Celebrating Television’s Spotty Memory

John W. Jordan / UW-Milwaukee

Writers Guild strike

Avid TV watcher that I am, the Writers Guild strike had a definite and lasting impact on my viewing habits, but not quite in the way I anticipated. As someone who spends a good part of his days pounding away on a keyboard, I felt a sympathy with the striking writers and wished to be supportive, but I also need my entertainments. Unsure of how long the strike would go on, I savored each remaining episode of my favorite series, while also preparing myself for the long, lonely winter with a laundry-list of DVR options. In my optimistic way, I was looking forward to using the time to get into a some new shows or even just tune out for a bit.

But my plans for expanding my televisual mind did not really develop. When it came down to my actual viewing habits, the writers’ strike ended up being neither too disruptive nor too inspiring. The strike seemingly drew a line right down the middle of my program schedule, revealing to me that a surprising number of shows were immune to the writers’ strike, leaving me with plenty to watch of my usual fare: all my animated shows, sports shows, and plenty of news. When The Daily Show and The Colbert Report came back on during the strike, although in plainly watered-down fashion (oh! How I missed “The Word”!), they were enough to get me through into late-night. The real crunch came in prime-time, where I typically have at least a couple shows per night that compete for my attention. But even here, I felt more of a slow-down in viewing than absence. As some of my favorite scripted shows started to fade out, old favorites – like Lost and The Wire – came back on. I’d already forgotten about 24 and Battlestar Galactica, so seeing a few other shows come and go didn’t really phase me. Indeed, throughout the entire writers’ strike, I only discovered one new show – the amazingly seductive Dexter (thanks in part to the fascinating discussion of the show found here in Flow).

Dexter

All this is to say that, despite my initial apprehension about the writers’ strike, not a lot changed for me and my TV. Consequently, my feelings about the prospect of all these shows returning to the air is a bit, well, ambivalent. As the networks have begun announcing return dates for shows that have been off-air since the early days of the strike – including some of my favorites, like The Office and 30 Rock – I find it curious how television is treating the issue of these shows’ absence. The first time the networks really seemed to have acknowledged the fact that these shows have been gone has been in their celebratory announcement of their return. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to frame this in terms of how their absence is being erased by the networks through the irony of celebrating their return. A non-acknowledged hole has now been filled, apparently to everyone’s rejoicing. The memory of the strike is overcome by the nostalgia of our return to pre-strike television. I know I watch a lot of TV, but that makes my head hurt.

While each of the major networks are promoting the prime-time return of their most popular pre-strike shows, I have been struck particularly by NBC’s ads. Their announcements come in the form of self-congratulatory montages of clips from their prime-time shows, set to the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song and replete with slow-motion, black and white behind-the-scenes footage to let us know how real this really is. The ads acknowledge that the shows have been off air only by asking us to celebrate their return. But there is no specific mention of what event has ended such that we can “welcome back” these shows. There is no mention of a strike, or a hiatus, or even the offer of an apology; there is simply a non-discussed absence that we are assured is now over, and that we’re welcome. The ads are nostalgic in the literal sense, creating a sense of a returning to home; familiar characters returning to their familiar place within the plastic frame of television. And I have no problem in acknowledging their overall effectiveness; I’m excited about new episodes of these series. My issue is that I find they situate me as a viewer in a problematic ahistoricity that is more than just a little condescending and hostile.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sts3rD4FMB8) [/youtube]

NBC “Welcome Back” promos

I can’t help but note that the absence of the shows and the silence of the strike are both implied but not addressed in these celebratory self-advertisements, and find it odd that they spend so much time drawing attention to themselves without talking about the occasion itself. This gap in the narrative raises too many questions for me to sit comfortably in my recliner, and I’m left to wonder how television would like me to fill in this enthymematic blank. Am I to view the strike as a long vacation from which everyone is returning? Should I see these messages as a reconciliation between management and labor, thereby reassuring me that it is okay to watch these shows? Or perhaps I should be a bit more selfish, and see these ads in a more insulting light, asking me to congratulate the return of something whose absence was not my fault to begin with. Should I dwell on the arrogance of such ads, which imply that these shows are far more important to viewers than viewers are to the shows? After all, I was watching all along, and I don’t remember TV celebrating me for my loyalty. It was TV that went on strike, not the viewers.

