Finding the ‘TV’ in TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


image description
PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast.

There’s a classic moment in The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) that goes something like this.  Grivo, a depressed, chest-baring aggro rocker, looks out onto his audience and softly declares, “I wanna talk about drugs.”  A lone voice in the crowd yells, “Heroin!”  Grivo replies, “No, not heroin.”  “Speed!” the crowd offers.  “No, not speed.”  Undeterred, the crowd excitedly tries again: “Hashish!”  “No, not even hashish.”  Stumped, the crowd pauses for a moment and finally asks, “Horse tranquilizers?”  “No, not horse tranquilizers.” 

This
is how I feel about TV news in the academy. 
Stay with me now.

I,
a moody and naturally lethargic TV scholar, say to anyone who will listen, “I
wanna talk about TV news.”  A loud voice
says, “Like journalists do?”  No, not
like journalists do.  Another voice
chimes in, “Oh, like in political communication!”  No, not like in political communication.  “Rhetoric!” 
No, not even rhetoric.  “Media
Effects?”  No, not media effects.

I
wanna talk about TV news as television.


image description
All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.

When
I began writing my dissertation on cable news war coverage in 2005, I was
indebted to the small slice of television scholarship that existed on the
subject of news.  Not communication
scholarship or journalism scholarship, but television scholarship.  The work of Margaret Morse showed me there
was thoughtful analysis of television news as a genre of storytelling and
meaning-making within the culture industries.  John Caldwell’s discussion of television news
as a vessel for televisuality treated the fusion of style and industry in this
neglected genre with great clarity. 
Thankfully, we have since seen more studies that have analyzed images,
sounds, discourse, and industry structure to explain how television news has
shaped certain historical moments.  And
research on television news parodies has
reminded us that news is a television genre. 
Yet, significant gaps remain in our research and in our teaching.

One persistent problem is the vastness and ephemerality of the artifact.  Studying TV news is hard because there’s just so much of it, and it’s not meant to be repackaged and rewatched.  It’s local, it’s national, it’s all day, it’s everyday.  Some is archived (thank you, Texas Archive of the Moving Image), some is not.  Where do you start?  What is the unit of analysis?  To that sense of helplessness, I point to radio scholars who face tremendous odds as they hunt for recordings and scripts.  I also point to scholars like Elana Levine who study soap operas with thousands upon thousands of episodes.  So, what is the issue, really?  Do we really believe it’s not TV?  It’s News?  


image description
NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs.

A
vast repository of research on television news is available to pick through,
but very little of it takes up the concerns of the field of Television
Studies.  In short, the majority of
television news research is on television
news
—not on television news.  I’m not arguing that one approach is superior
to the other; I am simply saying that the diversification of research on this
topic will similarly diversify the conversation about how the news exists and
has existed within the television landscape, with an eye to all of the
intersecting axes that concern television scholars. 

Now, I’m going to veer into some scholarly territory for a moment, so please bear with me.  In a 2018 article, Robinson, Zeng, and Holbert found that while political communication scholarship has de-emphasized the role of television in delivering political information, television remains a dominant source of political news in the face of online and mobile competition (287, 297).  Moreover, this dominance is not confined to the U.S.; the authors find that it “transcends national borders and class divisions” (296). In addressing the lack of attention paid to television news by political communication scholars, the authors posit that the prevailing theoretical frameworks used to study political media—“framing, priming, and agenda setting”—are medium agnostic and thus render a medium-specific analysis “unnecessary” (297).


image description
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news.

There you go.  The dominance of news media analysis informed by these frameworks makes it seem as though (1) these theories hold universal explanatory power; (2) television is interchangeable with any other medium; (3) television is not a complex, historically determined intermixture of technology, industry, culture, stylistic influences, and viewer behaviors; and (4) news is not just one type of television program sitting adjacent to and opposite other types of programs, being influenced by them and competing against them in a landscape shaped by decades-old broadcasting companies, advertisers, and regulations.  But here’s another (related) part of the problem.  The fields that dominate news research have not excluded others.  We just haven’t jumped in with both feet.

TV
Studies is a vibrant field that, for reasons well known to all of us, keeps
having to fight for legitimacy in the academy. 
As we watch scholars from other fields dip into TV, claim the so-called
“good” bits for their courses, treat those bits as literature or film, and then
get praise in the press for turning TV into something worthy of study, why
don’t we make the most of the name of our field and imprint our expertise on all of television?  Sports media scholars are the latest to make
this case successfully.  The recent
creation of the Sports Media Scholarly Interest Group at SCMS is an encouraging
sign, not just for the study of televised sports, but for the study of the
overlap between sports and TV news.  Yes,
I just inserted myself into their glory, but I do see it as a win for anyone
who veers away from the dominant script. 


image description
The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars.

