millions to watch C-Span online; South Park takes on both Scientology and Comedy Central… and wins!; The Boondocks brilliantly combines radical politics and gorgeous animation; Lost makes fans go crazy online with the blast-door map; The Office surpasses the original with its pitch-perfect TV romance and wonderful menagerie of background characters (see Kevin’s grin); and what might be the greatest series finale in television history, Six Feet Under.

Brian Ott, Colorado State University

My sole criterion for identifying the “Best in Contemporary Television” was personal pleasure. Viewers may seek different pleasures and find pleasures it different shows, but that’s ultimately why they watch.

Elliot Panek, Emerson College

For now, I believe that the role of the critic is, in part, to recognize true innovation and reward it. That means that even if a show has one truly innovative aspect but is utterly out of tune with contemporary culture or the culture the critic happens to inhabit, it should be rewarded. In addition, I think the critic should recognize shows that are liable to survive the profound changes media is undergoing (stalwarts like Charlie Rose). In short, I believe that critics should use their knowledge of the culture and the medium to try to predict what aspects of a show (plotting, style, character relationships, subject matter) are likely to survive for 10, 20, 50 years. Of course, this is very difficult to predict, but it’s worth a try. The alternative seems to be proscriptive criticism, which can and should be avoided. A few specific notes: The Hills – underrated. By combining a pre-existing social group too full of themselves to care about being on TV, the creators have translated real-life melodrama to TV – a first (if you count this show as an extension of LB). These heartfelt moments of incoherence (“I, y’know, totally like you. I guess”) are a welcome alternative to the overblown and/or ultra-literate melodramatic dialogue that saturates not only teen drama but every TV and film genre, “reality” or otherwise (The Real World being a prime example). So what if the characters are vapid – the format of this show is the future of reality TV. The Sopranos – Not nearly as good as it once was, and many plots (the rapper getting shot?) seem to come out of and go nowhere. Still, the first 3ep coma was gutsy and may set up interesting identity issues in the finale. Proving Science Wrong – Like LB & The Hills, the characters and the execution of this “show” aren’t that great, but there’s something innovative here, and it’s not just the fact that it’s a vlog. It translates what appears to be real life melodrama, but does The Hills one better by making it interactive and real time. In theory, viewer comments could affect the relationship of the will-they-or-won’t-they main characters. The fact that it all might be an act only makes it more intriguing. Scrubs – seems to have been one of the first of many successful single-camera comedies. Very densely packed w/ jokes (a la AD). Odd mix of seriousness and absurdity. Still taking chances. Lost – overrated. Many critics fail to mention that this is, by and large, a traditional, somewhat sappy, melodrama from week to week. The flashbacks, by their nature, halt the forward momentum of the show and I find them irritating. Still, for its attempts to engage the audience off-TV, I give it high marks. American Idol – Hasn’t worn out its welcome. Initially, it seemed like the faddish type of show, but now one wonders if it’ll be the next Super Bowl (going on for 40+ years). Charlie Rose – The classic, unadorned format and smart questions are a tailor made alternative for the era of info clutter. While Charlie was out, there were a ton of terrific stand-in interviewers from all fields. I Love the 80’s 3D – Marketing nostalgia is not a new idea, but VH1 has found the perfect formula for exploiting it and hasn’t tinkered w/ it much. It’s a testament to the brilliant simplicity of the format that I will watch 3 or 4 straight hours of this show despite the fact that I detest half of the comedians offering commentary.

Avi Santo, Old Dominion University

Overall, I would say that my list favors programs that make me feel uncomfortable as a viewer. Most of the shows I have listed seem designed to court controversy, exploit conflict, or narratively convey discourses of community crisis and/or struggle. Most seem to revel in their moral ambiguity, refusing ideological closure, but also encouraging conversation about their trouble spots. Though I recognize this as coalition building and fan cultivation institutional strategies and, therefore, commodification of political discourse, I’m hooked. Other points of note: none of the programs on my list are on the standard broadcast networks (except for Project Runway, which is rebroadcast on NBC, though I watch it on Bravo). Justifying my choices was harder than I thought. I had to fight against the impulse to invoke terms like ‘quality,’ ‘realistic,’ ‘truthful,’ or ‘important’. At the same time, I also consciously struggled against reducing my choices to merely ‘pleasure’ (though I take pleasure – sometimes perverse – in all of my choices) and ‘distraction’ (though, again, I am often a distracted viewer, especially as most of these programs air several times a week and can be rewatched if I miss something the first time around). Finally, in coming up with this list, I noted how I both wanted to conform in my viewing habits to what other media scholars are likely watching AND simultaneously, to stand out by identifying at least a couple of shows that wouldn’t make other people’s lists. Identity politics and occupational habitus do rule the day.

Janet Staiger, University of Texas – Austin

The Colbert Report, but unfortunately, Stephen is perhaps too good at playing the role as a conservative talk show host; at times he out-argues the liberals. Of course at other times he loses to them in brilliant ways. And 24–my secret sin. I don’t even answer the phone when it is on.

Charles Tyron, Catholic University

A quick note: “Bus Uncle” is one of many YouTube videos I could have chosen, but I think it nicely illustrates the site’s unique ability to promote the most banal aspects of everyday life into an international “hit.”

Frederick Wasser, Brooklyn College

I tried to resist but couldn’t, due to Hustle (BBC-AMC). It has been in production at the BBC for three years and finally starting showing up on AMC this year. I cannot resist its retro stylishness (recycling Robert Vaughn yet again and its anti-entrepeneurial society stance). Even better is that since each script involves a con game, all the details of the script have to be worked out and planted in the beginning of the show. It avoids the haphazardness that permeates the American crime procedural shows. Thus good craft writing is yet another retro pleasure it gives us. But the best is that the bad guys are new age business men. Second marks to Entourage (HBO), which does not feature good writing but does have lovable characters. While everyone in the show knows they are legends (in their own minds), we don’t have to get any of them. Exactly the right balance for pop fluff.

