Flow 2016 Roundtable Questions
Thank you to those who have submitted both questions and responses for this year’s Flow Conference. The response call is closed, but please continue checking in for more updates.
Audience Generations: Millennials, “Becomers,” and Beyond
Generational logics guide TV programming, marketing, and branding. These logics are in a state of flux as TV producers reimagine the youth audiences that come after millennials—a recent example includes ABC Family’s rebranding into Freeform with its desired audience of “Becomers,” “a life stage that spans people who are 14-34,” from “first kiss to first kid.” How do TV executives conceptualize youth audiences, and how do these audiences react to and transform the generational labels assigned to them? How do generational logics inform producers’ interactions with audiences and also shape the form and content of TV texts? How do current and emerging conceptions of the youth audience compare to past discourses regarding young viewers? How are these discourses on youth audiences gendered, and are gendered notions of young audiences changing? How do issues of diversity inform the ways in which TV networks imagine, address, and court youth audiences? Moreover, how do youth audiences reimagine what television means by creating vlogs, YouTube haul videos, and multi-platform storytelling? And how can we as scholars think about the first generation of viewers growing up in the post-network TV era? This roundtable invites a variety of responses to the question of audience generations, including analyses of industry and marketing discourses, audience/fan responses, and case studies of specific platforms, channels, or networks.
Clearing the Distortion: TV History & Local Archives
Most histories of early American television are rooted in narratives about programs broadcasted by major networks— such as NBC, CBS, and ABC—to a national audience. Due to the ephemeral nature and technological and economic limitations of early U.S. television broadcasting, many of these programs have been lost. However, historical narratives of early broadcasting are also often incomplete because they overlook regional programs broadcast to local audiences. Given these oversights, the television histories we know and teach can often produce a "distorted" picture of the medium, industry, and its cultural implications. This roundtable seeks to discuss what media scholars can learn from local television archives, and the problems facing regional television organizations, archives, and institutions. What issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability do media historians overlook by focusing on national broadcasts rather than locally produced and/or televised programming? How are media archivists negotiating issues of access and preservation when making local TV programming available to researchers? How might large archives like the Peabody’s and smaller organizations like the Texas Archive of the Moving Image forge productive relationships to ensure that television and media scholars can better incorporate marginal television programs and artifacts into the historical canon?
Considering the Convergent Award Show
In an era where live viewership is shrinking across both broadcast and cable, the award show has emerged as an increasingly lucrative form of programming, balancing its historical event appeal to mass audiences with newfound value tied to livetweeting and other forms of social engagement. In this roundtable, we invite scholars to consider the texts and contexts of the twenty-first century award show and its accompanying social content. How are legacy award shows—the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, etc.—adjusting their broadcasting approaches for a contemporary media environment? How has this new economy helped foster a wider range of award shows determined by different organizations (The Game Awards, the iHeart Radio Awards, etc.)? How have traditional spaces like red carpets been transformed by affordances of social interaction? How, generally speaking, do we understand the relevance of contemporary, convergent award shows relative to both their respective industries and the evolution of television and new media in general?
Contemporary Children’s Television: Production and Distribution
Contemporary children’s television is produced and distributed through complex processes in a globalized media environment characterized by convergence and multi-platform delivery. Digital regimes saw rapidly evolving markets and production territories for children’s media open up in the early 2000s, accompanied by increasingly concentrated, vertically integrated, ownership structures in media industries. Thus the coordination, distribution and management of children’s television has never been as globally organized and configured as it is now. Contemporary children’s television nonetheless retains its importance as a national institution, with its contributions to national cultural representation often used to justify financial and policy supports for the genre. As longstanding funding models for children’s television are disrupted and YouTube pursues the transnational child audience with its dedicated app, producing locally made, culturally specific children’s television is becoming increasingly difficult. To what extent should governments, policy makers and the production sector attempt to halt its decline?
Examining Trans-media/-national Networks
The official trade in television formats has been written about extensively in the past decade, and the television industry itself has adopted format exchange as a cost-effective means of filling schedules while providing audiences with just enough differences between programs to keep them tuning in. Historically, the industry has produced numerous copies, remakes, and outright rip-offs of popular shows with little regard for copyright issues as well. Increasingly, this confluence of industrial, textual and audience considerations that lies at the heart of the study of TV formats opens up new pathways of understanding textual and industrial components of the medium in a trans-media environment. Leading examples from the American television environment are the increasingly complex trans-media narratives that overlap events in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter with those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the way AMC’s The Walking Dead actively engages with and diverges from its comic book origins; the Star Wars franchise mega-reboot by Disney, and more. In other international contexts one can think of the way the K-pop’s well-oiled star-making machine is feeding into the emerging Korean trans-national television industry outreach into China, as well as the reformatting and transmedia internet and mobile cross over in the vast world of Latin Telenovelas.
