Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.


San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.


Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.


Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]


image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”



Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from https://xenagateguard.tumblr.com/post/75102795836/xena-gabrielle-baby-eve


References:




Syndication 202: Make Reruns Great Again
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


Edited still from Home Alone 2
The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

As Father Time dragged his cold, atrophied body across the finish line of 2019, shriveled by a year of crippling political scandals, the news cycle found one final story to bludgeon him dead: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation viciously cut Donald J. Trump’s 7-second cameo from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Don, Jr. called the edit “pathetic,” Fox News accused the network of “censorship,” and a former member of the Canadian parliament labeled it “politically charged bias,” tweeting “DEFUND. CBC. NOW.

In response, the network released a statement attempting to explain what is really a standard industry practice for second-run syndication or rerunning: editing or post-post production and the importance of version specificity, which is the topic of this column. Snipping a joke here and there, cutting down audience applause, or even slightly speeding up the playback all add up to make more time for commercials, and the art form of this editing work is to make as many changes as possible without gaining attention. The CBC said Trump’s casualty was part of 8 total minutes eliminated in 2014. Another example from my recent research is a Viacom version of Bewitched finding a way to add more than five full minutes of commercial time to a 1966 episode, clocking 10 minutes and 37 seconds of total commercial time in a 30-minute episode – that’s talent.

Channel executives need that extra commercial revenue to pay for their leased rerun programs, which in turn generate enough money and brand identity to support their original productions. Thus, while the study of a “quality” cable drama might be important in its own right, an added consideration of its channel’s second-run syndie fare would enrich the analysis since those reruns both helped pay for the original programming and carved out the channel’s identity for viewers in the first place.

The post-post-production practices of the syndication industry are an invisible labor that hopes to hide its tracks well enough most people never notice. In that way, it is also a creative labor with meaningful implications for text and authorship that we should account for when identifying our actual objects of study (e.g. “In this piece, I am using a TBS rerun of the Sex and the City episode “Four Women and a Funeral” that aired on …”). Academic publishing styles that ostensibly assure responsible citations really demand imprecise ones. When citing a TV text, the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, requests original director, writer, and “year of original air date” regardless of which version of an episode one is actually analyzing, while MLA format requires the original network and the original broadcast date in its citations.


The Golden Girls on Hulu
On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card.

Be careful, though, because even with these very general details, the industry will try to trick you. Disney, for instance, originally produced The Golden Girls under its Touchstone Television label renamed ABC Television Studios more than two decades later. It wants you to forget that The Golden Girls originally aired on NBC. Now, all officially licensed Golden Girls merchandise includes the ABC TV logo. An unskippable title card featuring the ABC logo plays before each episode on Disney majority-owned Hulu (the thumbnails for which are also stamped with the ABC logo). The show’s Comic Con presence was called ABC’s The Golden Girls. And if you go to Amazon to purchase downloads for the show, the network listed in the official details? ABC.


Images of the Twin Towers removed from reruns of Sex and the City and The Simpsons after 9/11
After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages.

Beyond the number of extra- or paratextual elements surrounding an episode in its second and successive lives (that we have come to theorize as part of the total televisual text), there can be and often are numerous changes to the content of that episode which are made by more and more authors all snowballing into our selected objects of study, which is why I recommend instituting different citational guidelines for our field. They include editors, cultural/content analysts, timers, colorists, music supervisors, mixers/ADR specialists, foreign language voice actors, and censor experts who all make numerous edits including medium changes (pan and scan, tilt and scan, telecine, music licensing issues), technological changes (advent of color TV, prepping for streaming, remastering for HD and 4k), cultural changes (erasing/censoring sensitive content, removing offensive episodes from packages), etc. The post-post production process also offers new commercial possibilities. How I Met Your Mother reruns, for instance, recently included new product placements opportunities in already aired episodes


The promotional poster for FXX's marathon of The Simpsons
FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes.