Mimi White, Northwestern University

Arrested Development, Boston Legal, and Project Runway are way at the top of this list. Barry Chappell’s Fine Art Showcase is not a regular “series” but is a sublime program that appears on cable and satellite systems on Leased Access channels, as part of “The Celebrity Shopping Network,” consisting mainly infomercials. Barry Chappell is live, 2-3 nights a week. He sells fine art (some oil painting, a lot of multi-run paper prints, and art glass). Watch it as performance art. The rest of my list is more iffy. Some of these are shows that I frankly do not consider to be the “best” of television in overall terms, but are included for frankly idiosyncratic reasons. So a word about these “exceptions”: 1) Seventh Heaven verges on being unwatchable, but is included this year for lasting as long as it did (10 years); as a nod to the now-defunct WB; and for passing off as wholesome family entertainment a wholly messed up family. 2) America’s Got Talent presented Leonid the Magnificent to the American public–unadulterated aesthetic excess; the show deserves a spot on the list for that alone. The occasional spectacle of judge Piers making contestants cry by advising them to cut their less talented familial co-performers from their act is one of the show’s more ambivalent pleasures. As for the rest: They are programs I have gone out of my way to watch; but I am certainly aware that there are other shows of similar (or even higher) quality that could have been included. When it comes to Grey’s Anatomy, it is mainly the secondary characters/stories that I like (i.e. not Meredith or “McDreamy”); and I dread what’s coming next, since in the final episode, the show became quite unhinged. It almost lost its spot on the list because of this. I am not sure how I feel about Numb3rs, but where else on television are professors (math professors no less) taken so seriously? Granted, the mathematicians are pretty nerdy stereotypes, and work in the service of the FBI. But more commonly on crime series (e.g. Law and Order), professor/research types are criminal suspects, and are usually sleeping with their students (often the victim) or claiming colleagues’ research as their own. (Well, there is also Bones, so perhaps the scholar as a valued part of a crime-fighting team is a trend-let.) Also, in a sly pedagogic move, the show offers a dramatic rendition of the University of Chicago “everyday math” curriculum for K-8 schooling.

The following Flow contributors sent in ballots without comments:
Marnie Binfield, University of Texas – Austin
Alexis Carreiro, University of Texas – Austin
Heather Hendershot, Queens College
David Lavery, Brunel University
Allison McCracken, DePaul University
Eileen Meehan, Louisiana State University

Image Credits:

1. The Colbert Report

2. Natalie Portman on SNL

Please feel free to comment.

Lost in an Alternate Reality

Lost poster

Lost poster

As many researchers have discussed, transmedia storytelling is on the rise, but we're still immersed in an experimental phase–traditional media venture into new formats while emerging creators chart new directions, all with unpredictable outcomes. One of the latest innovations from a high-profile source is the television show Lost's venture into the emergent form of the Alternate Reality Game (or ARG). What can “The Lost Experience” teach us about transmedia storytelling and the differing ways television and games function as narrative media?

ARGs are an interesting cult phenomenon taking advantage of the ubiquitous role media play in our daily lives. Typically ARGs are launched subtly with a few well-placed clues (or “rabbit holes”), leading players into a trail of websites, phone numbers, newspaper ads, and physical events that posit an alternate immersive reality with embedded mysteries and puzzles. An ARG by its definition must operate in secret, as the goal is to obscure the boundaries between an emerging storyline and real life in a paranoid mist–only after the game's completion are its “puppet masters” and underlying structure made public. To chart their way through the maze, players typically collaborate in a collective effort to solve puzzles and build a trail, using online forums, listservers, and Wikis to join forces. While some ARGs have emerged as fan-created grassroots efforts, the commercial applications for the form have been as “immersive entertainment-based marketing campaigns” for other products, most notably the film A.I. with “The Beast” and the game Halo2 with “I Love Bees.”

Given Lost's dedicated fan base already congregating on numerous websites, the show's focus on puzzles and mysteries, and its narrative world highlighting paranoia and deception, it would seem like the perfect series to be extended into an ARG–certainly the buzz was strong among both ARG players and Lost fans this spring as producers announced the launch of “The Lost Experience” for May 3rd to run throughout the summer during the hiatus of the television season. Now over a month old, it seems that the game has not lived up to expectations, for reasons attributable to the competing industrial and narrative norms of television and ARGs.

Cast of Lost

Cast of Lost

In an ARG, the narrative typically launches in the midst of an enigma, presenting a situation which not only fosters suspense but also asks players to question the rationale and existence of whatever they encounter–are these websites and emails real or part of a fictional world? How do these disparate elements relate? In many ways, the narrative of Lost does the same thing, placing characters on an island full of seemingly random elements (polar bears and hatches) and potentially deceptive psychological experiments. But “Experience” begins with a storyworld already having been established on television, with players bringing two seasons of expectations and theories into their interactions with the ARG. Thus, like all cross-media games, players want both to enjoy the game as a played experience, and find insights into the narrative world they are already passionately engaged in.

As of now, “The Lost Experience” seems to be failing on both of these counts. Judged as an ARG, players are griping on forums, blogs, and email lists that the puzzles are too easy–or in one case, impossibly
difficult–and repetitive in format. ARGonauts (as they sometimes call themselves) seem annoyed by the high level of publicity “Experience” is
getting, as the flood of new players are less savvy to ARG norms and frequently break etiquette in various ways, like posting solutions without explanations or highlighting fake websites. Additionally, the story seems to be mired in redundancy–the first month has essentially been spent highlighting ways that The Hanso Foundation (a mysterious entity within the television show) is corrupt and nefarious. Experienced ARG players are voicing concerns about “Experience” as offering too little payoff for the time they invest.

So are fans of Lost. One of the challenges of converting a complex ongoing narrative like Lost into a game is the delicate balance needed to sustain two storytelling modes. Lost has been able to spin a richly complex and layered narrative web in its two seasons, simultaneously solving mysteries while offering new enigmas. How might “Experience” fit into this storyworld? Producers must ensure that whatever is revealed in the ARG is not needed to comprehend the TV series, as the audience of millions for the latter will certainly dwarf the number of players who will stick through “Experience” until its conclusion this fall. Additionally, “Experience” is running simultaneously across the globe, but Lost's schedule outside the US is significantly lagged — for instance, the UK is just now getting episode 7 in the already completed season 2 — meaning that any plot revelations in the ARG must be sure not to spoil mysteries within the television series. Thus “Experience” must offer only supplementary inessential narrative information to Lost, allowing the television series to retain centrality within the storyworld.

Beyond these practical concerns, there are significant tangles to be unraveled between the two narrative forms. Lost is clearly marked as fiction in every way, such as via acting credits and writers who host a weekly
podcast. ARGs are dependent on creating an alternate reality that seems real to players–thus “The Lost Experience” presents The Hanso Foundation as an actual organization that Lost producers incorporated into their fictional universe, a claim made by Hanso spokesperson Hugh McIntyre on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. This ABC talk show has a bit of a Lost obsession, featuring numerous interviews with actors & producers, visits to the set in Hawaii,
and parodies of the program–all of which maintain the notion that Lost is a fictional TV show. Yet McIntyre appeared as a “real” representative of Hanso, defending alleged misrepresentations of the organization in the fictions of Lost and the recently published novel Bad Twin.

Bad Twin

Bad Twin

This novel is another component of both the ARG and the TV show–author Gary Troup died on Lost's ill-fated airplane crash, but his unpublished manuscript has been found and read by two characters on the show. Disney's Hyperion Publishing published the ghost-written manuscript in May as if Troup were a real author who had perished in a tragic plane crash, promoting it (and providing “Experience” clues) via posthumous video interviews with Troup on legit sites like To complicate matters, Troup's fiction-within-a-fiction refers to institutions and characters from Hanso, Widmore Corporation, and Oceanic Airlines, which exist within the storyworld of Lost, but are treated as real in the “Experience.” McIntyre and Hanso have publicly denounced Troup in newspaper ads and on Kimmel, asking us to believe that the real Troup died in a real crash that is being fictionalized on Lost.

