Amanda Lotz – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What’s New in Media Industries? A Revised Edition of Understanding Media Industries Tue, 02 Feb 2016 15:44:15 +0000 IoC Framework

by Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

The editorial team at Antenna has generously allowed us this post to speak directly to what we hope is our primary market instead of through the marketing team of our publisher. There is a second, revised edition of Understanding Media Industries available (Oxford University Press, 2017—it’s from the future). If you didn’t know there was a first edition, skip to paragraph three.

This paragraph is for those of you patient enough to bear with a first edition that didn’t turn out exactly as intended and to beseech those of you who considered it but found it too flawed, to please give it another try. There are long and complicated stories about why the first edition turned out as it did that we won’t devote to print, but there were problems, we’re sorry, and we’ve fixed a lot of them.

Teaching media industries classes can be challenging because the object of study refuses to remain constant. Our goal with this project was to create a book that would provide a foundation of study that might manage to stay relevant for a handful of years and to provide a clearinghouse of supplemental material that would be more of the moment.

Understanding Media Industries comes with a detailed instructor supplement that has links to and descriptions of media content to use in classes, applied readings about things in the real world and questions that connect them with textbook concepts, and ideas for assignments and other resources. There are also elaborate weekly discussion section activities (and powerpoints) and lecture powerpoints integrating many of the recommended readings and clips. To access these materials, go to Also, an extended table of contents is available on the OUP site.

The book has an email address and a Twitter feed that we hope to use to build and share more resources. Whenever we come across a new story that illustrates a concept we’ll send a link by Twitter along with a brief suggestion of its relevance and the chapter it fits in. Follow the book @HavensLotzUMI or search #UMI. There are already a few out there. Please send ideas, assignments, and suggestions to or, if you’re not a Twitter person and would like updates pushed by email, send us a note and we’ll distribute updates that way as well.

We’ve learned a ton about the textbook industry in the process and could probably illustrate every point in the book with an example, though that would amuse no one. One of the biggest frustrations has been encountering the perception that a book about media industries isn’t needed because there are so few classes on the topic. Our goal was to make starting such a course, whether a lecture of hundreds or a conversation among a handful, much easier. We’ve been teaching these courses for awhile now and are happy to share our insight. We’ll be presenting a workshop at SCMS and a panel at BEA about the challenges and experiences, and are always happy to chat if you drop us a line.


Original or Exclusive? Shifts in Television Financing and Distribution Shift Meanings Fri, 01 Jan 2016 15:00:40 +0000 netflixoriginalseries

By  Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

In addition to increasing the possible objects of study, broadband-distributed television services have introduced new challenges to grounding the television shows we study in their industrial milieu. In truth, this is not an issue that originates with broadband services—it has been a part of international distribution for some time—but has become more acute since the late 1980s, when co-productions became common in Europe, Asia, and the Americas as a way to compete against a growing onslaught of US imports. Before that, if you knew a show’s country of origin, it was pretty easy to ascertain what entity it had been produced for: even though many public broadcasters acquired programming from independent producers, they nevertheless aired it on their national broadcast channels. With some noteworthy exceptions, very little television produced outside the US at this time traveled beyond its nation of origin.

Pinpointing a television series’ industrial and national origins became more complicated as cable and satellite introduced a greater range and variety of television services around the globe. These newcomers were often commercial distributors in systems where public service broadcasting had long dominated, as well as various advertising-subscription hybrid services, as was the case for most US cable channels. Not only did the upstarts tend to source their programming much more widely than their broadcast counterparts; they also quickly developed sister channels in multiple markets that shared program acquisitions.

Television programming has consequently expanded its flow through international markets and now more regularly flows in countervailing directions. The greater diversity of services that deliver programming and the greater diversity of flows have made it more challenging for scholars to develop a shared understanding of the impact that industrial conditions have on programming decisions and the meanings we associate with particular programs, because changes in distributors reinscribe how we understand shows as they move beyond their original licensing distributor. For example, what is an “HBO show”? A show produced by HBO and aired in the US on HBO, as was the case of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under? Does The Leftovers’ production by Warner Bros. make it less of an HBO show, or does the distinction hold because through produced by another studio, it was created for the logics of a subscriber supported service?

The more difficult question is are these still HBO shows when they air on Sky Atlantic, Canal Plus, and HBO Nordic? What about Homeland? The US-based scholar would immediately categorize it as a Showtime “original”—or at least as one produced under the logics of subscriber-funded television (though it is produced by Fox 21)—but how is that show defined in a conversation between a US based scholar and one in Denmark who watches Homeland on HBO Nordic, which is also the source of The Walking Dead? And what about co-productions? Should they always be described as sourced by all financial contributors or just those involved creatively?

Netflix’s marketers have added to the challenge with its liberal use of the term “original” in marketing, typically marketing any show it has exclusive rights to in a country as “original”—hence Netflix claimed Lilyhammer was a “Netflix original” in the US and often claims shows produced for other US networks and channels as “original” in markets outside the US. But we would argue that the only “Netflix originals” are those Netflix pays to have produced. Most of what Netflix promotes as original content is more accurately described as “exclusive” in a particular market (though they seem to be somewhat liberal in calling programming “Netflix originals” even by this designation!)