But this new trans-media environment begs to be understood in more ways than just narrative. If we examine these trans-media and trans-national phenomena in relation to each other – what can we learn about the relationships between the corporate entities that make up new media conglomerates and how they produce films, television, or web content? Can we speak of media cycles – a series of texts produced due solely to the popularity of similar content in films, TV shows, or elsewhere which adopt the formal and aesthetic similarities of one medium into the other like that which exists between ghost hunting shows and found-footage horror films like Paranormal Activity? Does doing so provide a special insight into the current zeitgeist? Can we examine transnational exchange in a broader range of industrial concerns, examining formats in light of television or video licensing of films? Or of TV shows being available on premium satellite channels alongside Hollywood blockbusters and French art cinema? We are particularly interested in responses extending beyond legacies of top-bottom Hollywood cultural imperialism as a way to understanding the new, multi-centered global and transnational media environment.
Investigating True Crime Television
The recent proliferation of true crime storytelling across new media refocuses attention on this long-standing genre of television programming. The existence of true crime cable channels such as Investigation Discovery (1996) demonstrates the ongoing popularity of these types of stories and their continued resonance with audiences. Yet, little scholarly work has approached these programs from a critical, qualitative perspective. How should the programs be classified and studied? Are they similar to “ripped from the headlines” fictionalized crime depictions on programs such as Law & Order (1990-2010)? Are these programs documentaries in the tradition of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) or might they fit better into discussions of reality television? How can we best account for the multiple types of programs that fall under this larger generic umbrella, ones that incorporate disparate elements such as reenactments, witness testimony, and/or conspiracy theories? How might we differentiate between programs that present solved and unsolved cases? And finally, how can we understand these programs in terms of their capacity to compel audiences to respond with social action based on evidence presented?
Live Spectacles, Paratexts, and Ancillary Outlets
The Broadway musical Hamilton has become a national sensation, yet only a small fraction of those reveling in it have seen it performed live at the Richard Rodgers Theater. The remainder have only been able to listen repeatedly to the cast recording, watch #Ham4Ham videos on YouTube, tweet lyric puns and participate in hashtag games like #Force4Ham, sing along at home with Hamilton’s opening number during CBS’s Grammy Awards broadcast, and demand NBC carry Hamilton as a future live TV musical installment. This circumstance raises conceptual questions: What beyond the live theatrical staging still “counts” as experiencing Hamilton or any other stage spectacle in this era of live-streaming, transmedia, and spreadable media? How does consumption of digital fragments of a live spectacle compare to consumption of a whole but ephemeral theatrical staging? Might removing a theatrical presentation from its performative context also remove crucial intended connotations, especially for a show like Hamilton that strategically cast performers of color? How can we conceptualize fandom of live performance that is formed solely around consumption via paratexts? Does the public, communal nature of social media fuel fandom from afar in new ways today? How does the live TV musical still resonate in an age of time-shifting? What would be similar or different about viewing Hamilton live on NBC or beamed to a phone via Periscope compared to being present in the Richard Rodgers Theater where it happens?
Making TV and Video Games Play Nicely
Television and video games have a shared history dating back to the 1970s. Home gaming platforms like Atari and Nintendo were necessarily linked to television sets, and were physically proximate in homes. Both have also shared accusations of being “bad objects” as well as a continued growth of popularity, influence, and importance in the cultural imaginary. As scholars, we should ask what we make of these deep ties between TV and video games more broadly. What can we learn from TV-Game-Web convergence practices like sharing and watching gameplay (Twitch, Let’s Play) videos? How has the rise and proliferation of e-sport gaming on TV replicated or rejected traditional broadcast/TV modes? How might TV and media scholars further engage the similarities, differences, and histories of TV and gaming spaces, interfaces, or material objects? Finally, how might television studies reframe, reshape, or reconfigure our understanding of video game industries, cultures, and practices?
Media Pandering: The Good, the Bad, and the… Inclusive?
