Transnational Television Dramas and the Aesthetics of Conspicuous Localism
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Hibana: Spark

Hibana: Spark

This semester, graduate students in my seminar and I started a Global Television Club, where we screen pilot episodes of television series from around the world. Specifically, we selected recent, high-end drama series co-produced and released (more or less) simultaneously in multiple territories. Our goal was more than entertainment or familiarity with non-U.S. television cultures: instead, we sought to identify common stylistic, thematic, and generic tendencies that might cut across these transnational television dramas, regardless of country-of-origin. Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, our investigation didn’t get far, and we are planning on continuing our investigation in the fall. Still, I include several of the observations that emerged out of the club’s viewings and discussions below.

Within the global television industries, little doubt exists that high-end transnational television drama is a new and growing phenomenon, enabled by the streaming ambitions of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), as well as several dozen smaller streaming companies from around the world, including the BBC, Arte in France, ZDF in Germany, and iQiyi in China, to name only a few. In 2017, C21 Media, one of the leading international television trade magazines, published a report assessing the trend and examining its impact of television drama production in numerous markets worldwide.



In television studies, we have been hesitant to identify this new trend, perhaps because of the contentious status of the concept of “quality” in a field based on the idea that all forms of culture expression can be inherently valuable, and that the designation of “quality” or “artistic” acumen are mere discourses of classed, gendered, and raced social distinctions. I largely sympathize with this perspective; I find the critiques of quality in television programming that folks like Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman’s make in Legitimating Television—that many of the features of supposedly high-quality television dramas are dismissed or ignored when they appear in women’s genres—quite convincing. Nevertheless, I do believe that we are seeing the emergence of new, transnational discourse of quality television within the programming industries—what I would call a certain form of “industry lore”—that, together with the technological and economic structures of the global media industries, are ushering in an era of high-budget transnational television series. It is this trend that I want to analyze here, while bracketing for the moment questions of quality or art.

Co-produced transnational television dramas, released in multiple territories, are certainly nothing new. They have frequently featured a limited number of genres, particularly historical miniseries with characters and stories that resonate across national borders. In Europe in the 1980s, this strategy was deployed in order to leverage production budgets from multiple territories and compete with high-end, imported U.S. television programs. While this specific model of co-production led to derisive comments about culturally vacuous “Europudding” miniseries, it is also the case that a number of well-received and popular series emerged from this model.

Descendants of the Sun

Descendants of the Sun

Much the same economic and cultural logic is at work in the surge in today’s transnational television dramas as well, but several features of the current moment in transnational television drama are unique as well, most obviously the budgets. Babylon Berlin, co-produced by Sky and ARD for simultaneous streaming release in the UK and Germany, is the most non-English series ever produced. Occupied, a Norwegian political thrilled co-produced by Arte and simultaneously released in France is the most expensive Norwegian show ever. Likewise for the Korean series Descendants of the Sun, co-produced and simultaneously released by Chinese streaming service iQiyi. And so on.

The global streaming wars between Amazon and Netflix drive these budgets: this year, Netflix will put about $8 billion into original programming worldwide, as will Amazon, while HBO, Hulu, and Sky are pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars each. In addition, there are hundreds of medium sized streaming services around the world that are pouring in money as well.

Hotel Beau Séjour

Hotel Beau Séjour

All of this production money leads to a second significantly different feature on contemporary transnational television drama, what I would call “conspicuous localism.” A major part of the expense of these series comes from the variety of locations in which they are shot and the extensive use of HD cinematography to create a strong sense of place, unlike most co-productions in television’s past. The Icelandic series Trapped, co-produced with German broadcaster ZDF, features cascading shots of massive, snowy mountains; the Japanese series Hibana: Spark opens with a craning shot of pedestrian mall in Osaka with green mountains in the distance, and much of the subsequent action takes place in the Kichijoji and nearby Kami Shakuji areas of Tokyo. This conspicuous localism is further reinforced by local-language production, even to the point of shooting in subnational dialects (witness the Belgian Arte co-production in Flemish, Hotel Beau Séjour), as well as plotlines and themes that often require very specific cultural knowledge, such as the Japanese two-team stand-up comedic form, manzai, which is at the heart of the story in Hibana: Spark.

This sense of conspicuous localism is for me the most interesting cultural trend in transnational television drama today. I call it “conspicuous,” riffing on the idea “conspicuous consumption,” because I believe that this form of localism serves quite specific audience and industry needs that are all about appealing to others, much as conspicuous consumption is done to signal to others. The conspicuous localism of the cinematography, storylines, and languages of contemporary transnational television drama are, I believe designed to appeal to a cosmopolitan international audience. For subscribers to streaming platforms, dramas with a strong sense of authenticity offer cosmopolitan cultural capital to affluent viewers in a way that less conspicuously local production strategies do. Given the nationalist and ethnic backlashes against globalization and immigration in many Western nations, the consumption of seemingly authentic media culture from abroad is a way to signal to one’ self and others one’s cosmopolitanism.

Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin

Meanwhile, for creative industries around the world, conspicuous localism is a way to promote local tourism, as well as to spotlight and expand local creative industries. For the nation-of-origin, high-end television dramas serve nationalist ends that are similar to the opera houses of the 19th and 20th centuries. Much as opera houses and locally-produced operas in the national language became markers of a nation’s modernity in earlier centuries, so are transnational television dramas markers of the maturity of a nation’s creative industries in the 21st century.

Image Credits:
1. Hibana: Spark
2. Trapped
3. Descendants of the Sun
4. Hotel Beau Séjour
5. Babylon Berlin

Please feel free to comment.

Showtime’s The Chi and the Surge in Black-Cast TV Dramas
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Cast of Showtime's The Chi

Cast of Showtime’s The Chi

Showtime’s new series, The Chi, has drawn countless comparisons to HBO’s The Wire. Set in a South Chicago neighborhood, The Chi has many of the same themes as The Wire, an ensemble cast, and relies on extensive on-location shooting to create a strong sense of place. At the same time, while The Wire addressed the institutional and economic causes and conditions of black inner-city poverty, The Chi explores the interiority of lives lived alongside the day-to-day grind of poverty, violence, and social decay. Perhaps even more interesting, in its characterizations, its cinematography, and its sound track, The Chi manages to find hope, dignity, and even beauty in back urban life in a way that The Wire never did.

Despite some complaints that the social critique of The Chi is not as sharp as The Wire, the series manages to tell a unique story and, in African American media studies, telling unique stories has long been considered an objective good. Moreover, one could argue that the sympathetic exploration of the characters and their lives reflects the unique standpoint of its African American female showrunner, Lena Waithe; that, at both a narrative and a stylistic level, the series exhibits a distinctly black feminine sensibility.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Chi is that it launched in an era of abundance for predominantly black-cast television dramas. Even five years ago, a new, well-funded black-cast drama series would have caused a splash, but today, we barely take notice. To name only a few prominent examples, there’s Power (2013-present) on Starz, Dear White People (2017-present), She’s Gotta Have It (2017-present), and The Get Down (2016-2017) on Netflix, Atlanta (2016-present) on FX, Being Mary Jane (2013-present) on BET, Black America (expected, 2018) on Amazon, and Empire (2015-precent) on Fox.

Promo for FX's Atlanta

Promo of FX’s Atlanta

Still for Netflix's The Get Down

Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Alvin Poussaint, among others, has noted that African American characters on television have largely been restricted to comedy. Before 2013, the only predominantly black-cast dramas in U.S. television were the ABC miniseries Roots (1977), the Showtime series Soul Food (2000-2004), and HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008). Why have we seen this recent explosion in black-cast dramas, when for nearly 70 years of TV history, they were absent, and what might this new slate of black-cast dramas tell us about current state of African American television culture?

One popular narrative explaining the surge in black-cast series attributes it to a growing number of nonwhite showrunners who often seek creative talent from outside of traditional TV circles. But major changes in the portrayals of African Americans on television have always been linked to broader changes in the commercial institutions that produce, fund, and profit from American television. In the 1980s, competition from cable, combined with growing African American purchasing power, led to a growth in network sitcoms focused on predominantly black casts (Gray, 1995). [ ((Gray, Herman (1995) Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.))] In the 1990s, Fox Broadcasting’s efforts to start a fourth network focused on underserved African American audiences in large urban markets, leading to a host of distinctly black situation comedies produced and written by African Americans (Zook, 1999). [ ((Zook, Kristal Brent (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.))]

In exploring the industrial dimensions of the changing fortunes of black-cast dramas, the first thing to note is that several are high-budget series offered through subscription services – a significant departure from the past, when black-cast series had low budgets compared to white series. Among these subscription series, some, like The Chi, can truly be called auteur TV.

How might we explain the sudden willingness of the television industry to invest money in black-cast series? For one thing, African Americans tend to spend more on subscription television than other U.S. racial groups. However, as I noted in a previous Flow post, African Americans also undersubscribe to subscription streaming services: while urban black subscriptions to video-on-demand services are 10% higher than average, subscriptions to streaming video-on-demand services are roughly the same as other racial groups. Moreover, Horowitz Research’s State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition reports that, while African Americans watch a disproportionally large amount of TV drama, they watch only an average amount of original streaming dramas.

These statistics suggest that the African American market for subscription streaming services remains somewhat untapped, and that original television dramas may a good way to attract them. With competition for subscribers growing, it should perhaps come as no surprise that black-cast dramas helmed by African American creatives have proliferated. We saw this competition on display last summer when the new HBO series Confederate, a counterfactual history series from two white creators based on the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War, spurred strong opposition from African Americans. In the wake of the controversy, Amazon immediately announced its own Civil War counterfactual series, Black America, which narrates the story of a separate black nation created within the borders of the United States and is produced by Will Packer and Aaron Magruder.

If I am correct that subscription television services, particularly streaming services, have begun to use black-cast dramas to increase African American subscriptions, some important questions remain. Are these services targeting all black viewers equally, or are certain members of the African American community more desirable? And, how important are non-black viewers in the decision to create black-cast television dramas?