All we’re really arguing for is the need to follow the money in order to discern for what type of entity the series we write about are produced. Such distinctions are important to discussions of texts because the mandate (commercial; public service) and business model of the entity it is created for (advertising; subscription; advertising and subscription) ends up imprinted upon it in ways often relevant to the argument at hand. Thus, the sale of shows in secondary markets can obscure those origins. And while we may think that much of this is reasonably beyond the notice of general viewers, it certainly matters for television scholars looking to make precise claims about industrial conditions and representation.

But we would like to push this observation even further, to encourage scholars to consider the ways in which various and subsequent industrial practices and conditions leave their mark on the programming we encounter and our orientations toward that programming. We believe that multiple iterations of industrial authorship—the production company, the original channel, the syndicator, and subsequent channels can be thought of as what Derrida calls a “trace.” For Derrida, the trace is the absent other that makes meaning possible; the other side of a binary, such as “woman” is to “man,” which is necessary to make any term meaningful. But the trace is more than this: it contains within it all of the meanings and contradictions that have accrued to a signifier over time, much like the endless links of chain Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol drags behind him wherever he goes.

Economic practices, industrial arrangements, brands, and corporate cultures all leave a trace on programming. These traces range from the obvious to the barely perceptible, but they undoubtedly shape televisual representations and viewers’ engagements with those representations.


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The End of “This Year’s Best in Television” Wed, 31 Dec 2014 16:08:29 +0000 tvstackAs I measured various critics’ 2014 “best of” television lists against my own, the increasing anachronism of such endeavors became clear. What were the best things I watched in 2014? The final season of Breaking Bad, Louie, The Affair, True Detective; select episodes of Homeland, Game of Thrones, and Sons of Anarchy; but also the first and second season of House of Cards—though season one was a product of 2013—and iTV’s Broadchurch, also of 2013. And just looking at my planned viewing queue, I imagine there are several more contenders that I won’t get to until well into 2015. I haven’t watched Transparent yet, or season two of Orange is the New Black, or season four of The Killing.

There have been more great television series produced annually in recent years than an employed human who requires sleep and maintains at least a few human relationships can reasonably keep abreast. Largely enabled by Netflix, HBO Go, and other VOD platforms—2014 was the year that I first experimented with and then fully embraced “consecutive viewing.” This means I’m largely out of sync with those who still view weekly installments, but that has been less troublesome than I’d imagined. For over a decade, I’ve lived enough out of sync due to DVR-based viewing that conversations about television viewing had become uncommon, even though I tended to keep up with episodes weekly. In comparison, I’m now only marginally more disconnected. There are several series I see discussed that I’m not watching—but I add the interesting ones to the queue. In exchange, I experience stories with a much richer appreciation of their nuances due to the consecutive immersion. It also makes “2014” a an uncertain category for considering best work.


Perhaps annual “best of” television lists will take on the meaning “best of” film lists have for me. As a mother of children who require a babysitter for me to leave the house, I’m perpetually far behind in film viewing. Given my bloated television queue, I rarely make an effort to see a film until makes it to HBO, Showtime, or my Netflix stream. Admittedly, each year there are several films I intend to see that I never get to or forget about, and I suspect this will happen more and more with television. I wonder if we’ll soon endeavor to maintain lists of excellent television over a multi-year period; or maybe we’ll keep lists of shows worthy of watching all the seasons. I’ve noted many more “best moments” or “best episodes” lists this year, which I suspect is related to these changes in how we view. Just as Netflix and Amazon have led generations of network television viewers to question the common sense of waiting a week between installments of video storytelling, maybe we need to rethink how we recognize the most accomplished works in television as well.

jolivierMost of my top contenders for the best of 2014 originated their runs years ago, so if I had to credit 2014 with a single, noteworthy programming accomplishment, it is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The world was made just a little bit better for the 12 or so hours of smart, funny, social commentary it provided. Although once a devout The Daily Show viewer, I reached a point that I stopped watching regularly—about the time my husband and I had to admit that our toddler had made us a family and that it was no longer acceptable for family dinner to consist of DVR-provided “dinner with Jon.” But truth is, it was hard to keep up with four episodes a week, and there was often just about one excellent half-hour of material in the week. Last Week Tonight provides that finely-tuned half-hour, takes advantage of having a week’s production time, and also responds to the limit of arbitrarily enforced brevity that continues to restrict both “real” and Daily Show-type segments and packages. Oliver’s longer form and detailed investigations and explanations of both issues of the day and things that should be issues of the day were enlightening even if a regular reminder of the many ways our world remains truly messed up.

The best television of 2014? Last Week Tonight—at least of the 2014 television I’ve managed to watch so far.


Reflections on the “Tinker-verse” Wed, 19 Nov 2014 14:30:05 +0000 P1000772Exhibit 1: The ceiling of my daughter’s bedroom, which has been adorned with child-size Disney Fairy decals for nearly two years now thanks to a Christmas present from her uncle. I’ve become quite familiar with what I’ll term the “Tinker-verse” over the last few years, and as with all forms of kids’ media, there are both compelling and troublesome aspects for a feminist media scholar-mom (or “mommy-professor” as I’m considered by my charges). Until writing this, I hadn’t realized the full, somewhat disturbing extent of my knowledge of all matters Tinker.

