October 11, 2012

Showcase Post II – Reality TV, Now a Fact

As a global phenomenon, the manifestation of reality TV has drawn much investigation into its development, structure, and social influence. Many journalism scholars believe that the rise of reality TV create a low point in TV cultures, in which the factual and civil tradition, and the quality behind quality drama is compromised, and a highly marketable, low in value genre dominates. Many question the ethics of reality TV and its social value in the ‘education’ of its audience. The reality TV format plays on voyeurism – a natural human tendency. Television provides us with the opportunity to not only peek into other people’s lives, but also doing so in private without any fellow partners in crime as one would experience in an erotic cinema (Thompson, 2001).

The comparison is made between reality TV and traditional documentaries. The primary appeal of reality TV show is its claimed ‘authenticity’ in comparison to scripted television drama. However, many question the idea of ‘realism’ behind reality TV shows. Reality TV shows are often influenced by the easily detectable tendency to edit and present the content showcasing dramatic elements and controversy in order to capture its audience. This is seen by some researchers as deception and a form of cheating. Beck et al. argue that in comparison to traditional documentaries, reality TV ‘prioritise entertainment over social commentary’, and borrow from the structural and dramaturgical elements of soap opera, with a shifted focus on the personality of its characters using short narrative sequences and other techniques such as dramatic soundtracks, intersecting plot lines, etc (Bruzzi & Kilborn, cited in Beck et al, 2012).

John Corner (cited in Ouellette, 2010), also argues that traditional TV such as the documentary format carries the function of ‘civic training’, whilst reality TV, although borrowing the ‘factual’ setup of documentaries, is skewed towards entertainment and gaming values to engage a market. Like soap opera, it is considered of low value and aesthetics. Corner argues that traditional ‘factual’ TV provides the function of ‘civic training’. He envisions the television medium as an instrument of national education through the creation of a public sphere high in legitimacy. Such content, however, has undergone a decline resulted from ‘market liberalisation, deregulation, digital technologies, and the post welfare impetus to reform and downsize the public sector in general (Born, pp102, quoted in Ouellette).

Reality TV, on the other hand, is a product of this social development. Many scholars have examined the link between the new cultural and political landscape and the growth of reality TV. Fetveit (1999, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson) argues that reality TV symbolises the TV audience’s longing for ‘a sense of contact with the real’ (pp.798), in a postmodern era that is ‘post-photographic, digitalised and comic-book-like’ (pp.326, Jagodozinki, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson).
The engagement between reality TV and its audience is hence less of a ‘sender-receiver’ module constructed by traditional ‘factual’ public broadcasting. With the commercial tag of ‘authenticity’ comes an active consumer response of critical review. It is important to note that the reading of reality TV among its audience is different from the reading of traditional ‘factual’ TV, as the audience are often aware of ‘the artificiality of the whole experience, but incorporated it to their mechanisms for deriving pleasure from this media genre’ (Jones, cited in Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007).

In a qualitative research into college student’s consumption pattern of reality TV, Lundy L.K. et al. (2008) discover that despite 76.4% of participants acknowledging they watch reality program on a regular basis, the response to the genre suggests the audience remains critical towards the realism of the content. Furthermore, a distinction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reality shows is made with a reasoned investigation of its content, presentation, instead of pure entertainment value.

Ouellette argues that although the changing face of society has resulted in a decline of traditionally ‘educational’ and ‘journalistic’ style documentaries offered by public stations, the ‘civic potential’ of the medium is in fact, carried through to the reality format. Ouellette points out that although reality TV is constantly engaging its audience for a commercially skewed purpose, many programs indeed ‘address TV viewers as subjects of capacity who exercise freedom and civic agency within (not against) entertainment and consumer culture’ (pp.68). If ‘educational’ and ‘factual’ programming provided by traditional TV engages the audience by ‘teaching’ them what is ‘right’, reality TV is like the social experience outside the classroom in which the knowledge is obtained through active consideration, and subject to different results. Ouellette points out that although the uniformed ‘public oversight’ does not exist in reality television, reality programs still provides an active role in providing civic training.
It is apparent, then, that reality TV has an active role in constructing the modern public sphere, in a different manner from traditional national broadcasting. Reality shows strengthen public interest through their interactivity with the audience, through embedded platforms such as the voting and evicting system seen on Big Brother, as well as the very dedicated online and social media discussion groups (Beck et al, 2012). Graham & Hajru (2011) argue that internet public sphere, with a much higher participatory value, provides reality TV with the space to host discussions that have a political dimension. It constitutes the public sphere and cannot be overlooked. They looked at political discussion in Big Brother UK. Through the daily discussions which Thompson describes as ‘people sitting around’ (pp.21, 2001), many ‘lifestyle, image and identity’ discussion invoked political debates. These debates further flourish in its fan community on the internet, extending to areas such as George Galloway’s politics, the judical/legal system, gender and sexuality, and even reality TV itself. The vast range of discussion is constituted by 1176 post on the forum. Not every single post would provide a national uniformed ‘civic training’ text, but it is through the development of these discussions that a bottom-up public sphere is created.