Between the original airing of the aforementioned Bewitched and Viacom’s, what changed? Among other things, they removed the only role played by a black actor — an early African American representation on television consigned to syndication’s dustbin. If you think DVDs are a safe backup, consider that the syndie prints of both Roseanne and Alf were unwittingly used for home video release, while fans have noted that Hulu’s recent acquisition of Designing Women appears to use some syndie versions of episodes as well. I Love Lucy’s famous satin heart? Added later for syndication. And that’s not to say anything of music licensing issues created for shows like Daria and The Wonder Years that viewers argue changes their textual value. Dawson’s Creek even lost its iconic theme song for a run on Netflix. Doo doo doo do doo.


The cast of Dawson’s Creek tries to remember the show’s opening title song.

Speaking of streaming, watching Home Alone 2 is something of a new tradition in my family. This year, I braced extra hard for a cameo Canadians might have been expecting, but that never came. Sad. Who scratched Donald J. Trump from Home Alone 2? Who approved that edit? Did viewers notice? How did that impact their experience of it? Did its absence create or prevent any uncomfortable conversations? My goal in this piece is not to fetishize the “original” of anything. Rather, my interest in investigating reruns as new texts stems from such infinite and exciting research possibilities that such an understanding opens up for new analyses in textuality, industry/production practices, and particularly audiences and their pleasures. For a more thorough discussion of this televisual phenomenon I’ve called retextuality, see my chapter on Roseanne in the second edition of How to Watch Television.

As television’s grout, both reruns and first-run syndie fare take up devalued time on the TV schedule, fill it, and try to fashion something out of nothing. In serving the marginalized schedule, they often serve the marginalized audience and thus create new infinite textual meanings and research paths. In the next and final installment, I’ll discuss the creative and progressive possibilities in terms of content afforded by first-run syndication.



Image Credits:

  1. The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. (Author’s photo illustration from a screengrab of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.)
  2. On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card. (Author’s screengrab from Hulu.com)
  3. After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages. (Author’s composite. A screengrab from the opening credits of Sex and the City and an animation cel for the 1997 episode of The Simpsons, both from here.)
  4. FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes. Art for the FXX marathon of The Simpsons from FX’s website, here.




Syndication 201: Syndication Is Dead. Long Live Syndication.
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and Jerry Springer from their new talk shows
New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and a court show featuring Jerry Springer.

In 2013, the US government revised how it estimates its GDP to account for, in part, the extraordinary profits of syndication for television because of the viability of daily shows and reruns to provide long-term streams of income. Fast forward to 2018, when Nielsen conservatively estimates that Netflix users streamed 52 billion+ minutes of The Office and 32.6 billion+ minutes of Friends (both shows it has recently lost), the equivalent of 25 hours for every Netflix subscriber in the country—a measurement that only includes TV-set viewing, not including other devices.

Stories abound about the incredible lengths rights-seekers will go to to secure ad-supported and subscription streaming (AVOD and SVOD) syndication rights to shows like Seinfeld ($2.8m/episode for five years) because those shows’ large packages of episodes shore up a subscriber base that in turn pay for streamers’ expensive original programming, a strategy borrowed from cable’s playbook which it borrowed from affiliate and independent broadcasters before that. And television’s digital revolution brought with it compression technologies that enabled us to go from 3-4 networks to more than 50. Not 50 cable channels, but 50 different over-the-air networks, leading Derek Kompare to quip that the “golden age of over-the-air reruns is apparently right now.


Logos of a few of today's over-the-air networks, like MeTV
Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today.

Meanwhile, despite falling ratings for most traditional cable and broadcasting (or linear TV) overall, Fall 2019 saw its biggest year for first-run syndies in a decade, with more than 40 shows set to air this season alone. TV’s three highest-paid stars are all from first-run syndication: Judge Judy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dr. Phil. And in addition to being the reliable sugar daddy of the television business, syndication has been technologically pioneering (e.g., innovating filming for television, international co-productions, and color TV) and culturally pioneering (e.g., a same-sex kiss 18 years before Roseanne, a transgender lead character 37 years before Transparent).