Peter Pan was the first Disney movie my kids screened due to their Nana’s somewhat unexplained fondness for the narrative. It was with some concern that I identified that a particular gesture of my barely two-year-old daughter—arms crossed, lips pursed, head dropped, eyes narrowed to angry slits—bore considerable resemblance to the 1953 version of Tinker Bell. A few more years have indeed revealed this to be consistent with her temperament, but it certainly led me to be wary about accepting these Fairies and their stories into my house.

The Tinker-verse has grown considerably in the near decade since Tinker Bell’s reboot in 2005 when Disney began building its Fairy line to maintain their girl customers as they aged beyond Princesses.[1] There have been five Tinker Bell movies (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014), though I don’t believe any were released in theaters, and they commonly appear edited into episodes more as a series on the Disney Channel. There are also many books, and, of course, toys.

The mythology of the Tinker-verse picks up with Tinker Bell after her adventures with Peter Pan. Tinker Bell now speaks; she still lives on Neverland Island, but now lives in a world of other Fairies in Pixie Hollow. Fairies are born from a baby’s first laugh, which floats off to Pixie Hollow and turns into a Fairy. Upon being born, Fairies must find their Fairy talent—which effectively becomes their family unit. Tinker Bell is a “tinker” fairy (meaning she fixes things; aka a “pots and pans” fairy), and her main cohort of friends includes Rosetta (garden-talent), Silvermist (water-talent), Iridessa (light-talent), Fawn (animal-talent), and Vidia (fast-flying fairy). Fairies are actually responsible for most things that we explain through science.

imageAdmittedly, I begrudgingly accepted Fairies as an alternative to Princesses. On the plus side, tinker fairies are basically engineers—fairies who fix things and make things work—so a pleasant deviation from female stereotype in Tink’s case. The Tinker-verse also responds to the common feminist critique of Disney narratives that pit female characters against each other by constructing Pixie Hollow as matriarchy of female friendship. (In the 1953 film, Tink and Wendy clearly compete for Peter’s affection). There are male characters, Sparrow Men, but they are largely secondary. Some of the graphic novels hint more at romantic interest between Sparrow Men and Fairies, but the films, picture books, and chapter books don’t suggest attraction beyond friendship. Though Tinker Bell is central in the films, many of the other Fairies are developed independently in the books. The range of distinctive female characters follows the strategy of gang-of-female-friends narratives targeted to women that present a range of female archetypes without strongly asserting one type of female identity is preferable (Golden Girls, Designing Women, Sex and the City, Girls) while also creating multiple points of identification.

Of course, the central Fairies are dainty and very much in accord with dominant standards of beauty, though a tertiary character, Fairy Mary, is more full figured. The core Fairies depict a range of skin colors and are voiced by a multi-ethnic cast of actresses, but the narrative is colorblind and this range in skin color never commented upon. All the Fairies appear Caucasian to my Caucasian eyes except light brown-skinned Iridessa. Iridessa is voiced by Raven-Symone, Silvermist, by Lucy Liu, and America Ferrera voices Fawn, though the Fairies do not seem to be of varied ethnicities. Rosetta (Kristin Chenowith) plays the girly-girl to the more practical, independent Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman). Vidia (Pamela Adlon), who is not included in the Fairy decal collection, often introduces conflict as more full of herself than the communally-oriented core Fairy group. Also, a lot of Fairy talents are pretty domestically-based; though one could argue the range of talents matches the communal society, so this focus on basic life-preservation-tasks matches the narrative universe. The Fairies are led by Queen Clarion, which makes Pixie Hollow a communal monarchy of sorts.

The Tinker-verse fits well with the more feminist-inflected Disney heroines of Brave and Frozen. The stories emphasize the value of a female collective and affirm a range of femininities that viewers might find for identification, and no one is waiting for their prince to come or sitting around just looking pretty. The Tinker-verse is also reinventing and expanding the Peter Pan mythology in some interesting ways that have not drawn the level of fan attention and vitriol common to other franchises and narrative worlds. Though the brief description offered here sounds ridiculous at points, there is an impressive comprehensiveness, consistency, and seeming deliberateness in the narrative world that Disney has created.


[1] See Peggy Ornstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: Harper, 2011).


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Binging Isn’t Quite the Word Wed, 29 Oct 2014 17:42:48 +0000 lotz1I’ve been searching for a word to capture my new viewing habit. Though “binging” and the somewhat less pathologized “marathoning” have emerged to describe the behavior of consuming many episodes of a series in rapid succession, contemporary control and distribution technologies also allow a distinct, but not so rapid form of consumption. This behavior is distinct enough to warrant its own term, though I continue to struggle to find it.

For the better part of the last year I’ve experimented with viewing series by season. Either I work my way through something on Netflix or VOD or wait for a season’s worth of episodes to build up on my DVR. I distinguish this from binging because so much of the binging discourse is about the can’t-stop, watched-a-whole-season-in two-days possibility for viewing. When life is busy, I may watch no more than five hours a week, and I don’t always watch whatever it is I’m working through. Binging is hardly the word to describe a month long trek through season two of House of Cards.