In
my remaining columns for Flow I’ll
continue to sing this news tune in a few different ways, hopefully offering
something positive to the field’s ongoing conversations about how we study TV and
why we study it in the ways we do.



Image Credits:

  1. PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast (author’s screengrab)
  2. All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.
  3. NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs (author’s screengrab)
  4. CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news (author’s screengrab)
  5. The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars (author’s screengrab)


References:

Robinson, Nicholas W., Chen Zeng, and R. Lance Holbert. 2018. “The Stubborn Pervasiveness of Television News in the Digital Age and the Field’s Attention to the Medium, 2010-2014.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 62(2): 287-301.




On Seeing What’s Next: Netflix’s Personalized Interface Versus Users’ Personal Browsing
Latina Vidolova / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix's current interface
Netflix’s current interface.

In summer 2018, Netflix began to roll out, alongside other changes to the user interface for television devices, a fullscreen preview trailer that autoplays above sections of tiled content suggestions. This feature amplifies another interface change in late 2016 that replaced still images with video previews as users linger over a selection. The combined effect is sometimes a sensory barrage, leading director Rian Johnson to joke that his favorite console game is “navigating Netflix without triggering autoplay promos” and satire news site Hard Drive to write, “Netflix Now Autoplays Trailer If You Even Think About Opening Website Up.” Netflix Director of Product Innovation Stephen Garcia explained the 2016 change saying, “Television has decades’ worth of expectation that when you turn it on, the video and audio play. So it’s actually quite strange to have a silent experience.”

Curiously, this statement comes from a company that, as television scholars like Timothy Havens have thoroughly chronicled, “champions a disruption of scheduled television viewing” and leans on “its identity as a tech company, as opposed to a media company.” [ ((Timothy Havens, “Netflix: Streaming Channel Brands as Global Meaning Systems,” in From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels, ed. Derek Johnson (New York: Routledge, 2018), 325–326.))] Netflix has invested a lot of energy in framing its service as unlike television, as harnessing technology to create something new and better. For Garcia to say Netflix should be more like television appears out of place.

Netflix's
Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” advertising campaign emphasizes Netflix’s differences from television.

Nevertheless, maybe this kind of angling should not be surprising. Ramon Lobato notes that Netflix strategically presents itself to suit particular situations. For instance, Netflix acts as a tech company when dealing with governments, hoping to evade the pesky regulations stamped onto national television, but it refers to itself as television in public relations “because of [television’s] familiarity to consumers.” [ ((Ramon Lobato, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 34.))] Garcia’s statement, then, might be understood as encouraging subscriber comfortability with a change that he reassures is as familiar and old as television.

What is interesting to me, underneath the strategic dimension to representing Netflix as like/unlike television, is how, adjacently, Netflix imagines subscribers and their relationship to the service. When Netflix declares itself old and familiar, it presents passive positions to its users; when Netflix indicates its service is new and disruptive, more active positions open up. A conflict between empowering users or curtailing them plays out in the design of Netflix’s interface.

I want to take a closer look at the historical trajectory of Netflix’s user interface. [ ((My approach is inspired by Mel Stanfill’s discursive interface analysis: Mel Stanfill, “The Interface as Discourse: The Production of Norms through Web Design,” New Media & Society 17, no. 7 (August 1, 2015): 1059–74, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814520873.))] In different contexts on the site, Netflix seems to suggest users are in charge or users should sit back and let Netflix make their entertainment decisions. This modulation reveals how Netflix both makes users feel empowered and guides and shapes their activity in a form most productive to Netflix.

Netflix’s user interface in 2010
Netflix’s user interface in 2010.

The user interface in 2010 resembled a digital video shop, with images of DVD covers in rows under broad genre labels. At the time, a video shop aesthetic reflected both Netflix’s roots as a DVD rental company and Netflix’s desire to differentiate its service from regular television. Like borrowing a DVD and unlike watching broadcast and cable television, Netflix would allow users to control the selection and scheduling of their viewing.

In the next few years, Netflix allowed some of the granular metadata it developed for improving recommendation to manifest on the user end, transforming data into pleasurable ways to traverse Netflix: scrolling through categories with inventive names, clicking through emotive tags, discovering new media grouped with familiar. Television scholars have remarked on how Netflix promotional material from the early 2010s emphasizes their users in action; as Netflix imagines it, even when bingeing, they are dynamically seizing their entertainment on their terms instead of succumbing to the massive time suck of television. [ ((See Havens 2018; Mareike Jenner, “Binge-Watching: Video-on-Demand, Quality TV and Mainstreaming Fandom,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 3 (May 1, 2017): 304–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877915606485; Chuck Tryon, “TV Got Better: Netflix’s Original Programming Strategies and Binge Viewing,” Media Industries Journal 2, no. 2 (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mij.15031809.0002.206.))] Similarly, the long list of datafied and categorized choices on Netflix encourages scrolling and sorting “as the sovereign navigator-user of an endless archive of screen content.” [ ((Lobato 2019, 33.))]

Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog
Netflix’s catalog layout offers intriguing categorizations and pleasing visuals, tempting users to go exploring.

However, the catalog layout has always been paired with top picks or “trending now” choices toward the top that urge users to stop browsing and press play already. Since 2018, Netflix foregrounds curated selections even more emphatically with the auto-preview feature. As Garcia explains, “sometimes our members need a little bit of help figuring out” what to watch. In an interesting reversal, then, Netflix has begun to emphasize not having to choose instead of choosing as the trait that makes users (technologically) empowered through their service. In the second half of the 2010s, Netflix further limited viewer activity on the service through eliminating user reviews, changing from a five star to a thumbs up/down rating system, and cracking down on use of VPNs to access geoblocked content and piracy after an initial attitude of permissive inattention. [ ((Lobato 2019.))]

These changes suggest a passive viewership model that resonates especially when paired with Netflix’s rhetoric of customization. Netflix justifies putting selections in the faces of users because it assures that those selections are exactly the perfect recommendation, liberating the user from useless browsing.

Frank and Oak ad
Advertising the individualization of their monthly subscription service, outfitter Frank and Oak called themselves “The Netflix of clothing” in a 2019 Instagram advertisement.

Netflix has become a symbol of granular, incisive personalization in popular imagination, with the result that its business choices are often understood as giving subscribers what they want. In March 2019, subscribers noticed Netflix was experimenting with switching the episode order of its just-premiered anthology series Love, Death, & Robots. Right after a TechCrunch article pointed out a Netflix employee’s statement that episode rearrangement was a “100% random A/B test” not based on user info, the article still concludes Netflix’s actions are “yet another step toward a streaming landscape that’s increasingly tailored to our personal preferences.” There’s a jarring elision here between personalization and Netflix experiments to keep subscribers watching.

Netflix works to cement the equivalence between user desires and the interface. When users reacted poorly to a 2018 test to play video suggestions for other content in between episodes of a streaming show, Netflix released a statement that they “have been experimenting even more with video based on personalized recommendations” and they “are testing whether surfacing recommendations between episodes helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster.” Simply put, what users interpreted as advertisements, Netflix defended as time-saving personalization.

Netflix’s percentage rating feature.
A blogger whose taste I like recommended this series. Rather than placing it at the top of my recommendations because it has personal resonance for me, Netflix obscures it and rates it only a C+.

Instead of commenting on the effectiveness of Netflix’s recommendation algorithms, I argue there are differences between personalized and personal. Even if the episode order of an anthology series or video promotion matches a user’s profile, Netflix is asking users to buy into a linear experience where the only concern is to “see what’s next” as soon as possible. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings dramatically stated in a 2017 earnings call, Netflix is “competing with sleep” to keep all of your attention and time on watching their media.

Gregory Steirer argues that, much like with a private collection of DVDs, actions going beyond one-time consumption give media objects personal value to people. [ ((Gregory Steirer, “The Personal Media Collection in an Era of Connected Viewing,” in Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming and Sharing Media in the Digital Era, ed. Jennifer Holt and Kevin Sanson (New York: Routledge, 2014), 79–95.))] According to Steirer, organizing, searching for, owning, or even selling a collection of DVDs will foster a personal relationship to them; because cloud-based services for online consumption have severely limited the ways in which people may interact with media beyond consumption, they’ve thereby restricted personalization.

Accordingly, playing blaring trailers when Netflix starts up may redirect subscribers toward the primary intended use of Netflix—watching media—and discourage aimless browsing that ends with users not watching anything, but aimless browsing could nevertheless have personal value for users. To me, browsing on Netflix is a fun form of mental ordering where I navigate the seas of the Netflix universe, making unknown items known, affirming my relationship to familiar objects, reveling in imaginings of future possible experiences. Though a limited form of personalization, browsing allows me to connect to the media on Netflix on my terms. The more Netflix curbs these interactions to keep attention on pressing play on its original content, the higher the risk of breaking the illusion that Netflix isn’t just another media company.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix’s current interface
2. Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” ad campaign
3. Netflix’s user interface in 2010
4. Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog. Author’s screenshot.
5. Frank and Oak ad. Author’s screenshot.
6. Netflix’s percentage rating feature. Author’s screenshot.