My answers to these questions are speculative. They are rooted in the notion that, much as among white Americans, African American taste cultures tend to divide along class lines, with the proletariat classes preferring content that is rowdier, gaudier, and more visceral than the refined, intellectual culture that their bourgeois counterparts enjoy. Within African American studies, class-based taste differences in comedy and humor have been well documented, going back to Mel Watkins 1994 classic book, On the Real Side. These differences in class-based taste cultures, however, are less well theorized when it comes to television and film drama.

Returning to The Chi, one of its most noteworthy aesthetic elements is its conscious and effective use of stylized editing and camera techniques. In the first sequence featuring a young man named Coogie biking through the neighborhood, past bright graffiti and blighted buildings, we see several jump cuts that unsettle the viewer and prime us for his eventual discovery of a dead body. In episode three, when Coogie’s older brother get involved in a shooting that threatens to ruin his romantic relationship and his budding career as a successful chef, the narrative continues to circle back over and over to the dark, posterized scene of the shooting until we realize who the true shooter is. There are several moments in the series that are highly stylized, with the camerawork, lighting, and editing all working together to reveal the stark beauty of the urban landscape.

In other words, the artistry of the series is clear. At the same time, it is an artistry primarily born of film schools and art house cinemas, rather than the rich visual history of black popular culture. By contrast, the Afrofuturist aesthetics of a film like Black Panther into a populism that transcends class-based African American tastes cultures. Of course, my point is not that working class and poor African Americans can’t get textual pleasure from watching The Chi. However, I would argue that The Chi’s aesthetics appeal to a decidedly middle-class, liberal subscriber, regardless of race.

For much of the history of African American television, series combined bourgeois and proletariat aesthetics in an effort to appeal to both working-class and well-off African Americans. To be viable, broadcast series needed to maintain as many black viewers as possible, while also incorporating white viewers. Not that every series achieved this balance, but most black-cast series tried. By contrast, today’s high-budget black-cast dramas seem designed to splinter the African American audience along class-based taste culture lines in an effort to cobble together an affluent multi-racial subscriber base.

Image Credits:
1. Cast of Showtime’s The Chi
2. Promo for FX’s Atlanta
3. Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Please feel free to comment.

The Algorithmic Audience and African American Media Cultures
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Audience measurement has been a longstanding (if not terribly sexy) issue in African American media studies. For decades, audience numbers were reported as Gross Ratings Point (GRPs), or the aggregate percentage of metered homes that watched a particular broadcast. As early as the 1977 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, entitled “Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television,” observers began to point out that the broadcasting industry’s reliance on GRPs made it tough for anything that is non-mainstream, non-hegemonic, non-supremacist, and non-patriarchal to find its way on air. In the fallout of this report, Nielsen began over-representing black households as a percentage of their panels in order to move the needle at least a little bit when black and white tastes diverged substantially.

As Ien Ang has argued, no audience research ever measures real viewers’ and their tastes. [ ((Ien Ang, Desperately seeking the audience, Routledge, 2006.))] Instead, they construct a particular picture of audience that is deeply influenced by the technologies used to measure them. When measurement techniques change, Eileen Meehan has shown, so does the dominant image of the audience. [ ((Eileen Meehan, “Why we don’t count: The commodity audience,” Logics of television (1990): 117-37.))] This dominant image, moreover, circulates among programming executives who make production and acquisition decisions based upon that image.

By the time the Commission on Civil Rights’ report was published, the networks had already begun to integrate demographic considerations into their understanding of the audience, thanks to advances in Nielsen’s audience measurements. As the 1980s and 1990s progressed and the networks began to shed viewers to cable channels, they began to focus much more on their core 18-49 year old white family audience; since then, as Herman Gray argues, the networks have considered African Americans as political subjects capable of causing political turmoil for the networks, but not as economic subject worth targeting consistently with relevant programming. This set-up created a predictable dynamic between African Americans and the networks, as the networks inevitably dropped black-oriented shows for poor overall ratings, followed by political agitation on the part of African American and other minority-based political groups, which led to a brief surge in minority programming. [ ((Herman Gray, Cultural moves: African Americans and the politics of representation, University of California Press, 2005.))]

Today, we have seen another revolution in audience measurement with the explosion of digital data and the development of data-mining algorithms that make sense of viewers, tastes and behaviors in new ways. While the industry long lived in an era of scarcity of audience data, today there is an overabundance.

How might these new forms of algorithmic audience measurement shape the media culture we inhabit? I have primarily begun to think about this question through the streaming service Netflix. Netflix exhibits an odd contradiction: it exhibits a range of programming about (and sometimes by) African Americans and other minority groups, including Dear White People, Orange is the New Black, and Narcos, but it also has a reputation among some subscribers and independent producer as insensitive and closed to minority tastes and content producers. Among some African American subscribers, it has become a commonplace that, once they watch a single black-cast television series or film, they are suddenly inundated with every other black-cast offering on Netflix. Seemingly, the algorithm thinks that black people are only interested in black-cast content, and that everyone who watches a black-cast film or TV series must be black. There’s even a sentiment that circulates among some African Americans that Netflix’s black-cast offerings, as compared to their predominantly white-case offerings, are inferior in quality and steeped in stereotypes.