However any claims to reality within “Experience” start to crumble upon reflection–if we are to believe Hanso's claims, Lost is a fictionalization of real figures and events, including the September 22, 2004 plane crash that killed Gary Troup. But Lost premiered on ABC on that very date and thus could not be portraying a real event that had yet to happen when it was filmed, creating a disconnect between the various meta-fictional claims abounding with the “Experience.” Additionally, recent clues within the game point to images from the show's island concerning a shark with a logo (if you don't watch the show–don't ask!), suggesting that within the allegedly real website of Hanso, events on this fictional television show are also pointing to real events–a claim that breaks down within spaces like Kimmel, in which television actors and ARG characters co-exist on the same plane of existence. While such a discussion of meta-levels of fictional reality might appear to be nitpicking and simply a set of complications to be overlooked for the fun of the narrative, remember that ARG players are asked to believe in an Alternate Reality which requires them to unpack surfaces for hidden meanings, running HTML source codes through anagram generators and base64 decryption–these meta-fictional details and consistencies are the very lifeblood of playing ARGs and immersing yourself in complex puzzle narratives like Lost. I'm expounding on these details not to condemn the sloppiness of the puppet masters, but rather to suggest that there may be some deeper difficulties in adapting a complex serialized fictional narrative to the particular demands of illusory realism of the ARG format. How can we buy into an alternate reality that we have already conceptualized as fictional?

Another key disconnect between the norms of television and ARGs concerns
advertising. Even with TiVos and online access, television viewers accept the premise that they are being given access to free programming in exchange for their consumption of advertising. Likewise, nearly every previous ARG has been tied into a marketing campaign for a film, videogame, or product–thus neither of these forms has some idealized artistic purity outside of the commercial realm. Yet players of “The Lost Experience” have been actively irritated with the integration of advertising within the ARG, as Sprite, Jeep,, and Verizon have all had sponsored sites with embedded clues. In part this is due to the perceived weaknesses of the clues themselves, as people find themselves sifting through product literature for anti-climactic passwords revealing more of the same Hanso corruption. Additionally, players seem to be put-off by the disconnect between the game's content and the ads–much like television viewers bristling at product placement that seems tacky and superfluous to the action, ARG players accept the marketing dimension of games when there is significant payoff and integration of the content. The game seems to even acknowledge and mock this disconnect–one “Experience” character, DJ Dan, runs a podcast outing conspiracies and “shutting down the man,” while running corporate banner ads on his site. In one podcast (knowingly named “tel soul,” an anagram for “sell out”), a listener accuses Dan of hypocrisy–Dan responds with a rant singing the praises of Jeep and Sprite and claiming that it's a “small concession to make for my voice to be heard.” Players are less sure, as they're skeptical that Dan and other characters voices are offering anything worth hearing over the promotional pitches.

This critique of “The Lost Experience” is meant not to condemn an ambitious attempt to take a cult game form into the mainstream or innovate cross-media storytelling techniques. On some fronts the game has succeeded–the book Bad Twin has sold well, propelling a literally unknown (and unreal) author onto the bestseller list, and generally satisfied players with a mediocre (seemingly by design) detective novel that offers insights into both game and show. But every medium and storytelling format has its own norms and biases, limitations and possibilities–thus far, the conflicts between these two narrative modes seem to have hurt the game's viability.

Can an established serial fiction make the leap into an alternate reality game? As of now, the clues make it appear doubtful–but given the tendencies of both modes of storytelling, everything we think we know might change. Perhaps the “Experience” as played out thus far has been a metaphorical exercise like the show's button-pushing, carrying out senseless tasks motivated by faith for a big payoff that will reveal deeper meanings behind the surface. Just to be sure, I'm still playing…

Image Credits:

1. Lost poster

2. Cast of Lost

3. Bad Twin

Please feel free to comment.

TiVoing Childhood

TiVo Set

TiVo Set

This winter, my family celebrated the fifth anniversary of two life-altering additions to our household – the birth of our first child and the purchase of TiVo. The celebration for my daughter turning five was certainly more notable than my casual reflection that we’d been a TiVo family for five years. But I often think about these two transformations as somehow linked, a simultaneous immersion into the chaos of parenthood tempered by the order of time-shifting.

Libraries have been filled on the life-changing impacts of having children, and the transformative potential of TiVo has occupied many column inches as well. But I haven’t read much on the connections between DVR technology and young children, a topic worth some consideration.1 So forgive me as I play into the stereotype of both parents and TiVo-owners – that we can’t talk about anything else! – and reflect on the significance of raising children in a time-shifted household.

For new parents, the power of TiVo is quite apparent. A baby’s schedule is far less regimented and predicable than the networks’, so most new parents are forced to sacrifice their dedication to their favorite shows for the immediate demands of a newborn. There is still plenty of time to watch television, as late-night nursing sessions and hours of baby-rocking welcome the company of a glowing screen, but being able to consistently choose these times becomes a rare luxury. So having a time-shifted menu of your favorite shows awaiting your attention is a parental pacifier.

When the baby grows into a little kid, TiVo’s advantages stretch across the family. We use the TiVo as a self-replenishing library of children’s programming, keeping a steady stream of new episodes of Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, and Higglytown Heroes on demand. So while it may be easier to force a pre-schooler to follow the whims of the television schedule than a newborn, it is still far from ideal. Television’s best uses, both as a child development tool and parenting aid, shine through when you can control both what they watch and when they watch it, not having to choose between a program or a schedule. Personally, my buzzwords for children watching television are “moderation” and “age-appropriate” – goals well-served by the control offered by a DVR. Add the ability to fast-forward through commercials, and it’s hard for me to imagine raising kids without a DVR (assuming you don’t fall prey to the “TV-Free” propaganda).

All of this might just be another in a long line of rhapsodizing paeans to TiVo from a proselytizing early adopter (of technology, not children). But I’ve recently noticed more significant and interesting impacts of TiVo on my children. All of my daughter’s experiences with television have been via a DVR, and thus her entire frame of reference on the medium is shaped by a technology that is still on the fringes of American media – DVRs are only in approximately 7% of television households.

When my daughter asks “what shows are on?”, she is not referring to the TV schedule – rather she means what’s on the TiVo’s menu. For her, the transmission of television via a simultaneous schedule is an entirely foreign concept, even though this has been one of the defining elements of television as a medium for decades. She understands that sometimes certain shows aren’t available, but it’s not tied to a concept of how these programs get transmitted and recorded onto the TiVo.

