Friday, September 23, 2011

Legitimating Television: Blogversation

This is cross-posted at zigzigger.

In this post, Michael Z. Newman and I aim to offer a look into the origins and purpose of our new book, Legitimating Televison: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. We include an abstract of our argument (which is also our back cover copy), and then engage in a “blogversation” about the project and its aims.

Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status explores how and why television is gaining a new level of cultural respectability in the twenty-first century. Once looked down upon as a “plug-in drug” offering little redeeming social or artistic value, television is now said to be in a creative renaissance, particularly as critics hail the rise of “cinematic,” Quality series such as Mad Men and 30 Rock. Likewise, DVDs and DVRs, web video, HDTV, and mobile devices have shifted the longstanding conception of television as a family-centered household appliance, offering a new understanding of TV as a sophisticated, high-tech gadget.

Newman and Levine argue that television’s newfound, growing prestige emerges in concert with the convergence of media at technological, industrial, and experiential levels. Television is permitted to rise in respectability once it is connected to more highly valued media--and more highly valued audiences. Legitimation works by denigrating “ordinary” television associated with the past, and thereby denies the continuities between past and present. It also distances the television of the present from the feminized and mass audiences assumed to be inherent to the “old” TV. It is no coincidence that the most validated programming and technologies of the convergence era are associated with viewers of elevated economic and cultural status. The legitimation of television articulates the medium with the masculine over the feminine, the elite over the mass. In so doing it reinforces cultural hierarchies that have long perpetuated inequalities of gender and class.

Legitimating Television urges readers to move beyond the taste question of whether television is simply “good” or “bad,” and to focus instead on the cultural, political, and economic issues at stake in television’s transformation in the digital age.

Why we wrote this book

EL: While we have been excited by much of the scholarship emerging that deals with the many changes television has been facing, and continues to face (economic, technological, experiential), we also noted some gaps in that scholarship. We kept noticing these discourses of distinction in popular, trade, and scholarly talk about TV, but no one seemed to be talking about it or acknowledging their implications. And once we started noticing it, it was everywhere! I, for one, worry about all of the “future-casting” that seems to be going into contemporary talk about TV (scholarly and popular) and wanted, in part, to do the historian’s work of noting both the continuities with and the disruptions to the past in contemporary developments. So we wanted to historicize a lot of the conversation about convergence-era TV, and specifically to do so around questions of cultural hierarchy and value. In addition, we wanted to inject more of a cultural studies-influenced sense of struggle over television’s status in the cultural hierarchy, something we don’t see a lot of attention being paid to these days.

MZN: We have now seen a fair number of attempts to grapple with how television has been changing during the digital age. Some say television has changed so much that it’s not even television any more (e.g., one book has the title Television after TV), which seems like such a radical break. We wanted to make an argument about the cultural implications of convergence as it works in relation to TV, and in particular how issues of social power underlie many of the shifts we observe in TV’s identity under convergence. We see the old concept of TV as crucial to the newly legitimated medium. A lot of people seem to be aware of some of the same things we observe, but I think our concept of the legitimation of television explains recent developments in a way that has not been done, and puts their meaning into focus. The gender and class implications of television’s legitimation have not been very well recognized.


MZN: Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV and William Boddy’s New Media and Popular Imagination are most foundational in my thinking about our work, as both are ultimately concerned with how people think about television as a medium, and what place television has in our everyday lives as a result. We are also building on essays by Derek Kompare and Matt Hills about TV on DVD, and by Dana Polan and Christopher Anderson on the cultural status of Quality TV, particularly around HBO and its series. More in terms of background knowledge and approach, I am always inspired by Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, which is a book I think everyone across the humanities should read. Bourdieu, of course.

EL: I come to the project with the same influences, although I would also add two other streams of work: British Cultural Studies approaches to television, especially John Fiske’s Bourdieuian takes on cultural hierarchies and appreciation of the tastes of “the people.” For me, the study of television has always been about seeking an understanding of and empathy with a culturally denigrated medium and the subordinated social positions of those who find in that medium their culture. The legitimation of the medium, as much as it is still struggling to achieve dominance, seems to me to dismiss all of that. And that feels like a betrayal of what both television and the cultural studies-influenced field of television studies mean to me. I’d additionally add feminist scholarship on TV melodrama/soaps, especially work by such scholars as Tania Modleski, Jane Feuer, and Lynne Joyrich. These scholars understand deeply the gendered nature of cultural hierarchies and attend to television’s feminized texts as a challenge to such easy dismissals.

Challenges of writing about the present

MZN: When you write about the present, you aim at a moving target. You can think you have figured out what to say about something, and just as you are saying it, the subject changes or new developments complicate your points. You lack historical distance and risk seeing change as more important than it is. We tend to think of our present moment as a break from the past, and to see ourselves as somehow special. Actually I think part of our book’s contribution is in questioning this very tendency toward misapprehending the present, and failing to recognize historical continuities. We call it a history of the present and a polemic, and I wonder if a history of the present can avoid being a polemic in some sense, as our concerns are so immediate and so present in discourses we encounter day by day.