And yet, despite its massive economic, technological, and cultural strides, syndication never found its match in scholarship. Indeed, while the importance of “quality TV” and new primetime programming get to be taken for granted as objects worthy of study, journal reviewers constantly insist I set aside paragraphs to justify why a study of syndication is a legitimate project given, as one recently put it, it’s just a slate of “formulaic … programs with so little to commend them”—television’s lowest common denominator and a practice of yore. I don’t take that personally because, except for the excellent Rerun Nation and helpful asides elsewhere, there’s very little in the field or in our students’ textbooks that discuss syndication beyond a basic 101 of how it functions. Routledge has five published editions of The Television Handbook, for instance, only one of which says anything about syndication (the third), and only in its glossary: “syndication—the sale of programs for regional television broadcasters to transmit within their territory.”

The word “syndication” typically is used as a shorthand for one of three things: 1) to explain a particular form of distribution as “the practice of selling [content] directly to stations without going through a network, programs that each station can air at whatever time and with whatever frequency it desires,” either as originals (first-run syndie talk shows like Oprah, Ricki Lake, game shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, court shows like Judge Judy, or scripted originals like Xena: Warrior Princess) or reruns (second-run syndication); 2) with regard to the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) in the 1970s that divided networks from their media libraries and changed what they could air; and 3) in reference to the 100-episode finish line for network series hoping to “make it to syndication” because that’s where television’s real profits lie.

With this 101 under our belt, this post serves as the first installment in a three-part series to provide researchers and students with an intermediate understanding of syndication today—a Syndication 201—to better consider some of syndication’s economic, technological, and cultural contributions in the story of television.

The Syndication Industry:

Simply put, there are three major players in the syndication business: the owners of a media product up for clearance (or a program available to license); the syndicator who the owners hire/lease their rights to as the “representative” of the media product. The syndicator then prepares the program and its contracts for clearance to; the exhibitor or the TV channel or station that airs the product according to its contract.


An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor
Judge Judy in Chicago from bbrauer on Vimeo.
An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.

There are three types of syndication deals: straight cash (a station pays for a show directly), barter/trade (a show is provided for free in exchange for owners taking most of the advertising profits), and cash-plus-trade (a mixture of both). Let’s look at an example:

Oprah Winfrey is so incredibly wealthy not only because she horizontally integrated (The Oprah Show, O The Oprah Magazine, OWN, Harpo Films, Inc.) but also because syndication made it easier for her to vertically integrate (she served as both its executive and on-air talent and she owned the show, the production company, the production team, and the studio) by cutting out all the typical network middlemen and their profit sharing. King World Productions was Oprah’s syndicator meaning it 1) negotiated individual contracts to air the show on stations in all the television markets (currently 210 as divided by county); and 2) it distributed the product (episodes of the show) to these stations through satellites. In small regional markets, Winfrey provided the show for free in exchange for controlling ad revenue while in larger ones, top network affiliates held constant bidding wars to secure her show. In exchange for its on-the-ground negotiations with hundreds of stations and station groups, King World took a cut from the profits she earned from each individual exhibitor.


Oprah Winfrey Show Ad Campaign
An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show

As its marquee property, Oprah generated 40 percent or more of King World’s operating revenues, and every time Winfrey’s contract with King World was up for renegotiation, she held the future of the show hostage until King World agreed to scale back its cut, eventually leading to an unprecedented salary peak at $315 million in one year. You often can see this kind of negotiation happening in public, as when talk show hosts tease their audiences about potentially ending their shows, like Ellen DeGeneres, who does it all the time and Judge Judy, who has used her negotiations to secure new productions.


Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.

The possibility of this inverted control of power—with the independent production company at the top—is part of what makes the syndicatedness of syndies key to the creative latitude they have for the content they air, which has often, in turn, created ideal conditions for queer and otherwise transgressive content to appear on television. In second-run syndication, meanwhile, the owners and syndicators may hire new creative and production professionals to change the content of shows to make them easier to sell, as when Tom & Jerry animated over its Mammy character, and both Will & Grace and Sex and the City edited out the World Trade Center towers. I will discuss these creative aspects of content and the syndication industry in the next installment.



