How Can We Tell the Future
Jonathan Gray / University of Wisconsin – Madison

The Future

The Ever-Lurking Future

To first ask about television’s future, it would seem to make sense to know about its present: where is the medium at the beginning of 2014, where are we in relationship to it, what’s it doing, what are we doing, what is the industry doing, and what might this tell us about trends to expect for the future? And here’s where I hit a sticking point, since ultimately I don’t think we have a very good sense of where television is. Thus, as a waypoint to discussing possible futures, I’d first like to discuss the mechanisms and tools we use to work out where the medium is.

Here, I’m haunted by the unflattering image that Todd Gitlin presents in Inside Prime Time of television execs making major decisions based on wonky Nielsen numbers when it’s convenient, or on what their teenage children or partners think is cool when that conveniences them. Timothy Havens has noted the prevalence of “industry lore,” whereby all sorts of “knowledge” about what works and what doesn’t is created with as much evidence as exists for that story that somebody’s cousin told a guy you know about the ghost that appears in your rear view mirror on Fill-in-the-Blank Highway. I’m haunted by this (the prevalence of lore, not the ghost) because I wonder how we in academia are any different. We allow the experiences of a couple of classes of undergrads to stand in for “the way it is,” or else we fall back on the impressive-sounding numbers that the industry throws our way through promotional venues.

Let’s focus this on something we all “know” to be happening: the crisis of distribution. Nielsen tells us that less people are watching television on the television set according to the schedule offered by the networks. We know from our students that people are watching online, on mobile devices, sometimes streaming content legally, often doing it illegally. But what’s caught between these two sources of information, the scant anecdotal discussion of television’s informal economy, and the numbers that businesses want to share with us for the formal economy? After all, neither site of knowledge is especially representative. On one hand, Nielsen and the ad economy it represents largely cares only about 18-49 year olds (in a rapidly aging nation), it cares more about young white male viewers, it cares more about the middle classes, and it’s admitted that it under-samples people of color for its viewing sample. On the other hand, many of our undergrad classes skew young, middle class, white, and – since a large amount of television studies that is shared far and wide is American – American. So when we consult our regular, easy sources for information – undergrads and industry data or reports – we’re seeing very little of what’s actually happening more broadly.


Knowledge Coming Together

We really can’t say what television’s future will be until we know what its present is. If one sees my wagging finger as I write this, though, it’s not a self-aggrandizing one: I can’t pretend to know any better, or to have done much more, to work out what’s going on. I’m also being polemical, and in the process I risk underplaying the wonderful work that some scholars are indeed doing to provide other sources of knowledge. I apologize to them for my clumsy, sweeping rhetorical gesture.

But the challenge for all television scholars, is to make better sense of all that’s happening. How?

Part of the answer lies in more ethnography. Audience studies in the critical/cultural tradition enjoyed a boom in the 80s and 90s, but has nowhere near the same following now. Rephrased, television underwent a series of major industrial shifts at the end of the 90s, and we don’t have enough ethnography to make sense of the ensuing environment. Thus, I feel that I understand the politics of the 80s living/sitting room better than I understand the location of television viewing today. A lot of that work in the 80s was locked into making a rhetorical point (about audience “activity”), too, and thus is limited in scope. Fan studies kept the audience studies banner alive, but fans can’t stand in for all audiences.

Part of the answer lies in taking control of the stats. There’s this funny thing that media and cultural studies academics do, wherein we excoriate positivism and quantitative work, yet regularly fall back on others’ numbers when it’s convenient. Almost all of us believe in numbers deep down. Maybe we could use them more and with less self-hatred (or hypocrisy) if we created some ourselves. For instance, I would love to know more about viewing clusters, by which I mean what sorts of things people who watch Show X also watch, and whether patterns exist. I’d also love to see a qualitative weighting of the Nielsen ratings that tells me not only how many (estimated) people watched a show, but how many people really liked what they were watching (is there vanilla TV that few love but many watch, for instance? I sense there is, but it’s just a sense). I’d love to see attempts to chart viewership across various platforms, and attempts that don’t stop at the borders of the legal. Or, speaking of borders, I’d love to see numbers that aren’t always already national, and that reflect attempts to make sense of transnational currents. Instead of waiting for the scraps that are thrown our way from the Nielsen or industry table, let’s make our own numbers.


The TV Audience

Part of the answer, on a slightly more upbeat note, is already happening, as more and more work is examining production cultures. Versus the political economy approach that all too often relied on balance books and shareholder reports, cultural studies scholars have been stepping up efforts to get to trade conferences and conventions, get to the sites of industry, and to examine how decisions are being made, how creativity is conceived and practiced, how labor is managed and used, and so forth. Reports from Variety and Broadcasting and Cable will always be helpful, but they’re still only what some in the industry have decided to share, and the current surge in production cultures research promises to ask its own questions.

Okay, so that was the upbeat paragraph, but I’ll now return to pessimism by noting that all of the above three answers require more funding, or creative ways around funding. Ethnography takes time and resources, especially if it has an international or transnational component. Making good numbers costs money. Production research costs money. Where that money will come from when the Humanities at large are bleeding is a mystery to me. The way forward, therefore, won’t be easy, and it will require a lot of work. Such as it ever was.

The rewards for getting it right could be considerable, however. They will be to actually understand the future of television. Rhetorics of the future are often accompanied by pervasive exclusion, as we focus inordinately on “early adopters” and on the tech savvy, resource rich. It’s easy to be swept up by grand visions of future nirvanas: the industry says that X will happen and is now possible, so we envision a world of X; an undergrad excites us by saying that she does Y, and so we get carried away and see a future of Y. It’s no harder to be swept up by dystopian visions, whereby this or that stat, this or that practice of our students, is projected on a grand scale onto a dark, forbidding future. But if we’re going to guess at the future, let’s do it in as informed a way as possible, by seeing where we are, and by developing and using more, new, and existing tools to map out television’s present.