The American media is often accused of pandering to audiences (especially in regards to politics like when Hillary Clinton recently did the “Whip/Nae Nae” dance on Ellen presumably to appeal to young, African Americans), but, in what ways can we complicate the idea of media pandering? At what point is pandering offensive and at what point might it be seen as inclusive? Historically, Hollywood has always had a “diversity problem” (both in front and behind the camera) and recent reports like the “2016 Hollywood Diversity Report” out of UCLA only confirm it. So, what responsibility and/or incentives do studios have to improve the “diversity problem” in Hollywood – both on and off-screen? And in what ways might they do it without pandering to the audience?
For example, the forth-coming re-boot of the Ghostbusters franchise was immensely criticized for pandering to the female audience because the iconic protagonists are female in the new film. But is it? As Joseph Cain explores in his essay, “Nerd Guys, Pandering, and “Forced” Diversity,” is “it pandering anytime a piece of media features anything that deviates from the standard gruff white antihero-centric formula that dominates so much of current entertainment.” In other words, by refusing to interrogate media that does NOT pander to the audience, are we simply reinforcing the white, male, middle-class audience as the ideal to which all other media audiences compare? To complicate this idea even further, in regards to the Ghostbusters re-boot, it begs the question: in what ways might audiences want to be pandered to? For example, in a recent episode of Black-ish, actor Anthony Anderson delivered a long monologue explicitly and poignantly addressing the hope and fears of growing up African American in the United States. Is that an example of media pandering? Or rather, when is it pandering and when is it not? Does it depend on who is doing it, and for what personal, ideological, or political purposes?
Methods for Studying Non-U.S. Television
Those scholars who focus on television outside the United States may face difficulty accessing funding, materials, archives, people, and production companies for linguistic, geographic, political, and institutional reasons. This roundtable seeks to foreground the issues American scholars face when studying television outside the U.S. as well as methods they may employ to study such media. How do digital tools ease or complicate the study of non-U.S. media? How does one negotiate access to materials, people, and even regions that may seem impenetrable at first glance? What methods or approaches allow scholars to work around said difficulties?
Music Video in the Digital Age
Scholarship on music video boomed in the 1990s for several reasons: MTV provided a steady source of music video content, music videos were at the center of national and international conversations about youth culture, and soaring budgets for music videos allowed directors such as David Fincher and Michel Gondry to develop signature styles. The scholarly conversation about music video dwindled in the early 2000s, as MTV shifted to reality and fictional programming. In the 2010s, a new wave of scholarship is focusing on music video’s renewed presence on YouTube, Vevo, and other online platforms. This roundtable asks how we might theorize and analyze music videos today. How has the digitization of music video impacted its aesthetics? How might music video reception be shaped by YouTube’s algorithms? Do online platforms encourage or discourage long form videos? To what extent do viewers want or expect more immersive/interactive music video experiences such as those provided by Taylor Swift’s 360 degree “Blank Space” video, Bjork’s Biophilia app, and Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown” site? Does the online context open a space for directors to challenge the representational politics of music video with regard to race, gender, and sexuality?
The Past, Present, and Future of TV: Sports, Right(s)?
The past decade has seen the mutually beneficial relationship between sports and television flourish. Major sport’s historical dominance of television ratings has only increased in the more recent narrowcasting environment, propelling the costs of broadcast rights to unprecedented heights. The multi-billion dollar contracts for these rights is now the main source of income for leagues such as the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Yet the future remains uncertain as sport’s slow, continued migration to digital platforms combined with flattening ratings has led many observers to predict a bursting of the “sports rights bubble.” As both the television and sports industries adjust to emerging digital platforms for video distribution and consumption, what does the future hold for the relationship between these two historical bedfellows?
Piracy & Media Studies
Media studies most often engages the piratical when addressing topics such as copyright regulation or the “informal” pasts of current global industries like Bollywood. Yet, beyond these liminal cases, there exists a vast shadow world of media activities with no regard for legality or institutional recognition, composed of pirate infrastructures and dark networks that do not fit prescribed notions of what a media ecology is, or how it behaves. This roundtable invites scholars who investigate these areas to discuss the potentialities and limitations of such projects. What happens when we take these “others” as legitimate objects of study, apart from or besides their relation to their legal counterparts? Further, this roundtable is an invitation to rethink the epistemological premises of media studies on who constitutes a media user, in which instances, and through which legitimating structures. How do hackers, spambots, or trolls test the limits of our theories about access, content production, and meaningful participation? In what ways do these figures require media studies to more deeply engage with postcolonial, critical race, and disability studies? Finally, engaging with piratical media topics often requires rethinking our longstanding methodologies: what distinct ethical or practical concerns arise in pursuing these projects?