But the question that emerges at the center of these others is, how will television write its own history of the writers’ strike? From what I’ve observed thus far, the history is spotty at best. Dave and Conan have shaved off their beards, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had single-episode celebrations of their writers, and Tina Fey used portions of her February 23, 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live to bring up the strike and its resolution. Various news programs ran stories on the end of the strike, and host Jon Stewart, during the lowest rated Oscars telecast in history, both congratulated and mocked Hollywood for celebrating the end of a labor impasse of its own creation. All points on a map that have yet to be connected. Print journalism has done far more to discuss the strike and its aftermath, making television’s own amnesia about its history all the more glaring.

Tina Fey addresses the writers’ strike

Perhaps the point to be made is how bad television is at marking absence, particularly compared with how amazing television is at marking self-congratulation. When it comes to creating nostalgia, television has virtually no media parallel. What other medium has as many shows dedicated to clips of its shows, out-takes of those shows, and shows about people reminiscing about those shows? But these are all ways in which television deals with its own tangible presence. When there is an absence, television seems incapable of addressing this circumstance. It isn’t so much that television needs to offer a mea culpa to audiences or have “very special episodes” of their shows that deal with the strike, but to cause a celebration without reason takes one step too far in the other direction.

But perhaps this was the studio’s plan all along. I certainly don’t mean there was a conspiracy to create a false decline and then increase in viewerships. Rather, television’s approach to the end of the writers’ strike indicates clearly the attitude that they perceive entertainment as a phenomenon to be more important than the visibility of any particular show, and certainly more important than a sense of viewer demand. In that scenario, the NBC ads are further ironic, ostensibly celebrating the return of something that was never truly absent in the first place, creating a sense of anticipation when one was not needed. After all, if others are like me, and are viewing these announcement ads, the TVs are already on and we’re already watching, just as many of us did during the strike. In that sense, perhaps it is foolish of me to raise questions about how TV marked the period of the writers’ strike as, from this vantage point, there was never a strike because there was never a period without TV.

But the television studios, networks, and other media agencies run a risk in trying to gloss over the writer’s strike. They are on the verge of repeating their own history, whether they acknowledge it or not. Rumors are already circulating about an actors’ strike that could come about this summer, further jeopardizing the smooth return to form that the current crop of ads promise viewers. How willing will viewers be to welcome back shows a second time, and will the networks be able to erase a second strike? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for viewers to go on strike for a bit just to remind Hollywood that we’re worth paying attention to. If I’ve made it this far without my favorite shows and not much of a disruption, then I’m sure another strike won’t matter much more to me. But if I finally do get around to turning off the TV and finding other entertainments – much likelier during a summer strike than a winter one – I don’t think TV will be able to gloss over its own absence as easily. For these reasons, I think TV would be served well by acknowledging its own recent history, instead of pretending that nothing bad ever happens inside the box. More importantly, I hope the networks can find time to remember the viewers and to treat us with a little more dignity and grace. I’d find that worth celebrating.

Image Credits:

1. Writers Guild strike.

2. Dexter.

3. NBC “Welcome Back” promos.

4. Tina Fey addresses the writers’ strike.

Please feel free to comment.




The Anachronism of Television Subscription Packages

Recent events in the television industry warrant reconsideration of the ways by which television channels come into our homes, and what options we as media consumers have in choosing which television channels we can and want to see. Many Americans get television content through subscription packages, available from cable or satellite service providers, which allow for more options and content than what is available over the public airwaves. This subscription-versus-free content distinction is nothing new. Other media incorporate technologies and models that split between free and subscription services, and we may even consider WiFi hotspots in a similar context. But it is the manner in which subscription television is made available to consumers that is under discussion at the present moment. Most specifically, I’m interested in the ways consumer choices over TV selections, and the public discourse these choices have generated, reveal television subscription providers’ antiquated attitudes toward media production and availability in contemporary society.

