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Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition

Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition

by Jan Olsson

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In the last ten years, television has reinvented itself in numerous ways. The demise of the U.S. three-network system, the rise of multi-channel cable and global satellite delivery, changes in regulation policies and ownership rules, technological innovations in screen design, and the development of digital systems like TiVo have combined to transform the practice we


In the last ten years, television has reinvented itself in numerous ways. The demise of the U.S. three-network system, the rise of multi-channel cable and global satellite delivery, changes in regulation policies and ownership rules, technological innovations in screen design, and the development of digital systems like TiVo have combined to transform the practice we call watching tv. If tv refers to the technologies, program forms, government policies, and practices of looking associated with the medium in its classic public service and three-network age, it appears that we are now entering a new phase of television. Exploring these changes, the essays in this collection consider the future of television in the United States and Europe and the scholarship and activism focused on it.

With historical, critical, and speculative essays by some of the leading television and media scholars, Television after TV examines both commercial and public service traditions and evaluates their dual (and some say merging) fates in our global, digital culture of convergence. The essays explore a broad range of topics, including contemporary programming and advertising strategies, the use of television and the Internet among diasporic and minority populations, the innovations of new technologies like TiVo, the rise of program forms from reality tv to lifestyle programs, television’s changing role in public places and at home, the Internet’s use as a means of social activism, and television’s role in education and the arts. In dialogue with previous media theorists and historians, the contributors collectively rethink the goals of media scholarship, pointing toward new ways of accounting for television’s past, present, and future.

Contributors. William Boddy, Charlotte Brunsdon, John T. Caldwell, Michael Curtin, Julie D’Acci, Anna Everett, Jostein Gripsrud, John Hartley, Anna McCarthy, David Morley, Jan Olsson, Priscilla Peña Ovalle, Lisa Parks, Jeffrey Sconce, Lynn Spigel, William Uricchio

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Duke University Press
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Console-ing Passions
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Television after TV

Essays on a medium in transition
By Lynn Spigel

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3393-7

Chapter One


I was on a panel called "Profiting from Content," which was pretty funny considering no one thinks we can.-Larry Kramer, CEO, CBS Marketwatch.com, quoted in American Way, December 15, 2000

"The New Killer App [television]"-title of article from Inside, December 12, 2000

With the meteoric rise and fall of the dot-coms between 1995 and 2000, high-tech media companies witnessed a marked shift in the kind of explanatory discourses that seemed to propel the media toward an all-knowing and omnipresent future-state known as "convergence." Early adopters of digital technology postured and distinguished their start-ups in overdetermined attempts to promote a series of stark binaries: old media versus new media, passive versus interactive, push versus pull. These forms of promotional "theorization" served well the proprietary need for the dot-coms to individuate and to sell their "vaporware" (a process by which products are prematurely hyped as mere concepts or prototypes before actual products are available, all in an effort to preemptively stall the sales and market share of existing products by competitors). Both practices-theorizing radical discontinuity with previous media andhyping vaporware-proved to be effective in amassing inordinate amounts of capital and in sending to the sidelines older competitors that actually had a product to sell. The tenor of this techno-rhetorical war changed, however, after the high-tech crash. Many observers now recognized that a phalanx of old-media players had, in fact, steadily weathered the volatile shifts during this period, and they did so with greater market share and authority than ever before. Far from being eclipsed by digital start-ups, television engaged and even welcomed the threat, proving that its historic prowess in entertainment, programming, and the economic realities of electronic media distribution gave it a set of comprehensive corporate skills well suited to tame the wild speculations of the dot-com world. Bankruptcy-prone media event/entities like DEN and pop.com might have garnered industry buzz as hip synergy-targets at Sundance, but television-Net initiatives had the National Association of Broadcasters, a wealth of prestige programming, adaptable technical infrastructure, and thousands of profit-focused electronic media facilitators and affiliates that were already "networked." In frustrated attempts to force the technical hand of "broadband" convergence, many newly tempered visionaries now conceded what had earlier only been a nagging hunch: a workable broadband network may already be in place-something called television.

Make no mistake, television did not assume its formidable position as a major player in digital media by having mastered and controlled the instabilities of the new technologies and practices. Far from it. The shift to digital created tremendous anxieties and a series of abortive responses from broadcasters because it threatened many of the most central tenets that had made the industry profitable over several decades. Consider, in this regard, how digital technologies have threatened the very centrality of TV's historic cash cow: syndication. Most academic histories of television focus almost exclusively on network television and ignore the fundamental role that the sale of independently produced series to individual and affiliated stations have played in the history of the medium. While the popular press typically conflates syndication with "reruns" of network shows, this gloss overlooks the vast number of series sold directly (usually for off-prime-time) across both domestic and international markets. Such syndication rights have for many years stood as central deal makers or breakers in television negotiations and development. The advent first of multichannel cable competition and then of digital technologies continues to threaten the place and value of syndication rights in the industry.