The terms I’ve played with so far are “serial viewing” and “reading television”—both of which have obvious problems. The latter comes from my sense that this strategy allows me to consume television series much as I would a book. I might get through an episode (chapter) a night, and sometimes start into a second. I could also pick up the series on a portable device while waiting for a doctor in the way I used to take a book with me (though in truth, I usually prefer to squeeze in actual reading in these times). And, like when reading a novel, I might interrupt the story depending on my entertainment needs or desires. Maybe I’m too burnt out to continue The Bridge tonight; instead I might pull an episode of The Mindy Project from the DVR in the same way I might choose the lesser commitment of magazine reading to that of a novel.

My concern with “serial viewing” is the connection with a narrative form—serial viewing need not be of serial television (though mine typically is). “Consecutive viewing”—meh, though accurate and without baggage. I could make the distinction that I am “watching the last season of Damages right now,” which, in this context might make the distinctive nature of this viewing clear, but the historic casualness of our explanation of viewing behavior really doesn’t convey the distinct behavior.

lotz2Why does this really matter? First, the blanket use of binging for the kind of non-linear viewing I’m describing obscures important insight about how and why viewers are adopting new behaviors, and it discourages reconsideration of the business models that make it far more difficult to view in this way than it needs to be. Traditional aggregators (linear networks and channels) may think “that’s not how our business model works” if they believe binging is all about quick consumption as opposed to something like the greater richness of the narrative experience available when you can actually remember the nuances of what has happened before in the story.

At this point, the evolution of US television is largely stalled by the disparity between post-network era technologies and distribution systems and the persistence of a network era economic model. DVD release first enabled this mode of viewing, though Netflix made it significantly easier and taught us about queues and consecutive viewing. Other subscription services (HBO Go) subsequently enabled more consumption in this way, and ad-based nets/MVPDs allow a limited (far inferior) version of this with VOD. But the basic economic structure of US television, in which the original licensor pays the bulk of creative costs while the studio retains ownership for sales in subsequent markets, forces viewers to choose between waiting for weekly installments or waiting for availability in secondary markets. Though clinging to the known and profitable business models as long as possible, the scale of coming change is apparent to the executive corps. Better understanding what changing viewing behaviors are about, and why and how different content and different content experiences are valued will be the difference between the survivors of the coming change and those left behind. Which is a long way of saying, we need a word in addition to binging to describe emerging viewing behaviors.


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Television that I Love: A Valentine to Unpredictable Melodrama Mon, 10 Feb 2014 14:25:37 +0000 sons-of-anarchy-season-3-premiere

A love that has caught me by surprise has had me thinking about the characteristics of television that I love. I don’t think I’m talking about either fanship or aesthetics here. I am, in my own mind at least, distinctly not a fan. I often feel like I have some sort of genetic aberration that prevents me from engaging in fanlike behavior toward television, sports teams, really anything; don’t get me wrong—I like, even love some things, but I’ve never been one to take it to the next level of fanship behaviors. I’m also aware that the television I most love is not necessarily at the top of the list I’d construct of “most excellent artistic achievement” in television. What follows is consequently decidedly not a case for what makes for the “best” television, but for the television I most want to watch.

Sometimes love surprises us; I never thought I’d love Sons of Anarchy; in fact, were I to have laid the odds, I’d have guessed there was a 1 in 10 chance I’d watch beyond the pilot. Now, I had to watch beyond the pilot because I was writing a book about masculinity in cable dramas, and this cable drama is more than a little relevant to contemporary constructions of masculinity. But I soon found Sons was the show with the shortest DVR life; as soon as it appeared, I’d devour it. I even came to know new episodes would be delivered on Tuesdays and found anticipation of a new episode seeping into my weekly routines. But why?

imagesI love Sons because it surprises me. Indeed, I can often feel my blood pressure rising as I watch because there is no telling what can happen. Important characters die, typically without teasing or spoilers. Sons has somewhat ruined broadcast TV for me. I tried, really tried to watch The Blacklist this fall, but I struggled to really care about narrative stakes. Come now, it’s NBC, we all know there is no way the backpack full of explosives is going to go off while a child is wearing it. That could happen on Sons (though if you are reading Sutter, I’m not suggesting it should).

I also think a good bit of my love for the show comes from its intense emotional melodrama, which is set in the highly masculine space of the motorcycle club. While I find melodrama predictable and fraught with complicated gender politics when set among women, watching Jax try to negotiate the personal dynamics of the family that birthed him, the club, and the family he’s created is pure pleasure. The emotional stakes are always high and situations can be melodramatically absurd, but this show makes me feel in a way few others do. I have a running tally of television moments that have just destroyed me, they make my heart hurt when I think of them to this day: the last hours of Shane Vendrell’s life (The Shield), Opie’s death; the end of this last Sons season. I love television that makes me feel without making me feel manipulated into those feelings.

images-1I love the way Sons leaves me pondering it after our weekly time together is over. Because anything can happen, it allows me time to play back the small moments for hints of what might be to come, which brings me to another thing I love. The show is densely plotted, but never violates its previous narrative. Admittedly, sometimes the “saves” that come near the end of each season strain credibility, but they are always plausible within the narrative universe. If there is one thing that disinvests me from a narrative fast, it is when a show contradicts its own story or the nature of the characters it has constructed; why should I pay attention to detail if the writers aren’t.