Looking at the criticism towards reality TV and the debate over the kind of role it plays in constructing a new public sphere, I can not help but feel that reality TV is a shiny new product of this postmodern age, in which validation is sought after through further examination and questioning, instead of being provided by an authoritative, ‘factual’ figure. The value of reality TV comes from its audience, as we live in an age in which no one has the power to tell us what eventually is seriously, ‘real’.

References

Beck, D., Hellmueller, L.C. & Aeschbacher, N. 2012, “Factual Entertainment and Reality TV”, Communication Research Trends, vol.31 (2012), no.2 pp.4-27, via EBSCOhost

Graham, T & Harju, A 2011, “Reality TV as a trigger of everyday political talk in the net-based public sphere”, European Journal of Communication, 26(1) pp.18-32, via SAGE Journals

Lundy, L.K., Ruth A.M. & Park, T.D. 2008, “Simply Irresistable: Reality TV Consumption Patterns”, Communication Quarterly, vol.56, no.2, May 2008, pp.208-225, via EBSCOhost

Thompson, R 2001, “Reality and the Future of Television”, Television Quarterly, issue.31, no.4, pp.20-25, via EBSCOhost

Ouellette, L 2010, “Reality TV Gives Back: On the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, Summer 2010, vol.38, issue.2, pp.66-71, via EBSCOhost

Z. Papacharissi & A.L. Mendelson, 2007 “An Exploratory Study of Reality Appeal: Uses and Gratifications of Reality TV Shows”, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2007, vol.51 issue.2, pp. 355-37,  via EBSCOhost

October 11, 2012

Showcase Post I – A (Rather Awkward) Game of Taste

In her review of the pilot episode of HBO’s drama Game of Thrones, Ginia Bellafante questions the intent behind a costly production depicting a medieval fantasy story, in which the climate is ‘bizarre’ and the violence is always brought to the forefront. What offended Bellafante the most, however, is the ‘patronising’ attempt to insert this male sexual hopscotch costume drama into a female audience that would otherwise walk past the genre. Clearly, if the writers and the producers intended to sell such ‘boy fiction’ to a female The Hobbit reader by adding a few Sparctacus chest muscles into the show, their dirty plot has failed and been easily stuck right through.

Bellafante’s verdict on Game of Thrones being a ‘boy fiction’ caused a stir on the internet. Her assertion contains a strange allocation between contents (or genres) and their audience. In the case of Game of Thrones, the fantasy genre is for male and male alone, and the intense sex for the women who find the rest of the fantasy story irrelevant. Her anger is reasonable if Game of Thrones was indeed designed to be geek’s Shakespeare and women’s porn – of course that puts women in a very patronised situation. This segmentation of content and genre evoked several responses that form an alternative to Bellafante’s version. Ratcliffe (cited in Barnett, 2011) criticises Bellafante’s association between the fantasy genre and men as a generalisation about women.

Dramatically, in her rebuttal to Bellafante’s review Really, why would men ever want to watch “Game of Thrones”, Annalee Newitz provide many ‘evidence’ that the show is crafted exclusively for a female audience. I couldn’t help but reading the entire post as a sarcastic response, since she points out that the show is ‘Jane Austen set in a semi-medieval world’ – a melodrama in which family and children are the centre of many scenes. She argues that Sansa and Arya’s sufferings resemble Gossip Girl plot lines, which she speaks of as a show for the female.

To associate a genre with a gender is obviously blunt, in an age where stereotypes carry the expensive tag of ignorance. It’s an old story we have heard over and over again – ‘the grain of truth’ in these stereotypes somewhere, as David Barnett points out. He suggests that Bellafante’s generalisation came from a lack of research. Well, maybe what Bellafante has shown, is a traditional characteristic of fandom. As a ‘fan’ for the ‘real-world sociology’ type of drama, this genre is regarded by Bellafante as the the distinction of higher culture, through the narrative pleasure of narrative complexity, unique yet relatable characters and their sharp reflection of social context, etc – many aspects of quality TV we discussed over the semester. Meanwhile, Games of Thrones, carrying its illicit sexual and violent appeal, is simply downgraded to a community like IGN.com game boys who tweeted comments like ‘All I want to see is more boobs and fighting‘.

Just like Ratfliffe said ‘She didn’t like the show, so what?’ What Bellafante put on display is her taste for quality drama, unfortunately with little outlook into what’s outside the radius of her ‘taste’. She suggests that the show’s executive producer and screenwriter (and of course, best-selling author) David Benioff was not one in the right position to explore Middle Earth proclivities. His ‘taste’ for quality narrative, in Bellafante’s view, should be contained in a story like 25th Hour, in which a post 9/11 context reflection brings authentic narrative pleasure. The same puzzle goes for HBO, a network that pioneers through its distinct vision and commitment for high quality TV drama that ‘examine the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart’ (Bellafante, 2011). In Bellafante’s view, quality drama must stay loyal to ‘real-world sociology’, whether its political / social insights such as the municipal government in The Wire, or real geographies and realistic lives (Deadwood and the American West), neither of which Game of Throne qualifies for.