EL: Yeah, I worry about the “ranty” nature of the book at points, but I also feel so strongly about the ideas that I’m kind of proud of the rants, too. My worry is not so much that we come off sounding cranky, but that that crankiness will soon be seen as short-sighted, in that it misses a development that is about to come. Still, we’ve been studying these discourses for a number of years and, if anything, see them increasing rather than decreasing or changing.

What do we hope will come of Legitimating Television?

EL: I hope that readers of our book will think about contemporary TV and the discourses surrounding it in new ways, that they will start to notice the discourses of legitimation all around us and the ways in which these discourses operate in tension with those of denigration. I hope that scholarship that focuses on the economic and technological convergence of TV and other media will not reproduce the classed and gendered hierarchies of so much legitimating discourse--or will at least be more self-conscious about it. I hope that the critics and other journalists talking about contemporary TV will avoid the either/or dichotomy of trash or art that pervades discourses of legitimation and delegitimation and consider the ways their words shape the way we all think about TV. Mostly, I just want to see thoughtful, socially and politically engaged work on TV that has an historical sensibility and that tries not to reproduce damaging cultural hierarchies.

MZN: I’m eager to see more scholarly engagement with television texts in aesthetic terms, and some of this book indeed works in this area, e.g., the discussions of sitcom and drama forms. My previous work on TV storytelling is also an effort in this area. But I’d like to see aesthetic considerations of television proceed in full consciousness of the power of aesthetic discourses, and to the extent possible without the naive appreciation of “good TV” or denigration of “bad TV” that reinforces the cultural hierarchies central to legitimation and delegitimation. This is a challenge to be sure, but one that I think must be undertaken if TV studies is to maintain a critical perspective. Similarly, with new technologies and audience practices, we ought to be wary of endorsing the so-called control and activity of new ways of watching without recognizing drawbacks and their ideological implications.

What you should know before you read

MZN: I wonder if some people might see the book and infer that we’re rooting for TV to be legitimated. Sometimes when I tell people that the book is about the idea that TV has gotten better, they seem excited by the thought and eager to endorse it. (Others are more cranky and say things like, “I disagree!” or “I don’t watch television.”) Our purpose is to document and analyze legitimation as the emergent common sense, but also to argue that it’s not ultimately a force for good.

EL: You put that so democratically. We say legitimation is bad! But, at the same time, it’s important that readers know: 1) We love TV. 2) We know there are some benefits to the legitimation of television, but think the discourse as it now stands does too much damage to television writ large and to classed and gendered conceptions of cultural and social worth. 3) That is not our living room on the cover.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

WTF and OMG: James Franco on GH?

Figures that the one day all semester when I am so tied up in classes and meetings that I spend almost zero time on the internets is the day when mondo GH news breaks. "Film Star James Franco Checks into General Hospital"! So I finally find out, I'm all excited (who doesn't love Daniel Desario?), I'm all, "but doesn't he realize that no one thinks GH is any good these days?" And then I finally get to read all about it in the soap blogosphere and the entertainment industry sites and all. And I realize this is really interesting in many, many ways.

First is the shocked (SHOCKED!) reaction amongst all commenters. No one can believe it. No one can understand it. But these shocked reactions come in at least three versions: one is from in-the-know soap types, who pretty much echo my reaction above--the "but everyone knows GH is a shell of its former self these days" take. GH is not the place to go for a quality soap experience! Serial Drama's Mallory says it; Marlena DeLaCroix says it. And here and there a commenter says it on more general entertainment biz sites.

But those sites have the much more predictable comments, the why the hell would he go to a soap at all comments, the who the hell cares about those awful soaps comments, the NO ONE actually watches those things anymore comments. These, of course, come from a much different place than those from soap viewers. Soap viewers love soaps, but rue how far so many have fallen from their days of soapy goodness. The rest of the world simply picks up the discourse of denigration long linked to the genre. Boring, easy pot-shots. The soap viewers' criticisms are much more stinging.

Then there's category three of reaction--the attempt to explain. Rumor has it he's researching a film role. He shares a manager with GH actor Steve Burton. He knows lots of famous folks once worked on soaps and wants to be like them. A friend told him that soap acting is the hardest acting gig there is and he wanted to try it. He got stoned with Seth Rogen and lost a bet.

I'd like to think that it's all linked to the education he's been getting at Columbia and, reportedly, in a queer cinema course at NYU. A while back, zigzigger linked to an interview clip with Franco expressing his admiration for Carl Wilson's awesome book, Let's Talk about Love, a volume about a hipster music snob trying to understand the appeal of Celine Dion that does an amazing job of exploring questions of cultural hierarchy, taste, and gender. I'm thinking that a little queer theory, a little Bourdieu, maybe even a little soap scholarship in one of those college courses piqued his interest and encouraged the guy to explore the genre from the inside.