Normalizing Subversion: The Comedy Approach of ‘Take My Wife’
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin

Roseanne

Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989

In 1989, despite network pushback, executive producer and comedian Roseanne Barr’s self-titled comedy sitcom, Roseanne (1988–1997), aired an episode in which her character’s 11-year-old daughter experiences her first period. This was the first time a network television show addressed the topic of menstruation, and the series included several punchlines about Darlene’s period that make the physicality of the “cramps” and “blood stains” that accompany menstruation tangible. Along with her excessive speech, laughter and liminal status, this is an example of how Barr’s comedy style in the ABC sitcom unsettled social norms in the ’90s; now widely acknowledged to be racist, Barr was considered one of the titular unruly women of her generation of comedy voices. [ (( Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 50-91. ))]

Unruly

Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively

As stand-up comics have transitioned from stage to television over the past few years, a range of comedic styles has unfolded. Many women on television today are boldly challenging social and gender boundaries through comedy. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Samantha Bee, for example, carry Barr’s unruly comedy torch as much as any of their contemporaries. These comics are providing deeper and more complex representations of women on television; however, not all comedians are bringing their brash stand-up humor from the stage to television. Compare Barr’s insistent inclusion of jokes about menstruation on her sitcom with the contemporary television series, Take My Wife (2016–), which was distributed nearly three decades later on the subscription streaming service, Seeso. In this sitcom, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher eschew graphic descriptions of their bodies in order to focus attention on their conventional domestic and professional lives together. Instead of landing punchlines about menstruation, they are simply two comedians who happen to menstruate. Esposito certainly does not hesitate to use her period as comedy fodder in her stand-up, illustrated in a video of a live performance in 2015 that she shared on YouTube, “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” The stars of Take My Wife simply repackage their unruliness—in the case of Esposito and Butcher, their queerness—into a less attention-grabbing representation on their television series.

Cameron Esposito performing stand-up live, published on YouTube, 2015

Couched within the formulaic narratives of the sitcom genre, the comedians situate their characters precariously within modern neoliberal multiculturalism. Their messages can be interpreted as subversive to societal norms, particularly by audiences—women and queer—that identify with the characters. For them, these stories and representations may prompt reflections on societal misogyny and bigotry, albeit without resolution. Rather than challenging social norms from the margins, these comedians stealthily center themselves on screen and in doing so, reposition their LGBTQ+ identities as conventional, further normalizing their subversiveness. This strategy is distinct from assimilationist storytelling, which tends to erase non-normative identities, and conventional post-feminist storytelling, which as Angela McRobbie describes, operates on the assumption that equality between the genders has been achieved. [ (( McRobbie, Angela. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.” Interrogating Post-Feminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 27-39. ))] The strategy described here does not make this assumption, nor does it portray women or gender non-conforming persons in opposition to cis maleness, which de-centers their intersectional identities. Instead, it centers their existence, relationships, and experiences within the text, framing them as “the norm” in order to then introduce new and original content related to their queer identities.

Take My Wife

The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke”

The portrayal of Cameron and Rhea in Take My Wife is reminiscent of the charming awkwardness of another comedy predecessor, Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’ comedy differs from that of her bawdy and bitchy peers of the ’90s; her inoffensive and “feel good persona” [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014, p. 94. ))] helped make her character on Ellen (1994-1998) relatable and beloved by hetero- and homosexual audiences alike. There are many similarities between Esposito and Butcher’s performances and that of DeGeneres: both tell their stories using the traditional sitcom format, perform endearing portrayals of their on-screen characters, and attempt to frame their queerness as conventional. The television medium has changed since Barr’s and DeGeneres’ iconic series; it is no longer the monolithic network medium of thirty years ago. In this era of post-network niche audience targeting, why would the show’s creators be concerned with broadening the appeal of the characters in the series?

Ellen

The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life

Esposito and Butcher’s queer identities—both comedians identify as lesbians and Butcher as genderqueer—complicate the portrayal of their characters on television in a time in which half of the country elected a Vice President with a record of opposition to gay rights. It is not surprising that the LGBTQ+ creators and stars would explore more modest representations of their identities on a television sitcom as DeGeneres did twenty years earlier. For Esposito, framing her identity and critique of mainstream culture as lighthearted joking has been a necessary strategy from early in her career. She explains, “I’m tiny and smiley. I think a lot of it comes from creating safety for myself because as a queer person, I was just very unsafe. Then as a survivor, I feel really unsafe all the time. I think something that I did without knowing it was about introducing myself to people, to be like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’” [ (( Robinson, Joanna. “The #MeToo Movement has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.” Vanity Fair. 23 May 2018. ))] Esposito has intuitively attempted to make herself palatable to heterosexual audiences and recognizes how others like DeGeneres paved the way for her with a similar approach, “Ellen has to exist in people’s house during the daytime so that people aren’t so scared, and then I can get married. That has to happen.” [ (( Kravitz, Melissa. “How Cameron Esposito Plans to Revolutionize Comedy in 2018.” Broadly. 22 December 2017. ))]