Parsing out what I love about Sons—unpredictability, intense character relations, narrative consistency—reveals characteristics of many of my favorite shows. Most other favorites succeed in the first and last characteristic (The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards), but few develop characters in the way that make me—and perhaps others—feel profoundly, a fact that I suspect has prevented many television opinion leaders from considering Sons among those routinely trotted out as television’s best. But regardless of journalistic attention or Emmy adulations, Sons, as paradoxical as this seems, is my TV happy place.


The Cumulative Narrative of the Cumulative Narrative of Television Studies Tue, 23 Jul 2013 13:00:54 +0000 Editor’s Note: In April 2013, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia convened a daylong symposium titled Generation(s) of Television Studies designed in part to celebrate the career of Horace Newcomb and his retirement as Director of the Peabody Awards. Amanda Lotz was among the speakers who reflected on Newcomb’s contribution to television studies. Below is an edited version of her comments to also acknowledge the retirement of this important voice in the field.

magnumshortshortsThe Cumulative Narrative of the Cumulative Narrative in Television Studies (or, Everything I Know About Television Studies, I Learned from “Magnum: The Champagne of TV?”)

It is, in many ways, considerably ironic that I encountered what perhaps remains my favorite piece of television scholarship, “Magnum: The Champagne of TV?,” in Janet Staiger’s “Theory and Literature” class my second semester at UT. It was presented as an example of Neo-Aristotelian analysis, and whether it is that, I’m not sure, but without that class, I may have never found the article—which was published in the more popular television magazine Channels in 1985—that helped me formulate many of my analytic approaches and my basic relationship with my object of study.

The examination of the series provided by the Channels article is concise and wide-ranging; though I’d argue is most significant in proposing the term “cumulative narrative,” as descriptive of the series’ narrative organization. The article’s analysis serves as a reminder of the cyclical nature of many things, including television studies, and is thus a useful lens for connecting the past, present, and future of television studies. The article provides at least seven lessons valuable to today’s practioners of television studies and reminds us of the necessity of being students of both television history and past television scholarship, as despite the seeming urgency of the present, so much we think new has come before.

So in brief, what are the accomplishments of “Magnum: The Champagne of TV?”:

1. It identifies and explains a narrative strategy

As best as I can tell, the Magnum piece offers the first published use of cumulative narrative, which Newcomb explains as: “a ‘new’ television form that stands between the traditional self-contained episodic forms and the open-ended serials” in which “one episode’s events can greatly affect later events, but they’re seldom directly tied together.” He expands this explanation somewhat in a 2004 textbook chapter on “Narrative and Genre” in which he uses the term to describe how a series might use episodic resolution, and yet “rel(y)ies on and frequently mak(e)s specific reference to aspects of character, motivation, and even story that have occurred in previous episodes.” To quote further, “Regular viewers are rewarded with the pleasures of remembering these references, understanding complexities rising from new character developments, and recognizing the potential for future events and characterizations … The ‘cumulative narrative’ might be said to encompass something of a meta-plot that extends over the entire series, in a manner similar to, but distinct from, the fully serialized narrative.”[i]

Though theorized more extensively in the later piece, an important component of what I find profound of the accomplishment of the Magnum article is in its publication in Channels. It is difficult to imagine what the contemporary equivalent of Channels might be.  Fully titled Channels of Communications and subtitled The Business of Communications, the journal published from 1981-1990 and was created by Variety critic and author of Television: The Bu$iness Behind the Box, Les Brown who sought for it to “advance a new kind of television criticism, one devoid of the old anti-television cant, that would not make judgments on individual programs but rather would seek to make meaning of television.” It has consistently proven one of the more elusive sources in my own scholarship and tends not to be indexed in databases, but always a rich source when I managed to track it down.

Channels, a magazine that “aimed to interpret for a general readership the developments in the emerging new electronic age and the social issues arising from them,” was particularly important for encouraging a broader conversation about television in an era in which The New York Times and similar outlets were unlikely to fawn extensively over the latest critical darling in the manner common now. Coming back to the accomplishments of this article, published outside the specialized realm of academic literary studies—as any “television studies” remained largely imagined in 1985, “cumulative narrative” provides a term with considerable conceptual purchase, though it largely disappears from use as the focus of “television studies” quickly moves away from more formal narrative analysis.

2. It situates the industrial logic of the cumulative narrative

Though “Encoding and Decoding” was just recently in print in the early 1980s and cultural studies’ theorization of production was still most limited, the article ties this narrative technique with the production economy, particularly the difficulty of telling serial stories in an ephemeral era of television—still pre-VCRs for most, let alone the devices of contemporary viewing—at a time in which viewers could hardly be expected to schedule their lives around a series. Perhaps the nearly 30 years it has taken television storytelling to widely utilize cumulative narrative can be explained by the changed technological and industrial context. Such storytelling is much better suited to the post-network possibilities of DVD, VOD or Netflix-enabled marathon viewing.