Yet Game of Thrones is a show that challenges Bellafante’s segmentation, and proves that this kind of stereotyping is a mere illusion. Bellafante pointed out after one episode, that the show has little to offer other than the perversion and bizaare fantasy elements such as Dorathki language creation. However as the show evolves one gets to witness and think about Westeros as an ‘institution’ woven by power, war, rules and order, characters such as Jon Snow experiences, learns and reflects upon their experiences with such a world, just like Tony Soprano does with the Mafia life, and Bill Henrickson with his faith and family. Game of Thrones continue the tradition of HBO’s success in narrative complexity, and does so in an even more extraordinary way. The pleasure from viewing a narratively complex drama often comes from the revolving thoughts around its context. Game of Thrones constructs a fantasy world unfamiliar to many of its audience, however we are still led to live lives in this world and reflect on its complexity. Illana Teitelbaum, in her response to Bellafante’s review, said that she did not expect HBO to bring ‘social commentary’ or ‘philosophical depth’ to Game of Thrones because the original book did not do so. However in my opinion the TV show ended up achieving both.

To link a genre to high or low taste is then very problematic. The fantasy genre had been condemned as ‘low’ because of the primary association with the kind of fandom portrayed as men who make comments such as

‘Dwarf sex is good, but only if it’s with chicks. If it’s just DUDES having dwarf sex, that is gay. But if it’s chicks, then there will probably be tits, and so I care about it.’

However, the example of Game of Thrones clearly breaks down the foundation of maintaining such stereotypes. To associate either genre or taste to gender is even more ignorant, dated, and therefore troublesome.

 

 

References

Barnett, D 2011, “Game of Thrones: Girl wants to play, too”, The Guardian, viewed Wednesday 10/10/2012, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/apr/18/game-of-thrones-girls-fantasy&gt;

Bellafante, G 2011, ‘A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’ The New York Times, viewed Wednesday 10/10/2012, <http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html&gt;

Newitz, A 2011, “Really, why would men ever want to watch Game of Thrones?”, io9, viewed Wednesday 10/10/2012, <http://io9.com/5792574/really-why-would-men-ever-want-to-watch-game-of-thrones&gt;

Teitelbaum, I 2011, “Dear New York Times: A Game of Thrones Is Not Just for Boys”, Huff Post Books, viewed Wednesday 10/10/2012, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ilana-teitelbaum/game-of-thrones-hbo_b_850014.html&gt;

 

 

 

October 4, 2012

Does ‘Reality’ Matter?

The significant rise of reality television in the recent broadcasting landscape has invoked many observations into what makes up for its success. However many scholars and commentators also explicitly criticise reality as a genre of low cultural value. Nevertheless, reality TV as a popular format, reinvents the TV media with many of its distinct features.

 

Reality TV is defined by Hill (2005) as an unscripted melodramatic format in which ordinary people are featured instead of professional actors, usually incorporating ‘humorous’ real-life events or prize-winning contests. It automatically addresses itself as ‘authentic’ in comparison to scripted drama. It also creates the ‘impression’ of being so through many aspects such as voyeurism and participation.

 

Many of these features were also seen as primary distinctions between documentaries and dramas. However, reality TV and documentaries are treated with significantly different attitudes. It seems like reality TV’s ‘liveness’ and ‘realism’ is viewed with a much higher level of skepticism. In Laurie Ouellette’s essay ‘Reality TV Gives Back: on the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment’ these two formats are compared and their relations to ‘reality’ through ‘unscripting’ further examined.

 

John Corner (cited in Ouellette), argues that traditional TV such as the documentary format carries the function of ‘civic training’, whilst reality TV, although borrowing the ‘factual’ setup of documentaries, is skewed towards entertainment and gaming values to engage a market. Like soap opera, it is considered of low value and aesthetics.

 

John’s argument can be validated by observing the recent development of reality TV. Corner points out that national public service stations such as BBC and PBS through many of their earlier ‘factual programming created content that were ‘high in civic legitimacy but low in exchange value’ (Corner, pp.52). Such content, however, has undergone a decline resulted from ‘market liberalisation, deregulation, digital technologies, and the post welfare impetus to reform and downsize the public sector in general (Born, pp102, quoted in Ouellette). Reality TV, on the other hand, is a product of this social development. Many scholars have examined the link between the new cultural and political landscape and the growth of reality TV. Fetveit (1999, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson) argues that reality TV symbolises the TV audience’s longing for ‘a sense of contact with the real’ (pp.798), in a postmodern era that is ‘post-photographic, digitalised and comic-book-like’ (pp.326, Jagodozinki, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson).

 

These arguments suggest that reality TV indeed provides a sense of ‘realism’ that engages and therefore succeeds in marketing. However, this is not the only attribute that led to reality TV’s success. Reality TV has gained a social role in our contemporary cultural landscape with its deeper integration with our cultural experiences.