Podcasts and Convergent Digital Media
In 2013, only eight years after its inception, the podcast had surpassed one billion subscriptions from iTunes, which had in turn facilitated over eight million podcast uploads. But while the popularity is unquestionable, it remains difficult to place podcasts within new media studies. This roundtable considers the podcast alongside other popular forms, such as web series and online television, and makes connections between a wealth of newly framed textualities, serialities, publics, informal distribution patterns, fan cultures, histories and aesthetics. This burgeoning terrain invites us to question how academia can scrutinize podcasts as part of a genealogy of convergent digital media. As these forms rapidly move to the center of popular culture we ask: How have these objects of study developed their own patterns of consumption and distribution? What types of commercial models are being implemented or even newly formed? Are these new media and their distribution subject to forms of censorship? What types of informal or formal social spaces are resulting from this technology?
The Politics of Media Coverage
On March 10, 2016 President Barack Obama argued that the Republican Party is responsible for the creation of Donald Trump. This sentiment has been echoed elsewhere, by economist Paul Krugman, among others. Yet is a single political party solely to blame for the ascendance of Donald Trump? When the phrase: “media responsible for Trump” is searched within Google News, there are over 8 million results. While the relationship between politics and the media is long and has been deeply studied, this roundtable should focus on the following questions: To what extent are the media responsible for the state of politics in the US today? What influence do media corporations yield on politics and elections, and is this relationship a conflict of interest? The phrase “get money out of politics” is a common rallying cry in both political parties, but is there any merit to the notion of getting media corporations out of politics? What would a reformed media system look like particularly for political coverage?
Questions of Scale, Structure, and Agency in Media Industries Research
One of the most pressing questions within the growing field of media industries research is the role of the individual as agent within contemporary media, cultural, and creative industries. This has been a welcome corrective to the prolonged dominance of political economic frameworks in media and mass communication research that deemphasize or marginalize individual agency in favor of the structuring role of macro-level economic conditions within certain industries. While acknowledging the importance of political economic considerations, media industry scholars often focus on the innovative ways that individuals working within these industries exert individual agency through their creative negotiation of norms and practices within certain fields (e.g. Banks, 2014; Mayer, 2012; Havens and Lotz, 2011). Nonetheless, there is a wide gulf separating the macroeconomic considerations of conglomerates and the individual scale of creative decision-making. This roundtable will focus on questions of how we most effectively theorize and potentially bridge this scalar problem in analyzing media industries. Is there a productive middle ground between questions of political economy and agency? How do workflows and decisions move across these corporate hierarchies and structures? Are authorship models based on pre-conglomerate Hollywood still relevant? How does the departmentalization and compartmentalization of media industries suggest appropriate analytical models? Are there precedents in other disciplines or specific case studies that could inform these questions? In short, we hope to examine the broad range in between corporate scale and individual scale media industries research.
Race, Gender & Sexuality in Production Studies
Television scholars have increasingly turned to production studies as a means to examine television from within the circuit of media study. However, scholarship on race, gender, and sexuality within media studies have frequently remained mired in discussions tightly bound to the representation on screen or the broader machinations of networks. With few exceptions, scholars within production studies do not discuss the place of race, gender and sexuality in production studies. This roundtable asks: How do we conceptualize race, gender and sexuality in production studies? What does an engagement with race, gender, and sexuality in casting, acting, network branding, and/or discussions of writing/writers’ rooms have to offer production studies? What methodological obstacles do scholars face when approaching race, gender and sexuality in television production, and how can we navigate these obstacles? To what extent do studies of race, gender and sexuality shape/disrupt the ways we understand production studies?
Reality Bites: Consuming Food Television
Binging is one of the dominant ways of describing media consumption in the era of streaming television. While binging typically refers to “addictive” viewing experiences with soaps and other serialized shows, reality food-themed shows entice audiences to binge on images of food and food preparation.