Image Credits:
1. The Ever-Lurking Future
2. Knowledge Coming Together
3. The TV Audience

Please feel free to comment.

Mommy, Is That a Boy Text or a Girl Text?

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

A Gendered Ad

A Gendered Ad

How does a text become a boy or a girl? The supplying or withholding of Y chromosomes is not a key task of a show-runner, nor is it the power granted to a network by winning in the Nielsens; therefore, how is it that television shows so quickly become known as “guy’s shows” or “chick flicks?” In this column, I want to argue for the significant role of promotional materials and surrounding paratexts in giving us virtual ultrasound scans, telling us gender before a text is even born, so that, to carry the metaphor further, by the time the text arrives, many have already ordered the blue or pink wallpaper, and readied their vocabulary for talking about the text.

To say this is not to deny that texts aren’t at times gendered beyond the promotional, paratextual material–-given the long history of certain genres attracting much of their audience from one gender, television shows will often be quite prominently gendered. Thus, for instance, Gilmore Girls is about a mother and daughter relationship, focusing on their respective romances and talk, hence gendering it female in terms of generic history. 24, by contrast, is about a guy who needs to kill, torture, run a lot, cause explosions, and scream very loudly, all on a tight timeline, hence gendering it male in terms of generic history. And let me be clear from the outset that individual viewers can of course read a text against gender, but as I will explain later, even that act often requires the assistance of paratexts to “re-gender” (or to queer) the text.

Case in point regarding promotional materials, though: Six Degrees. If you’ve seen it, forget that you have for a moment. And join me as we go back in time to New York City in August 2006, before it was released. ABC plastered numerous subways with provocative ads that hovered above one’s head, saying things like “The man by the door will someday be your boss” or “The girl across the aisle is flirting with you” (see image below). While an ad lower down in the subway car explained the connection to a new show from ABC, a car-full of people (as is normal for New York) would obscure the ad for most. Instead, the higher-up ads offered a web address: At the website, more oblique references to fated connection appeared (see opening photo) before it asked six questions so that it could help one “find a connection.” Questions answered, eventually the site suggested a personality likeness to one of the primary six cast members, then advertised the show with a clip.

An ad for Six Degrees

An ad for Six Degrees

This campaign, I would suggest, gendered Six Degrees female. The ads’ references to fated connection in New York City alluded to a mainstay of the romantic comedy genre – namely, serendipity in Manhattan (think Sleepless in Seattle, Kate and Leopold, When Harry Met Sally, and Serendipity), while they simultaneously drew from the rhetoric used to sell online dating sites (of which “” certainly sounded like one) to busy urban women. The questions on the website were written in classic Cosmopolitan questionnaire-speak, such as, “Who Are You? I am my work; I am the sum of my experience; I am my future; or I am my contribution.” And the promise to link one to a character referenced the Sex in the City “I’m ….” craze (see image below), thereby promising to grab that show’s baton and run away with it as the show for sexy, urban, chic young women, and suggesting that Six Degrees would similarly place its thumb directly on the lived experience of such women. Thus, the advertising heavily referenced “female” genres and texts – the romcom, Cosmo, Sex in the City.

An ad for Sex and the City

An ad for Sex and the City

Equally important, very little about the ads called to straight men. The attractive female cast, for instance, was muted in the ads, ghosted behind the ads’ lettering, but looking more like happy customers from a dating company than lures for male viewers or even male customers (compare to the below ad from Lavalife, also prominent in the New York subway). And though the lower-down (ie: often hidden by people) ad mentioned producer J. J. Abrams, the mastermind behind the very guy-friendly Lost and Alias, nothing more was made of his role. Television ads that mentioned Abrams alluded more directly to his past Felicity, thereby once more hailing female would-be viewers.

An ad for Lavalife

An ad for Lavalife

When it finally hit the air, Six Degrees struck me as a little confused as to what it was or what it wanted to be in general, and not just at the level of gender. But it certainly did not seem unequivocally “female,” making me wonder why the ads tried so hard to gender it as such. For my purposes here, though, what it is, was, or could’ve been is beside the point. Rather, I propose that with its promotional materials ABC made the show “female” before it was released.

Yet it is by no means alone. Recent subways ads for Showtime’s The Tudors similarly hailed a female or gay male viewer. Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks seductively at the camera, while the wording and posing of the ads allude almost exclusively to romantic intrigue, with little more than the presence of King Henry VIII’s sword to suggest any action (though, of course, in Freudian terms, a man with a big sword represents much more than action), and little to suggest political maneuvering. Perhaps, though, Showtime felt the need to insist upon The Tudors’ female-friendliness, given their earlier success in framing the show as Rome-with-more-wives, and given Rome’s prevalent male gender coding.

So go the ads pre-release, but we might also consider the role of promotional, paratextual material in determining gender after release too. Here, the seminal example is Star Wars’ army of toys, all for boys (see below). The old FAO Schwarz in Manhattan required one to walk through a corridor of G. I. Joes before arriving at the Star Wars action figure section, fully decked out with blue and black, and showing battle-scenes all around. On the face of it, Star Trek would seem no more or less male or female, even though its female fan following is well known – if anything, the slightly effeminate Luke Skywalker and the bold Princess Leia may have been expected to rope in more women than Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. But Star Trek never had a male-focused marketing blitz as did Star Wars.