When faced with the “normal” way to watch TV, she expresses understandable confusion. If I want to watch a football or baseball game in conflict with the normal “time for shows!” in our house – between 5:00-6:00 pm, giving tired parents a chance to cook dinner and chat in relative peace – she doesn’t understand why the timeliness of the game grants it precedence over her menu of programs. For her, all television is part of an ever changing menu of programming to be accessed at our convenience, not a steady stream of broadcasting to be tapped into at someone else’s convenience. (Of course, she also thinks of television as something that grownups study, teach, and write books about, so she might not be representative of most children.)

She also has little concept of channels – if programming is part of a personal menu, what does it matter if it came from Nickelodeon or Disney? She does, however, care a great deal about episode titles, an aspect of programming I don’t think I encountered until well into my twenties – since TiVo offers a title and description of each show it records, she regularly previews what a show will be about before watching it, and judges whether it’s new or an old favorite. Or sometimes she’ll reflect on the vintage of the episode, whether it’s a Steve or Joe Blue’s Clues, a Dora the Explorer with or without Diego. Clearly this is a different mode of consumption then my memories of flipping on the TV to see what cartoons were on.

Recently we had a family meeting to discuss revamping TiVo’s Season Passes for their daily diet of TV. Media literacy proponents talk about making media consumption a conscious and active process–what could be more active than a 5 and 2-year-old discussing whether they’d rather be watching Bob the Builder or Between the Lions? (For the record, Bob won, much to Daddy’s Muppet-philic chagrin.) Even if they’re not the offspring of a media scholar, children in a TiVo household are encouraged to think about what they’re watching and make active choices about their televisual taste and experiences in a way previous generations did not.

Diddy says, \

Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

The absence of scheduling as a significant structuring element will leave some experiential gaps in my children’s televisual growth. As a kid, Saturday morning was an oasis of children-only pleasures, with wall-to-wall cartoons and sugared cereal ads that licensed laziness both for kids and their snoozing parents. Some networks have abandoned this strategy in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine children in a TiVo household embracing such a ritual when cartoons lose their scarcity and may be accessed on demand. Likewise, for me a snow day or being sick meant mornings lying on the couch watching a parade of game shows, since nothing else worth watching was on; if the TiVo is full of age-appropriate favorites, the game shows would quickly lose their appeal.

These gaps are clearly no great loss – I’d rather my kids watch things more appropriate to their ages and interests than just what happens to be on. But it’s easy when thinking about new technologies to focus on either their industrial impacts and strategies, or utopian potentials as part of a digitally converged future. These are certainly important, but we should also consider technology’s impact on the everyday lives of its users, and on the way technologies shape the way we think about those mundane, commonplace practices.

I teach my students that media technologies are shaped by the intersection of technological, institutional, and cultural forces, emerging with unpredictable uses and social impacts. It’s hard to imagine a better way of witnessing how new technologies are culturally consumed and shape our perception than watching a child learn how to use them. My oldest is just learning the ins and outs of the remote control – turning the set off and muting commercials while watching sports live – but it will be interesting to see how she takes control of the TiVo once she can fully operate the menu. I expect she will be navigating the technology quite differently than her parents, who clearly see it as an empowering interface to a more normal way of watching the flow of television. If DVRs become as ubiquitous as many believe they will, how will the TiVo generation view the media? If my household is any indication, television will be transformed, but not necessarily in predictable ways.

Both parenting and TiVo transform a household. Personally, we’ve found satisfaction in both, upgrading our family to three children. Our one TiVo remains an only child, occasionally begging for a sibling to allow it to grow, learn to talk to other devices, and walk about the house a bit. But for now, it awaits further discovery from a generation who will think it so odd that we ever needed to watch television according to someone else’s schedule and flow.

1 See this link for a TiVo user discussion on the topic, and here for a brief consideration from USA Today.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo Set

2. Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

Please feel free to comment below.

An Arresting Development

Franklin and Gob

Franklin and Gob

Alongside the joy of series television’s ongoing weekly offerings of new pleasures, we must also know the sorrow that all good things must end. Thus with the announcement that Fox will not be ordering any more episodes of Arrested Development, the closest to an announcement of cancellation you can get without an explicit death certificate, many of us fans of the Bluths are left mired in denial, anger, bargaining, and depression on the road to acceptance. But can placing blame for ending the short but wonderful life of this sitcom help us grief-ridden viewers cope with Fox’s terminal decree? And is there a glimmer of hope within the story of AD’s demise?

The first hopeful lesson to be learned from AD‘s two-and-a-half season run is how it was even allowed to last as long as it did. Fox has a reputation for having little patience with risky programs that may please critics but don’t generate instant ratings — Profit, Action, The Tick, Firefly, Greg the Bunny, and Wonderfalls all stud Fox’s graveyard of critically-lauded but low-rated shows that didn’t last a full season. Arguably Fox is more willing to bring risky programs to the air than other networks, but they typically expect quick returns on innovations, with Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, and 24 all providing sufficiently-strong initial ratings to allow them to continue for years to come. Fox has virtually no track record of the “slow growth” strategy, nurturing initially ratings-challenged programs like Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond into ratings powerhouses, or patiently allowing critics darlings like Scrubs or Homicide to linger despite lackluster ratings.

So how did AD make it past its low-rated first season — and beyond its almost equally low-rated second season? Certainly Fox recognized that they had a potential slow growth hit, as executives lauded AD as a ground-breaking high-quality show that needed time to build an audience, often comparing it explicitly to Seinfeld in tone and sophistication. Another rationale was more economically motivated — AD is co-produced by Fox Television. Thus News Corporation’s conglomerated umbrella stands to benefit when Fox-produced programs air on the Fox network, even if ratings are low, as they can share in syndication, foreign distribution, and home video deals. Furthermore, the show’s other production company (Imagine Entertainment) has an exclusive deal with Fox Television and produces another Fox hit, 24. Fox network clearly would want to avoid ruffling the feathers of Imagine, especially given that the company’s co-founder Ron Howard serves as AD‘s narrator as well as Executive Producer.

But even though there may some economic, creative, and deal-making incentives to let AD linger in Fox’s schedule as long as possible, commercial television is still dominated by a singular focus on selling audiences to advertisers via the currency of ratings. AD never got ratings sufficient to generate revenues equal to Fox’s investment in the program. Since it’s more costly than a typical sitcom — with a large ensemble cast including well-established actors, single-camera shooting style, and labor-intensive use of multiple sets and extensive editing — it’s difficult for Fox network to justify running the show at a loss. While it’s common to blame networks for shifting programs around in schedules or lacking promotion, it seems that Fox did all it could to buoy AD’s ratings — scheduling the show after long-time hit The Simpsons last year, running episodes after top-rated American Idol, and trying to find a tonal match with Kitchen Confidential this season. Even pulling the show during sweeps months might have been in the program’s best interest — sweeps are when all local affiliates get their ratings measured, and a poor showing by a continuing series might generate outcry among stations. Although it’s fun to lambast a network for mistreating a beloved show, Fox isn’t really to blame for the show’s low ratings, as I believe they did all that they could.