Image Credits:

  1. New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson and a court show featuring Jerry Springer. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  2. Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  3. An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.
  4. An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show. (author scan: Broadcasting & Cable, May 1, 1989)
  5. Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.




Stripping (Part 2)

DeVito

DeVito

In my last column, I began to discuss the practice of stripping — placing reruns of a series in the same daily slot five times a week on a local station or cable channel. I argued that series that offer dollops of quotidian delights do particularly well when stripped, as their subtle qualities become more visible with the increased exposure of daily presentation. I would like to continue by discussing another source of heightened appreciation of stripped series, our changing views of characters and actors in reruns, before comparing stripping to DVD bingeing, and wrapping up with a programming note.

Watching a weekly show on a daily basis changes our exposure to actors and the characters they play. Secondary characters sometimes rise to the fore once syndication begins, as watching material that is already familiar affords us the chance to focus on less central elements of the show. Characters who may appear briefly on a weekly basis become more familiar when watched daily, and their cumulative impact intensifies once freed from the seven-day break between performances. Even important secondary characters can gain more attention in stripped series, as patterns of narrative become more obvious. A classic example comes from Taxi, the late ’70s-early ’80s sitcom that became a syndication favorite. When introduced in its first run, cast members Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy Kaufman attracted press attention, and their characters were certainly important to the show. In syndication, however, fan attention turned more toward Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim and Danny DeVito as Louie. Reverend Jim rarely had a large role in the narrative, but regularly offered one or two observations or scenes per episode that got big laughs. Daily viewing reduced the isolated quality of his non sequitur-based humor, and the details of his bizarre personality could be gathered by viewers trying to understand his hippie-burn-out-street-preacher persona. His cumulative impact was much greater in syndication than in the original run.

Watching the show on a daily (or nightly) basis also made clear the importance of Danny DeVito’s character to the series. Louie the dispatcher was often the main catalyst of story lines, despite the fact that he was usually stuck in a cage to the side of the main action. Louie also got some of the best dialogue in his role as the main comic foil on the show. The Taxi writers clearly fell in love with the characters of Reverend Jim and Louie, whose comic styles were more extreme than the rather mild tone that was sustained by most of the other regulars. (Carol Kane’s Simka, another outlandish personality, also benefited, but she was not featured as regularly). The writers may also have fallen in love with Lloyd and DeVito’s comic talents. It is no coincidence that these two actors have had the strongest film careers among the cast since the series ended. Did the two’s heightened visibility in syndication lead to better roles in later productions? Or did their success in film make them seem more important in the Taxi reruns? Probably both, but their impact in reruns preceded their leaps to major film success in the mid-1980s.

Views of primary characters can also change through stripping. In the last column, I mentioned the popularity of James Garner in The Rockford Files and Jerry Orbach in Law and Order as the product of daily exposure. Even a performer as attention-getting as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be seen in new ways once the series went into syndication. Personally, I became much more impressed with Gellar’s performance once stripping brought into relief her range in moving between comedy, romance, and action (once she learned how to stake with conviction). The series was already known for its mixture of modes, but the daily juxtaposition of episodes that required Gellar to constantly switch performative gears made her ability to do so seem more central to the success of the show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Stripping became more prevalent with the proliferation of cable channels, but that may soon change. Syndicators once thought successful stripping required five or six seasons of an original run, but the great maw of the multichannel universe will now settle for fewer episodes, allowing more series to be stripped. The advent of DVD versions of television series, however, poses new questions for syndicators and programmers. Will the DVD market drive down demand for stripped series? Will the appeal of a ritualistic daily visitation of a series withstand the easy availability of the same material on demand? Will we see an era of DIY stripping, when viewers can schedule their own viewing preferences? Or do DVD box set owners skip DIY stripping and go straight to video bingeing, watching as many episodes as personal schedules will allow (and then some), in the shortest amount of time? Perhaps some genres, such as sitcoms, are amenable to DIY stripping, while others, such as thrillers with strong narrative arcs, lead to bingeing. Friends of mine who recently disappeared for nights and weekends at a time to obsessively watch 24 attest to the power of suspense, even when the show is “bad, but compelling,” as those in its clutches agreed. If once seen as a symbol of plenty compared to the weekly presentation schedule of an original run, the measured charms of stripping’s daily discipline may appear inadequate to a society bent toward bingeing. Does binge viewing offer different dynamics to the appreciation of small touches, secondary characters, and narrative patterns? Binge viewers of the FLOW community, what say ye?