The idea that Netflix is largely insensitive to African American tastes is only one perspective, and it may well be a minority one at that. Still, at a time when the fate of cultural diversity on screen is in the hands of algorithms, the people who program them, and the people who interpret their findings, it is worth asking how they are shaping the diversity of the media content available through streaming services.

Here, I sketch out a typology of how to study the role of algorithmic audience analysis in commercial African American streaming culture, including questions of recommendations and user interface, content availability, and programming decisions. What results is a sort of research agenda, parts of which are certainly much easier to research than others.

Racial bias and exclusion in recommendation algorithms can happen at different moments in the process. At the input moment, it’s possible that African American are absent (or nearly absent) from the universe of subscribers in the first place. Indeed, Horowitz Research, who in 2015 published a report titled State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition, found that African Americans tend to watch more television than other ethnic and racial groups, just as countless other research studies have shown for decades. In addition, they found that African Americans living in urban areas oversubscribe to premium television services, compared with other urban ethnic/racial groups. However, Horowitz also found that African Americans undersubscribe to Netflix, even as they purchase more pay-per-view programming and oversubscribe to Hulu: while 57 percent of all urban viewers subscribe to Netflix, only 56 percent of African Americans do. Granted, the difference is small, but it’s three percent less than white urban viewers, and in every other category of programming, percentages of African American viewers exceed those of white and other ethnic groups. In other words, African American under-subscription to Netflix certainly stands out in the report.

Why do African Americans subscribe to Netflix at lower rates than other groups? This of course is a much tougher question. One might suspect that broadband internet penetration rates might be to blame: for cost reasons, African American broadband penetration rates do tend to lag a few percentages points behind most other racial and ethnic rates. However, if that were the sole cause, we would also expect undersubscription to Hulu, which isn’t the case. Instead, there may be content issues with regards to Netflix that explain African American subscription rates as well.

It may also be the case that the Netflix library offers little of interest for African American viewers, driving undersubscription rates because those potential subscribers know there will be little content for them. Content bias is of course the linchpin of the question of racial bias in Netflix’s algorithm, since relevant programming is at the heart of longstanding concerns about race and media. Empirically, this is a difficult topic to study, given the vastness of the Netflix library and the company’s licensing arrangements with content owners, which can cause programming to come and go from the library quite frequently. Finally, no good quantitative measure of what might constitute “programming for African American subscribers” has ever been developed, nor could it ever be.

If content diversity is a difficult object to fix methodologically, it is less difficult to imagine how we might study how Netflix executives use algorithmic data to make programming decisions. However, given the proprietary nature of algorithmic audience data and Netflix’s tight-lipped approach to releasing data and discussing content acquisition decisions makes addressing this question directly thorny as well. In the absence of such information, we can rely on some extant data that suggests that Netflix’s original programming, at least, is probably not designed with African Americans primarily in mind. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, streaming television series creators, directors, and writers (the vast majority of whom, at the time, must have been working on original Netflix series) are substantially whiter than their counterparts in cable or broadcast television. Of course, original programming is only a fraction of Netflix’s content, and may not be a main factor for deciding to subscribe to the service. Nevertheless, since original programming is both signature content and a loss leader for streaming television, the fact that such series seem to be designed mainly for white audiences lends credence to the impression that Netflix’s overall content acquisition practices may privilege white subscribers as well.

By way of closing, I want to talk a little about some new research I’ve been working on with an interdisciplinary team of humanists, social scientists, and computer scientists. We have been looking at the racial/ethnic discrimination in recommendation and filtering algorithms. Recently, we have started examining the question of input bias in streaming media service by interviewing subscribers and non-subscribers of various races and ethnicities about why they choose to subscribe to Netflix or not, and what their experience with Netflix’s offerings and recommendations has been. In addition, we are planning more systematic probing of how differential input into the Netflix system results in differential output, and whether we can find any pattern or logic in the personalized results. We have used a similar design to show that Google News personalizes search results based upon a user’s social media activity, but the complexity and variability of the Netflix user interface will create a good deal of unexpected problems.

This remains very preliminary research, and it requires a substantial amount of time, a range of expertise, and the development of new research methodologies. At each moment in the streaming media process – the input, the algorithmic processing, and the interpretation of the data – we have very little reliable information available, and we need to be creative and collaborative if we hope to find good ways to get more. Still, if the main questions that have animated African American media studies since the days of broadcasting are going to continue to concern us in an era of streaming, we will need to develop these new tools and modes of scholarship. It is a big job.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Banner image

The Thirtieth Anniversary of Roots and the Deferred Dream of Black Drama

Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Roots on DVD

Roots released on DVD

The thirtieth anniversary of the smash ABC miniseries Roots (1977) came and went with little fanfare. TV One reran the miniseries a couple of times with extensive on-channel promotion, and Warner Bros. re-released the miniseries on DVD. As we enter a post-network television era, however, it is worth reassessing the promises and disappointments that came in the wake of Roots in order to understand the prospects for African American television today, especially dramatic series.