So is it just a case of the majority of viewers lacking taste or intelligence to appreciate this program, as many disgruntled fans and critics suggest? I think AD‘s lack of ratings stems less from viewer practices, but more from issues involved in the ratings system itself. Ratings are seen by many in the industry as the site of viewer democracy, as people vote with their eyeballs what shows they want to watch and what they avoid. But Nielsen ratings are less like voting than like exit polling (and if exit polls were the measure of democracy, hello President Kerry!) — people cannot choose to participate in Nielsen ratings, and Nielsen only measures a miniscule fragment of the television viewing population. Unless you’re in one of the 5,000 households who comprise the bulk of Nielsen’s sample, your viewing habits (along with 99.995% of all other viewers!) simply do not register within the media economy — hardly a participatory democracy.

George Michael

George Michael

Nielsen claims that although small, their sample is sufficiently representative of American viewers to accurately mirror the country’s 110 million television households. But such sampling always contains a significant margin of error — at lower ratings numbers, this margin could easily skew AD’s rank sufficiently to move it past timeslot competitors like 7th Heaven, even though published ratings never acknowledge such statistical variances. Because Nielsen’s sample is quite stable (each Nielsen family serves a two-year term), a sample skewed against or for a particular program would persist week after week with no corrections built into the system. One additional sampling bias acknowledged by Nielsen is that it restricts its measure to household viewing, not semi-public spaces like bars or college lounges, nor new technologies like computer-based viewing.

I believe this limitation is crucial to AD‘s failure in measured ratings. Let me offer a bit of anecdotal qualitative research, with a larger margin of error than Nielsen but still instructive: in the 2004-05 season, I showed an episode of AD to two of my courses to exemplify contemporary media strategies & television’s narrative form. In each course, only one or two students had seen the show before. By the end of the semester, a good half of the students were proselytizing devotees, watching the season one DVDs, downloading episodes, and gathering in lounges each week, while trying to spread the cult of AD to ensure its long-term existence. None of these practices were measured by Nielsen, even if the students were randomly part of the company’s sample. Moreover, the basic questions asked by Nielsen — who is watching what? — doesn’t begin to address the degree to which a viewer cares about a program, is invested in its survival, and feels immersed in a viewing community. While Nielsen might give a fair estimate of how many viewers are watching a show, it’s hard to imagine that According to Jim (which garners at least twice as many ratings points than AD) would inspire devotion and lobbying campaigns, such as sending Fox thousands of bananas in support of the Bluths’ renewal, symbolic of the family’s boardwalk frozen banana stand. If I were an advertiser, I would want to associate my product with a program that provokes passions, not one that offers mild diversions.

So what can we learn from the saga of AD? Critics and fans hope to see a rebirth, with an alternate channel (Showtime being the most cited) picking up the program or a return to Fox as with Family Guy. Others see the opportunity for the program to innovate a new distribution model, using internet downloads, quick DVD turnaround, and viral marketing to bypass network and cable distribution strategies that seem ill-suited for the digital world. Perhaps these may come to fruition, signaling the ability of a quality show with a passionate fan base to move mountains. But for me, the mountain that needs moving is far bigger than Fox — the basic structure of the commercial television industry using ratings as central currency is in crisis in the wake of new technologies and an active participatory youth audience that refuses to watch television solely on networks’ own terms.

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience for AD awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. Can the industry change the terrain of broadcasting by asking not “who’s watching what?” but “how are people watching?” If so, programs like AD are the future of television, with untapped potential sources of revenue available by engaging audiences on their own terms, offering flexible options for fans to buy into their favorite programs. By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see. It may be too soon in television’s technological and industrial shift to see Arrested Development take advantage of the possibilities for new sources of revenue within our favorite programs, but it helps point out where to look — in the immortal words of George O. Bluth, there’s always money in the banana stand.

Image Credits:

1. Franklin and Gob

2. George Michael

Please feel free to comment.

Exchanges of Value

Veronica Mars DVD

Veronica Mars DVD

In my previous two FlowTV columns, I discussed the aesthetic value of television programming; in this column, I’ll turn to a value that is more commonly considered within media studies: the exchange value of TV programs. We all know that in the U.S., and increasingly the entire world, television is a relentlessly commercial system in which the primary goal is profit. So what is a television program actually worth?

I began to reconsider this question over the summer, as I engaged in a different type of exchange with TV programs. As last year’s television season progressed, I began to hear positive buzz about the new program Veronica Mars, both from friends and TV critics, with the tantalizing tag of “the new Buffy.” Alas I hadn’t watched the show from the beginning — it’s on UPN after all! — and one of the show’s reputed strengths was its season-long story arc. So I was faced with a choice: start the show midstream and miss out on the long-term arc, continue in ignorance of a potential TV gem, wait until the show is released on DVD (it just was on October 11), or find another way to access the show.

This other way was through the black market realm of online file swapping — in case you haven’t heard, people use the internet to trade files, often in potential violation of copyright laws. While much of the legal and moralistic hoopla around online file-trading has focused on music and film titles, TV shows enjoy a robust circulation via peer-to-peer software, and provoke a more complicated reflection on what is actually being exchanged and/or “pirated” through these unauthorized swaps.

The most interesting — if you’re a techie interested in networking protocols, if you’re a media exec looking for new distribution strategies, or if you’re a communication theorist — of these file-trading protocols is BitTorrent, a free open-source program that offers a radically different approach to online distribution. Typically if you download a file, the more popular it is, the slower the download — as every download stream competes for finite bandwidth from the originating server. With BitTorrent, every downloader is simultaneously uploading the portions of the file they’ve received to other downloaders, creating a “swarming” cooperative distribution system in which the more popular a file is, the faster it downloads and the less burden is placed on the original “seed” file. Thus unlike typical economic systems in which increased demand results in scarcity of supply, within BitTorrent demand directly creates abundant availability. When cyber-theorists extolled the utopian collaborative model of a decentralized internet, this is close to what they had in mind.

So what does this have to do with television’s exchange value or me wanting to watch Veronica Mars? In May, I downloaded the entire season of Veronica Mars via BitTorrent, and proceeded to binge on the series over a week spent in Los Angeles. (And to briefly return to aesthetic value, it was as good as the hype, so watch the Season 1 DVDs if you haven’t seen the show.) This would certainly be viewed by the industry as an act of copyright violation, as I had no permission from either distributor UPN or producer Warner Brothers to copy the program — although I vigorously and publicly assert my fair use rights as an educator and critic to access and use material for educational purposes.

