Postmodern tendencies in American TV Essay
Television scholars have observed that in the past twenty years American popular television has undergone a major transformation in style and form. John Thornton Caldwell uses the term televisuality to signify a development in the images running through the small screen. Such a shift in form and presentation developed alongside contextual factors. Caldwell explains his view in detail: Starting in the 1980s, American mass-market television underwent an uneven shift in the conceptual and ideological paradigms that governed its look and presentational demeanor.
In several important programming and institutional areas, television moved from a framework that approached broadcasting primarily as a form of word-based rhetoric and transmission…to a visually based mythology, framework and aesthetic based on an extreme self-consciousness of style. (1995, p. 4) This emphasis on style is predicated on reconceptualizations of form and presentation in television, consequentially changing production and labor practices: With increasing frequency, style itself became the subject, the signified, if you will, of television.
In fact, the self-consciousness of style became so great that it can more accurately be described as an activity—as a performance of style—rather than a particular look. (1995, pp. 4 -5) Televisuality is more than a historical phenomenon; it is also a discursive product. The ramifications of televisual style are brought about by business conditions, technology and audience reception, as well as intended changes in industry and aesthetic practices. Certainly there are factors unique to this contemporary trend, but Caldwell is quick to point out that televisuality is not some original invention that does not have historical precedents.
It can be traced from a long history of “aesthetic posturing”; that is, stylization has been a regular artistic practice in television production that has snowballed, albeit unevenly, into what mass-market television has become of date. Furthermore, stylization is tied to a much broader landscape—to processes of transformation in mass media and American popular culture. Caldwell’s approach, that of historicizing and contextualizing stylization, necessarily leads to another aspect—its ideological implications.
Given the rather broad conceptualization, instead of offering one sweeping definition Caldwell identifies six principles of televisuality (pp. 5-10). These principles are explored in-depth in his seminal work, Televisuality: Style, Crisis and Authority in American Television. I shall enumerate them and briefly explain the author’s ideas in the paragraphs that follow. Even though these tenets were discussed with special reference to the 1980s, the era that signaled the major turn in television’s presentational format, I will nevertheless explain them with the presumption of their universal (non-time bound) applicability.
1. Televisuality was a stylizing performance—an exhibitionism that utilized many different looks. According to Caldwell, televisuality is a “presentational attitude” that emphasizes exhibitionism. Exhibitionism is evinced through the use of different existing visual looks and stylizations, leading to different of “guises”. This means that the conventional genres of presentation and format are less evident. The constant “experimentation” and blurring of boundaries make for a certain visual spectacles. 2. Televisuality represented a structural inversion.
If before television shows prioritized subject over style, and the visual packaging of the image was relegated to the background, beginning in the mid-1980s some shows placed style on the foreground. This practice is not simply a positional swap. Style or the presentation of the image, Caldwell clarifies, is the subject, or in other words, is significantly tied to the text itself: “(S)tyle was no longer a bracketed flourish, but was the text of the show” (p. 6). To analyze the televisual text is to articulate to the act of presentation of the subject itself.
3. Televisuality was an industrial product. The third principle refers to an important foundation of televisuality—the mode of production. For Caldwell, televisuality—including the “presentational guises, the narrative forms, and the politics of mainstream television” (p. 7) stems from the technological and production developments, some of which result from specific cultural and economic needs. At the same time, the production base evinces particular audience attitudes and responses. 4. Televisuality was a programming phenomenon.
As stated earlier, televisuality is a product of television history; it has its precedents. Exhibitionism and spectacle is not an entirely unique phenomenon; what is unique is the manner in which “showcasing” is done by broadcast networks. Another example is the presentation and branding of some shows as “special events”: Programming designed around special-event status was also not entirely new, although the kind of prestige and programming spin that special events offered threatened to dominate television by the late 1980s.
” (p. 9) Thus, today the viewer finds “exclusive” news coverage commonplace in news and public affairs shows, and there is a saturation of “reality” game shows documenting the lives of ordinary people desperate for instant fame and fortune. 5. Televisuality was a function of audience. Caldwell notes how television audiences have become more varied in terms of taste and preferences. Audience response, from his view is both manufactured by networks, as well as a function of agency.
As the cultural literacy of audiences is developed across different social segments, audiences’ sensibilities are also trained by the continuous development and revision of shows on television. For example the introduction of video games in the mass market in the early 80s profoundly shaped young people’s lifestyles. Meanwhile, television makes use of technological developments like the videogames to reinvent the stylistic wheel, so to speak, in turn orienting audiences towards developing new viewing pleasures. 6. Televisuality was a product of the economic crisis.
In the 1980s, mainstream networks were stunned by the popularity of cable viewing. Caldwell believes stylistic showcasing is the mainstream networks’ approach to “protect(ing) market share” as the business conditions became more competitive. While Caldwell focuses on stylistic (re)presentation in contemporary American television, another scholar, Jason Mittell (2006), focuses on developments in television genre and narrative. Mittell uses the concept of narrative complexity to approach the intertextual tendencies of television serials.