 

Ouellette argues that although the changing face of society has resulted in a decline of traditionally ‘educational’ and ‘journalistic’ style documentaries offered by public stations, the ‘civic potential’ of the medium is in fact, carried through to the reality format. Ouellette points out that although reality TV is constantly engaging its audience for a commercially skewed purpose, many programs indeed ‘address TV viewers as subjects of capacity who exercise freedom and civic agency within (not against) entertainment and consumer culture’ (pp.68). If ‘educational’ and ‘factual’ programming provided by traditional TV engages the audience by ‘teaching’ them what is right, reality TV is like the social experience outside the classroom in which the knowledge is obtained through active consideration, and subject to different results. Ouellette points out that although the uniformed ‘public oversight’ does not exist in reality television, reality programs still provides an active role in providing civic training.

 

Another important aspect of reality TV that makes up for its identity is its disruption to the idea of ‘person on the screen’ and ‘celebrity’. Reality TV incorporates the participatory culture which has seen its unique success outside a traditionally Hollywood setup. Shows such as ‘… Idols’ have gained success around the world each with an audience that is highly ‘local’. This brings back our discussions earlier in the semester about television’s role in constructing a public identity. Aswin Punathambekar looks at the example of Amit Paul, the northeastern Indian Indian Idol winner whose support came from the divided groups of Khas, Jaintia, and Garo tribes, and argues that reality TV, through its deep roots in participatory culture, effectively creates a strong public sphere which has lasting social impact.

 

Reality TV may not be always real. Some conservative scholars argue that the format generates ‘edited”marketable’ illusions that are simply market driven, therefore is misleading and harmful to the public sphere traditional ‘national’ TV has created. However, it is important to note that the reading of reality TV among its audience is different from the reading of traditional ‘factual’ TV, as the audience are often aware of ‘the artificiality of the whole experience, but incorporated it to their mechanisms for deriving pleasure from this media genre’ (Jones, cited in Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007). Furthermore, the good-old ‘factual’ TV does indeed create a more ‘uniformed’ cultural identification through an official, authoritative voice, but what if some of it was, just like some reality TV, wrong? The audience are already arguing whether a reality scene is ‘real’, however in the old days many ‘facts’ were left unchallenged.

 

References

Hill, A 2004, Reality TV:  audiences and popular factual television. Routledge, London, UK

Ouellette, L 2010, Reality TV Gives Back: On the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment, Journal of Popular Film & Television, Summer 2010, vol.38, issue.2, pp.66-71, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost

Z. Papacharissi & A.L. Mendelson, 2007 An Exploratory Study of Reality Appeal: Uses and Gratifications of Reality TV Shows, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2007, vol.51 issue.2, pp. 355-37, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost

Punathambekar, Aswin. Reality TV and Participatory Culture in India, Popular Communication, Oct-Dec 2010, vol.8, issue.4, p241-255, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost

 

September 27, 2012

Mad Men Beyond 60s

A google search of ‘period drama’ brings up results like sites like perioddramas.com

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or, perioddrama.com

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A quick browse through these sites finds a clear association between the notion of ‘period drama’ and the imagery of castles, costumes of the Victorian era. In the ‘Top-rated Period Dramas’ list provided by perioddramas.com Jane Eyre even appears three times (2006 TV mini-series at No.3, 2011 movie at No.13, and at No.25, another TV mini-series from 1973). I haven’t watched any of these and to make such a judgement would be idiotic – Isn’t this obsession with ‘romance of another age’, in which people dress significantly differently, with now diminished manners, equivalent to the idea of a lowbrow fandom mentioned earlier in our exploration of genres? Is period drama a certain kind of ‘fantasy’?

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Oh god, is that an assumed female audience?

Is Mad Men, with all the glamorous fashion and etiquettes, a show of a ‘periodic’ fashion? Looking beyond the dresses and the cocktails, without doubt, the show exhibits almost every aspect of social development in the age of 60s, one that incorporates profound social change that many characters in the show engages with through personal struggles. Especially from a contemporary perspective, many of such elements contain the ‘wow-factor’ of a museum piece. As Jason Mittell points out in ‘On Disliking Mad Men’, the ‘casual sexism and racism’ in the characters’ conducts make us view them as ‘dinosaurs unaware of the coming ice age’.

The final episode of Season 1 is filled with such moments, from brief shots such as Carla the housemaid’s facial expression when she was told ‘just go home’ to the vivid examples of ‘cheating husband, confused wife’ comparison between the Draper and the Campbell couple. The display of the social politics not only provides us with the ‘dinosaur-viewing’ portal, but also provides the viewing pleasure of contextual reading. As pointed out by Kackman in the previous post, narrative complexity is achieved not just through the reading of the text, but also our perception that the stories contain deeper meanings of cultural identification.