A Star Wars Toy Ad

A Star Wars Toy Ad

Of course, what Star Trek did have–as all cultural studies scholars know–is slash fiction writers, who made Kirk and Spock lovers (see below), therein showing how paratextual gendering, queering, and–dare I say–Butlerian performances of gender, can become embedded in paratexts. At the textual frontier of the paratext, audience members can and occasionally do resist a text’s apparent “sex.”

A scene from Star Trek

A scene from Star Trek

To return to the metaphor with which I began this column, as this column hits FLOW, we’re now at the end of the first trimester of the upcoming Fall season’s pregnancy; and thus the ultrasound scan will soon start to become more decisive: summer ads will be starting soon, telling us whether new texts are boys or girls. Yet just as I find it somewhat depressing when soon-to-be parents run out to buy the Tonka trucks and Thor’s Hammer or Barbies and Little Princess’ Tea Set, it will also be somewhat depressing to see paratexts and promotional material similarly gender the new shows before they’re born.

Please, I welcome comments.

Image Credits

1. Screenshot from

2. Personal photo taken by author.

3. Image from

4. Image from

6. Image from

Hate, Dislike, Disgust, Distemper, and Distaste

Kill the TV

Killing the TV

One day at University of California, Berkeley, as I rushed into a 250-student lecture class, I was hailed by a student in the front row. Normally, I liked to wait until after the class for questions, but she looked so very concerned, so I asked what was up. Pen and paper in hand, ready and eager to take notes on my answer, she asked me, completely seriously, “Professor, why do you hate Celine Dion?”

Why do we hate or dislike what we hate or dislike? How do we explain it? And what does it mean?

Media and cultural studies have done a fine job of offering numerous explanations of why one might love Celine Dion, but we’ve hardly started to explore the meanings and workings of textual dislike, disgust, and distemper. Hence, if Random Person A sends flowers to a soap character or owns a Boba Fett outfit, my office bookcases are full of smart work ready to analyze what it means, but the bookcases are less capable if Random Person A sends hate mail to a program, campaigns for its end, or simply grabs the remote and changes the channel anytime it is on.

This is all the more bizarre because anti-fandom (by which I mean active dislike of a text, personality, or genre) is as common a response to any given media entity as is fandom. For all those who think Bono is Christ, there are those who think him the Anti-Christ; for all those who watch The OC eagerly, there are those proud of their avoidance of the show; and so on. Yet anti-fandom has not received its due attention as a viable viewing/consuming position. Indeed, if media effects and “couch potato” discourse is still so common, this is in part because we (the field, and society) seem much more keen to discuss people who turn on the media (and how, why, etc.), rather than those who turn it off (and how, why, etc.). Ron Lembo (2000) writes of our need to study “the turn to television,” but what of “the turn (away) from television.”

Learning from Fan Studies

As the study of the anti-fan’s apparent foil, fan studies might offer us the initial way forward. After all, it has taught us two key lessons that we might apply to textual hatred or dislike:

(1) fans can’t always be trusted to know fully why they like what they like (see, for instance, the superb psychology-meets-critical theory approach of Matt Hills (2002), Cornel Sandvoss (2005), and Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby (1996)); and

(2) fans experience a different text than do others: they read more of it, add texts and paratexts to the mix, and have a greater familiarity, hence changing the very shape and meaning of the text (see Henry Jenkins (1992), Will Brooker (2002), or the above).

So it would seem to be the case with anti-fans.

Anti-Fan Mantras

Texts exist on various levels: a rational-realistic level (do I believe this? does it make sense?), a moral level (do I approve of its morals?), a political level (how do I react to its politics?), and an aesthetic level (is it artful or beautiful?), to name some key ones. However, just as many of us tend to “defend” our favorite texts on levels that truthfully don’t mean much to us, so too do we tend to “damn” texts that we dislike for reasons not totally related to why we dislike them. The rational-realistic level is a particular unlucky bystander in both situations, as a viewer’s statements regarding a show’s “realism” or lack thereof quite often serve as little more than an indicator of fandom or anti-fandom on a deeper, more complex level (because, to a degree, any show can be called “realistic” or “unrealistic” and defended as such). So, if you hate the show, calling it unrealistic sounds reasonable, but may mean very little, just as if you love it, and call it realistic, this may mean very little.

Matt Hills (2002) also notes that fan cultures develop defensive “mantras,” used to explain why a show is good or not. These mantras may or may not accurately reflect a fan’s feelings, but they do the job of deflecting questions or ridicule. So too do anti-fans develop mantras. If we come armed with theoretically rich accounts of fan psychology and sociality, we are better equipped to see through such mantras, or to contextualize them. But it is time that, Bourdieu and others in hand, we attempt to more systematically understand anti-fandom and its own mantras.

The Crash Controversy

The Crash Controversy

Anti-Fan Textuality

Some pioneering work here has been conducted by Martin Barker, Jane Arthurs, and Ramaswami Harindranath on their book The Crash Controversy (2001), which explores viewer reactions to David Cronenberg’s Crash. Barker et al. observe how most of the leaders of the drive to have the film removed from English cinemas had not actually watched the film. Thus, on the other end of the textual spectrum from fans, who often avidly consume huge portions of the text and its accompanying paratexts, are often anti-fans, who may only have read reviews, heard a friend’s one-sentence description (“a film about people who get turned on by car crashes”), or been told by a trusted opinion leader that it’s bad. In cases such as this, not having seen a text by no means precludes one from “decoding” it, even to the point of caring so deeply about one’s decoding that one will write letters to politicians or march in the streets about it.

Moreover, as Barker et al. also show, such anti-fan accounts can have such a strong impact on the text that they impose a set and limited frame through which all viewers will watch. In the case of Cronenberg’s Crash, public outrage over its “filthy” and “dangerous” messages made it hard for most of Barker et al.’s audiences to view “innocently” without such a frame (even if they actively rejected it). As I have written in previous columns, spoilers, previews, intro sequences, and the like all have remarkable powers to frame our viewings, and so too does anti-fan commentary.