What makes this issue particularly compelling is that television is practically a national institution, and receives the kind of public, governmental, and commercial attention afforded such status. The upcoming conversion in 2009 from analog to digital broadcasting has prompted cable companies, legislatures, and other media advisory groups to work hard to help consumers keep their televisual lifestyles, including spending $200 million in consumer education and establishing a $1.5 billion Congressional subsidy for converter box upgrades (Van Wyk & Johnson, 2007). Nothing of this sort was offered to satellite radio or to help most households make the switch from dial-up to broadband Internet services. Such assistance speaks not only to the type of content available through television (e.g., public service announcements and local news) but also its apparent inextricability from Americans’ media ideology. But such measures only deal with making sure Americans with televisions have access to the basic set of channels. At a different point on the spectrum, much concern is being expressed over the kinds of television choices paying cable customers have available to them, and why these choices are not more accommodating.

Cable Channels made available en masse

Cable Channels made available en masse

The basic fact is that television subscription services are not accommodating to an individual customer’s desires. A person cannot contact their subscription provider, tell them the channels they want, and then ask for a rate that covers only those channels. Most television channels are not offered as solitary subscription selections. Moreover, one cannot “swap” television channels from one package to another. This inability to customize content selection fails to recognize and stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing attitudes in contemporary media – namely, that we are living in an era when consumers feel entitled to content selectability. True, this may be an unearned sense of entitlement, but it is present nonetheless and supported by other media outlets. When I rent a movie from my video store, I do not have to rent three other videos along with it as a “package.” Nor do I have to subscribe to the New York Times in order to get a subscription to my local newspaper. In order to get CNN on my television, however, I must subscribe to a package that contains many other channels I may not want, and leaves out a few channels I wish I had. Compared with these other media outlets, packaging TV channels seems increasingly anachronistic. Perhaps no other venue demonstrates this disconnect better than the network websites for many of these channels, which offer many of their programs online for free and on demand, demonstrating to cable providers that such selectability is possible in this modern media age. We can readily observe the widening disjuncture between consumers who desire selective, on demand content, and television subscription services which favor instead the idea of offering amalgamated television.

This lack of flexibility has become the object of pointed ridicule in a recent ad for the NFL Network, in which the denizens of a diner challenge a cable company employee’s statement that cable companies “can’t charge people for channels they don’t want,” suggesting that the reason why the NFL Network is not carried by more subscription services is because there is not a market for it. To the obvious discomfort of the cable employee, the other diner customers then list the number of channels they have to pay for, but do not want, as part of their subscription packages. The gist of the commercial – which encourages viewers to join a campaign to get television providers to offer the NFL Network – is that cable companies arrogantly assume that they know the television wants of consumers better than the consumers themselves. What gives the commercial its bite is an underlying ideology that the consumer’s idiosyncratic demands should always be met.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsB6sGhK434[/youtube]

NFL Network commercial

Indeed, this ideology has allowed specific antagonisms to develop, demonstrated in the rhetoric of the NFL Network which claims that cable companies are “abusing [their] power” and “holding fans hostage” by not accommodating their television wants (“www.iwantmynflnetwork.com”). After the NFL decided to allow the season-ender between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, originally scheduled to air only on the NFL Network, to be simultaneously broadcast on NBC and CBS, the move was hailed as a victory for fans, who watched in record numbers (“34.5 Million Watch,” 2007). When fans do not have to negotiate the maze of cable subscription packages, television proves it can still draw in appreciative viewers who want what TV provides best. But the positive resolution of this story should not overshadow the fact that fans were caught in the middle of television’s anti-choice mindset, and that this was noticed and commented on as a failure on the part of TV content providers. As one report explained regarding the broadcast, “The NFL had claimed that the onus of making the game widely available fell on the major cable providers with which the league has bitterly feuded. Other cable companies such as Comcast and Time Warner have declined to carry the network as part of basic packages” (“NFL to Simulcast,” 2007). While it may be overly-dramatic to claim, as the NFL Network does, that such feuding holds viewers “hostage,” what becomes clear from these comments is that the television subscription mechanism for delivering content to viewers is not simply antiquated, but in danger of collapsing on itself. The squabbling between subscription providers and entities like the NFL even has been noticed by members of Congress, who recently issued a not-so-veiled warning to the NFL and cable providers that consumers’ abilities to get the media content they want via television will be closely protected (“Senators Threaten NFL,” 2007).