Roots was the first major television drama featuring African American actors, themes, and stories. In addition to posting a record-breaking 72-share for its final installment, the miniseries raised the hopes of African American viewers and actors that the long drought of African American televised drama might finally be over. Alas, those hopes have gone largely unfulfilled.

Angelou and Tyson in Roots

Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson in Roots

Why this persistent lack of African American drama on mainstream television, even after Roots demonstrated the potential popularity? If one listens to industry insiders, African American drama is simply an economic impossibility. White viewers aren’t interested in black drama, and black audiences alone don’t warrant the kind of production investment that television dramas require. I want to question that wisdom, because I believe that it stems from a number of blind spots about race, culture and economics.

The absence of African American drama today owes mainly to perceptions of international buyers’ preferences, because dramas requires good international sales to make back production deficits. Perception of international preferences, in turn, are based on what I want to call “industry lore,” or a set of assumptions about cultural and economic realities that shape industry insiders’ beliefs about what is and is not possible in television.

African American dramas, even those with only one or two prominent black characters, are generally seen as unsaleable abroad. In comments posted here (at the 1 hr., 1 min, 30 second mark), for instance, Susanne Daniels, President of Entertainment for Lifetime Entertainment Services, explains why prime time features so few dramas starring African American women:

It is my understanding…this is…how I’ve been educated…that one of the ways we make money from these shows is selling them internationally, and that the international marketplace will pay less for shows with certain ethnic leads than they will for white leads….

I’ve frequently heard this sentiment from television executives, but never in such a public forum. Obviously, the perception is widespread. Daniels’ comments give us a window into how industry lore works, so before pursuing my counter-example of Roots, I want to talk briefly about industry lore.

Industry lore comprises common sense knowledge about audience preference and the possibilities of the medium that get passed along in many forms, including trade journals articles and informal executive education. Often, industry lore draws on particular examples to illustrate more general truths. The fact that predominantly Muslim Egyptian audiences rejected Gunsmoke because Matt Dillon’s badge resembled a Star of David, for instance, provides a general lesson about the dangers of cultural ignorance when selling programs internationally. These features of educative storytelling are what lead me to use the term “lore,” which the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines as “traditional knowledge and stories about a subject,” rather than a more general term like discourse.

Industry lore facilitates the smooth operation of the commercial television industries. Television markets are purely imaginary. Conceptualizing which audiences might be interested in which programs is an act of imagination, even when it is backed up by research, which is seldom the case in international television trade. Industry lore is the product of those collective imaginings. Finally, industry lore is a form of material discourse, which derives from and acts upon other material processes of the television business, including political-economic forces, industry organization, and day-to-day business practices.

In the case of Roots, industry lore at first worked against the worldwide distribution of the miniseries; then, after it became “the world’s most-watched television drama,” ((Warner Bros. promotional kit for Roots. Undated. David L. Wolper Center archives no. 283-006.)) industry lore stepped in to downplay the importance of the African American elements in the show’s global appeal. Letters from Roots producer David Wolper to the international distribution units of United Artists and Twentieth Century-Fox, as well as acquisitions executives at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian distributor Simcom, the BBC, and Australian Channel 7 show that Wolper worked hard to find outlets abroad for the miniseries, but generally failed. While American distributors uniformly praised the miniseries, they agreed that “the primary market for the project would be the U.S. and Canada” ((Letter from Danton Rissner, Vice President in Charge of East Coast and European Production for United Artists Corporation to David L. Wolper, March 1976. David L. Wolper Center archives no. 282-016.)) and they did “not believe that much [could] be done with it overseas.” ((Letter from David Raphel, President, Twentieth Century-Fox International Corporation to David Wolper, March 1, 1976. David L. Wolper Center archives no.282-016))

Roots BBC

Thirtieth Anniversary on BBC

Obviously, distributors believed that viewers abroad would have no cultural frame of reference to understand African American experiences of slavery. Nevertheless, the miniseries sold in 49 territories in its first two years of syndication, and it earned as much abroad as it did in domestic syndication. Industry insiders took two lessons away from Roots’ surprise global appeal: that buyers abroad, especially hard-to-crack European public broadcasters, were interested in miniseries because they fit the scheduling demands of non-commercial channels; second, that historical miniseries rooted in “universal themes” could appeal to foreign viewers.

Roots inaugurated a cycle, in which African American television programs break new ground in international markets, only to pave the way for white series to follow. Roots paved the way for predominantly white historical miniseries. The Cosby Show paved the way for predominantly white middle-class sitcom sales abroad. And The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air paved the way for predominantly white youth programs (though the story here is more complex.)

