Celebrating Television’s Spotty Memory
John W. Jordan / UW-Milwaukee
Avid TV watcher that I am, the Writers Guild strike had a definite and lasting impact on my viewing habits, but not quite in the way I anticipated. As someone who spends a good part of his days pounding away on a keyboard, I felt a sympathy with the striking writers and wished to be supportive, but I also need my entertainments. Unsure of how long the strike would go on, I savored each remaining episode of my favorite series, while also preparing myself for the long, lonely winter with a laundry-list of DVR options. In my optimistic way, I was looking forward to using the time to get into a some new shows or even just tune out for a bit.
But my plans for expanding my televisual mind did not really develop. When it came down to my actual viewing habits, the writers’ strike ended up being neither too disruptive nor too inspiring. The strike seemingly drew a line right down the middle of my program schedule, revealing to me that a surprising number of shows were immune to the writers’ strike, leaving me with plenty to watch of my usual fare: all my animated shows, sports shows, and plenty of news. When The Daily Show and The Colbert Report came back on during the strike, although in plainly watered-down fashion (oh! How I missed “The Word”!), they were enough to get me through into late-night. The real crunch came in prime-time, where I typically have at least a couple shows per night that compete for my attention. But even here, I felt more of a slow-down in viewing than absence. As some of my favorite scripted shows started to fade out, old favorites – like Lost and The Wire – came back on. I’d already forgotten about 24 and Battlestar Galactica, so seeing a few other shows come and go didn’t really phase me. Indeed, throughout the entire writers’ strike, I only discovered one new show – the amazingly seductive Dexter (thanks in part to the fascinating discussion of the show found here in Flow).
All this is to say that, despite my initial apprehension about the writers’ strike, not a lot changed for me and my TV. Consequently, my feelings about the prospect of all these shows returning to the air is a bit, well, ambivalent. As the networks have begun announcing return dates for shows that have been off-air since the early days of the strike – including some of my favorites, like The Office and 30 Rock – I find it curious how television is treating the issue of these shows’ absence. The first time the networks really seemed to have acknowledged the fact that these shows have been gone has been in their celebratory announcement of their return. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to frame this in terms of how their absence is being erased by the networks through the irony of celebrating their return. A non-acknowledged hole has now been filled, apparently to everyone’s rejoicing. The memory of the strike is overcome by the nostalgia of our return to pre-strike television. I know I watch a lot of TV, but that makes my head hurt.
While each of the major networks are promoting the prime-time return of their most popular pre-strike shows, I have been struck particularly by NBC’s ads. Their announcements come in the form of self-congratulatory montages of clips from their prime-time shows, set to the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song and replete with slow-motion, black and white behind-the-scenes footage to let us know how real this really is. The ads acknowledge that the shows have been off air only by asking us to celebrate their return. But there is no specific mention of what event has ended such that we can “welcome back” these shows. There is no mention of a strike, or a hiatus, or even the offer of an apology; there is simply a non-discussed absence that we are assured is now over, and that we’re welcome. The ads are nostalgic in the literal sense, creating a sense of a returning to home; familiar characters returning to their familiar place within the plastic frame of television. And I have no problem in acknowledging their overall effectiveness; I’m excited about new episodes of these series. My issue is that I find they situate me as a viewer in a problematic ahistoricity that is more than just a little condescending and hostile.
I can’t help but note that the absence of the shows and the silence of the strike are both implied but not addressed in these celebratory self-advertisements, and find it odd that they spend so much time drawing attention to themselves without talking about the occasion itself. This gap in the narrative raises too many questions for me to sit comfortably in my recliner, and I’m left to wonder how television would like me to fill in this enthymematic blank. Am I to view the strike as a long vacation from which everyone is returning? Should I see these messages as a reconciliation between management and labor, thereby reassuring me that it is okay to watch these shows? Or perhaps I should be a bit more selfish, and see these ads in a more insulting light, asking me to congratulate the return of something whose absence was not my fault to begin with. Should I dwell on the arrogance of such ads, which imply that these shows are far more important to viewers than viewers are to the shows? After all, I was watching all along, and I don’t remember TV celebrating me for my loyalty. It was TV that went on strike, not the viewers.
But the question that emerges at the center of these others is, how will television write its own history of the writers’ strike? From what I’ve observed thus far, the history is spotty at best. Dave and Conan have shaved off their beards, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had single-episode celebrations of their writers, and Tina Fey used portions of her February 23, 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live to bring up the strike and its resolution. Various news programs ran stories on the end of the strike, and host Jon Stewart, during the lowest rated Oscars telecast in history, both congratulated and mocked Hollywood for celebrating the end of a labor impasse of its own creation. All points on a map that have yet to be connected. Print journalism has done far more to discuss the strike and its aftermath, making television’s own amnesia about its history all the more glaring.