From competitions like Iron Chef, Chopped, and The Great British Bake Off to food travel shows like No Reservations to chef-focused series like The Mind of a Chef, reality food shows largely present food and foodstuffs as bountiful and abundant, as well as sexy and expensive, instead of offering a more balanced and complex view of food scarcity and insecurity, as well as the social-economic factors that determine who eats, and who eats what.
How, then, should we consume reality food shows that entice and titillate with “food porn” in a world with increasing food insecurity? How do cooking competition shows obscure the realities of food production? How do food shows, more generally, naturalize global and local power imbalances in terms of food access and labor?
How do food tourism shows like Bizarre Eats and Parts Unknown exploit the global South and expose the workings of cultural and economic colonialisms? Where do we find complex representations of food histories and foodways on television?
How do reality food shows address politics around race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and nation? How do shows about celebrity chefs capitalize on ethnic, gender, and other forms of difference to construct star personas and appeal to TV food audiences? How have chef-centered food shows evolved over time from a utilitarian focus on straightforward instruction and preparation to a focus on talent, celebrity, and business acumen?
Religion and/on American Television
Lucifer, Preacher, Daredevil, Damien, The Path, Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, The Leftovers, Jane the Virgin, Hand of God, Homeland: all shows airing the 2015-2016 American television season that feature religious narratives as part of their premise. And those are just the hour-long programs. Comedies like the recently-cancelled Angel from Hell and reality shows like Preachers of L.A. are using religion or religious figures like angels as structuring narrative elements. This question considers the how, why, and when of this current boom of religious programs. What historical continuities illuminate cultural shifts (or lack thereof) in Hollywood regarding religion between now and ten years ago? Twenty years ago? How does this moment in the television industry and the wider American culture shape how television is appearing on television? Should these shows be considered separately from evangelical or faith-based productions like A.D.: The Bible Continues? Who are these shows targeting for their audiences, and who is being left out? What aspects of religion(s) are largely left out of their television representations? In short, how is religion being negotiated through television representation and why is this happening now?
Resisting Presentism, Reviving the Past: Feminist TV History
The coalescing of critical television studies into a legitimate academic field in the early 1990s was facilitated in part by the work of such feminist historians as Lynn Spigel, Denise Mann, Mary Beth Haralovich, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Nina Leibman. Indeed, Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (U Minnesota P, 1992), which focused largely on feminist historical research, was not only a ground-breaking book in our field, but also one that was utilized in many TV studies courses, PhD dissertations, and published research throughout the 1990s. Many TV historians and many History of Television courses still rely on it and other works produced by the first generation of feminist TV historians. Yet, in an informal study from 2012, Mary Desjardins noted a precipitous decline over the past 20 years in historical research presented at Console-ing Passions, the most important conference for scholars studying gender in television. That trend continues to this day.
What has happened to historical research in feminist TV studies since the early 2000s? Why has the present moment loomed so large in recent feminist television scholarship? Has a similar pattern occurred in the related fields of queer TV studies and critical race TV studies? What might be lost by the prevalence of a presentist approach in feminist TV studies, and how might we go about reviving feminist TV scholars’ interest in the past? What areas of television history remain unexplored by feminist researchers? What archives remain untapped, and which historical subjects are waiting to tell their stories? What new methodologies and theoretical perspectives might we bring to feminist television historiography that might in turn reinvigorate TV studies at large?
Social Media Influencers: Creators, Celebrity, Content, Audiences, Brands
The fastest growing media “ecosystem” today is rooted not in the traditional fields of television, film, and music but in social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Snapchat, and Twitch. Many social media content creators are building loyal audiences and leveraging that success into legacy media (movies and television) and earning revenue with brand integration deals. These “social media influencers” are assumed to have special influence over their youthful audiences–both legacy media companies and brands are anxious to reach those audiences.
To analyze this new media industry, I suggest we consider multiple perspectives: creators, celebrity, content, audiences, and brands.
Creators: Who are key social media influencers and how have they sustained their careers? What are the particular challenges facing these content creators as they scale up production, reach wider audiences, and professionalize?
Celebrity: How do we understand the categories and structures of social media celebrity? Are there hierarchies within or among vloggers, gamers, Instagrammers, Viners?
Content: How are content categories and genres evolving and being redefined for nonlinear digital platforms? For example, how are short video formats on Vine and Snapchat redefining video aesthetics?
Audiences: Who are the audiences? How are they conceptualized, defined, and built? What are the implications for niche, long tail, and other concepts of media content as social media “personalizes” consumption?