Why does this pattern recur? Obviously, the disproportionate wealth of European buyers helps explain why those markets drive domestic production decisions more than others. In Roots‘ time, international sales were central to funding the elaborate miniseries genre, much as is the case with dramatic series today. But cultural assumptions, in the form of industry lore, play a crucial role as well. The fragmentary evidence about the reception of Roots abroad suggests that, for some viewers, the story of black suffering was central to their interest in the program, even if that story was melo-dramatized and advocated patient perseverance. The prevalent industry lore, however, erased the specifics of African American history as an explanation of Roots’ success, zeroing in instead on those elements such as historical themes that could more easily be applied to white stories, fitting industry perceptions of their primary audience at home and abroad. Of course, the idea that shared racial identities or historical settings can overcome national cultural differences is rooted in some very specific assumptions about cultural identity and difference.

Hungarian book cover

Hungarian Roots book cover

The irony for African American programs is that, despite their path-breaking sales records, they frequently get pegged as too pedestrian for foreign viewers. This is not so much an example of overt racism on the part of industry insiders as it is a demonstration of how immersed most of them are in white cultural assumptions. They see white culture as universal; in fact, they can’t really see white culture at all, but only non-white culture. For them, the absence of non-white cultural values and allusions is the presence of universal themes.

The economics of the industry have changed dramatically since the days of Roots, with new transnational funding arrangements, new crops of buyers targeting sub-national and transnational audience niches, and an explosion of format sales. Industry lore has likewise become more contested and multi-vocal. But industry lore about African American programming has remained largely unchanged, and until it does, the prospects for African American drama remain dim, as does recognition of the central role that black culture has played in worldwide flows of television culture.

I would like to thank the David L. Wolper Center at the University of Southern California for access to their records, and especially Sona Basmadjian for her invaluable assistance.

Image Credits:

1. Roots DVD

2. Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson

3. Roots BBC

4. Roots Hungarian book cover

Please feel free to comment.

Where Babies Really Come From…

In the run-up to our son’s birth, my wife and I watched dozens of hours of TLC’s A Baby Story. Apparently, we weren’t alone: A Baby Story has ranked among the top-rated original daytime cable series among women 18-34 since 1999. It is particularly appealing to the nation’s wealthiest young parents. It has twice won a daytime Emmy. Anecdotally, every first time parent I’ve talked to has watched at least a couple of episodes. A Baby Story, it would seem, has become a present-day ritual for at least some segments of the expectant-parent population in the U.S.

TLC’s A Baby Story

TLC’s A Baby Story

The show is also highly economical, making it appealing to a shoestring cable network like TLC. Part of that frugality stems from the formulaic narrative structure, which allows efficient shooting and editing of a wide variety of personal experiences into a preset storyline: in the first half of each episode, we meet the expectant parents and hear why they want a child; in the second half, we witness the labor and birth; and in a final coda we return to the family several weeks later and are formally “introduced” to the newborn.

Perhaps the most remarked-upon feature of A Baby Story is its unedited footage of childbirth-what TV critic Joyce Millman calls the “mommy shot.” Such footage is rare in television history. As a kid, whenever I saw a portrayal of birth on TV, my mother, a nurse and Lamaze teacher, would inevitably scoff at its over-sanitization and the use of a well-scrubbed baby who was several weeks old. None of that on A Baby Story: we see blood, screaming, squirming, bawling-everything except a straight-on shot of the mother’s vagina, which is digitally blurred during post-production. As noteworthy as these portrayals are, however, they are marshaled for specific textual and cultural ends.

First TV Guide

First TV Guide, 1953

Superficially, A Baby Story engages in a celebration of diverse women choosing among a diversity of ways to give birth: home births, water births, natural births, C-sections, surrogates, African Americans, Latinas, Indian immigrants, single women, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Wiccans all appear. Beneath this veneer, however, we see a subtle reinforcement of the medical establishment’s mantra that all labors must unfold in the same manner, that bodies that labor differently require intervention. At least part of the reason that this medical narrative dominates is that hospital births, full of medical intervention, have drama; they make for good TV. While medical interventions and the narrative of proper childbirth that underwrites them have dramatically reduced the mortality rate among mothers and babies, they also lead to excessive rates of Caesarean-section deliveries and epidural anesthesia.

My intent is not to advocate for or against any types of childbirth. Nor do I want to diminish the pain and fear that can surround birth and lead women to seek painkillers, doctors, hospitals, etc. But I do want to examine how the medicalized version of birth gets normalized by A Baby Story, despite its apparent celebration of diversity.

Birth narratives are important. Research has shown that women clearly remember the details of childbirth decades later, and that they attribute a good deal of their self-esteem to how they handled giving birth (Simkin, 1991). Midwives often insist that women who have negative memories of childbirth are more prone to postpartum depression (England and Horowitz, 1998).

Rachel and her newborn

Rachel and her newborn

A Baby Story tends to rob women of agency over their own births by portraying them as protagonists and their bodies as antagonists-a structure that also champions the medical establishment’s narrative: laboring bodies that “fail to progress” require medical intervention to “get the ball rolling” once again. Thus, regardless of the diverse circumstances and birth plans we encounter in the first half of and episode, the birth stories in the second half are almost always the same: women come to the hospital and either make good progress or don’t; those who don’t undergo intervention after intervention, typically without protest or discussion. The doctor simply explains to the camera that the mother requires this or that procedure. Never do we see discussions about whether the intervention is necessary at the given moment or whether non-medical alternatives (walking, warm bath, nipple stimulation) might also work.