Let's call the story, "James Franco challenges cultural hierarchies!" or, alternately, stealing from Wilson (who borrowed it from Idolator) "James Franco Journeys to the End of Taste." I think I may love the guy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

First Mad Men, now this?

Opening an email from my friendly neighborhood Banana Republic chain, I am greeted by this:

Why, it's Claire Fisher and Ted Fairwell, the young lovers we learn in the last episode of Six Feet Under (spoiler alert) will eventually marry and live happily ever after!

I can't quite believe that BR went to the trouble to get Lauren Ambrose and Chris Messina for this ad, given that the series last aired in 2005 and the characters (not to mention the actors) are no where near universally recognizable. But I love them, as I do the Mad Men characters, and I think BR may totally have my number. If I didn't have a big ole pregnant belly right now I'd be totally tempted to use their 20% off offer just because they acknowledged my somewhat obscure TV tastes.

I really miss that Claire Fisher. And Ted, what a guy . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

Farrah, the 1970s, and me

I'm a bad blogger, or delinquent at the very least. Just wrote a little something about Farrah and the 1970s for the Duke University Press blog (publishers of my book on sex and 1970s TV). So read it over there--and maybe, maybe more here soon from me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Busy, busy

Much to do of late, as I am teaching two new courses this semester. One, a large introductory lecture, the other a graduate seminar. Both are going well but extremely time-consuming. Plus lots of TV to manage--always a challenge in Idol season. Those of you in the teaching/learning biz might be interested in the website for my lecture course, Television and Radio in American Society, and the class blog for my seminar in Gender and Popular Culture. The latter is great thanks to my super duper students. Too tired after a rousing seminar today to say much of note, but here's a few recent, random-ish thoughts on TV and other media consumed:

-- The sexism and homophobia of Idol is really bugging me this season. The excessive discussion of the female contestants' attractiveness when their singing stinks? Ryan and Simon's homophobic taunts? Yuck.

-- But I join the bandwagon of excitement around hometown boy Danny Gokey. I just want him to make it to the top 3 so I can go to his home visit festivities! Though I am convinced I know that Adam Lambert from somewhere. Anyone know if he was a student at UW-Madison or Milwaukee at some point?

-- Mamma Mia is quite absurd, isn't it? But I was amazed to see a Hollywood product so baldly designed for the pleasure of middle-aged women.

-- I liked the Hugh Jackman-hosted Oscars. The individual tributes for the acting awards were nice, but I found those for the actresses way more moving and genuine than those for the men. Better acting or just greater comfort with the emotional display?

-- Fascinated with the new Disney XD channel for boys and its flagship series Aaron Stone. I may a have a paper in me on this one.

-- Finally finished watching last season's episodes of Lipstick Jungle. Gotta say, I really like that show. I think it's a case of a show one may watch but is not supposed to discuss.

-- I was so saddened by the "special" GH reflecting on what would have happened if Maxie had died and B.J. had lived woe those many years ago when the show was THE AWESOME. Kirsten Storms gave it her all with her sassy commentary but too much of it just made no sense for those with any awareness of the show's history. Carly got involved with Tony only AFTER BJ had died. Bobbie and Tony were as solid as soap couples come before losing their child. Makes no sense that Carly would have been married to Tony in the scenario they offered. And why no recognition that Lulu and BJ were cousins? And why did Maxie's absence have anything to do with Johnny becoming a jr. Sonny? So lame. The show just makes me sad, sad, sad.

-- To end more hopefully, do you know how many free magazines one can acquire by agreeing to free trial issues with no-obligation cancellations? And once you're in the system, they just keep offering you more free issues every time you cancel.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Video catalog hits 1000!

Today I enter the 1000th dvd into my video catalog. As I have described previously, I am at work on a continuous dubbing and cataloging project, recording off-air shows to DVD and transferring my large collection of videotapes to DVD, as well. I know that DVD is an imperfect archival medium but the ability to save (at least for a while) my stuff in a compact form, cataloging it in the process, is too good to pass up.

What is the 1000th disc, you ask? Why, four episodes of The Nanny from the late 1990s. I wrote a paper about the show once upon a time, still kind of love it, and will perhaps return to it again someday. Sure, the show is available on commercial DVDs, but here I have some of my favorite episodes, with original commercials, and I don't have to pay the MSM to receive them. Or maybe I'm just a pack rat.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Back to business

What I have done so far today:
1) Made lunch for boy, got him to school
2) Took clothes to Goodwill
3) Assorted correspondence
4) Finished notes for this week's grad seminar
5) Reading for lecture class next week
6) Wrote lecture for said class
7) Wrote reading questions for said reading
8) Wrote exam questions for said lecture
9) Dubbed a bunch of shows to DVD and entered into video catalog
10) Finished last season's Entourage finale during lunch

What I have left to do today:
1) Create Powerpoints for above said lecture
2) Write conference proposal
3) Make dinner
4) Work out
5) Pick up boy and his dad
6) Watch TV or Netflix movie
7) Figure out what to wear for first day of teaching tomorrow

Oh dear.