I do think there’s a reason why we’ve heard little about the television industry pursuing file traders though. The economic model of the TV industry suggests far less lost exchange value than for music or film. First off, there was simply no sanctioned way for me to watch the season from beginning to end starting in May, as UPN’s rerun strategy was non-chronological and the DVDs were not released until after season 2 started (dumb move, as new episodes refer directly to the web of mysteries solved in season 1, thereby spoiling many pleasures for late-adopters). Thus it is not as if me downloading an episode was a choice that circumvented a legitimate way of watching the episode: it was either black market or no market.

Veronica Mars on UPN

Veronica Mars on UPN

If I had been on the ball and started watching Veronica Mars from the beginning on UPN, what value would have been gained by the industry? If it’s not offered on a premium channel like HBO or a pay-per-view system, there is no direct cost incurred by watching a television program. Since I have never been a Nielsen family, my viewing habits do not factor into the elaborate exchange of audiences between networks and advertisers via the currency of ratings. The only way (at least that I know of) that I ever “count” in TV economics is via the aggregate numbers that TiVo sells to the industry on its subscribers viewing habits, and since I’ve already created a Season Pass for Veronica Mars, I’m registered within that fuzzy system. Throughout television history, broadcasters have employed the rhetoric of “free TV” to stave off competition from film, cable, and satellite industries; it is hard to see how this can be spun into an effective argument (rhetorical, not legal) against acquiring “free television” from another “free” source.

I would argue that my black-market binge actually offered more value to the industry than had I followed UPN’s schedule. Since I watch via TiVo, I don’t watch ads via either broadcast or downloaded television, so that’s a wash. Through my marathon viewing, I became a bit fanatic about the program, raving about it to everyone I could and often encouraging friends to watch an episode with me. I sat through the entire series again in midsummer, to hook my wife into the show’s numerous pleasures. And I was inspired to take advantage of my academically-sponsored role as (admittedly marginal) tastemaker, by using the show in future teaching, requesting my college’s library to purchase the DVDs, and of course writing this column.

The protocols of BitTorrent also suggest a different type of exchange value. Since download speed and availability improves with increased demand, the system encourages taste hierarchies through the practice of digital exchange. These hierarchies do not match the rankings offered by Nielsen — as reported in Wired, some of the most popular BitTorrent series also receive high broadcast ratings (like Lost, American Idol, and ), but other shows are far more popular online than on air (like The O.C., Smallville, Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, and The Daily Show). It is not surprising that download popularity also often matches success in the DVD market, as these are programs that offer rewatchability, and that viewers feel sufficiently passionate about to risk lawsuits and navigate technical difficulties. By downloading (and simultaneously uploading) Veronica Mars, I am participating in an exchange that adds value to the program through active consumption.

As Lawrence Lessig convincingly argues in Free Culture, illicit downloading may reduce revenue from those potential consumers who illicitly download rather than purchase content, but it also creates new consumers by enabling them to discover and try new content before purchasing. When applied to television, the question becomes what “purchases” might be lost by downloading television rather than watching it over the air? And might the TV industry look at purchases gained by viewers who discover and sample content online, leading to future viewers and DVD sales (a point Henry Jenkins discusses in his last Flow column)? We’re clearly in the midst of a series of transformations in the television medium and its industrial structures — personally I think the peer-to-peer distribution of programming should be viewed as part of the solution to rather than a cause of broadcast television’s potential demise.

Despite weak ratings, UPN renewed Veronica Mars for this season and Warner released the DVDs (which I’m happy to note has cracked Amazon’s top 20 for DVD purchases!). This was seen mostly as a response to strong critical responses to the show and an active online fan presence building word-of-mouth. Illicit exchange of television is part of this process, whether it’s via the efficient online distribution of BitTorrent or the older but still vibrant tape-trading community. Fans of the show hope that a summer of buzz, including from Buffy guru Joss Whedon and Clerks auteur Kevin Smith (who both seem to have seen the show through endorsed “illicit” advanced promo DVDs), can result in increased official exchange value in the form of higher ratings and strong DVD sales.

Personally, I have “gone legit,” shifting Veronica Mars off my computer and onto my TV (of course through another computer, my TiVo). But by me watching the show via more conventional broadcast methods, I have reduced the exchange value of the program — I count neither as a member of UPN’s commodity audience, nor as an uploader increasing access to other viewers. In a strange twist of logic, the exchange value of my consumption decreases by accessing the show on the industry’s desired terms, suggesting a potentially fatal flaw in today’s broadcast model.


In the brief gap between writing this column and putting it on Flow, Apple announced its Video iPod, clearly answering my question: a TV episode is worth $1.99. Further thoughts to follow.

Image Credits:

1. Veronica Mars DVD

2. Veronica Mars in UPN

Please feel free to comment.

The Value of Lost, Part Two

by: Jason Mittell / Middlebury College

Plane crash

Plane crash

In my previous column on Flow, I argued for the importance of evaluative claims within television scholarship, a position I expected to be contentious among many readers and contributors to this site. Alas, controversy was lodged elsewhere that week, as Aniko Bodroghkozy’s column revisiting the political economy vs. cultural studies debate captured the collective argumentative mindset of Flow (even in meta-debates, politics trumps aesthetics within media studies yet again!).

Still, evaluative criticism seems to be not quite acceptable within most media studies paradigms, as value is assumed to be completely relative and subjective by the majority of academic critics. Thus to offer another way of valuing television, I return to my initial
claim: that Lost is the best show on American broadcast TV. In defending such a claim, I’ll try to suggest how evaluative criticism might proceed: by highlighting the criteria of value the show fulfills, and justifying such criticism within broader contexts of medium and culture.

Ultimately Lost offers an aesthetics of surprise at every turn. For a medium that is nearly defined by its predictability — of schedule, of genre, of narrative form, of character type, and of commercial rationalization —Lost dares to surprise us at nearly every turn. When the pilot debuted in Fall 2004, my own anticipation stemmed from the track record of co-creator J.J. Abrams, who had already given me three years of pure TV pleasure through Alias. He had earned my trust enough to give anything he put his name on a chance.

What I discovered as I began to watch was consistently surprising. The first surprise was the premiere’s depiction of the plane crash — few sequences I’ve seen in my years of television connoisseurship offered such unflinching intensity. My expectations were at once raised and diminished — how could this work as a series? Like many, I approached Lost with frames of reference of other deserted-on-an-island narratives, from Lord of the Flies to Survivor (or if it turned out to be a true disaster, Gilligan’s Island), assuming that the story would focus on the castaways’ struggles to escape from and survive in an isolated world. And if this were the sole thrust of the narrative, it would be disappointing, as nothing could match the intensity of the show’s opening moments.

But as with nearly every element of Lost, first impressions are misleading. The island is not what it seemed at first, just as each character and event turn out to be more than they first appeared. Thus the show’s genre is not what it first appeared to be — this is not television’s attempt at a disaster show (a genre seemingly unsuited for an ongoing situation and storyline). Ultimately the show’s genre still remains uncertain even after an entire season — is it a supernatural thriller, a scientific mystery, a soap opera in the wilderness, or a religious fantasy (or all of the above)? Unlike previously lauded genre mixtures like Twin Peaks or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost refuses to wear its genre references on its sleeve, preferring to allow audiences to speculate on relevant interpretive and aesthetic frameworks, and then confound our expectations through twists and reversals.