3. It engages the writer/producer without fawning or niggling critique

That point needs little elaboration, but related, the article acknowledges the industrial significance of the story creator and provides him with the opportunity to speak of his art by including passages from an interview with co-creator Donald Bellisario. These words, however, are treated as evidence that does not prove or disprove assertions of the text, but exist in conversation with it. The purpose of invoking the storyteller is not to berate or to adulate as a genius worthy of effusive praise.

4. It explores form accessibly, acknowledging the series’ use of particular strategies, such as voice over

“Magnum: The Champagne of TV?” does not use obscure jargon. In fact, “cumulative narrative” may be the most sophisticated terminology in the piece. As such, it is tremendously accessible. It seeks to make its impact not by performing the pedigree of its author’s training, just by using clear and precise language understandable to those who watch, but may not study, television. In addition to naming the concept of cumulative narrative, it discusses other significant narrative features, such as Thomas Magnum’s voice-over narration, noting, “Voice-over narration allows Magnum to carry on a moral dialogue with himself,” simply describing the means by which the series was able to provide a then-uncommon depth of character perspective.

5. It attends, subtly, to the politics of pleasure and the “gush” of the time over Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Dallas

As someone who finds The Sopranos and Mad Men to be very good shows, but is also long tired of their overemphasis by the cultural beacons that discuss such things, I really appreciate this aspect of the article. Magnum was perceived by many as a formulaic detective series, coming to air after a decade of exceptional abundance of this form.  Its subtle experiment with narrative form was easily overshadowed by Dallas as a prime time serial and Hill Street Blues’ and St. Elsewhere’s experiments with multi-episode arcs. Indeed, these two forms are now so conventional in contemporary television storytelling they rarely warrant mention.

The idea of cumulative narrative, however, has reemerged in Jason Mittell’s developing work on “narrative complexity” and “complex television” in the last decade. It might surprise many to realize the seeds of this strategy originate in Magnum.

6. It poses an alternative to rigid ideological analysis, while still exploring the series’ presentation of Vietnam.

Perhaps another reason for my fondness of this article is its defiance of the conventional presumptions about the significance of the series’ references to the Vietnam War. Where many other pieces of 1980s popular culture invoked Vietnam as an aspect of characterization for more reactionary ends, the analysis does not assume “Vietnam” means the same in this case. Instead, it acknowledges the series’ subtlety in dealing with this back story, both quoting Bellisario who explained, “We decided to treat these guys as if they were World War II vets. They have good memories of the camaraderie, the times they spent together. They have flashbacks, but that doesn’t interfere with their lives. They don’t ‘suffer’ from flashbacks. They have memories. Good ones as well as bad.” While still making the analytic point that, “The issues surrounding Vietnam are not settled in America, nor in this show. Despite Bellisario’s desire to reposition the war, we all know Vietnam was not World War II.”

7. Finally, It anticipates much of the seemingly surprised attention to television’s storytelling abilities, what has in the last decade been identified as—complex TV

I might easily make the same claims made in the article’s concluding paragraphs of those contemporary shows that tantalize and haunt me today. Newcomb’s conclusion also reveals an approach to the study of television that I find both incredibly compelling and too often lacking. To say the article is agenda-less is undoubtedly naïve, but it is certainly the case that it, though strong in point and argument, is not a polemic. It is also not dispassionate, nor does it take the tone of advocacy. Its argument doesn’t have a mission broader than its object of analysis; in illustrating the nature and features of Magnum’s strengths it does not use the single show to make broader claims of television’s greatness or the failures of its other content. It is the account of an observer who is willing—perhaps eager—to learn something new, to be surprised by this well know art and storytelling form. And yet it manages a confidence in its own assertions so as to seem indifferent to persuading the reader of its case:

Magnum revels in familiarity, but surprises me with new perspectives. It never forgets that its premise is popular entertainment, but neither does it condescend by assuming its audience will not notice and be delighted by small shifts in perspective. This suggests moral complexity, and that is what I most appreciate. Even those things that offend me in Magnum, may, in time, be questioned by the program. They may even change. Having seen this series, I see detective shows differently. I see television differently. And because the show examines, in a television way, the world I have personally experienced, I see the world differently. Magnum is a show that does not forget. And it refuses me the luxury of forgetting the past that brought me here.”

Though I have cited the Magnum article over the years in work attending to various narrative strategies, it was only rereading the piece in its entirety in recent months that I was able to see many of the strategies, approaches, and assumptions that have become natural and un-interrogated in my approach to the study of television.

The perfect conclusion to this talk would be an announcement that the development of a Magnum: PI reboot movie is in the works, as this would underscore the cyclical consistency of the industry as well, which is not so difficult to imagine in this age of Miami Vice (2006) and A-Team (2010) adaptation/remakes. As was the case in 1985, television studies continues to try to bridge critical analysis, popular discussion, and industrial relevance. In what has recently been identified as an “aesthetic turn,” some have returned to the more formal approaches to television texts that were characteristic of early television scholarship that took its methods and theory from literature and film and applied it to television. And some quarters of television studies continue to worry that conversations about “quality” television or the overemphasis of a few series characteristic of excellence have obscured lessons available from those lacking the status of critical darlings.