However, Mad Men cannot be assumed to be a quality show simply through this retrospective view of the period, even though the narrative interest usually surrounds overt issues such as sexism and family politics (we see that not only through the unbalanced status between husband and wives, and women at workplace, but also in Pete Campbell’s frustration of ‘can’t provide for a child’ in front of his father0in-law). When viewing the sequence of Francine’s breakdown over her suspicion of a cheating husband I wondered if today’s women are in anyway more empowered in such situations than back then. When Francine went over the phone bill, and Betty opened Don’s letter, was women in a worse situation when it came to facing infidelity, marriage problems, etc. My answer is no. Emotions like suspicion and feeling of betrayal does not evolve along with social changes. To me Mad Men’s ultimate charm remains in its ‘character-centered form’, as Jason Mittell puts it, what makes Mad Men quality TV is the time one spends interpreting the characters, through the form of slow serial narrative.

September 26, 2012

Small Dramas of Big Love

In the first episode of Big Love, we are introduced to a fairly complex network of characters. Polygamist Bill Henrickson’s three wives are each very distinctive characters. In fact, they do not look like an assumed polygamist family at all – Barb has a sassy business woman sense of fashion while Margene behaves with little, if none of all the ‘obedience is the ultimate freedom’ ideal. We are already left with much curiosity in these extraordinary details.

 

However, like many narratively complex drama from HBO, the expansion of plot does not stop here. Roman Grant, Nicki the second wife’s father, is the powerful ‘prophet’ of the very mysterious Juniper Creek polygamist commune. If his relation to Nicki makes his introduction a fairly reasonable one, one cannot but brace him or herself for more drama when his involvement in Bill’s Home Plus hardware store business is revealed.

 

Big Love ignites a series of narrative questions through the close interrelations, yet sharp contrast between these characters and their background, all on top of an area that poses significant narrative interest (polygamist community, alternative marriage). It doesn’t leave out the soap-opera-like details either, many captured in the common backyard of the three wives’ houses.

 

In his article examining the aesthetic characteristics and formation of narrative complex drama, Michael Kackman quotes and affirms Jason Mittell’s idea that narrative complexity does not make quality TV. The pleasure from quality TV’s narrative complexity comes from the ‘operational aesthetic’ which provokes ‘spectatorial pleasure in the narration mechanism itself’ In the pilot episode of Big Love, the audience watches not only the alternatively vibrant characters such as Nicki Grant, but is further engaged by the construction of dramatic tension and interrelations between her husband and father. The audience indeed, as Neil Harris explains ‘marvel at how the writer pulled it off’.

 

More importantly, Kackman points out that such ‘operational aesthetic’ is enjoyable to fans and the audience because of its intertextual aesthetics. This is particularly relevant to Big Love as the audience, whether or not familiar with Mormon theologies, is essentially bound to ask questions and reflect on these cultural implications. Further examination of such cultural context reveal deeper social issues such as politics, alternative marriage, responsibility and family, religion and personalities, etc. As Kackman puts it, 

 

‘complexity isn’t just something we find in a text; it’s something we bring to a text – and our recognition of certain characters as meaningfully conflicted, their narrative and moral dilemmas agonisingly or beguilingly puzzling, is a cultural identification’.

 

The narrative development of Big Love revolves around layers of relationships between Bill Henrickson and his wives, but also the compound and its internal conflicts. Multiple themes run along the show with insights into the world of characters such as Bill’s children. Although plot lines such as Sarah’s personal struggles with sexuality and relationships contain hints and reflect back to how the polygamist lifestyle influences her, one needs a coherent understanding of their personal backgrounds to understand the evolving drama. As a narratively complex drama, Big Love holds certain characteristics usually associated with the lowbrow genre of daytime soap, in the manner that prevents ‘drop-in’ viewers. However, Jason Mittell points out that the ‘similarities’ between quality TV and daytime soap came from a historical development, as explained in the previous post, with the support of technological development, etc. He points out that in long-running serial soap operas much of the content comes from redundancy and repetition that shows low relevancy or evolvement in plot, however quality TV offers much more common experience of strategic placement of plot element and its later recognition. 

 

September 13, 2012

Make Your Own Kinds of TV!

The idea that genres are interrelated and reinterpreted in HBO shows such as The Wire has long been an impression of such ‘quality TV’ in my mind. As I mentioned in the previous post on Game of Thrones, some criticism of the show comes from a highly pre-asserted prejudice towards the ‘low’ fantasy genre. However, Game of Thrones discusses, and deconstructs the kingdoms and its unique characters. The Wire differentiates itself from a single genre of police procedural drama although by the look of it they appear the same. I sometimes wonder what contributes to the low rating of the show. I imagine in one scenario, a genre-loyal TV audience can be soon turned off by the complex character setup that back then couldn’t be supplied by Wikipedia. TV was inherently a casual gathering, and the drama, or in this case, crime and mystery could not rely on the whole season or series to unfold.