While the trades have spent considerable ink in hand-wringing speculation on the impact of Web "surfing" and "browsing" on advertising and sponsorship (which, in turn, has had considerable impact on the form that convergence has taken in television), less attention has been paid to the impact that those same user behaviors have had on syndication. New products/services like octopus.com, for example, give users the ability to download software that allows the user to click-and-compile sites and fragments of sites that the user wishes to view on a regular basis. This, in essence, automatically rips image/sound/data "content" from numerous commercially sponsored, proprietary, and advertised sites and compiles the gleaned material daily (without ad banners, buttons, or secondary matter) as a personalized site/document that can be distributed and forwarded at will by the octopus compiler. The impact of this kind of counter- or "meta-browsing" is not lost on commercial developers and dot-com investors worldwide: even the best-laid Web-design e-strategies, subscriptions, and e-commerce schemes are worthless if one's proprietary content ends up "republished" on the screen of any user who wishes to reconfigure and "syndicate" it. Owners lose control of revenue streams, user tracking, headlines, and ad impressions as users (now) automatically edit, personalize, and distribute content. Nervous Web developers and content owners ponder whether to counterattack themselves against meta-browsing, as they did with Napster and Scour for their "infringements." Portals that contractually promise their clients exclusivity and control of the context in which their content is seen, for example, can now no longer guarantee that the same content will not appear alongside their competitors' content. Unlike the first generation of "unruly" analog users who threatened ad rates with VCR time-shifting and remote-control surfing, digital meta-browsing means not only that editorial control is in the hands of users but that it is also immediately and widely distributable by others. The syndication industry will again have to reinvent itself to insure profitability, even as advertisers have had to reinvent strategies in the face of personalized "bots" that aggregate and individuate content automatically for viewer-users. Given this kind of dynamic, it is clear that new modes of media delivery and television-Net convergence also have an impact on television's textual forms and the ways we relate to television itself.


Even though ours has been characterized as a "postnetwork" or "posttelevision" era, television as an institution has proven resilient in adapting to a series of fundamental economic, technological, and cultural changes. In this essay I examine how the proliferation of forms in American television since 1990 developed through a pattern of industrial negotiations by practitioners. My intent here is both to describe a series of changes in television's textual forms and to reconsider methods of aesthetic analysis in television studies itself. By describing how various "cultures of production" mediate economic and cultural instabilities, I hope to shift the focus of analysis from aesthetics to notions of performance (how form is sociologically and industrially produced) and then to notions of "distributed cognition" (or how TV form emerges from broad but unstable networks of codified and contested industrial rationality). By doing this I intend to demonstrate the importance of a broad range of activities I group under the term "critical industrial practice." In addition, I want to show how these practices animate the industrial shift toward tactics of "aggregating," "migrating," and "repurposing" content.

Efforts to delineate a television aesthetic certainly stood as reasonable in what is still seen as the network era, a period of very real industrial oligopoly and apparent narrative homogeneity; a period perhaps constituted by the very "mass" culture premise in academia that somehow construed TV as one thing. In the 1970s and 1980s, attempts to nail down a television "aesthetic" (although this apparently archaic word was seldom used) were wide ranging. Critical scholars explained TV form by reference to a set of privileged generic modes and structural tropes; to essential forms of distracted and fragmented subjectivity; to semiotic taxonomies and descriptive schemes; or to overarching narratological paradigms. Within this broad movement to finally take seriously and to systematically understand television form, many scholars also insisted that such forms only made sense if understood within the logics of industry, ideology, and political economy. This subsequent move to ground television critical studies historically demonstrated how televisual screen form was also fully complicit in programming tactics and political economy.