Thus, in spite of the often subversive nature of their stand-up performances, Esposito and Butcher chose the traditional sitcom format to convey their stories on the television series. The two queer characters, Cameron and Rhea, are portrayed as conventional specifically through conformity with familiar aspects of the sitcom narrative, an emphasis on the couple’s domesticity, and the downplaying of their gender and sexual identities, a contrast with the more candid approach of their other media projects. This strategy positions the comedians as the non-normative leads of the television series, which allows the writers to introduce discourse from the point of view of its queer characters. The comedians then subtly address the struggles of gender non-conforming persons in our gender binary culture, assault and rape culture, as well as present novel, intimate, and authentic storylines for the show’s queer characters. In the second episode of the first season, for example, the comedians address the topic of sexual assault. The topic of rape is first raised indirectly as the comedians take to the stage to interrogate whether rape jokes are funny given the likelihood of sexual assault victims present in the audience. The following sequence in which individual characters in the show say “me too” to the camera is powerful, though, it should be noted a great deal more nuanced than Esposito’s recent #MeToo stand-up set in Rape Jokes (2018), “a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it” in which the comedian explicitly shares her personal story on stage. [ (( Fox, Jesse D. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture. 28 May 2018. ))]

Rape jokes

Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016

Take My Wife should be celebrated for its authentic portrayals and for taking on the everyday aspects of lesbian existence after coming out, while acknowledging that it is also consistent with the marketing plans of a growing number of over-the-top platforms creating niche content that is geared toward distinct subsets of viewers. In this series, the show’s creators offer novel representations of real and intimate queer characters on screen to LGBTQ+ viewers, and more broadly, two inconspicuous lesbian characters, unthreatening to the heteronormative status quo. Gilbert has noted that female comics’ use of self-deprecatory humor can be interpreted as either subverting the status quo or affirming oppressive gender norms; likewise, in the case of Take My Wife, “it is up to the audience to interpret any form of cultural representation.” [ (( Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 139. ))] This palatability of the series’ humor is not without potential drawbacks where the queer community is concerned; the tokenism of DeGeneres [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” Critical Studies in Media Communications 18.2 (2001): 123-140. ))] and homo-normativity in many popular contemporary series with queer characters [ (( Doty, Alexander. “Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism.” Flow Journal, 12.9 (2010). ))] are cautionary tales of the appeal of similar comedic approaches of series on broadcast networks. It is too early to know if the normalizing strategies described here will contribute to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and progressivism, either on- or off-screen, in the current post-network context.

Image Credits:

1. Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989.
2. Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)
3. The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke.”
4. The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life.
5. Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




A Part and Apart: Hawaii and Domestic Satellite Broadcasting, 1967-1971
Selena Dickey / University of Texas Austin

Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite

Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite

In the “International” section of Broadcasting’s July 24th, 1967 issue, the industry trade journal reported the blast off of “A second synchronous Pacific communications satellite…a twin to the present Intelsat II satellite now providing 24-hour commercial service between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand.” [ ((“Sept. 20 Blast off for Pacific Satellite,” Broadcasting 73, no. 4 (1967): 58.)) ]

In this nearly unnoticeable notice, Broadcasting alerted readers of the most recent step in satellite communications: with a second successful launch, engineers had proven their satellites could achieve and maintain geostationary orbit (that is, reaching an altitude of approximately 22,230 miles and moving at the same speed and rotational direction as Earth so that it stays in place over a single location). But yet subtly, this small announcement also shows how Hawaii is rhetorically configured as a part of and apart from the United States: though the 50th state in the Union, it is lumped together here with various Pacific island nation-states, marking it as not really domestic but, instead, as the section title reminds us, “international.”

The a part/apart-ness of Hawaii is nothing new. Many have looked at the pop culture representations of the island state, from tourism and airline campaigns showcasing the wahines with never-ending supplies of leis to the films of Elvis and Gidget hip-thrusting and surfing across the sandy beaches to the television shows featuring McGarrett and Magnum P.I. chasing criminals through the palm trees. All of these images have created a myth of Hawaii, an escapist’s multicultural utopia so utterly different from the mainland and yet so a part of it that, unlike Australia, Japan, the Philippines or Thailand, no passport is required.