Finally, I would like to end my cycle of articles this year by noting another sort of prevalence on cable television of late. I am referring to the David Mamet film Spartan, which plays repeatedly on HBO virtually every month, and pops up on TNT and other channels from time to time. Some Mamet-scripted films have been common cable fare before — Glengarry Glen Ross was often screened throughout the ’90s, and Ronin, which he co-wrote under a pseudonym, can still be seen regularly. The prevalence of Spartan, however, is astonishing, given its lack of success in its theatrical run in 2004. A cloak and dagger story of the search for the kidnapped daughter of a President, the film is replete with themes of the management of the news, White House sexual peccadilloes, duplicitous Presidential aides, the use of torture and other extralegal methods during a security emergency, Arab treatment of women, shadowy involvement by Israelis, and the protection of the powerful at the expense of working-class, African-American, and Latina populations. Has it become a cult favorite? Is this merely a case of the studio — Warner Bros. — milking its property by using its affiliated television channels? Or, given that the film is the clearest echo in contemporary American film of the hyperparanoiac thrillers of the Watergate era (The Parallax View, The Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation), is somebody (other than Mamet, who most assuredly is) trying to tell us something?

Image Credits:

1. DeVito

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CHECK OUT OUR LATEST SUGGESTED CALLS FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

More and more frequently the networks are scheduling encore presentations of certain television programs on nights other than when they are normally scheduled. Although it makes some sense to do this with heavily serialized programs that require repetitive viewing patterns so that the overriding story arcs can become coherent, this phenomenon is not relegated to these types of programs. In fact, it seems more common to implement this strategy with programs that are not serialized.

In order to illustrate this claim, a quick survey of the scheduling grid from epguides.com shows us that the networks have largely abandoned Saturday night programming. NBC has scheduled a repeat of each of the three variations of its Law & Order series. CBS responds by counterprogramming repeats of Cold Case and Numb3rs. ABC shows a movie of the week and FOX has relegated itself to providing Cops and America’s Most Wanted–two shows that are very inexpensive to create. In terms of content, this night of television viewing seems to share crime and justice as a common semantic thread. Furthermore, these shows are not heavily serialized. In fact, the Law & Orders are arguably some of the least complex shows — at least in terms of a serialized narrative structure — currently on the air. Viewers do not need to concern themselves with missing episodes because they can always revisit them later in syndication. Furthermore, they simply do not need to keep up with an ongoing storyline in order to comprehend them.

More importantly, the Saturday night programming grid illustrates the networks’ unwillingness to invest in this night of the week. This unwillingness emphasizes the industry’s reliance on a specific demographic category of viewers — 18-35 year-olds. These viewers are presumed to be involved in other activities on Saturday nights. This also indicates that the industry prefers urban viewers who have more options for Saturday night activities than their rural counterparts. In short, the networks’ nearly complete abandonment of Saturday night is a strong indicator of the disappearance of the mass audience in favor of niche audiences. Cable television’s wide acceptance and presence has permanently altered the televisual landscape signaling the end of the networks’ Golden Age. The networks are quickly becoming just one more channel option among cable and satellite television’s much larger complex of offerings.