Thus, by not looking at anti-fandom, we may have been missing many of the meanings, powers, effects, and intricate patterns of identification that audiences have been constructing. People can often define themselves just as strongly by what they dislike as by what they like; indeed, some viewers care much more about their televisual dislikes than likes. Hence the path to understanding how texts are situated in the daily lives of citizens and consumers would require spending considerable time in the land of anti-fandom, and we may have been missing a lot of what the media does and means by concentrating so intently on fans or casual viewers. (Which is not to criticize fan studies as much as it is to call for anti-fan studies).

Academic Anti-Fans

As an extension of anti-fan studies, we might come to better terms with our own pedagogical and research practice. After all, much of television studies’ output could be seen as an elaborate and sophisticated declaration of dislike. Whole books have been written on why such-and-such a program is bad, and whole careers have progressed because of long resumes full of examinations of the ills of television. Pedagogically too, many television studies academics see it as their sworn task to teach students away from the many nasties on television, and to open their eyes to all that is wrong with the box. Certainly, I too spend parts of my writing and teaching doing as much. Anti-fandom and academia are intimately connected, in other words.

But as I have been arguing, a proper study of anti-fandom would often reveal some deep-seated reasons for hate or dislike beyond what anti-fans themselves intuit. So let me ask provocatively, why don’t researchers/teachers who actively dislike a program state this outright, in the same spirit of honesty with which many fan researchers “confess” their fandom? Not only could this allow readers the chance to explore possible alternate reasons for the anti-fandom than the ones provided (though I suspect such devious readings take place confidentially with fellow colleagues/students), but it might also let us know the researcher’s/teacher’s relative distance from the text.

So why do I dislike Celine Dion? I usually say it’s because she perpetuates and sells a culture of junk romance that belittles women in the guise of “honoring” their feelings. But mantra aside, and truth be told, there are many singers who do this, so why dislike her in particular? A more honest answer would probably state that my anti-fandom works as a marker of national identity. Canadians always seem American to everyone else, or when they have remnants of a British private school in their accent, as do I, they sound like Brits to many Americans. But other than at hockey games, how often does one get to declare Canadianness? With Celine Dion, quite often, as she was (less so now, though) quite often in the news or on the radio. A violent reaction to and rejection of her allows a statement of Canadianness, since it usually begins, “Las Vegas can have her: she’s our gift to America” (emphasis added). Conveniently, too, by disavowing a famous Canadian, rather than proudly claiming her, I can craft a statement of seemingly non-nationalistic nationalism (often Canadians’ preferred form of nationalism). A proper psychologist might even dig further to find a Western Canadian’s aggression and resentment of French Canadian political power in there at some level. Thus, as bad as her music is, and as putrid as her lyrics are, Celine Dion is largely an image and an icon for me, one that a good ethnographer would hopefully coax out of me.

I bring up the specter of our own personal dislikes not to campaign for researchers to fill their work with apologia and self-psychoanalysis, but rather to point out that our practice is informed by more than just erstwhile academic research agendas. Some have questioned the degree of scholarship in fan-scholars, but so too could we play this game with questioning the degree of scholarship in anti-fan-scholar. We are all fans of some things, and we are all anti-fans of other things. As such, there is important work to be done in exploring the anti-fan side of media consumption. This work will illuminate our practice of research and pedagogy as a bonus, but the ultimate prize lies in filling in a vast area of the general map of media consumption.

Image Credits:

1. Kill the TV

2. The Crash Controversy


Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs, and Ramaswami Harindranath. The Crash Controversy. New York: Wallflower, 2001.

Brooker, Will. Using the Force. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Harrington, C. Lee, and Denise Bielby. Soap Fans. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lembo, Ron. Thinking Through Television. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Sandvoss, Cornel (2005) Fans, New York: Polity.

Please feel free to comment.

Is New News Better Than No News?

Cast of The Sopranos on Rolling Stone

Cast of The Sopranos on Rolling Stone

Few people seem optimistic about the state of American television journalism today. Indeed, that phrase, “the state of television journalism today,” is usually preceded by either “sorry,” “pathetic,” or some equally destructive adjective. Opinions abound regarding how and why TV journalism is clinically depressed. So many opinions, in fact, that I feel justified in my laziness at not citing them: surely, anyone reading this has either read or written such eulogies at some point. Of particular concern, though, are those occasional studies, frequently borne out by war stories from the classroom, that suggest an ever-decreasing percentage of young people care about and watch TV news.

In the face of this gloomy picture, it might be helpful to examine what TV is doing about this. An easy and accurate answer is “not enough.” But of late, I've become something of a “new news” junky, taste-testing some of the new news formats that are popping up. The following is my picaresque journey through a few.

But first, if it is a journey, why leave home? Much network and cable news these days, let's face it, is astoundingly boring. Yes, we should be watching it, and yes, it shouldn't just be about entertainment. But still, as television has matured stylistically to the grand displays of image and sound one can see in CSI, House, or The Sopranos, and to developing, involving narratives as found in Lost or 24, network news and many pundit shows look remarkably stale: talking heads and more talking head (and heads that to the average youth must look like grandpa or one's best friend's mom wearing too much makeup). White upper-class males predominate, they all appear to belong to the same golf club wherever it is that New Yorkers or DCers tee off (as best illustrated by the chummy chats on pundit shows), and, as detailed in a rare qualitative audience study of news viewers by Justin Lewis (1986), few of them know how to tell a decent story (ie: don't begin with the ending), and they tend to tell their stories too quickly in a coded language. Yes, we should be good citizens and look through the boredom, and yes, many problems other than TV news are behind the American art of apathy, but some of the blame lies at the feet of a genre that in real terms has continually resisted TV evolution since the fifties.