 

In his essay outlining such difference ‘quality TV’ makes, Jason Mittell claims that shows with ‘narrative complexity’ creates a new model of TV storytelling against the genre-inclusive convention setup of TV drama, which is characterised by the conventional construction of episodes and series. Such narrational excellence is unique to television, and thus differentiates from feature films or novel even if shows some influences from these mediums. Although Mittell ‘admits’ that complex narratives in TV could offer a deeper and diverse pleasure than conventional TV, it doesn’t necessarily generate value or superiority. 

 

Mittell looks at several aspects that build up the context in 1990s for narrative complexity to grow in television. He looks at how the audience evaluates a program by its creators – with many narratively complex drama coming from film writers whose storytelling is highly dynamic yet ‘controlled’. However along with the long form of television series comes the creative challenge and opportunity to build up character depth and even to construct a new world view.

 

The second reason for the rise of narrative complexity also comes from the audience, as networks discover highly consistent cult status for successful TV shows deliver sufficient revenue results even if the show does not appeal to the ultimate mass. Narrative complexity usually occurs in very specific environments, however goes further to explore the attributes and personas rather than superficial drama – something that drives the ‘sophisticated”authentic’ feel of a show like The Wire compared to Law & Order.

 

The third force of acceleration for narrative complexity comes from technology. One reason that the audience can develop a highly consistent relationship with a series comes from platforms such as DVD box set and VCR – technologies that unlock television dramas from the limits of airing times. In one way the audience is easier to engage since they no longer need to schedule their lives with TV shows in mind. In another way it also hands over choice to the audience – something that contributes to the cult-following status of certain shows and call for narrative complexity to effectively enhance the depth of such cults. Importantly, Mittell points out that due to these technological advances, TV shows are less reliant on drama within one episode. The internet also puts the creator and consumer together in the same realm.

 

This leads me to think whether television is undergoing a similar process as the internet – being a much older medium. It seems to me that television is becoming more ‘personalised’ and is subject to a much higher level of segmentation. Shows are marketed to particular audience, responding to their tastes and liking, as well as contextual behaviours such as political views, life experiences, etc. They even have a conversation with their audience and evolves around the responses. The internet, on the other hand, is all about being relevant to the user, with social networks, personalised advertising. It’s exciting to think about the deconstruction of a certain mass or standard in a society, and the rise diversity coming from such segmentation. However, it also raises the question – where do Buffy fans and The Wire have a conversation? Are we going to be watching our own TV, speaking our own politics at the end of the day?

August 30, 2012

Dismissing the Higher Taste

How the hell did fantasy become a ‘low-culture’? Interesting responses to the genre throughout the discussions in this week’s reading provided some insights. In Bellafante’s review of the pilot series she refers to HBO’s fantasy genre as ‘costume-drama sexual hopscotch, and clearly stated her aversion to such tactic from a feminine perspective by arguing that the creation of fantasy drama such as True Blood and Game of Thrones means a shift from ‘sophisticated’ to ‘cheap’ to the network.

She has a point – one which I did not recall until reading another blog entry by Myles McNutt. He put some comments and tweets by writers from IGN on the table – then we see what Bellafante means by her verdict on Game of Thrones (or the fantasy genre) as a patronising, dangerous, and vulgar male expression of sexuality through visuals and plot. The IGN guys, simply put, passionately justified their love for the show due to its direct relations with violence and sex. As McNutt points out, ‘The piece becomes a perpetuation of some pretty limiting male stereotypes which could be seen as dismissive of female readers’.

However, that is not all. Reading Bellafante’s review I cannot but help questioning whether her engagement with the show ever went beyond the initial skepticism towards the genre and its theorised audience. In making her point that the show is a patronising fiction from a male genre towards woman, she makes the comparison to Lorrie Moore and to be, sounds patronising by saying that ‘no single woman’ would have refused reading her books. It is patronising because the audience of such book club. although female, does not have the power to override as the spokeswomen of the female readers. In fact, the way Bellafante addresses the female Game of Thrones reader was almost a call of dismissal, a call of irrelevance. She did not bother exploring their side of the story, leaving us with the assumption that such female readers either read the genre like a ‘boy’ (boobs and fights, no emotional exchange even for sibling intimacy, etc), or read it as if she’s happy to be patronised in the way Bellafante described. I might be overreacting here but this reminds me of how some politicians, when addressing issues such as family values by linking it to love, care and responsibility, simply dismisses alternative family structures such as same-sex or single parenting groups as if they are assumed irrelevant.

Bellafante also pointed out, after viewing the pilot episode, that the show has little to offer other than the perversion and bizaare fantasy elements such as language creation. In her words, the show is therefore shallow because it does not offer HBO’s instinct for ‘real-world sociology’. In one of my previous blog post I have expressed how I love this feature of some of the HBO dramas I’ve watched compared to the more ‘singular’ characters portrayed by many TV shows – and I love the way Bellafante put it into words – ‘real-world sociology’. The ironic thing is, Game of Thrones does reflect the beautiful characteristic of it. I was very skeptical after viewing the first episode for the first time, to me the fantasy genre was something I liked and grew out of – and I was immediately drawn to the bits and pieces of visual violence and castles, barbarians, etc, which kind of pissed me off. However as the show evolves one gets to see how in a ‘real world’ woven by power, war and order, characters such as Jon Snow experiences, learns and reflects. In The Sopranos Tony Soprano’s interaction was authentic, and as the audience we ‘get it’ because we almost go through similar decision-making processes in our own life. However all our realities are different. The ‘real world’, whether built by mobsters, or a funeral home, or American political arena, can all be authentically experienced. The great thing about Game of Thrones is that it brings the much condemned fantasy alive with a sense of real experience, real sadness and real wonders of life.