Law and Order

Law and Order

Are increased channel and program offerings enough to cause this programming strategy? The short answer is no. Commercial television always has been and will be about the commercials not the shows. It seems logical to assume that the program offerings on Saturday night are more indicative of a lack of advertising dollars than a change in programming strategies. In other words, the advertising is the cause to the programming’s effect. If this were a matter of programming, then the networks would have chosen to schedule serialized shows during these times. This would make logical sense because then the networks could help to ensure that they continue attracting a stable and consistent audience to shows that require more dedication from the viewing public than those they have chosen. The networks’ choices to not do this may also tell us something about the changing technological landscape and viewing behaviors.

Beginning with video-cassette recorders and extending with the fairly rapid acceptance of black box technologies, like TiVo, viewers have begun to wield more control over their individual or even family viewing situations. The viewers have always been in control of the vertical axis of the programming grid (schedule) with their abilities to change channels on a moment’s notice, but these newer technologies have allowed viewers to step into the domain once controlled by the industry — the horizontal axis of the grid. In short, the viewer can alter time by skipping commercials or recording programs for viewing at more convenient times. This may be particularly important to families living in time zones that have been often ignored by programmers. Shows, like CSI or My Name Is Earl, that parents might have avoided in the past because their kids were in the room at 7 or 8 p.m. CST can now easily be shifted to later in the evening when the kids have been put to bed.

This level of viewer control represents a double-edged sword for the networks. Although these technologies may allow an increase in the cumulative audience size, they also allow viewers to avoid the networks’ primary revenue source — the commercials. In effect the potential advertisers must consider whether the various ratings reports they are presented by advertising sales people actually equate to increased viewers for the spots they purchase.

This means that other advertising opportunities, like product placement or outright program sponsorship, may become more enticing opportunities for advertisers, both now and in the future. We do not have to look much further than the overt sponsorships of programs like Extreme Home Makeover and The Apprentice to see this tactic coming to fruition. If the programs that rely heavily on these tactics begin to pop up on the Saturday night schedule in the near future, then we will begin to realize that time slots for programming, like most everything else on commercial television, can easily be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. More than anything, Saturday night programming can be used as a barometer for the industry — even if it seems unimportant or currently ignored. The bottom line for critics is that we should regularly emphasize the commercial in commercial television. This is aspect that steers the industrial ship. The scheduling grid is the destination to where we, as critics and audience members, were driven to in the process.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

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Stripping (Part 1)

1968 Newspaper Article

1968 Newspaper Article

With Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television, FLOW contributor Derek Kompare introduced to critical discussion the previously submerged two-thirds of television programming, the repeat. Kompare looks at programming strategies and cultural meanings involved in the practice of re-showing old series. In furtherance of this subject, this column is the first of a two-part discussion of one fundamental aspect of repeat programming — the stripped series. Stripping a series means running a different episode every weekday, Monday through Friday, at the same time. Originally used in daytime slots, particularly in late afternoons to attract school-kids, stripping has spread to many other segments of the television schedule, from noontime to prime time and late night, as cable channels seek to profit from the popularity of old Big Three series. Are there special attractions for viewers related to stripping? How does watching a series on a daily basis change the viewing experience? Today I’ll discuss why some shows seem particularly well-suited to being stripped.

For many years, the industry maxim was that half-hour sitcoms were much more likely to be successes when stripped than hour-long dramas. Some noteworthy hour-long action series, however, seem to have attained new heights of popularity once shown on a daily basis. The Rockford Files in the 1980s and Law and Order in the 1990s were embraced more widely once in syndication than at the beginning of their original runs. The Rockford Files, after years of respectable but not great ratings, began generating buzz and critical acclaim at the tail end of its original run in the late 1970s, but secured its historical status with its emergence as a superstar of syndication, once it was placed on Monday through Friday rotation on local channels in late afternoons. Again, Law and Order was an unspectacular performer for NBC in its first seasons in prime time, but took off once it became ensconced in the A&E daily schedule. In each case, the series’ strengths came to the fore through daily viewing moreso than in weekly doses. Each was low-key in exhibiting its distinctiveness and benefited from the greater cumulative impact that daily exhibition provides.