Brands: As advertisers evolve away from interruptive advertising, brands are more likely to turn to social media influencers for branded content. Which brands are most involved and why? What strategies do brands and social media influencers use to maintain “authenticity” with audiences? What are the risks for both the social media influencers and the brands?
Teaching Broadcast History
A question we would like to see discussed at Flow 2016 is one that has come up in the teaching of broadcast history. Many students experience television and radio through on-demand platforms. Their concept of “programming flow” is more like a playlist than an industrial strategy. We would like to see a panel that considers the resources, strategies, and assignments that professors’ have implemented to introduce students to the core concepts of broadcasting. Concepts such as “liveness,” “programming flow,” and “public interest” are as relevant as ever to the content and forms of television. These concepts contribute to the form and content of television that remains prominent yet our students have little familiarity with their original mode of distribution. How do we make broadcast history come to life, given that many of the technologies and ways of watching we grew up with are no longer practiced by or relevant to our students? Should we act like “TV History Detectives” beginning with shows viewed on digital platforms then tracing the roots of those forms through broadcast history? Do we need to assign mandatory blocks of broadcast television viewing to recreate Raymond Williams’ famous epiphany? Do we need to assign discourse analysis of period publications to lead them to the same discoveries that Lynn Spigel made in Make Room for TV? Given the need to explain these core concepts, should we abandon a linear structure when teaching broadcast history and instead group it around particular themes? A panel made up of diverse perspectives and approaches could help answer these questions.
Teaching & Technology in Media Studies
Even at the turn of the millennium, many media classrooms delivered, shared, and explored visual, historical, and theoretical content in ways not dissimilar to classrooms of the seventies and eighties: watch it, read it, speak it, and write it. Sure, film projection had given way to VHS and dvd and PowerPoints had begun edge-out overheads, but much had remained the same. More recently, however, both the naturalization of university supported learning management systems (Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, etc.) and the proliferation of low-cost and free online and mobile apps have enabled professors and students alike to easily deliver and analyze material in ways less ephemeral than—but often complementary to—more traditional classroom discussion, lecture, and assignment techniques. This roundtable will focus on the sharing and analysis of digital tools and techniques used in today’s media classroom. How are (or are) these tools helping both students and faculty engage with texts in more complex and user-friendly ways? How do professors sift through the never-ending stream of newly developed tools? What kinds of tools have worked particularly well in the classroom (or failed horridly)? Has the allure of new tools contributed to the weakening of more traditional reading and writing skills? How might the integration of new tools and technologies help to prepare our students for a 21st century work environment?
Television Form: Past, Present, Future
The past two decades have seen many scholars and critics herald television’s “New Golden Age,” the era of “Quality TV” (Feuer) and/or “Complex TV” (Mittell). Similarly, the recent “aesthetic turn” in TV studies privileges post-1980 programming as particularly “worthy” of formal analysis. This roundtable will explore the relationship between contemporary televisual poetics and those of TV’s formative years (1940s-60s) in order to trace a lineage of storytelling and aesthetic convention. The goal of this discussion is to illuminate the formal innovations of early television, and to discover how many of the elements of contemporary television that we often describe as innovative or “new” are present in the medium from its beginning. For example: direct address, blurring of diegetic levels, mise en abyme, and metanarration, which are typically seen as characteristic of recent programs like Community, Arrested Development, and House of Cards, can be traced back to The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Dragnet, and The Twilight Zone, among others. Recognizing such formal similarities enables us to work towards a historically-conscious televisual poetics.
Contributors to this roundtable should consider the following questions: What early TV programs have been overlooked or understudied, especially from a formal perspective? How do these early programs exhibit narrative qualities that are often attributed to more recent TV programming? What is the relationship between formal criticism and historical criticism? What social and historical factors contribute to television’s formal experimentation? And finally, what can a fuller understanding of TV’s formal heritage tell us about the future of TV storytelling? We welcome contributors to focus their responses on individual programs, particular narrative devices across programs, or broader reflections on formal heritage across TV history.
Television’s Transgender Tipping Point
The concept of a contemporary ‘transgender tipping point’ is founded in large part upon the rapid rise to celebrity that numerous trans actors, academics, activists and athletes have impelled and experienced over the past few years. American television has been a cornerstone of this process, with series including Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Sense8, I Am Cait and I Am Jazz celebrated (by some) for finally putting serialized trans characters, performers and creators at the centre of their narratives. This roundtable asks to what extent these contemporary series and the debates they have driven help viewers to appreciate transgender experiences. What are the tropes repeated in these representations, and is the brand of visibility politics that identifies these useful? Further, how can media scholars mobilize the insights of queer TV studies to move beyond the politics of representation and examine how televisual systems might enable trans aesthetics and temporalities?