To separate Game of Thrones, or any work of a ‘lower’ genre from good taste is like setting up social conventions that only seems appropriate and fit to a certain audience. That audience encapsulates certain standards, reality and in many cases simply preferences. To march such ‘taste’ as higher without even looking at what goes on at the ‘lower’ end seems like an old act of imperialism.

August 23, 2012

Supernatural

As I’ve mentioned in the first blog post, my interaction with western TV appears to deepen as I continue on from popular phenomenons in which characters are singular and dramatic to critically successful titles such as The Sopranos in which the characters reflect on the realism of western society (although one can argue in a non-realism way). I keep wondering how, or even whether such difference occurs in the asian contemporary culture. One friend of mine discusses J-Pop with me once and pointed out that ‘the manner in which contents are expressed resemble 80s power ballads’. I immediately disagreed but couldn’t argue my point. After all, once you translate the lyrics into English it goes like

“These beautiful, fragile days are reborn, unfaded.

In the season of dazzling burned seas
and in the season of dancing snowflakes

whenever I turned around, you were there.”

Well, I wonder if it’s the same with TV. The fact that Jun Sang has a second road accident which functions as a major ‘driver’ for the plot in Winter Sonata almost makes this immensely popular asian drama seem unreasonable. A good plot should be driven by strong logic and a reasonable build-up, a drama with supernatural elements should still not rely on such abrupt occurrence. Don Draper doesn’t come up with an amazing solution because of whisky, that would be an error. However, this kind of randomness in the plot did not cause such distress to me… Wait, I need to change this statement. It does when I am aware of this in an English vocabulary, in a study-at-RMIT-and-write-an-essay context, yet it simply doesn’t when I quote my mom on this.

She’d probably comment ‘so fake”dramatic’. However, it is not the equivalent of a failed drama, it’s not even funny. She would still enjoy the dramatic relationship between Yu-Jin and Jun-sang by looking at other details such as their conversations with their parents, etc. She would have a say on who’s the stronger character, and why Winter Sonata is a more successful drama than Summer Blindness in which the main guy comes back from the dead and so on and so on.

I’ve recently picked up one of my Year 8 favourites – well one of the most popular Japanese anime ever made possibly – Naruto Shibuten. The action scenes do not make sense, the plot unfortunately survives on relentless reference to early themes. I still watched it episode after another – a hard-to-shed sense of fantasy is still evident and draw me to the show. One thing that has always made me very aware is even in a critical battle between the most evil and the most kind, the show can cut to a ‘tutorial’ in which both characters are miniaturised and demonstrate the special power and battle place relationships. The faces of these characters, instead portraying wartime intensity, can briefly show circular blank eyes and three black lines to address the awkwardness a failed attack. I cannot imagine such horror in something like Games of Thrones.

On the Chinese internet there are groups of subtitle makers who translate American and British TV shows and seed them to a very, very large audience – many of which do not speak English. I’ve always admired how some of the very native elements were cleverly expressed in a way that’s very loyal to the plot yet as native as it can sound in a Chinese context. It’s a strangely heartwarming feeling – maybe there is something, a kind of feeling we all agree to, just lost in vocabularies and conventions.

 

August 9, 2012

A Family’s Man, A National Man

It’s funny how on breakfast television you never see two dudes sitting on the sofa holding a big smile on their face as if with a family portrait photographer present. Look at this: 

Image

Hmmm… Still breakfast time, I’ll put my tie on later.

 

In fact if you click on the ‘Find out more’ links, the supporting presenters appear under the couples. What do they look like? Hmm certainly the guest to the family at some point in time – possibly the neighbour who appears to be representing another family, yet somehow incomplete in front of the humble couple.

Well I maybe dramatising all this, but look at the detailed description on the the anchor David Koch:

“Before Sunrise, Kochie was a pure finance nerd. He’s still one of Australia’s foremost business and finance commentators but his first love now is teaming up with Mel to host Australia’s number one breakfast program.

But finance aside, he’s also an all-round good bloke and family man, making him perfect for this role on Sunrise. He’s coached his kids’ rugby, netball and basketball teams while serving on the council of his daughter’s school…”

Being a family man makes him qualify for a show like Sunrise, and to support that, the network didn’t forget to mention his family sports involvement, etc. He does it all.