I close by acknowledging the extraordinary cumulative narrative of a career that began with the first serious consideration of television as a popular art, and closes with a 12-year tenure leading the Peabody Awards, which is devoted to a task no less than “awarding excellence” in broadcast media. The cumulative narrative, television studies, and perhaps Magnum PI, have come full circle. We’ll undoubtedly arrive back to similar conclusions and insights a few decades hence after completing another cycle, but we’ll have to endeavor on this one without the calm, reasoned guidance of the voice who made the avocations of many, including my own, possible—in countless ways—and who has been a generous mentor, provided an exemplar of decency, inspired an area of study, and who can always be counted on to tell a great story.

[i] Horace Newcomb, “Narrative and Genre”, in The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies, edited by John Downing (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004): 413-22, 422.


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To XFinity and Beyond… The Missing Smart Living Room TV Interface Sat, 10 Mar 2012 20:58:56 +0000

As a Comcast subscriber, I greeted the recent announcement of the Streampix service with some curiosity. I have not joined the Netflix nation and, since my monthly Comcast bill just went up $20, felt some added value appropriate. I began to thumb through the new offerings last night, simultaneously pleased, befuddled, but increasingly irate.

I demand a moratorium on breathless distribution announcements from cable companies until they upgrade the user interface. We all know the technology exists. It was all on display at the Cable Show last June. The BBC iPlayer has been in homes for years now.



But when I go looking for content on my supposedly most-high end Comcast HD DVR, I get this.

Select Xfinity Streampix and get this.

Select TV, get a choice of alphabetical suboptions that I’ll spare you, but select O-S and get this.

I select Scrubs and get this.

I do acknowledge that if I choose to watch Streampix on an iPad tablet, the interface looks more like this. (and that is where the top pic was intended).

Hmm. I’ve always thought it would be great to watch all the episodes of Scrubs in alphabetical order, that way any ongoing storyline would make absolutely no sense. Even better, include absolutely no episode numbers so that I could at least sort them out myself since this is apparently too giant a leap for your technological interface. Come on. Yeah, I’m frustrated, maybe even angry.

And that is cool, but I watch TV at home. And when I do, I want to watch on the ridiculously large and beautiful screen that adorns my TV cave, where I can sit on my fantastically comfortable and unstylish reclining sofa. I’m not alone. New numbers from Nielsen on the “State of Media: U.S. Digital Consumer Report” (Q3-4 2011) tell us video consumption on PC or mobile phones (not sure where tablets figure) is a whopping 4 minutes per user per MONTH, which pales some to the 146:45 minutes spent on “television.”

While I’m obviously not suggesting this number won’t continue to grow and that such screens will be an important part of the television future, I am astounded by the lack of attention cable companies have afforded to the interface of the primary screen. It is this frustr-anger of the experience of the above screens that explains why I (and likely others) continue to dream of the potential that the new Apple TV might bring, even though I know full well that the arrangements with content providers that would be necessary for Apple TV to be a game changer remain most unlikely. Why are industry analysts and trade journalists endlessly willing to speculate on the tiniest bit of news regarding Apple TV, Netflix, or Google TV? Because these companies have figured out that it doesn’t matter if you have content if you have the most ridiculous, cumbersome, and counter-intuitive way to sort through it.

Comcast Streampix is a good idea and clearly indicative of the further disruption of economic models and distribution that will continue over the next decade. But this array of offerings will be meaningless unless it rolls out an interface for the living room screen that is as good as the one for tablets/phones/PCs. The first company to have both content (with a sustainable economic model) and an interface might just win this. Quantity of industry press, tweets, and blogging to the contrary, this is still the Comcasts-of-the-world’s battle to lose, but its willingness to bring Streampix to the market without a new cable box interface suggests they just might manage to do so.


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End of Men on US Television? Wed, 14 Dec 2011 14:44:06 +0000 Numerous television trend pieces this summer highlighted evidence of the interrogation of contemporary masculinity supposed to be on offer in new shows this season. I’ve learned to largely disregard such stories because, more often than not, the shows that look like really bad ideas often disappear from the screen within an episode or two because they are simply really bad ideas or poorly executed shows, rather than evidence of some cultural apocalypse. These articles revealed interesting insight on the motivation for the trend, such as that television executives reported hearing at least 20 show pitches citing Hannah Rosen’s “End of MenAtlantic article as the harbinger of this particular zeitgeist of emasculation, while Rosen herself weighed in on the shows as well. I wasn’t ready to comment the first week of the season, suspecting many of the shows wouldn’t last long, but with a few episodes (and shows) now behind us, here’s an update on primetime, broadcast television’s new engagement with the state of men. (The story on cable is another matter entirely).

How to be a Gentleman was a classic example of poor execution, and as a result, just utterly awful television. Audiences realized this, didn’t watch, and it was quickly removed from the schedule. I don’t think the concept was inherently worse than others, but this show was painful to watch, unfunny, not at all smart. No meaningful lessons about the state of men in this.

Man Up began airing a bit later than most and is just, well, … meh. The show offers glimpses of the inner lives of men, but never with much complexity. It is oddly cast and acted, so that the tone of the series is really unclear. The show isn’t offensive so much as uninspired and cliché. I’d categorize it as trying to ride the tide of interest in shifting constructions of masculinity, but not offering much to engage with, and doubtful to return for a second season.