Following his work that posits a cultural approach to genre study (A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory, 2001), Mittell insists that popular American television should be broadly understood as a product of cultural, historical, and structural forces. New trends in genre development should be examined alongside contextual factors – network business outcomes, shifts in industrial and artistic practices, technological innovations, and audience tastes and responses. Additionally, narrative complexity should be approached as a cultural phenomenon.
Mittell’s critical perspective shares with Caldwell a broader view of television studies, whereby context is read into particular aspects of the text (style/stylization, genre, narrative). Like Caldwell, he also situates the unique formal qualities of the narrative within structural and historical developments in production, circulation and audience reception. Perhaps in anticipation of Mittell’s view, Caldwell (1995) also suggests that one way of analyzing the form and functions of televisuality by comparing earlier conventional genres and more recent attempts to incorporate stylistic embellishment and exhibitionism (p.
18). Mittell observes that narrative complexity is a striking feature of some of today’s popular television fare, offering an alternative to earlier conventional formats. Mittell takes after film scholar David Bordwell with the view that the term encompasses a particular set of “norms of narrational construction and comprehension” (Bordwell cited by Mittell, 2006, p. 29), which combines different genres, movements and creators in coming up with a coherent whole.
These features are drawn from cinema as a reference, however, and thus Mittell also points out that while cinematic techniques over the last decade have also shaped the television narrative in certain ways (for instance, the crossing-over of film auteurs and practitioners to the small screen have brought about a new breed of “quality television” or “intelligent” serial programs; filmic intertextuality, or the combination of other media like novels and comic books in making films), contemporary television storytelling style should still be examined according to the medium’s unique features, structures, history and language (p.
29). Mittell also adopts what he calls a “historical poetics” in his definition of narrative complexity an approach that invites the reader to go beyond the borders of the text. The textual features should be read in conjunction with particular socio-historical contexts—industry and production trends, technological developments, and changing audience behaviors, and the like. Awareness of the influence of specific contextual factors assumes that narrative development is not an isolated textual whole but a product of external factors. Mittell then traces the rise of narrative complexity in the television.
Most of the television practices he cites are more or less synonymous to factors that also brought forth the era of televisuality, which Caldwell pointed out. For instance, Mittell explains how the appeal of the small screen captivated film creators and professionals who started out in the film industry. David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Allan Ball (Six Feet Under), and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) are notable examples. Part of the attraction is that television, being a “producer’s medium”, creators gain more authority and leverage compared to the director-centric film production (p.
31). Modes of television viewing also compelled networks to re-strategize programming practices and schedules. Beginning in the mid-80s the popularity of serial narratives gradually declined. It was found that audiences lacked the sustained attention for weekly serials. A relatively new kind of practice, the syndication of TV programs became a major challenge for networks, as it gave audiences more elbow room to view episodes of their favorite shows without having to follow a fixed weekly schedule.
Another trend that Mittell observed in terms of reception is the increasing diversity of audiences. As new broadcasting companies and channels add to the media clutter, they develop shows that cater to certain demographic brackets or attuned to specific cult followers in order to compete with established networks like CBS and NBC. As always, technological innovations impact significantly on television. For Mittell, the television industry easily latches on the latest technology to advance aesthetic and production purposes.
As an example, one of the most recent developments that single-handedly changed the cultural landscape is the Internet. Television cashed in on this new technology by putting up fan sites and “official” TV program sites. These sites extend television viewing, as they enable followers to do a range of activities (discussion of episodes with other viewers, purchasing of merchandize, research information about the show) in relation to the show itself. The postmodern turn in television
The above discussions can be subsumed to the overarching theoretical paradigm called postmodernism. Televisuality and narrative complexity can be regarded as actual structural features and dynamics that demonstrate the postmodern condition in the realm of television. Several of the features and themes that characterize postmodernism, charted by Jim Collins in “Television and Postmodernism” (1997) resonates with the definitions of televisuality and narrative complexity proffered by Caldwell and Mittell.
For instance, Collins discusses how postmodernism is predicated on the proliferation and circulation of signs or images, in part propelled by the latest technology (cable, VCR, digital technology, the Internet) (p. 193). The bombardment of images, all of which demand the viewer’s attention, eventually effaces meaning. The primacy of the image is also an attribute of televisuality, especially in its claim that style is the text/signifer. In addition, there is also the logic of excess that in televisual parlance translates to excessive style.
Eclecticism seems to be a commonplace notion in discussions of televisuality and narrative complexity. In the latter, the employment of various styles in the process of expermentation or stylization is a form of eclecticism; in the latter, the cross-fertilization of differing genres. Related to this is intertextuality, the use or borrowing of various formats resulting in the blurring of boundaries, or the reorganization of genre or style hierarchies. Though features of conventional prototypes may still be recognizable in a given text, their combination or recombination attracts the viewer’s attention more distinctly.
In this paper I will attempt to show what is postmodern in American television. Many accounts of postmodernism dabble in excess themselves, and fail to anchor much of the claims in empirical realities. I believe that what postmodernism articulates in theory is more acutely contained in the concepts of televisuality and narrative complexity. Thus, while the critical perspective employed here remains to be postmodernism, my analysis uses more empirical conceptual handles.
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