Campaign mounted by NFL Network

Campaign mounted by NFL Network

What these comments speak to is a feeling about how far removed television has become from the current trends in consumer media. Television shows can be found on iTunes, video rental stores, and networks’ own websites not long after they air, but cable companies recognize no such preference for individual selectability. This stance has thrown many of the cable companies’ own words into a contradictory light. Companies like Bresnan Communications, a subscription cable provider, claim “It’s personal” as their corporate slogan, but require customers to subscribe to packages that would be hard to justify as satisfying the personal desires of individual cable customers. Other cable companies like DirectTV and Time Warner air commercials for themselves explaining how their service offers more choice over their competitors’, but both require their customers to subscribe to packages. The “choice” being offered is simply over who provides the packages, but the packages themselves are strikingly similar and non-negotiable for individual consumers. If television viewers are not able to use that medium to gain access to the content they want when they want it, then the medium itself can only continue to make itself an increasingly irrelevant part of that viewer’s media lifestyle. One recent survey by IBM, for example, indicates that younger generations are trending away from television time in favor of other media time, predominantly the Internet (“IBM Consumer Survey,” 2007). Without a justification for such obstinacy on the part of the cable companies, one could not blame viewers for abandoning television for other venues more accommodating to their media desires and whims.

TV on iTunes

TV on iTunes

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note a positive aspect of the current situation – not so much in terms of economic advantages to cable companies, but of how the subscription package mechanism provides at least one distinct advantage for consumers. Having more channels than one may want occasionally may mean that someone will serendipitously come across a program that will benefit them in unpredictable ways. This is the situation discussed in part by Cass Sunstein (2001), who noted that consumers who expose themselves only to media content based on their current ideologies are in a worse position as citizens than those who are forced to encounter a wider variety of perspectives, even those not of their own choosing (pp. 8-9, 153). A diversity of opinion, even if encountered reluctantly, is better than a homogeneity of opinion. This argument may apply equally well to other media. While iTunes consumers complain about some albums whose tracks are not individually purchasable, all music consumers likely can relate to the opposite and enjoyable experience of coming across a music track on an album that they would never have heard but for having to purchase the entire album. But these encounters are more about luck than intent. Put differently, these happy incidents of culture come about not because media producers encourage consumers to broaden their horizons, but because consumers are forced into having to opt for more than they want.

A more satisfying and attentive model of television production, distribution, and consumption would provide desirable opportunities for media consumers to be exposed to and consider a diversity of media offerings without feeling like it was something they were forced in to. Other media outlets are doing this, while subscription television continues to insist that its mode of providing content is neither negotiable nor in need of reconsideration. How long television can thrive under such circumstances remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the competition from other media sources is gaining – and quickly. Looking at the anachronism of television subscription packages suggests that the fate of television’s cultural relevancy in the modern media age has much to do with how it is made available to consumers, as much if not more so than what is actually broadcast.

Image Credits:
1. Cable Channels made available en masse
2. Campaign mounted by NFL Network
3. TV on iTunes

Works Cited

34.5 million watch Patriots’ historic win. (2007, December 30). MSNBC.com. Retrieved December 31, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22443488/

IBM Consumer Survey Shows Decline of TV as Primary Media Device. (2007, August 22). Retrieved January 3, 2008, from the WWW:
http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/22206.wss

NFL to simulcast Pats-Giants on NBC, CBS. (2007, December 26). MSNBC.com. Retrieved December 31, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22400789/

Senators threaten NFL over NFL Network. (2007, December 19). MSNBC.com. Retrieved December 31, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22331857/

Sunstein, Cass. (2001). republic.com. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Van Wyk, R., and Johnson, A. (2007, December 31). Better TV is coming, but are you ready for it? MSNBC.com. Retrieved December 31, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22401907/

Please feel free to comment.