Enter Fox News. Odious for its shifty redefinition of objectivity, as Shanti Kumar recently pointed out in an excellent Flow column, Fox is nevertheless one of the few profitable news outlets on American television today. We should resist its line that this merely reflects a conservative American reaction to “the liberal media,” especially since the combined ratings of the supposedly liberal media handily trump Fox's. Rather, they have taken the task of appealing to other viewers (by which I mean viewers who are not members of the same NYC/DC golf club) seriously. They have also, of course, gone way overboard, leaving several basic tenets of journalism behind, instead preferring shows with lots of yelling and angry people. As any Hollywood mogul will tell you, conflict sells. But when actual reporting is discounted to sell the ensuing mostly insular mediaworld stories (“Why NBC is lying to you, and why they hate America”), it is indeed a pity that people are buying. Nevertheless, Fox represents an important first step in the journey into new news, partly because its success suggests a need and a desire for something new in the world of news, and partly because it acts as the Scylla and Charybdis around which our Odyssean voyage must steer clear.

The Colbert Report on Comedy Central

The Colbert Report on Comedy Central

Next, we reach Comedy Central, with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Both are, to my own tastes, brilliant parody, and not only play with the news, but demand constant reflection on what news actually is. Their status as comedy programs can be over-stressed to the point of unfairly erasing their importance as at times the last bastions of a public record and memory in news-related discourse: when a politician directly contradicts their words of a year ago, nine times out of ten it is The Daily Show that captures it, the networks news' own archival staff clearly asleep and ineffectual. But The Daily Show in particular has received its fair due in terms of Flow columnist attention, and overall, these two shows' refreshing and powerful mix of entertainment and news frequently can cause new news analysts to languor over them (justifiably), stuck in the land of the lotus-eaters instead of exploring the rest of the genre.

Moving on, then, one of my favorites is Countdown with Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC. An hour-long program, Countdown lies somewhere between The Daily Show and “regular” news. Olbermann erratically bounces back and forth between garbage news items (or, as he tends to call them, “stories my producer makes me do”), and serious, impassioned reporting. Olbermann's goofiness, much like Stewart's, can be disarming, and it is no small part of his appeal, as he mimics Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, introduces a segment with voiceover by Stewie Griffin from Family Guy, or plays around with computer graphics. But behind his quips is a principled, often savvy angle on major news stories. Olbermann sees the humor in stories, but knows when to stop joking, and subsequently, his interviews tend to be significantly deeper and more incisive than most of his network and news cable colleagues. Whereas many observers worry about The Daily Show's or Colbert's truncation of stories, Olbermann gives them due time. And yet something about his sports reporter background, mixed with his pop culture references, and his wicked sense of irony allows the news to be interesting and appealing, while it is also revelatory. Moreover, as anyone who saw his correction of Bill O'Reilly's Malmedy blunder knows, his jovial nature gives way to a brutal attack when need be.

From a sportscaster-turned-pundit to a now ESPN-ified pundit, next is MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson. Carlson has modeled his new show off of ESPN's popular Pardon the Interruptio, with the list of topics to be debated piled up in the bottom left of the screen, rotating as does the discussion. Topics come and go at speed, and each is debated by Carlson and a guest (often a sportscaster). The format makes for a snappy news program, but loses the point: the news isn't failing because it's slow, it's failing because it's already too fast, and because it's not making itself presentable or meaningful enough. While ninety seconds of debate may be all that the New York Rangers' post-season woes deserve, Darfur surely needs something more than a charade of debating-for-the-heck-of-it coverage. The format works for sports because it is fast, as is much sports speculation, but it seems too irreverent and off-the-cuff for the news, hence likely to inspire a similarly off-the-cuff approach to dealing with and thinking about the news. And, of course, every time Carlson wears his bow-tie, his youth appeal must surely drop another hundred fathoms.

Current TV logo

Current TV logo

Finally, chronically under-watched, but a boldly innovative channel, is Current TV. Launched to great conservative fear, due to Al Gore's participation, Current is now hiding out in the upper climes of channel 103 on my cable provider. It has no programs per se, only segments (“pods”) of about 3-10 minutes. Many of these are filmed by young people (the target demographic), many are international, and the channel encourages the submission of what they call VC2 (viewer created content). All of its reporters are young, and their news pods are surrounded by music, animation, and pop culture pods. In an age of channel-flipping, it is designed with exactly that in mind, and so requires no great time investment. News pods might examine gasoline smuggling in Iraq, transsexuality in Iran, or gang violence in Haiti. The channel doesn't so much specialize in breaking news as in the stories and lives of young people in news zones; as such, it isn't direct news on offer, but it fills in some human and background elements so poorly missing from many news stories.

Just as The Daily Show can color around a news event by offering new structures of thinking about that event, Current gives a small sense of history and context. Set up with the explicit goal of informing and educating youth, and making them better global citizens, Current offers some unique and intriguing resources to the average American youth. Admittedly a Google product placement lovefest, the channel at least tries to speak the language of news to youth, and leaves the golf club memberships, the yelling, and the bow-ties at home. Best of all, they tell good stories with “real people” at the center, and thus offer ample (empathetic) motivation to go online afterwards, in search of more information. If a key problem with much traditional news is that it grandiosely promises to tell viewers all they need to know, only to fail, Current employs what we could call a “metonymic approach,” offering small bites in the hopes that viewers/tasters will want more.

Like most picaresque tales, this one has a pretty lousy (ie: no) conclusion; but also in picaresque fashion, it leaves itself wide open to sequels. So please, in addition to comment, I would love to hear of other “new news.”