Perhaps the point to be made is how bad television is at marking absence, particularly compared with how amazing television is at marking self-congratulation. When it comes to creating nostalgia, television has virtually no media parallel. What other medium has as many shows dedicated to clips of its shows, out-takes of those shows, and shows about people reminiscing about those shows? But these are all ways in which television deals with its own tangible presence. When there is an absence, television seems incapable of addressing this circumstance. It isn’t so much that television needs to offer a mea culpa to audiences or have “very special episodes” of their shows that deal with the strike, but to cause a celebration without reason takes one step too far in the other direction.
But perhaps this was the studio’s plan all along. I certainly don’t mean there was a conspiracy to create a false decline and then increase in viewerships. Rather, television’s approach to the end of the writers’ strike indicates clearly the attitude that they perceive entertainment as a phenomenon to be more important than the visibility of any particular show, and certainly more important than a sense of viewer demand. In that scenario, the NBC ads are further ironic, ostensibly celebrating the return of something that was never truly absent in the first place, creating a sense of anticipation when one was not needed. After all, if others are like me, and are viewing these announcement ads, the TVs are already on and we’re already watching, just as many of us did during the strike. In that sense, perhaps it is foolish of me to raise questions about how TV marked the period of the writers’ strike as, from this vantage point, there was never a strike because there was never a period without TV.
But the television studios, networks, and other media agencies run a risk in trying to gloss over the writer’s strike. They are on the verge of repeating their own history, whether they acknowledge it or not. Rumors are already circulating about an actors’ strike that could come about this summer, further jeopardizing the smooth return to form that the current crop of ads promise viewers. How willing will viewers be to welcome back shows a second time, and will the networks be able to erase a second strike? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for viewers to go on strike for a bit just to remind Hollywood that we’re worth paying attention to. If I’ve made it this far without my favorite shows and not much of a disruption, then I’m sure another strike won’t matter much more to me. But if I finally do get around to turning off the TV and finding other entertainments – much likelier during a summer strike than a winter one – I don’t think TV will be able to gloss over its own absence as easily. For these reasons, I think TV would be served well by acknowledging its own recent history, instead of pretending that nothing bad ever happens inside the box. More importantly, I hope the networks can find time to remember the viewers and to treat us with a little more dignity and grace. I’d find that worth celebrating.
4. Tina Fey addresses the writers’ strike.
Please feel free to comment.
There’s a great quote I found on that (although unrelated in its actual target) seems very true of how so much television functions.
One of television’s recurring aims, created aesthetically and discursively from an industrial dictate, is to “reinforce the immediacy of the television image as a constant source of reference and plenitude” (Eaton, 1978, 25).
While acknowledging the lack would have undermined the ‘constant plenitude’, celebrating the return of plenty aesthetically and discursively allows us all to believe, once more, that TV is the gift that keeps on giving.
Thanks for putting up the quote (would you happen to have the full cite, perhaps?).
What fascinated me about this issue was how the underlying question is always slippery (one might say, under erasure). As you say, TV is able to position itself as the gift that keeps on giving, while diverting attention away from the underlying question as to why we should ever doubt its beneficence. The occasion of suspicion is never really made tangible, even as we are provided a message designed to allay any fear.
I wish I could do that.
The quote is specifically about television comedy, and he uses the ‘reference and plenitude’ line twice, in citation a) p25 and b) p67.
a) Eaton, M. (1981) ‘Laughter in the Dark’ Screen, 22, 2. 22–25
b) Eaton, M (1978) ‘Television Situation Comedy’ Screen, 19, 4. 61-89
It felt like one of those claims that tallied nicely with Richard Dyer’s categories of entertainment and utopia. The history is spotted with the lacunae required to ensure the utopia remains; the ‘dystopia’ of losing episodes of Lost can only be admitted once they’ve been found. There’s a ‘dual address’; a solely factual admission of the strike and its consequences for the schedule but a celebration (with full sound and light) of the end of the drought. But I’m repeating myself…
>>As you say, TV is able to position itself as the gift that keeps on giving, while diverting attention away from the underlying question as to why we should ever doubt its beneficence.
A case of the lady protesting too much perhaps?
I would just add that last night’s South Park, “Canada On Strike!” (4.2.2008), addressed the writers’ strike. Well, they transported the issue to Canada going on strike, but made it quite clear it was about the WGA strike.
Interestingly, last night’s episode, to my reading, attacked the WGA leaders for what amounted to a sham strike that hurt the writers/Canadians more than it provided gains (i.e., sacrificing real dollars for “virtual” dollars). The episode also gave a South Parkian send-up of YouTube celebrities who mistook faddish celebrity for artistic creativity, as well as American audiences for not taking the strike seriously.
Granted, South Park has more creative control over their own show than do man others (http://www.apple.com/pro/profiles/southpark/), and therefore we might suspect that the South Park team experienced the strike differently than others. Thus, the question needs to be raised as to how well South Park can speak for all writers, particularly the disenfranchised, “everyday” writers the episode arguably was trying to champion. Nevertheless, this at least is an example of a show that wants to bring the memory of the strike back into the light (albeit with a mask on its face). More importantly, the episode rewarded viewers for their television sensibilities (if not taste) and awareness of the gap in history. It wasn’t a kind reward, but it was at least a recognition.