Sports Commentary and the Problem of Television Knowledge

John Frankenheimer’s 1998 film, Ronin, contains a truly sublime moment that illustrates the raw power of athleticism as an audio/visual spectacle. In one narratively insignificant scene, the camera follows a figure skater, played by former Olympic champion Katarina Witt, as she rehearses her routine. Rachmaninoff plays over the empty stadium’s speakers as Witt gracefully strides and leaps across the ice. Audible above the music are the more jarring sounds of her skates grinding into the ice as she gathers energy for her next maneuver. The scene becomes a study in contrasts, and the cumulative effect is enthralling; the violent noise of Witt’s skates belying the smooth grace of her movements, the sights and sounds of an exceptional athlete engaged in the perfection of her sport.

Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998)

I have watched, but never really been a fan of, figure skating on television, and was surprised by my attraction to this scene. What made it so compelling compared to its television counterpart, I later realized, was the conspicuous absence of the omnipresent sports commentators. Their overly-enthusiastic discourse on lutzes and Biellmanns, and their pontifications about how a particular jump was “sending a message” to the other competitors, drowned out the beauty of the skating with a flood of technical jargon. The film allowed me to experience the skater on her own terms while television insisted that I engage skating on the commentators’ terms. Obviously, sports commentary is not limited to figure skating; all televised sports exhibit similar tendencies for over-discussion. For example, no quarterback can complete a pass without the audience being told what kind of a pass it was by a former quarterback-turned-commentator who then analogizes the play to on from his own playing past. Watching sports on television is less about observing the athletic spectacle of graceful competition than it is witnessing the construction of a televisual compendium of sports knowledge for which the game is merely the backdrop.

Given the ubiquity of sports commentary on television, there must be some perceived purpose behind it. But what might that purpose be? More importantly, what does it say about television sports audiences and the regard in which they are held by television networks that no sporting activity can be conveyed to the public without commentary? Why are television audiences not allowed to experience televised sports with only the natural sounds of the event? Inquiring about the role of commentating in televised sports engages how television creates knowledge and situates audiences with respect to sports. What we find is that television sports commentary turns sports from a visceral spectacle into a technical oration, and for no discernible benefit.

The most generous view of television sports commentary suggests that its purpose is to provide otherwise inaccessible information to viewers in a timely manner so as to enhance their viewing experience. And commentary can and does fulfill this function. With research staff on hand and their own well of experience, television commentators can draw out those interesting bits of history and trivia that, at the right moment in a game, can both inform and entertain their audiences with explanations of obscure rulings or contextualizations of significant plays. But commentators are not held in reserve off-camera until this information is needed, they are thrust into the foreground and seemingly required to speak even when there isn’t really much to say. They are the vanguard of the over-verbalizing forces of modern television. But information dissemination is not the same as conveying understanding, and it is the difference between those two that generates the knowledge problematic for television.

Any quality assessment of information is subjective, but one needn’t be a cynic to question the instructional value of much of the sports commentary on television. John Madden’s teleprompter circles around and discussion of the sweat stains of defensive linemen may be amusing, but certainly stretch the consideration of what counts as sports commentary. Similarly, tennis commentator Mary Carillo’s extended stories about Roger Federer’s attendance at a New York fashion show, with which she regaled audiences during play at this year’s U.S. Open, certainly make it fair to question the information value of such details over more pertinent information about the actual play on the court. Even those who applaud these digressions admit that the commentators are known more for their personalities than for their ability to provide quality information to audiences (e.g., Maffei, 2006). But I’m not describing only those instances when commentary moves from the trivial to the tangential; too much substantive information can also distract the viewer by asking them to give more attention to the commentator than to what is being commented on.