Justin Lewis (1986) “Decoding Television News” in Phillip Drummond and Richard Paterson (eds) Television in Transition, London: BFI, pp. 205-34.

Image Credits:

1. Cast of the Sopranos

2. The Colbert Report

3. Current TV logo

Introducing Television

The Simpsons

The Simpsons

A brilliant literature professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, William New, taught me that the first three pages of a good novel tend to encapsulate all the major themes of that novel, setting the tone and preparing the reader for the storyworld ahead. So too with television programs and their intro sequences.

Whether it’s The Who’s scream that kicks off CSI: Miami with a bang, the ultra hip Sopranos theme playing as we see the Lincoln Tunnel through Tony’s eyes, the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? meets Mission Impossible opening of The Amazing Race, or any other number of intro sequences, these short little visual poems are frequently masterfully created. Most intro sequences must, after all, establish the narrative world into which we are entering; they must introduce us to the cast, frequently explaining their interrelationships; and their music and images establish the cyclical nature of the televisual product, reassuring us with their familiarity. Indeed, it is one of the great tricks of Lost that there is no intro sequence, and no theme song, just a cheaply done Microsoft Word Text Art title, as creators Abrams and Lindelof seem to taunt the viewer with their unwillingness to give us answers, to genre, plot, or character.

Consider Showtime’s Huff: a rather odd piece of music plays in the background, swaying back and forth, just as the camera itself moves erratically amongst many framed boxes, each containing action or stills from main character Huff’s life. Occasionally, the music samples a snippet of decontextualized dialogue — “You are so beautiful,” or “You’re supposed to be thinking about what I’m feeling here,” for instance. Main characters can be caught sight of in the boxes, but only briefly. It is hard to explain in words, but the sequence powerfully communicates that we are in the character’s mind — scenes move at different speeds, and we are clearly seeing everything through the individual perspective. Its surreal quality also invites interpretation and analysis, much as a patient in therapy might, as the show implores us to piece together all these random elements. In effect, the sequence maps out the mind and its many odd interconnected thoughts, hence setting the tone for a program about the mind, sanity, and wellness. Meanwhile, the music gently lulls viewers into the program’s own frame, transporting us from the world around the television set to the world inside it.

Cast of Huff

The cast of Huff on Showtime

Gerard Genette wrote of paratexts as serving an “airlock” function, acclimatizing readers to the world of the text, and the intro sequence is the paratext par excellence for acclimatization. We might even wonder if the networks’ fairly recent move towards delaying the intro sequence is more about teasing the viewer by withholding the beloved “airlock” than it is about opening in media res. Of course, channel-surfers often miss the sequence, but for a program’s regular viewers, there is a ritual of viewing, and the intro has come to play a large role in that ritual, not just an airlock therefore, but akin to saying grace before dinner, singing the anthem before a sports game, or playing music before the bride enters the wedding chapel. And as with these last two examples, the music is often a central part of the ritual, the ultimate in familiarity that immediately connects the moment across time and space to the last time we heard and saw the sequence, enacting (dare I say, lest this paragraph collapse under the weight of too many metaphors) a homecoming, or what Will Brooker, following Roger Aden, might call a step in a symbolic pilgrimage.

But ritual isn’t just about familiarity: ritual controls action. Therefore, intro sequences also represent a frequently impressive attempt by producers to situate and contextualize their text before delivering it. The intro sequence aims to discipline the audience’s viewing, and it poses “proper,” “official” meanings and structures of viewing. Thus, for instance, we could examine the intro sequences of three shows with large casts, to see how they manage the density of characterization and relationship in play:

1) ER gives fleeting attention to its cast, only for credit purposes, instead painting them all as generic doctors, with the ever-present heartbeat-like music in the background. The sequence suggests the primacy of the setting — a hospital — and of the work — saving lives — snd hence already cues us in to the revolving door of cast members that has characterized the show.

2) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by contrast, wins the Most Shots Per Minute prize, offering a cruise ship buffet of character-establishing shots for each cast member (shots that changed from season to season, no less), to rapid and excited guitar music. By the end of its forty-five second-or-so run, the sequence has laid out a considerable map of who is related to whom, and how, announcing that the show is not only about butt-kicking, but also quintessentially about relationships.

Bart Simpson

Bart Simpson

3) Finally, The Simpsons’ intro sequence privileges the family in its little School/Work’s Over vignette, but plasters the streets of Springfield with many other characters, quickly sailing by Bart’s skateboard or the parents’ cars; this, and the changing blackboard lines and couch gags from week to week tell us from early on that this is a show centered on a post-work, post-obligation family, but also a show that will reward attention: the beauty will be in the details, and in the background’s fine print.

Intro sequences might seem peripheral, but popularly, they are at the center of many networks of nostalgia and cultural memory. Witness, for instance, how half of New York City, so it seems, has a Sex and the City ringtone; or just try whistling one bar of The Andy Griffith Show without someone recognizing it immediately (yes, even teenagers). Derek Kompare’s impressive book, Rerun Nation, examines American television’s and American viewers’ love affair with reruns, but many of us don’t even need the visuals to renew the romance: a simple riff or two of the theme song is clearly enough to stand in for the whole. And with the theme song only part of the intro sequence, what we have is a synecdoche of a synecdoche of a program. But a synecdoche of considerable power, therefore. The intro sequence offers a primer to a program, but then takes on its secondary and lasting role as ritual gatekeeper and greeter, not only to the narrative and characters within, but to the entire narrative universe.

Aden, R. (1999) Popular Stories and Promised Lands, Alabama: University of Alabama Press.

Brooker, W. (forthcoming) “A Sort of Homecoming: Fan Viewing and Symbolic Pilgrimage,” in J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, & C. L. Harrington (eds), Fan Audiences, New York: NYU Press.