The surprise of the supposed tidal wave of men in crisis shows, at least for me, has been Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, which isn’t bad and actually a kind of sweet little show (not that “sweet” is a particularly critical assessment). Sitcom history is not being redefined here, but the show is nuanced in its working through of what it constructs as generational shifts in dominant masculinities. A direct link can be drawn from Allen’s “Tim the Tool Man Taylor” Home Improvement character, a character Robert Hanke excellently critiqued as exemplary of a “mock-macho” masculinity, to the one on offer here. Age has softened the patriarchal perspective that Allen’s Mike Baxter-character voices, and importantly, his boss, played by Hector Elizando, at Outdoor Man—a Cabela’s-like hunting/sporting good store that previously allowed Baxter to traverse the world on catalog photo shoots—more often plays the patriarchal heavy, although both are clearly men who are artifacts of a world gone by.

The show doesn’t harbor undue nostalgia toward a more patriarchal past; instead Mike tries to make sense of his sense of norms relative to a world he now lives in—a gyneco-centric home that he seems more a visitor in than master of. Mike shares his home with three adult/young adult daughters, his wife, and a toddler grandson, creating a very different dynamic than Home Improvement’s family of three rambunctious young sons.

My biggest complaint about the series is the simplicity of Mandy, the middle daughter, who so far seems a caricatured dumb, shopping-loving, female teen, while her sisters are more fascinating studies in the range of femininities now available to women. Despite this, I’ve appreciated the adultness of the parental relationship that, in what might be throwaway lines, acknowledges the process of a couple aging together. A recent episode featured Mike saying something about going “for ice cream” which his wife and the audience (as represented through laugh track) seem uncertain of as a possible double entendre. But no, he meant let’s go for ice cream.

Although Mike may huff and puff about as though he’s king of the roost, it is clear this is not the case, and the resolution of episodic tension often works subtly to critique some of the ways the world works now without supporting the view that Mike’s patriarchal old way is any better. If anything, this connects the series more with the father/adult son tensions evident in Parenthood, Rescue Me, Men of a Certain Age, or Sons of Anarchy, among others, than with sitcoms debuting this fall.

From the vantage of a few months into the season, it seems the trend pieces—that also included men in Free Agents (cancelled) and Up All Night with what were termed “wimpy,” “emasculated,” or “loser” depictions of men—overestimated the phenomenon. ABC’s Work It, featuring victims of the “mancession” dressing as women, is scheduled for a January 3rd debut. Stay tuned, but my suspicion is that its tenure might not match How to be a Gentleman.

*Update: Since submission of this post, Man Up has been pulled from the ABC schedule.*


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Of Motorcycles and Melodrama Tue, 29 Nov 2011 00:00:51 +0000 The happenstance of academic life recently has led me to revisit a lot of 1980s feminist writing on soap operas at the same time I have been enthralled by the fourth season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. The drama, set in a California motorcycle club, has often been described as Hamlet on Harleys for good reason. But my readings of late have me thinking that the show actually offers some really different inflections on Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance.

As I’ve reread debates about whether and how soap opera and melodrama are inherently “feminine” forms (this writing is notably pre-Butlerian), I’ve thought of how the authors couldn’t have possibly imagined Sons of Anarchy’s (SOA) melodramatic depths that are paired with just about every imaginable signifier of patriarchal masculinity. SOA is fascinating as a story set in a male, homosocial, largely patriarchal context but which centrally relies upon drama created by family conflict and secrets.

This season, SOA has utilized most every narrative strategy that defines soap opera and at the same time turned them on their head by refusing other aspects of daytime soap related to drawing out action over long periods of time. Despite the fact that many episodes feature motorcycle chases or firearm fights that offer physical action, the aspect of the storytelling that has me on edge of my seat—yelling at television, “tell him, tell him”—is that the real action has been about the process of disseminating or withholding information—straight out of the daytime playbook. The viewers know most all the secrets (or so we think), which inflects scenes with rich nuance as we try to ascertain what characters might know or suspect, just like in daytime serials.

But at the same time, SOA has used the pacing of a weekly serial, burning through narrative at a rate similar to The OC (the last show I can think of that developed and resolved major plotlines and subplots that would span seasons in most shows in just a matter of episodes). Here we have a hybrid storytelling strategy that allows and delivers conclusions within the span of a few weeks or at least the course of a 13-week season, very much contrary to the perceived source of women’s soap enjoyment of never-ending serial complications.

Categorizing SOA is difficult. In many ways, it is a family drama. Its deepest conflicts are personal and deal with the negotiation of competing loyalties; its cumulative narrative seems to be Jax Teller’s journey of deciding what kind of man he will be and dealing with the implications of that choice on those he loves and who love him. Of course this family drama takes place in the fictional, small, rural town of Charming, California on the backs of motorcycles, amidst plotlines of illegal guns, drug trade, and porn shoots, albeit with a more complicated gender politics than non-viewers might assume. I’m pretty sure John Fiske would be at a loss in trying to apply his categorizations of “feminine” or “masculine” television, and it makes me wonder a lot the scholarship of the era and continuing assumptions of gendered spectators and genre/narrative strategies.


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