As a program targeting a ‘family’ audience, note the languages used here – Australia’s favourite. Who is Australia, and why does Australia have this unified voice? Morley argues that public values ‘penetrate’ the private world of the residence, during which the house is ‘integrated’ into such metaphors of public life (2000). As an Australian family watching this show one ought to feel included and represented through the voice of the show. Maybe to convince people so on the website, choosing to resonate with them through ‘powerful facts’ such as ‘we coach our kids too’ really helps.

In the past when I watched breakfast shows as a kid with my family, I used to wonder why these people aren’t eating – not just because it’s breakfast time and we are all sitting at our table – but rather, because the tone of such a show makes it part of the ‘breakfast space’. The studio is far away, and we don’t really know these people (although they are endorsed as Australia’s favourite, and talk as if we know each other really well), but these difference are ignored in pursuit of a sense of unity between the viewer and the show, or as Morley points out, a unity between the viewer and other viewers as well. It is certainly more like an attempt or invitation as the integration of public and domestic space can result in resentment and intrusion (Morley, 2000), thus efforts are made in many ways to soften such abruptness and awkwardness – through the smile, the portrayal of the ‘family man’ ‘all-around nice bloke’ hosting the show, the sofa, and the occasional cooking sessions.

Unlike extraordinary coverage of national icons and events such as the Olympics, a morning show like Sunrise does not possess powerful and emotional heroes or moments with religious-like statuses. However, its power of ‘constituting’ a nation is not reduced. Berlant, as cited in Morley describes the creation of national character through extraordinary events as the transformation of the individual into the subject of a collectively held history and learns to value a particular set of symbols as intrinsic to the nation and its terrain’. Morning shows like sunrise, although lacking in producing dramatic elements such as accidents and heroes, still proceed to create metaphors and certain rituals, and possibly an even everlasting presence of such rituals, softly producing a sense of ‘cultural citizenship’.

 

August 2, 2012

The Current News Is…

News and current affair programs still surprise me sometimes. I don’t really ‘watch TV’ (to say it without the ‘ ‘ would make this blog sterile), but I do have a little chunky TV set which I occasionly switches on after I drop my backpack on the sofa. Of course I head straight into my room or start getting busy with the kitchen. But why not – switching on the TV is only one press away.

Then the news comes up. I’m still not ‘watching’ TV, but suddenly something grabs my attention. The magical thing is, I might have just read about it on Flipboard on the tram home, but, to see it on TV meant something to me.

That’s why I felt slightly embarrassed when people pointed out in the discussion on the TV news segment last week in the lecture, that those were probably just ‘relevant’ stock video clips. Ha. I guess that makes me the dumb audience – one that subscribes to their mid shots and powerful suit looks. To sit down and enjoy a television news segment is sometimes to fully immerse myself in it. I’m not very careful.

This is all on top of being a communication student at RMIT and having been told so much about media, representation, immediacy, etc. In fact I am a very cynical person towards information on media – in fact, after the news program finished, I don’t feel like I’ve been convinced enough to tell my friend whose fault it actually was that the dog ran wild and scared Sarah.

However, this sort of cynicism somehow escapes when I’m watching it. Maybe I am so cynical towards television news that I watch it as some sort of fiction – you are immersed when you are watching Games of Thrones right? How REAL is that?

They made it happen: the suits, the ties, the perfectly groomed blonde hair. Watching the first few episodes of The Newsroom I laughed at myself for being surprised at how much the networks compete as if a piece of news is a piece of design patent. When the fact of what happened can be ‘designed’ and after so many procedures, broadcasted, how much of it remains what we call ‘fact’?

Being an advertising student people sometimes ask you ‘isn’t it evil?’ I guess my answer is isn’t journalism evil? Isn’t saying something from your own mouth ‘evil’?

Television as the ‘public sphere’, I believe in deed, is an expression of modern democratic culture, but who are the people that’s expressing? If John is speaking, does it matter if he only speaks for the men? If Rosie is watching, how much should she believe him?

Graeme Turner points out that news and current affair programs are in decline in Australia – with an ageing audience and tiresome content. The rising cynicism turns off the audience. Turner points out while these programs authoritative voice fails to get the audience, in the US more and more people are getting their news from late-night entertainment programs.

Is it a decline of interest in politics in the society as Turner suggested though? I’m not sure. Maybe what’s ‘post’ about broadcast television is the fact that journalism has come to the ‘post’ era. Television as a device has its own ergonomics that I personally find other rising mediums struggle to match. It’s press-and-ready, it goes live. If you don’t like something just switch the channel. Maybe this trial-and-error mode is lazier, but it certainly makes me feel quite comfortable. I always try to guess what’s in the episode on iView that I’m about to watch – to the point that sometimes I completely abandon it – even if it’s one click away. I never watch news segment on SBS OnDemand – it’s just not ‘live’!

I have 10GB of Breaking Bad that I spent time searching then d******ded, they are Russian dubbed. I don’t speak Russian.

 

Reference

Turner, G 2005, Ending the Affair – the decline of television current affairs in Australia, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, NSW, Australia