Genette, G. (1997) Paratexts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kompare, D. (2004) Rerun Nation, New York: Rotuledge.

Image Credits:

1. The Simpsons

2. Cast of Huff

3. Bart Simpson

Please feel free to comment.

Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.

Speculation with Spoilers

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

Ana Lucia

Lost‘s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
(on TV, 11/23/05; online 11/01/05)

As a result of the research conducted for this column, I now have super powers. I can see into the future of television, telling you who will win The Amazing Race, what will happen in January on Lost, and how Arrested Development plans to leave Fox in a blaze of self-reflexive glory. (I promise, though, not to divulge details).

In my last column, I wrote of the previews and hype about shows circulated by the television industry, discussing how we interact with programs before even watching them due to these industry-designed pre-texts. However, it’s not just Hollywood who gets to play this game, as viewers too are releasing information gleaned from leaks from cast or crew; reports from the set by passersby, fan pilgrimages, and sleuthing trips; and sheer textual detective work. This is the world of the “spoiler.”

Many fansites on the Internet have sections for spoilers. Usually carefully cordoned off with threats such as “Spoiler Warning!!!! Do NOT go further if you do not want to know what happens,” these areas grandiosely announce their Pandora’s Box nature. Meanwhile, standard etiquette dictates that outside of these sections, all spoilers must be gratuitously labeled, followed by numerous blank lines, so that the eye cannot betray its owner by glancing down the screen, hence “spoiling” the narrative to come. Indeed, there appears something very pornographic about spoilers, and such rules and etiquette show the degree to which they are similarly seen as holding significant power to corrupt on mere contact and the degree to which many consumers are still guiltily smitten by and drawn to spoilers.

Spoilers may not ultimately attract as many online viewers as does pornography, but spoiler discussion forms a major portion of many popular fan sites. Television Without Pity’s Lost board hosts a spoiler thread (from which I get my title) with, at last count, 316 pages of text; TWoP’s Amazing Race board has a 300-page spoiler thread; while other sites, such as Lost-TV, have literally thousands of posts and boast hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Certain programs attract more spoilers, notably, those that thrive on keeping their readers in the dark, such as Lost, Veronica Mars, and competition reality shows, but even sitcoms and quiz shows have their spoilers.

Part of the appeal behind the consumption and production of spoilers would seem to be play with the narrative delivery system. To put it simply, this system posits an Author who knows, and a group of readers who don’t. Those who hate being spoilt are quite often those who are happy with this relationship; but clearly the system irks the spoilt. Spoiling is all about knowing. To some spoilers, the experience would seem akin to the pleasures felt by video game players who find cheat codes that allow them, for instance, unlimited ammunition. Video games can be devilishly hard, their puzzles irritatingly addictive, and cheat codes allow early gratification, and a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing how to solve the problem. Similarly, spoilers offer a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing what will happen next, what the Hanso Foundation is, or who wins next week’s leg of the race. To know what happens is a small victory, and a pat on the back.

As the size of some spoiler sites suggests, there is clearly a huge social element to this knowing too. Rather than exploring the text alone, thumbing it on all sides for the secret latch, spoiler sites allow what Henry Jenkins, following, Levy, calls “collective knowledge” (2002). Moreover, cultural capital can be earned or lost by knowing more or less, whether online, or in the smug contentment of the living room. As such, this need to know is both collaborative and competitive.

Beyond analyzing their appeals, though, I am fascinated by what spoilers tell us about the individual’s or group’s interaction with the text. After all, spoilers effectively allow viewers to read, decode, and interpret a text before it’s even got to them. Spoilt viewers can experience a text’s effects before broadcast, and can also, therefore, profoundly muddle up the phenomenology of the text, especially a well-written serial text. Good writers often “trick” their audiences, calling on us to react in one way, then adding new information that changes the ground rules. Spoilt viewers, though, can immunize themselves to such strategies.

Meanwhile, there is also the case of the false spoiler. For example, last year, a poster by the name of Old Scooter Dude began leaking information about Lost‘s season finale at Lost‘s spoiler board. Old Scooter Dude became something of a cult figure for a while, with some posters even speculating as to whether he was Lost star Jorge Garcia. But come season finale, he was proven a sham (resulting in his immediate expulsion, per community rules, from the board). Pre-excommunication, though, Old Man Scooter managed to throw the narrative off significantly for his (truly) spoilt subjects: using his bogus facts, they decoded all manner of events, characters, and themes in the lead up to the fateful revelation, only to have these all thrown into disarray. Instead of being episodes ahead, then, they were episodes behind.

Or in another instance at the same site, it was revealed what the show’s mysterious “French Lady,” Rousseau, was on the island to study. By all accounts, the spoiler came from an actually shot scene, and thus was completely legit — but the scene was then cut, with no subsequent allusion to the research. How is the spoilt viewer to make sense of this? Does this mean simply that writers Abrams and Lindelof decided to withhold that information for the time being, or does it mean that they changed their minds? Clearly, such examples show how spoilers can confuse the viewer. But they also show how the text has truly moved beyond its textual body, existing across all sorts of media. John Fiske called such intertexts “secondary textuality” (1989), while Will Brooker (2001) dubs them “overflow,” and although both terms are helpful, spoilers such as this offer something quite primary, and would seem to start the flow as much as they continue it. This one cut scene potentially answers many of the island’s, and hence the show’s, mysteries, allowing us not only to go back and make sense of past episodes, but to make significant sense of episodes-to-come.