What makes Broadcasting’s coverage different, however, is how its rhetoric configures Hawaii as a part/apart in a discussion of off-screen processes. Similar to the images of island exoticism that filled television and cinema screens, here the industry discourse surrounding the role of developing satellite technology also blurs Hawaii’s connection to the mainland and blends it with the foreign. That both onscreen and off-screen logics function in this way is significant. Both reveal how ideology operates not only within visual discourse but also within industry, policy and technology discourses. In other words, analyzing hula girl and tiki hut tropes is important, but it isn’t the whole luau.

For instance, other industry trade journals focusing on the novelty of satellite transmission also configured Hawaii in rather ambiguous terms. As a Variety article covering the sat-casting of the 1968 Presidential election put it,

[T]here is no reason why foreigners can’t see U.S. election returns live… With foreign newsman commenting on the pictures relayed by pool cameras, 18 1/2 hours of coverage were arranged for Europe and 9 hours and 20 minutes for Hawaii, 2 hours and 25 minutes for Australia, 6 hours and 30 minutes to Japan and two hours to the Philippines. [ ((“Election Via Comsat,” Variety 252, no. 13 (1968): 122.)) ]

Clearly, one of these things is not like the others.

Hawaii is, once again, slipped into a list of foreign regions and countries, its status as a U.S. state overlooked, reconfigured as a foreign body vying for satellite transmission time.

Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results

Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results

Even though the number of Broadcasting and Variety articles covering satellite technology and its connection to Hawaii is limited (approximately 30 stories from 1966-1971, the era when television broadcasters first began using satellite transmission), the rhetorical maneuvers and slippages of these longstanding trade journals, subtle as they may be, reveal how the industry conceptualized the island state at a key moment of telecommunication development: Hawaii as Other, as foreign. And this, paired with the findings others have made about onscreen representations of Hawaii, only further reinforces how Hawaii’s identity has been shaped and deployed in certain ways—ways often laden with explicit and implicit power dynamics. If evidence of this can be found in such a small sliver of writing on the development of satellite technology in this brief moment of history, how many other off-screen contexts have, over time, merged and mixed to shape the popular mythology of Hawaii?

For broadcasting industry insiders (network executives, affiliate station general managers, advertising and marketing firms, policy makers, etc.) reading these stories in the late 60s and early 70s, Broadcasting and Variety‘s rhetorical strategy of “othering” Hawaii had real world effects. Satellite technology was new; the role these key stakeholders would play in its development was still undecided; and the way these publications framed the issue within their pages—Hawaii not as a state but as a foreign market—influenced programming, advertising, and telecommunication policy decisions.

These decisions then rippled out to viewers and the general public, shaping their access and exposure to programming. That Hawaiians glimpsed the results of the 1968 Presidential election through the same satellite feed as Europeans and Australians, for example, marks their television experience of this event as significantly different from that experienced by Americans in the continental United States. Sure, Hawaiians were a part of the election—they voted in it, after all—but so too were they excluded from it, receiving national election coverage on an international satellite feed. Put another way, Hawaiians were a part of the mainland, exercising their voting rights as American citizens, and yet apart from the nation’s televisual “flow.” The consequences of this ambiguous—and uneven—televisual relationship with the mainland are complex and the subject of my ongoing research, but what can be said here is that, in the three-network era, access to and participation in a common national television “cultural forum” wasn’t so common, or even so national.

Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii's Satellite Access Ground Station

Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii’s Satellite Access Ground Station

Looking at the ways off-screen practices shape regional identity has gained traction in television studies, with Victoria E. Johnson’s, Steven D. Classen’s, Yeidy Rivero’s, and Myles McNutt’s work particularly standing out. All take into account different elements, from policy to production to local politics, and each considers the ways those elements—operating beyond the frame of yet shaping what appears on a television screen—nuance and reshape our understandings of regional identity. Similarly, Broadcasting and Variety‘s coverage of newly developing satellite technology and its effect on Hawaiian identity reminds us that not only are there other regions still left to explore but also other off-screen practices to examine. It reminds us that to conceive of a homogenous televisual flow, of unhindered participation in a national television cultural forum, fails to consider the unique position Hawaii occupied during this particular historical moment and opens up the need for further investigations into the way region shapes understandings of technology, television, and culture, and vice versa.

Image Credits

1. Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite
2. Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results, Broadcasting 77, no. 8 (1969): 32.
3. Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii’s Satellite Access Ground Station

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Franchising Horror for Television
Garret Castleberry / Oklahoma City University

Poster for NBC's Hannibal

Poster for NBC’s Hannibal

This essay concludes the third part in a series of reflections on the role(s) horror plays within the televisual medium. I shape(shift) analysis to imitate Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz’s Television Studies method by surveying four intertwined tiers or tenets: content, contexts, audiences, and industries. Given Flow Journal’s brevity model, I formulate an incredibly shrunken micro television studies prototype.