The Rockford Files could be mistaken at first, and second, glance for just another generic Universal travelogue of the LA highway system, with the “zero degree style” that John Thornton Caldwell identified in Televisuality as dominant in 1970s action shows. With the opportunity for increased immersion into the text brought about by daily viewing, however, audiences could more easily pick up on the show’s qualities, from the above-average attention paid to the texture of the daily life of hero Jim Rockford, to the easy charms and interplay of series regulars James Garner and Noah Beery. The series boasted the most distinguished and influential writing staff of 1970s actioners, first headed by Roy Huggins (from The Fugitive and the great lost series Toma), then by Steven J. Cannell (Wiseguy and half the forgettable action shows of the 1980s), and included the future writers of Magnum PI, Remington Steele, and several other hits of the 1980s. Most notably, the staff included David Chase, who continues to cast Rockford players in Sopranos roles. The writers spiced the generic suspense plots with knowing cultural references and small character epiphanies, creating the template for so many of the detective shows that followed, but they did so with a light hand. The subtlety of the show’s strengths, and generally ungenerous amounts of attention-getting textual devices, made it easy to underappreciate the series when watched occasionally, or even weekly; the daily format brought these elements forward, without requiring a major increase in viewer attention to any particular episode. The series’ provision of quotidian detail and small grace notes of distinctiveness seemed just right for daily consumption, making The Rockford Files a great fit for the ritualistic and parasocial aspects of watching stripped franchises.

Law and Order has benefited from the same features of daily viewing practices. The series’ terse dialogue and understated but acute presentation of Big Apple social dynamics fit the aesthetic of good things doled out in small pieces within the texture of daily life. The current purveyor of Law and Order repeats, TNT, has made a fetish of the bite-sized pleasures of the show, highlighting isolated moments of each episode as “The Wisecrack,” etc. Obituaries of Jerry Orbach this year often made mention of audiences’ delight at his character’s offhanded one-line responses to the latest murder, a small feature that capped each episode’s introduction. The series’ notoriously fleeting glimpses into the regulars’ private lives rewards repeated viewing within the sped-up realm of stripped exhibition, and personal developments take on greater weight (and prompt greater viewer loyalty) than when viewer patience and memory have to be extended to the longer chronologies of weekly exhibition. Even the famously episodic Law and Order can gain some of the benefits of seriality when stripped, since the writers do include smatterings of narrative and character arcs.

Law and Order

Law and Order

The syndication of the show followed the consolidation of the series’ most popular cast (Orbach, Noth, Hennessy) and allowed viewers who had missed earlier seasons to catch up once word of mouth began lauding the show, as happened with The Rockford Files.

The increased practice of running syndicated repeats before the end of a series’ original run, initiated to offset the huge debts incurred by production companies when they actually create a long-running series, can heighten the status of the currently produced episodes as well.

When Law and Order went to A&E, its importance on the televisual schedule was amplified, and the series was given greater weight as a significant show — if a show is good enough for old episodes to be shown along side of ongoing productions, it might be worth checking out, or of following more regularly. The simultaneity of exhibition also makes available the pleasures of comparing new episodes to old ones, of catching the introduction of previously established characters if missed initially, and of noting other past turning points in the production of the series. Stripping creates a history of a series less explicitly than does a DVD production replete with commentaries and extra features, but with greater suspense and, paradoxically, sometimes with a greater sense of fan involvement. It is up to us to construct a history out of the seemingly ahistorical practice of just watching plain, unaccessorized, individualized episodes. Law and Order‘s combination of rigid narrative formulae, quick wit, distinctive social commentary and memorable but limited performances seems well-suited to the ritual of daily viewing, when small gems discovered amid the detritus of daily existence attain their greatest luster and importance.

Part Two of this inquiry should arrive in February — wouldn’t it be better to be able to read it in the next issue? Or you could just wait until both pieces are archived, and then read them back-to-back — DIY stripping. Sometimes, the normal flow, and FLOW, is just too slow.

Image Credits:

1. 1968 Newspaper Article

2. Law and Order

Please feel free to comment.