By book-ending the birthing scenes with scenes of birth preparation and aftermath, A Baby Story takes the focus off of the mother and childbirth, recentering it instead on the excitement, joy, and challenges of childrearing. The soundtrack of episodes underscores this emphasis, with breezy piano music playing during the hopeful moments of the preparatory scenes, which returns during the coda. Birth scenes, by contrast, use only ambient sounds and a foreboding soundtrack. The foreshadowing of these early scenes is thus fulfilled by the joys of the coda, while the birthing scenes provide the narrative tension in each episode. Consequently, the woman’s body-at least in difficult births-becomes the primary antagonist that threatens the realization of parental joy.

Every episode features interviews with caregivers, partners, and family members during the birth. The women themselves are never interviewed, as they are otherwise occupied. While producers could return to interview mothers a few days later and insert those interviews into the birthing scenes, such a practice would increase the series’ tightly controlled budget. Likewise, mothers could be interviewed immediately after birth, but it seems unlikely that many women would be much interested.

Even the rare episodes that feature home births work to deny women control over the narratives of their births. The central narrative enigma in such episodes revolves around how well the mother will withstand the pain, and we witness several scenes of excruciating pain. Thus, the laboring body again becomes the primary antagonist, battling against the mother’s desire for a natural experience. This narrative of the mother’s relationship to her laboring body is at odds with non-medical portrayals that emphasize her agency and the embracing of, and working through, pain.

While episodes of A Baby Story may reinforce a medicalized narrative about birth, the consequences of such portrayals for viewers are almost certainly more complex. In our case, these stories prompted my wife and me to discuss her birth plan. Specifically, she saw one episode in which a woman waited until she was nearly in transition before she went to the hospital, and she found this appealing. The portrayal of various interventions led us to research their benefits and dangers, as well as alternatives to procedures we found ghastly.

The great benefit of A Baby Story, in my estimation, then, is that it does offer narratives of childbirth, even if those narratives tend to provide little useful information and reinforce hospital birth and medical intervention. Narratives of other women’s birthing experiences, even in such a commercialized and restricted environment, can allow viewers to reflect on their own plans, preferences, and experiences. Fortunately, other resources offering different narratives are available on-line and in libraries-accounts that validate something other than the medical establishment. Still, the narratives of A Baby Story are a significant change from the pain-free, worry-free, blood-free stories of birth that mainstream television has told for decades.

Tim and Rita’s New Arrival

Tim and Rita’s New Arrival


England, Pam and Rob Horowitz. Birthing from Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation. Partera Press: 1998.

Simkin, Penny. “Just Another Day in a Woman’s Life? Women’s Long-Term Perceptions of Their First Birth Experience. Part I.” Birth 18, 4 (1991): 203-210.

Image Credits:
1. TLC’s A Baby Story
2. First TV Guide, 1953
3. Rachel and her newborn
4. Tim and Rita’s New Arrival

Please feel free to comment.

Guy-Coms and the Hegemony of Juvenile Masculinity

This column was inspired by a comment at last year’s Flow Conference that television scholars tend to write about our own taste culture, rather than something like Everybody Loves Raymond. While I do discuss Raymond a little bit here, my main focus is what I call “guy-coms:” a handful of shows that debuted after Raymond’s but followed in his footsteps. These later series lack Raymond’s innovativeness and appeal among viewers earning more than $75,000. But guy-coms possess a reputation as “workhorse” series that consistently deliver respectable ratings and have come to dominate the domestic sitcom genre in the past decade. In 2003, seven of nineteen domestic comedies on the Big Four exhibited close adherence to guy-com aesthetics, including Yes, Dear; Still Standing; Everybody Loves Raymond; 8 Simple Rules; According to Jim; and Married to the Kellys. I want to suggest that guy-coms serve not only as the predominant form of domestic sitcom, but also help make juvenile masculinity hegemonic in U.S. culture. By “hegemonic masculinity,” I mean the process by which certain masculinities come to do the hard work of shoring up white male privilege.

Still Standing Cast

Cast of Still Standing

The “guy-com” subgenre features a “difficult” white male lead and a nuclear family with non-adult children. Each episode revolves around reconciling the man’s personality with the demands of family and marriage. Recently, the guy-com has also included recurrent characters in the extended family. The lead characters in guy-coms share fairly consistent gender traits. They work in occupations that demand physical rather than intellectual acumen, a fact often underscored by their fatness. They are self-centered, irresponsible, and casually sexist, prone to disrupting domestic harmony with their stubbornness. They are, in a word, juvenile.

Home Improvement Cast

Cast of Home Improvement

While domestic sitcoms have long included juvenile men, rarely have they been the genre’s main focus. But in the late eighties, for a variety of reasons, a trio of standard-setting guy-coms appeared: Major Dad, Coach, and Home Improvement. Featuring men with identifiable character defects (strictness, control issues, and childishness, respectively), these series split their action between the domestic space, where the men’s personalities clashed with the demands of family life, and the workplace where they were allowed free rein. The women in these guy-coms worked at jobs that paid better or required more intelligence than their husbands. At root, their message was that, while juvenile masculinity may be tolerable at work, it is disruptive at home.