As a rhetorical recap, Part I examines previous horror film franchise design and Hammer Horror in particular. Part II investigates the visual discourse Hammer Horror holds with period horror television drama Penny Dreadful. Whereas horror film sequels have always attracted attention—whether for lessening audience impact or B-movie production values or the diminishing returns of both—the televisual medium is relatively nubile in this way. Comparable to horror comics of the 1950s, early TV horror resembles kitschy material like Tales from the Crypt or mystery/sci-fi genre admixtures with mainstream appeal (e. g. Twilight Zone or The X-Files). While 70s cinema pushed boundaries in the social establishment with horror fare like The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, television remained oppositionally upright due to FCC regulations and such cultural interpretations of prime time as the “family hour.”

Elvira’s Movie Macabre and Joe Bob Briggs’s TNT MonsterVision helped bridge the horror TV gap by destabilizing the horror aesthetic through comedic satire and fandom meta-commentaries on censorship in a pre-Internet, pre-Twitter, pre-streaming era of cable television broadcasting.

As numerous scholars and critics note, HBO helped innovate (and renovate) television from the inside out. Not constricted by traditional boundaries, HBO and other pay-cable options adopted unfiltered models that prove titillating for audiences and profitable for artists and stakeholders.

Just as genre theorists investigate textual happenings from invention to convention, with conventions becoming so commonplace as to lose their rhetorical power, the natural progress of titillation (as an aesthetic affect) can lead to the dulling of senses or the rebirth of new ways to stimulate aesthetic experience. Arguably, one of the cheapest [production] and fastest [response] methods to produce audience affect is through shock. And a bankable model from the film industry, the horror genre, proved an enticing and mostly untapped resource at the dawn of the “Prestige TV” or “Quality TV” era.

The Trans-Genre Function of a Rotten Aesthetic

Given traditional ideological strongholds among producers, consumers, industry standards, audience expectations, and the economic entanglements between each, television (as a ubiquitous personified entity, a la The Thing) required a liminal conduit in order to successfully re-introduce the horror genre to audiences. Enter a term I’ve elsewhere introduced in the rotten aesthetic. The rotten aesthetic engrosses the lush production values, high definition cinematic artistry, and dark-themed subject matter prevalent among much “Prestige” programming and transfers those qualities into televisual modes of shock and horror: severed heads and appendages, quick and violent character deaths as narrative cliffhanger devices, recurring motifs implying if not depicting incest and rape. Prestige programming often trudges through “adult” themes with graphic detail in ways that function like dropping candy in the forest to lead those with a sweet tooth down to the witch’s cottage. Once audiences adapt to grim and gritty standards and the aesthetic shocks of liminal appetizers like a Criminal Minds or Dexter, unsuspecting crime shows like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy, until the path narrows in horror specificity in later programming like True Detective, Hannibal, or the postmodern fragmentation (narrative and temporal) haunting American Horror Story. It is a looking glass effect that draws audiences deeper down the aesthetic rabbit hole into warped worlds and macabre monstrosities. Ironically for industry producers, the next cause for concern might be whether or not viewers’ senses turn too numb to scare.

Screen shot of True Detective and poster for American Horror Story

True Detective’s genre-mixes the detective mystery, the mythological abyss, and the psychological-fantasy metaphor of being drawn into the proverbial rabbit hole, whereas American Horror Story just mixes…everything…into a grotesque horror cocktail.

(Sub)Liminal Thresholds and Child Cross-Demographic Audiences

Just as B-movie horror aligned with youth appeal in the 1950s—invoking new waves every generation or so since—monster movies appeal to even younger audiences as well. The line between “kid friendly” thrills and exploitative schlock traditionally kept between boundaries determined by the MPAA and the general guidance of parents and adults. And yet as the boundary for authentic shocks transitioned to more general audience appeal with mainstream success for films like Psycho, The Exorcist, and Alien, genre films like John Carpenter’s film canon generate massive cult followings that continue to mutate. For example, consider Nickelodeon’s most recent animated (re)incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like the original 80s/90s cartoon, numerous plots borrow quite liberally from B-movie sci-fi and horror, while as a brand rooted in nostalgic simulacrum, TMNT must also navigate its own self-aware cycle of animated programs, live-action features, comic book origins and extensions, toy lines, and the postmodern eras and consumerism admixtures that interconnect the text’s synergistic spreadability. Where the 80s version drew from obscurity in the Roger Corman B-movie tradition, Nickelodeon’s revision exploits iconicity from mainstream blockbusters alongside the cult classics taught in film major seminars today. Indeed, the front half of TMNT’s third season regurgitates a pantheon of horror tropes and grotesque cinematic signifiers [examples below].