These two critical phases fit well with the respective objects of analysis with which theory chose to tangle. The initial deconstruction by academic television studies of a common television form in the 1970s and early 1980s matched the overdetermined way that the networks themselves made television out to be one thing as well in the age of "broadcasting." Subsequently, the integration of political, economic, and cultural history with textual analysis in the late 1980s and 1990s came at a time when diversity was being industrially produced in an overdetermined way in a multichannel era known as "narrow-casting." These scholars fought the utopian gloss of endless diversity promised in the new age of cable and postnetwork television by taking television to task as a more fully historical phenomenon. Yet, I would argue, the current imbrication of digital technologies and the Internet with television further shatters the authority that either of these two models-broadcasting or narrow-casting- can have on critical analysis. To understand dot-com/TV permutations, TV-Web synergies, multichannel branding, and marketed poses of "convergence," scholars need to pay as much attention to the communities and cultures of production as they do to either political economy or ideologically driven screen form. The instabilities at play now-in labor relations, technological obsolescence, runaway production, and production economies-make the earlier advent and threat (to television) of HBO, CNN, and MTV seem moderate by comparison. It is within this present instability that the interplay between screen form, critical-industrial competence, and socio-professional interactions are most evident. Studying television's "production of culture" is simply no longer entirely convincing if one does not also talk about television's "culture of production."


It is useful to consider the forms of convergence television not as mere textual or stylistic preoccupations but as Geertzian examples of "local knowledge." Far from monolithic, the television industry is actually comprised of many very different local industries locked into a world of "willed affinity." This affinity stands as a convenient common front for "the industry" only as long as business relations can guarantee stable markets and economies of scale. Recent changes in technology (immersive stylistics, nonlinear editing, computer generated imagery [CGI], and digital interactivity) have heightened the facility and prowess of professionals even as they have threatened substantive changes in the ways that TV is made, delivered, and consumed. Faced with threats of industrial instability, local production communities mount a wide range of discursive, iconic, and ritual forms to (therapeutically) work through institutional anxieties and to (cognitively) rationalize and respond to threats to practice. These industrial rituals and icons-circulated among practitioners to make sense of change-also directly impact and animate the program texts that audiences see at home.

While many media theorists spent their time speculating on polar oppositions between "push" media (TV) and "pull" media (digital media and the Net), fewer recognized one increasingly obvious trend: television had long been making itself a "pull" medium (through interactivity), even as it merged and conglomerated in an unequivocal bid to make the Internet a viable "push" medium through the deployment of programming and advertising strategies. Unlike television's smug but naive disregard of cable in the early 1980s-an upstart that ultimately hijacked over half of the TV audience-television was now, in effect, "covering its bets." That is, TV continued with its tried and proven success at programming, production, and marketing, even as it simultaneously invested in an array of start-ups and new technologies that could-if successful-ultimately cripple television. The unashamed investment by NBC, for example, in two new corporate enemies that promise to abolish TV advertising-the personal video recorder (PVR) companies TiVo and ReplayTV (whose PVR units allow viewers to skip ads in programs stored on their hard drives)-bear out this logic of planned corporate bet covering and equivocation. President Bob Wright of NBC laid out the preemptive logic of this kind of legal, boardroom surveillance: "[Our] company invested in both TiVo and Replay in part to keep track of the mayhem they could cause. We thought it was smart technology, but we weren't sure how it would be deployed."

With this strategy, Wright and NBC brought to programming in the digital age the wisdom "that one should keep one's enemy close," but all of this pushing and pulling and merging and jockeying for position in the face of digital had a far different effect on the ground and in the industries. That is, the studios, network control rooms, story sessions, and guildhalls in Los Angeles and New York all began to evidence great anxieties and volatilities during this period. Members of the television production communities arguably faced a far more uncertain future than those above them in the boardrooms. For while Hollywood and television have jumped into digital with great public confidence, the lived communities that comprise those public fronts have had to navigate and negotiate change in ways that have substantively transformed what television looks like and sounds like in the age of digital.

Televisual form in the age of digital simply cannot be accounted for without talking about the institutional forces that spur and manage those forms. Before returning at the end of this essay to consider the broader questions that tie televisual change to issues of conglomeration, labor, and changes in advertising, I will lay out here what I consider to be five fundamental changes in the look of television that have been driven by the institutional instabilities that I described above. These five elements include ancillary textuality (repurposing, migrating content); conglomerating textuality (convergence texts, TV/dot-com sites); marketing textuality (branding); ritual textuality (pitching, writing by committee); and programming textuality (stunting, sweeps). Even though the industry emphasis on some of these forms and strategies prefigured and continues alongside the widespread digitalization of television, all the forms aspire to the very conditions and endgame that digital formats discursively anticipate in what might be called the age of "convergence television." In this way, the institutional practices described in the next section (repurposing, branding, pitching, stunting, and syndication) might be thought of as "protodigital" institutional strategies insofar as they both prefigure and bridge television's current and final transition to digital technology and digital content.


Excerpted from Television after TV by Lynn Spigel Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Lynn Spigel is a professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. She is the author of Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (published by Duke University Press) and Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America.

Jan Olsson is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. He is a coeditor of Nordic Explorations: Film Before 1930.

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