Another level of unexpected pleasure comes from the show’s unique storytelling structure. On the face of it, the compelling narrative questions and pleasures would appear to be predicated on the suspense of what will happen to the survivors — will they get off the island or will the “Others” (the island’s mysterious inhabitants) get them first? But the show has created equally compelling narrative enigmas in the back story of each character — what were Kate’s criminal acts and motivations? How did Locke get paralyzed (and acquire his uncanny outdoorsman expertise)? What happened to the previous crash victims decades before? And why were these people brought together on this airplane and then spared in the crash? In probing these mysteries of both the past and future, Lost balances notions of fate and randomness, overdetermined causality with blind chance, a thematic richness that also keeps a rapt audience guessing.

This storytelling scope is carried out in a truly innovative discursive style, with nested flashbacks structured into the routine episodic form. Every episode foregrounds one character’s backstory, interweaving past events with the challenges of life on the island to create parallel narrative threads which resonate in often surprising ways. At its best, Lost offers intricately crafted puzzles which partially reveal themselves each week while adding new complexities and mysteries to the richly drawn characters and the snapshots of their pre-crash lives.

Lost’s level of narrative innovation and complexity follows other programs which tried to create dense webs of paranormal mystery, but eventually collapsed under the weight of their own ambitions and infinitely delayed resolutions, most notably Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Interviews with co-creator Damon Lindelof acknowledge this debt, but also reassure fans that Lost learned the lessons of its ancestry, promising that not only will the show regularly deliver on (at least some) answers to central enigmas while maintaining ongoing suspense, but also that the creators have a master plan for the over-arching narrative — reportedly having mapped out a six year plan, if the Nielsens hold out!

Confidence in the producers’ control of the complex narrative is evidenced in the show itself, as nearly every episode pulls off at least one moment of storytelling bravado that leaves me gasping on the couch. For a show with such a high-budget and elaborate visual style, the most impressive special effects are accomplished within the writing itself — sophisticated and surprising twists, reveals, and structures offer what we might consider storytelling spectacles, a contemporary “television of attractions” that asks viewers to marvel at the sheer bravado of the creators. From the reveal of “the numbers” on the hatch to the finale’s capture of Walt, these moments awe us with the audacious demonstrations of how original and surprising a television show can be.

Cast of Lost

The cast of Lost

An exemplary episode is “Walkabout,” a fan favorite which certainly was the hour that catapulted the program into my personal canon. The episode focuses on John Locke, the island’s resident shaman/safari guide, whose expertise knows no bounds — a role that’s confounded when flashbacks reveal that before the crash, Locke was a cardboard box salesman with a penchant for phone sex. On the island we learn that Locke traveled with a suitcase full of hunting knives and can hunt wild boar; the flashbacks reveal that Locke was bound to a wheelchair and denied a chance to go on an Australian walkabout, the reason he’s on the doomed flight in the South Pacific. The island’s first manifestation of seeming paranormality, the reveal of Locke’s earlier disability and subsequent healing, is breathtaking, visually intricate and heightened by the power of the Terry O’Quinn’s hypnotic performance.

Lost’s dense narrative complexity is coupled with a robust sense of character depth — without the engaging richness of the castaway’s personalities, the twists and suspense would grow tiresome or predictable (see 24), or lack emotional connection beyond the narrative gimmicks (see Desperate Housewives). Each character has a seemingly infinite past, comprising rich backstories that add resonance to island scenarios. In sculpting the castaways’ pasts, the show draws upon a range of generic traditions, including melodrama (Sun & Jin), comedy (Hurley), crime stories (Kate and Sawyer), medical drama (Jack), military drama (Sahid), and family saga (Walt & Michael, Shannon & Boone). This adds to the show’s effect of surprise, as viewers have a wider horizon of expectations to draw upon than any other program, and thus moments that may be somewhat conventional within one genre, such as Sun and Jin’s tearful reconciliation in “Exodus,” resonate as more honest and effective due to their unpredictability and freshness in contrast to the show’s wide ranging tonal palette.

Plus Lost looks and sounds better than anything else on the air, with an eerily effective musical score, bold and beautiful cinematography, and stunning use of the on-location setting of Hawaii. Watching Lost both plays to the strengths of the television medium — serial structure, ongoing narrative and character depth, ritual engagement — and overcomes many of its typical weaknesses — flat visual style, generic predictability, repetitive formulas. We could look at these textual elements with pseudo-objectivity, effacing value judgments for by using coded terms like “richer” and “more nuanced,” but in considering television’s aesthetic practices, we should be honest with what we mean: the show is better than its peers.

By understanding what makes Lost so much better than most television (a success that’s thankfully been borne out by the show’s ratings), we can get a stronger sense of how the medium’s norms typically operate and may be transcended, the range of televisual practices that engage audiences, and the potential for innovation within a traditionally risk-averse industry. Lost’s value is in pointing out both what television at its best can be, and what we television scholars can learn by acknowledging and engaging with the concept of “best.”

Official Lost Site
Unofficial Fansite for Lost

Image Credits:
1. Plane crash
2. The cast of Lost

Please feel free to comment.

The Loss of Value (or the Value of Lost)

by: Jason Mittell / Middlebury College

Thumbs Up and Down

Thumbs up?

Flow offers a valuable space for exploratory writing, falling between the formal precision of traditional publishing and the casual off-hand remarks of an online discussion or blog. This format allows scholars to try out ideas which may not be quite ready for prime time. Likewise, it offers a forum for presenting controversial ideas and generating discussion, building a more collaborative model of scholarly community than typically found in print publishing.

In that spirit, I wish to make a claim that may be the most controversial position as yet argued in Flow‘s brief but vibrant first year:

Lost is the best show on American broadcast television.

Some readers might harrumph at my claim because they disagree. I invite such debate — offer up rationales as to why other programs may be better than Lost, positing the comparative value of Amazing Race, Arrested Development, Alias, or even shows further down the alphabet. I’ll offer my specific arguments for valuing Lost in my August column, as I am reluctant to articulate a position before seeing the season finale (which has yet to air as of this writing).

But the more dramatic disagreement I expect to provoke in this column stems from the assumption that television scholars are not supposed to write such evaluative statements. Somewhere in the short history of our discipline, evaluative claims have been nearly eradicated from scholarly discourse, marginalized to the function of television critics and scholars of questionable merit, noted by their lack of theoretical rigor or overtly celebratory tone. It is not as if we are completely banned from the act of judging in our scholarship — we regularly evaluate television programs on their political merits, their social impact, their economic motives, their effect on the television industry, or even their appeals to popular tastes. But while we may proclaim the various merits or flaws a show might offer on these grounds, it is seemingly off-limit to reflect on whether we think the program is ultimately any good or not.