TMNT's references to classic horror films

Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only offers homage to gross out horror like Carpenter’s The Thing and Raimi’s The Evil Dead in the episode “Buried Secrets” but also diabolically genre-mixes horror references like Friday the 13th boogey man Jason Voorhees as “The Creep” in  “Within the Woods”; an episode that shares the same name (and sub-theme) as Raimi’s unreleased short film.

Franchising the Familiar – Rotten Repetition

If anything, the Nickelodeon TMNT example communicates that horror, like all veritable properties within Western capitalism, is now part of the Peak TV franchising boom. Whereas the horror genre once hinged upon the narrative rule of sequence [exposition–>tension–>horror–>climax–>denouement(–>twist?)], televisual scares must be serialized. Accompanying the complexities of horror serialization, diminishing returns remain problematic for film and TV, along creative and profiteering fronts. Televisual productions must innovate narrative frameworks that sustain and build audiences in order for the model to continue. Streaming service industry models and emergent fan cultures have shown producers that nichification is big business. Thus, the horror model becomes both an old and new siphoning well for source material. Each of the leading horror series in recent years regurgitates known properties in name, concept, or both. The Walking Dead derives from the graphic novel boon of the early 2000s, Hannibal cannibalizes the character/narrative/visual canon of Thomas Harris’s books and movie adaptations, and American Horror Story stilts scares when the text’s patchwork template veers closer to overt horror genre-mixing. TV horror borrows and remixes recent literary adaptations with sultry camp and melodrama (see True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and The Strain).

Posters for The Bates Motel and Damien

A&E hopes to double its “classic” horror film tele-franchise with Damien joining Bates Motel on the Monday primetime programming block.

Ultimately, industry equals competition. Don’t just give the masses what they want, give them more than they have time or money to consume. Create a panic, mass hysteria toward your product. Scare them into choosing between and abandoning other genres by flooding the market with your genre product. Shiver in horror at the invisible hand of the free market as it knives through culture, sub-dividing into niche demographics with grotesque persuasive appeal.

TV LIVES! or Invasion of the [Televisual Media] Snatchers

No matter the trope or convention, the invention or repetition, context matters. Stories depicting the horrors of evolution gone wrong share a rich history within the macabre genre. Television, as a medium, experienced a kind of arrested development early on before evolutionary shifts in the monstrous rise of cable and satellite television. Not wanting to fall victim to the Internet the way the film industry or print journalism struggled to adapt, television found new shelf life [or host body?] amidst DVD boxed set popularity in the late 90s and early 2000s. In a fight or flight scenario with the Internet’s invasive omnipresence, television exhibits a kind of last girl resilience, adapting its strategy by adopting multi-modal experimentations across various streaming services. It hasn’t captured one body so much as it inhabits the hive mind, the zeitgeist.

Exhibiting spreadability, the horror franchise model extends its textual, contextual, and audience awareness. Conscious of traditional TV models blocking similar products, A&E follows the Pscyho prequel (or “preboot”) Bates Motel with Damien, an antichrist adaptation of Richard Donner’s horror film (turned franchise) The Omen. As a theoretical mode of commoditization, repetition rebrands itself under the (dis)guise of “nostalgia” with reanimated seasons of cancelled series The X-Files and Twin Peaks. On an industry level, this society of the spectacle has not forsaken sequelization or prequelization with Starz revamping Ash vs. The Evil Dead. AMC extends the most popular horror franchise with the West Coast same-universe Fear The Walking Dead.

Two posters for Ash vs. Evil Dead

Starz resurrects the original creative team for Ash vs. The Evil Dead, promising viewers a sense of horror authenticity, continuity, and temporal elasticity.

With The Exorcist television event in the works, and more horrific content conjured, industry intent becomes a name game cash grab with nearly every recognizable horror brand in some stage of re-development, stretching the elasticity of cinematic style and sequence (talk about a blood spatter metaphor). With the post-apocalyptic and superhero zeitgeists fully saturated, TV’s horror cycle becomes highly mimetic and may prove one of the quickest TV genres to exhaust. In (a)ffect, horror’s occupational explosion of recent televisual output might best function metaphorically for TV’s spectral psyche, as the medium morphs into its next host form.

TV invaders

Friend or Foe: Television’s ubiquitous power as an invasive medium.

Image Credits:

1. Hannibal poster
2. True Detective rabbit hole
3. American Horror Story poster
4. TMNT episode “Buried Secrets”
5. Norris on the ceiling from The Thing
6. TMNT episode “Within the Woods”
7. Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th
8. Poster for Bates Motel
9. Poster for Damien
10. Character poster for Ash vs. Evil Dead
11. Graphic poster for Ash vs. Evil Dead
12. TV invaders

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