Everybody loves Raymond cast

Cast of Everybody Loves Raymond

One of Raymond’s innovations was the replacement of the workplace with a second domestic setting, Raymond’s parent’s kitchen. No longer could juvenile masculinity escape to work, it was restricted by family on all sides. This new spatial structure restored some of the wedded bliss that earlier guy-coms had undermined: while Ray’s immaturity did cause marital problems, it usually surfaced because of his family-of-origin’s behavior. The narrative resolution of each episode pits the couple against the family-of-origin, reaffirming marital solidarity. Current guy-coms continue Raymond’s avoidance of the workplace.

The inclusion of recurrent male characters from the extended family who are more objectionable than the main characters leaves male leads as the only viable masculine performances. But main characters are also over-endowed with objectionable juvenile traits. This excessive immaturity offers male viewers a position of dominant specularity, where they can identify with the lead character’s attitudes, while distancing themselves from his more egregious character defects. A similar viewing position is constructed for women, who can see their own mates as less difficult than these men.

By bringing the extended family to the fore, Raymond pushed the nuclear family into the background. As Ray quips in the intro, “It’s not really about the kids.” The avoidance of issues of fatherhood, in particular, has an ambivalent ideological impact. On one hand, the influence of juvenile men on children is portrayed as foolhardy and destructive. On the other, the difficult accommodation between juvenile masculinity and fathering, which earlier guy-coms dramatized, disappears altogether, and is easy to ignore.

Characterization and humor do the primary work of portraying juvenile masculinity as superior to other forms of identity. In According to Jim, Jim is the only character who exhibits growth or depth, often at the end of an episode when he explains his behavior, thus balancing his immaturity with more endearing character traits. Likewise, Jim and his guy-coms counterparts are the only ones who generate what I would call exuberant self-mockery, which makes them both more fun and more self-aware than other characters.

According to Jim cast

Cast of According to Jim

A couple of jokes from an episode entitled “The Grill” helps clarify the different forms of humor associated with Jim and other characters When the family’s two daughters walk into the kitchen wearing ballerina costumes, Jim’s sister-in-law, Dana, twirls around and kicks over a bowl of potato chips. Meanwhile in the backyard, Jim explains the finer points of grilling to 5-year-old Kyle. “Grill my army man,” Kyle exclaims. “Where?” asks Jim. “In the middle, where it’s hotter,” replies Kyle, reciting the grilling lesson he’s just heard. “That’s my boy,” Jim shouts, grabbing the army man with his tongs and placing it on the grill. While the gag with Dana evokes derisive laugher, arising from her refusal to perform an appropriate femininity for her age and surroundings, Jim’s grilling of the toy evokes a more exuberant laugher of recognition: while no one would want to be Dana in this scene, many male viewers might want to be Jim. In fact, much of Jim’s humor involves self-mocking irony of his juvenile attitudes and behavior. This awareness of one’s own faults and the capacity to laugh at them is denied other characters. In a postmodern world, where the production of a cool, detached self is vital to economic, political, and social success, self-irony is key, but in guy-coms, only juvenile men are capable of self-irony; the other characters take themselves too seriously.

The capacity for change, the appeal of the male leads, and their ability to laugh at themselves ultimately make white masculinity comes across as a superior way of being in the world. However, it is the networks’ attempts to retain white male viewers that underwrite this portrayal of hegemonic, juvenile masculinity. While men in the 1990s were still addressed as members of family audiences and early guy-coms included extensive interaction with the nuclear family, as family viewing has continued to decline, the guy-com relegated the nuclear family to a backdrop, and the networks focused more on attracting married viewing couples. Although, as we have seen, men are the center of these stories and remain in the ideological driver’s seat, women characters, especially wives, are portrayed as mature and level-headed, thus flattering both halves of the viewing couple. Moreover, redirecting the narrative conflict from the couple to the extended family fits with couple viewing more comfortably than earlier versions of the guy-com.

Coach Cast

Cast of Coach

I would argue that guy-coms have becomes the standard form of domestic sitcom, the stylistic and ideological common sense of the television industry. However, the guy-com also signals the demise of the domestic sitcom altogether. Other generic forms are perhaps more effective in appealing to today’s lower middle-class white viewing couples, such as competitive reality shows like Dancing with the Stars or prime-time game shows like Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? In 2007-2008, only two domestic sitcoms are on the schedules of the Big Four: Two and a Half Men and According to Jim, which barely got renewed. It may be more accurate, then, to say that guy-coms set the standard for the domestic sitcom in its final years. Ironically, a genre that began its life as a way to integrate women into gender identities that fit the demands of a booming postwar U.S. economy may be ending its life by helping white men rebel against the demands of a volatile global economy at the dawn of the 21st century.

Image Credits:

1. Still Standing cast

2. Home Improvement cast

3. Everybody Loves Raymond cast

4. According to Jim cast

5. Coach cast

Please feel free to comment.