Or at least not in explicit terms… We dare not acknowledge that we’re writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Star Trek, or The Sopranos because we think these shows are great, but it’s not coincidental that the programs that seem to be most explored within television studies also seem to be the ones that television scholars most enjoy. Why not be honest about it? I’ll out myself here–I wrote about The Simpsons, Soap, and Dragnet in my book at least partly because I love these programs and wanted to immerse myself in studying great television that gives me pleasure.

Television scholars (or at least the circles I run in) value television quite a bit — recently at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in London, I spent a good deal of great times connecting with old comrades via discussions about our televisual tastes. Over hearty pints of bitters, we debated the comparative values of various seasons of Alias, the questionable merits of 24, and the generic pleasures of reality TV. These discussions might start with an observation of personal taste, but we quickly slipped into arguments about value, quality, and aesthetics, concepts that only appear in our scholarly writing as discourses, protected by the conceptual prophylactics of “quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas.’

Yet if we look deeper at our assumptions and foundations, are our own values of aesthetics and taste any more contingent than our political beliefs? Cultural scholars learn from Pierre Bourdieu and his followers to reject aesthetics as nothing more than a manifestation of class privilege, but don’t we find a way around this strict constructivism for political judgments? We can argue for or against textual representations of gender, race, or nationhood as grounded not in absolute transhistorical universals, but via our contingent and contextualized notions of justice and equality. Can’t we do the same for aesthetics, recognizing that while taste is not universal, it is more than egalitarian personal opinion?

Media studies, as growing out of the model of cultural studies, eschews the elitist impulse that has marked academic analyses of popular culture, from Matthew Arnold to Theodor Adorno and beyond. But is it any less “elitist” to impose ones political values via interpretive criticism (which is commonplace in TV studies) than offering aesthetic judgments via evaluative criticism (which is not)? In both instances, we assert a level of expertise that elevates the argumentative force of such evaluations, not necessarily based on appeals to absolute universals or rarified tastes, but hopefully via clearly laid out contextualized criteria, detailed close analyses, and both rational and emotional appeals.

After reading Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, my students are usually swayed by her claims about the ambivalent gender politics of Charlie’s Angels — not because she’s intrinsically “right” but because she makes a good case. But after screening an episode, my students always comment about how “bad” the show is, with simplistic narratives, lack of suspense, wooden acting, and bland visual style. Per the unstated boundaries of media scholarship, the only acceptable responses are “well, we’re all entitled to our opinions,” or “what cultural hierarchies are you endorsing by valuing suspense, complex writing and acting, or visual vibrancy?”

But value is neither simply opinion nor just social oppression. Those of us who teach or engage in media production know these pitfalls well, as any form of creativity might be seen as having equal merit in the eyes of the young producer bucking for a good grade and/or personal validation. But creative choices are not all created equal, as we regularly teach our media production students to justify their formal choices and place them within a context of established norms and conventions. No choice is inherently better or worse on its own, but they must be justified (implicitly or explicitly) in the context of broader creative practices. Can we apply the same rationale to the act of consumption and criticism?

I believe we can, and a few voices in cultural studies are asking similar questions. Most notably, Simon Frith’s Performing Rites is a vital call for the value of evaluation in cultural scholarship of music — alas Frith’s approach has not been widely adopted within cultural studies since its publication almost a decade ago. When it has, like in Michael Bérubé’s recent collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, television is not on the agenda as an object of evaluation (although Bérubé does tackle televisual evaluation on his fabulous blog) — perhaps a residue of the still prevalent devaluation of TV as a medium. The only exception I’m aware of within contemporary television studies is Charlotte Brunsdon, who regularly asks us to consider “quality” not just as a discursive construct, but also as something that matters and warrants discussion.

Why has television studies been arguably more lacking in evaluative scholarship than other media? Partly it’s a matter of academic history — as other popular forms like films or novels became integrated into the academy, they entered into an evaluative tradition through analytical modes like authorship and formalist criticism. Even as these methods were supplanted with other critical modes, the tradition of evaluation shapes film studies enough that nearly every class focuses on “quality” examples of the issues addressed, whether it be national cinemas or gender representations. How many of us who teach television studies acknowledge that one worthwhile goal of teaching media is cultivating appreciation, exposing students to examples that expand their horizons and tastes? (Again, I’ll out myself — I regularly show students television that I think is great, with the partial purpose of cultivating their tastes for shows like Alias, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, and Homicide.)

Another reason for television studies’ disengagement with evaluation stems from a comparative thinness within the realm of popular critical analysis of television, with few sites of sophisticated evaluative critique as compared to the numerous publications and practices dedicated to evaluating film and popular music. Aside from the rare television critic whose voice rises past the space next to the TV listings in local papers, like Ken Tucker, Heather Havrilesky, or David Bianculli, the only long-standing influential model of evaluation that has been regularly applied to television is the outright dismissal common to Frankfurt School critique, mass communications research, and Postman-style medium theory. With little tradition of sympathetic evaluation to build upon, television scholars have yielded this terrain to journalists looking to move up the critical ladder and academics skeptical of the medium as a whole (although arguably online TV criticism is starting to fill this void). Thus film, literature, and music scholars can turn away from evaluative critique while still maintaining its place within the larger constellation of each discipline, but if television scholars don’t add evaluation to the mix of our writings on the medium, then there is little space for a positive assertion of the possibilities of the medium which I, for one, value.

The importance of asserting evaluation has been driven home to me recently in discussions surrounding the publication of Steven Johnson’s account of the cognitive value of popular culture, Everything Bad is Good For You. Johnson has been roundly critiqued in a range of sites, from Postman-ite hang-wringing on various blogs like StayFree! to Flow‘s own Allison McCracken questioning the cultural assumptions underlying Johnson’s claims. In all of these critiques, it seems that it is still viewed as suspect for an intellectual (especially on the left) to assert the positive value of television. While certainly I’m not suggesting that television scholars should neglect the cultural, institutional, political, and social questions that tend to motivate our teaching and research, we need to open the big tent of television studies to allow for aesthetically engaged evaluative arguments about the medium and its programming, positing the creative legitimacy of television which is seemingly forever under attack.

In August, I’ll attempt to model such analysis, arguing for the value of Lost (after I’ve spent sufficient time enjoying and reflecting on its powerful first season). In the meantime, I welcome your comments, debates… and evaluations.

Works Cited:
Michael Bérubé, Editor. The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies. Blackwell Books, 2005.
Charlotte Brunsdon. Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes. Routledge, 1997.
Simon Frith. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard UP, 1996.

An Unofficial Lost Fansite
I Like To Watch
Michael Berube
Television Without Pity – We Watch So You Don’t Have To
Wanderlist – Favorite Television Shows

Image Credits:
1. Thumbs up?

Please feel free to comment.