Mary Carillo at the mic

For those “in the know,” technical jargon indeed may be neither impenetrable nor detrimental to their viewing enjoyment, much in the same way that casual fans may appreciate Madden’s and Carillo’s meanderings through sensibility. But television is not a democratic but a tyrannical medium – we can only observe what it gives us. When the commentary is present, we must all accept it or mute it; there can be no in-between. The coverage interpellates the viewer as someone needing this data in order to enjoy the sporting event. Familiarity is rewarded, but not knowledge – the latter is claimed as the medium’s province. The audience is positioned as not being knowledgeable enough about the sport to enjoy it on its own terms or with only minimal informational assistance. Consequently, the commentary is a rhetoric of entertainment more than instruction. The unfortunate consequence of this assumption is that commentators believe that any factoid or story they convey – no matter its relation to what is taking place on the field of play – is of interest to the home viewer. Audiences have few means available for escaping or challenging their position in this dynamic. The forceful manner of the medium seldom creates an opportunity for audiences to assess this claim independent of the commentary and its self-established justification.

On a very few occasions, however, a different perspective has been available, and is helpful for situating sports commentary within the politics of the audience’s relationship to television. On December 20, 1980, NBC experimented with an “announcerless” broadcast of an NFL game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. Viewers at home heard only the natural sounds of the game, similar to what the fans in the stadium heard that night. The game earned respectable ratings, but the format was not continued because network executives considered it a “one-time gimmick” (Rubinstein, 2000). A quarter of a century later, following a media lockout by the Canadian Football League, several weeks worth of announcerless games were broadcast to fans, and their ratings were dramatically higher than games which featured commentary (“King Kaufman’s,” 2005). Fans, it would seem, are both capable of and willing to experience sports on television without the informational assistance of commentators or their anecdotes, and while these instances may be too few to support the claim that viewers prefer announcerless broadcasts, they do warrant additional thought along these lines.

Announcer John Madden (right) in heated discussion

If any event on television could be broadcast without worrying about the audience’s ability to understand and appreciate what they are seeing, relying on the audience’s existing level of familiarity with the concept, it certainly would be a sports event. And yet, sports are the most heavily commented events on television, to the point where it is not uncommon for there to be more commentators for an event than there are actual competitors on the field. If the explanation for this circumstance is that the audience need educating, then there are significant issues both with the quality of this education and the manner in which it is provided. Sports commentary on television, in its current form, is not simply too often distracting and trivial, its self-insistence is detrimental to fans’ ability to experience the events they have tuned in to watch. The technical knowledge hurled at television sports audiences shifts them from a position of being able to appreciate the athlete’s skills at the visceral level to a position where technical understanding is rewarded. Sports commentary as such is television’s vestigial organ, the unnecessary remnant that points out how the medium has not completely evolved into the modern media sphere. With the Internet in particular, the mythos of the uninformed audience is challenged. This is not to say that Internet audiences are smarter or better educated about the sports that they are watching, merely that they have access to a wealth of information and are far less reliant on commentators to provide it to them, as countless fan and media sites across the Web demonstrate. The realization needed here by networks is that, when it comes to sports, television is a medium of stimulation much more than it is a medium of information. Perhaps it would be best if television sports coverage were reshaped as a medium of appreciation, where the visceral impact of sport is conveyed more cleanly and directly. In the current media age, commentating is the province of audiences eager to make their own voices heard, not to simply listen to intermediaries who drift increasingly into shouting outrages in an attempt to garner attention and justify their airtime. Television should handle the transmission of the natural sites and sounds of the games and the commentary should be left to the fans to discover and generate for themselves.

References

King Kaufman’s sports daily. (2005, August 31). Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW: http://www.salon.com/news/sports/col/kaufman/2005/08/31/wednesday/

Maffei, John. (2006, June 22). These voices don’t mince words. North County Times. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from the WWW: http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2006/06/23/sports/maffei/22_00_516_22_06.txt

Rubinstein, Julian. (2000, September 3). Monday night football’s hail Mary. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW: http://www.julianrubinstein.com/football.html

Image Credits:
Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998).
Mary Carillo at the mic.
Announcer John Madden in heated discussion.

Please feel free to comment.