Theorizing Place and Space in Television
“A strong sense of place,” is an often-repeated phrase about critically acclaimed television dramas such as Breaking Bad, Justified, Treme, True Detective and The Wire. Yet, as television scholars do we know how to theorize “place” on television and the audience’s experience of it in "quality" TV dramas, situation comedies, and reality television? While the concept of place has obtained some degree of theorization in film studies [Aitken and Zonn (1994), Higson (1984), Rappaport (1980), Wollen (1980], it has received scant attention in television studies. One early article by Newcomb (1990) suggests that the connotative richness of geographic region, city, community, setting, character as stranger, self and status of place—all serve to express place in fictional television. But, what role does televisual space play in the creation of place on television? How is place humanized and vested with memory and desire? How does place contribute to performance and to intensify character identification? In what specific ways do TV programs employ narrative and production techniques, including location, character, language, sounds, objects, to create a memorable and tactile sense of place with audiences?
TV Genre, Political Allegory, and New Distribution Platforms
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1963 Hugo Award winning novel, Amazon’s 10-episode streamed series, The Man in the High Castle, takes place in an alternative reality in which the Allied powers lost World War II. For TV Studies scholars, the series is of interest on several counts. First, it models successful world-building and the ways that TV science fiction can please multiple audiences precisely because of its speculative, allegorical nature. In a nutshell, it offers a view of a “fascist America” accessible to both left and right—is this an allegory for Trump’s America? Obama’s? Sanders’? Second, it offers a new take on the World War II text by attempting to show Japanese “bad guys” without falling into racist tropes and by dragging us—kicking and screaming—into feeling sympathy for an American Nazi. And third, it offers a model for an alternate future of television, a future without ads, without networks, without the tyranny of scheduling. The new X-Files, conversely, reads as a straight-up “network show”; you could watch it live on Fox or streamed later on Hulu, but there was no particular benefit to watching on either platform. On the flip side, the show benefited from new distribution platforms insofar as fans of the original show could be counted on to revisit it via streaming, and new fans could be brought on board because of the easy, instant accessibility of the old show. Billed as “season ten” and also as a “six episode event series,” what we really get is one-quarter of a season; the new show offers a story arc spanning the entire “season” as well as stand-alone “monster-of-the-week” episodes; narratively, it could have done the same thing in 22 episodes that it did in 6 episodes. Notably, like the old X-Files—and Man in the High Castle—the show offers conspiracy theories that could be comfortably consumed from a range of political positions. This roundtable poses the following questions: How are original streaming programs like Man in the High Castle reinventing narrative strategies, genre classifications, and representational paradigms within the new media environment? How do Amazon’s (and other streaming platforms) original productions force us to reconsider conceptualizations of niche audiences? Conversely, to what extent are network reboots like X-Files indicative of how “old school” media products are being reframed to benefit from the long tail of distribution, while also appealing to a broader network-era-type audience?
What about TV Acting?
While scholarship continues to expand the boundaries and depth of television studies – including influential contributions from Michael Newman and Elana Levine’s “Legitimating Television” and Jason Mittell’s “Complex TV” – there is a continuing need to explore the medium from as many perspectives as possible. With the new focus on contemporary television generally, and showrunners and film directors as televisual auteurs, we should ask ourselves what is being left out. In other words, what about TV acting?
Television has always been a performer-centered medium — from the early days of vaudeville stars making the transition from radio to television, to the early successes of performers like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and others who essentially invented the sitcom as we know it. But what about the journeyman actors and supporting casts who have worked for decades in soap operas, the day players who have populated the background of all of Dick Wolf’s Law and Order series’? How do we plausibly argue for the importance of “Quality TV” or television’s latest “Golden Age” without analyzing the creative labor of Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, Edie Falco among many, many others? Why do the Emmys and Oscars privilege an actors’ labor and stardom while scholars and critics place acting near the bottom of their evaluations of a show? Since actors are entirely necessary to the final product of a program and generally what audiences relate to, why is there so little scholarship devoted to their craftsmanship, labor and central role in production?