Spoilers, therefore, also suggest something not only about our capacities to interact with and interpret texts before we actually receive them, but also about the significant pleasures in doing so. Much work into textual pleasure (logically enough) focuses on pleasures during or after the encounter, but the pleasures of anticipation, and pre-decoding can prove themselves just as strong to many. Certainly, reading through spoiler sites, it is hard not to conclude that many spoilt fans enjoy the experience of the text at the level of the spoiler significantly more than they claim to enjoy it when it is actually on the television in front of them.

Personally, I prefer not to be spoilt. But (and frustratingly so), many of those close to me love to be spoilt. And it is sometimes odd, therefore, to watch an episode with such creatures. While I am entranced by the narrative, waiting to see what’s next, they are either watching me for their enjoyment, or searching the text for other things: for character complexity, for cinematography, for minutiae. Much the same way that a repeat viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons allows that layered reading, spoilt viewers can make end-runs, so as to experience those aspects of the text in the first reading, while covering the narrative in the pre-reading.

Perhaps it is ultimately fittingly ironic that with the industry saturating everyday life with hype and overflow, many viewers are interacting as (or more) meaningfully with rumors of the text as with the text itself.

Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence and Television Overflow,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, 456-72.

Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry (2002). “Interactive Viewers,” In Dan Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: BFI.

Image Credits:

1. Lost’s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed


Please feel free to comment.

The August Audience

The axed Invasion

The axed Invasion

With September behind us, American television is once more culling its young, as the least successful of the Fall 2005 class of new programs are sent to the chopping block to appease Madison Avenue. For all the advertising dollars spent and promotional appearances booked, channels that have spent the last four months insisting that this or that show will be the next great thing are now all too easily sending this or that show away for summary execution. The whole process would seem very Greek if it wasn’t so American.

What is perhaps even more interesting is the mass of either eulogies or expressions of thanks being voiced by viewers across the nation. If such pronouncements followed the death of longer-lived shows, we would more easily understand the built-up sentiment behind them. But maybe mourning or cheering the death of a newly minted show isn’t all that strange. Life between seasons, after all, involves a great deal of pre-viewing: watching ads for a show, reading interviews or sneak preview reviews, seeing stars appear on latenight television, visiting innovative advertising websites (such as Invasion’s, which poses as a conspiracy theory blog written by one of the characters), and engaging in tentative discussion about what to expect and what is hoped for. By the time a “new” show begins, it is often quite “old.” Pre-viewing television has become a major part of being a television viewer, and “watching television” also means talking about what to watch, being enticed to watch some shows, and deciding not to watch others. This talk is particularly active in-between seasons, but is truly a yearlong activity (“Did you see this? No? You must!”, “Is that any good?”, “That show looks awful!”, “I can’t wait for that to begin,” etc.).

But if this is true, many of television studies’ established models of reading and interpretation would seem to need some work. Take, for instance, Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model (1980), whereby a text is produced, imbued with meaning, but then readers are exposed to it and interpret it, sometimes creating their own meaning, sometimes following the producers’ meaning. This would seem intuitive enough. Except, when we pre-view, there is no official text for us to interact with. We may have textual fragments or shards of textual information, but no actual program. If we were all “good” readers, and refused to interpret the text at this point, encoding/decoding may still apply. But many of us are “bad” readers, and we feel quite happy and qualified to judge the text and to interpret it before actually being given the text. Encoding/pre-decoding, in other words.

For instance, I have not liked Fox’s new The War at Home for several months now. The mixture of its star and the show’s obvious allusions to Married with Children combined two (for me) odious intertexts. I have only seen a few clips of the show in previews, but never the actual show, and I have every intent of avoiding the program. Nevertheless, I have decoded it already, and thus could comment on and react to its overall aesthetic, its political values, and its proposed appeals.

The War at Home

The War at Home

Some Flow readers may well bemoan what they see as my ignorant reading of the text. That misses the sociological point: poor or astute, it is my reading. And being the kind of person I am, I will likely try to convince others of my reading, so that my reading (poor, astute, or otherwise) will “infect” others’ readings. I am playing the pre-viewing game.

I offer this as only one example, but the world of television offers many such examples. There are simply too many shows to watch all of them, much less to watch all of all of them. So we pre-decode, with relish and with wild abandon.

Yet, while “we” as viewers act this way, “we” as analysts frequently forget this point. If we want to measure an audience’s reaction to a text, we like to show them the program; if we want to see what a text means, we watch that program closely. We might decode, or consult others for their decodings — and yet ignore pre-decodings. Which means, by default, that we think of a text largely in terms of how it speaks to those who invest significant time with the text. All of those whose engagement with the text is brief, or those who actively despise a text, fear it, and want it off the air — these are the viewers our methods tend to ignore.

The sociological problem here is significant. For any program could well mean something not just to those who watch, but also to those who don’t, and, as I am arguing here, to those who don’t yet.

Returning, though, to the Fall culling of shows, this seemingly strange and cruel act reveals the industry’s own realization of the primacy of pre-viewing. After all, if a studio head feels comfortable axing a show after two episodes, it is not really because s/he feels that viewers have failed to engage with the characters and plot: it is because the previews failed to connect with enough viewers to bring in critical mass for the first two episodes.

So my humble suggestion (other than to avoid The War at Home) would be for us to go after the pre-viewer. The industry certainly wants to know about this figure, for s/he is the key to securing high advertising rates. But we should too, since s/he is also the key to understanding how viewers choose what (and how) to watch — a decision that precedes any and all decoding. Where is the pre-viewer addressed? How? By whom, and/or by what? Rather than pick up the audience in September or October, in other words, how can we study the audience in August?

Hall, Stuart (1980). “Encoding, Decoding,” in Hall et al. (eds) Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979. London: Unwin Hyman, 128-38.

Image Credits:

1. The axed Invasion

2. The War at Home

Please feel free to comment.