Beyond Quality TV: The Medium Throughout the World

This summer, the editors of L'Atalante invited me to join a conversation about television. The conversation is published in Spanish, but here are my responses in English. If you read Spanish, check out the original for insights on these questions from scholars in France, Spain, Columbia, and New Zealand.

1. In television series production, at least in Spain, the power of big media conglomerates is very obvious (with examples such as Atresmedia and Mediaset), even if they then outsource the work to smaller and less powerful companies. Is there a strong television industry in your country or is it also dependent on media conglomerates? Is there public or government support via financial aid or similar?

The U.S. television industry is highly conglomerated and vertically integrated. A study in 2014 found nine companies produce 90 percent of the content. These same companies also own the networks and channels that distribute the programs and other media such as film studios, theme parks, professional sports teams, magazines, music labels, and book publishing. In the case of one conglomerate (Comcast-NBCU), it also owns the cable and internet distribution service that serves 22 million households—about 20 percent of the U.S. market.

There is no acknowledged public or government support of the commercial industry, however, cities and states have created incentives to try to increase the amount of production spending in their region. The industry also has the scale to lobby for policies in its favor. A small public service television and radio sector exists (although the new administration has proposed eliminating its funding). Government funding makes up a small amount of even those budgets ($1.35/person/year). The majority is paid through donations from listeners/viewers and from corporate and foundation sponsorship that increasingly blurs the line of commercial funding.

2. Cable television transformed the classical narrative structure of individual episodes (because of the lack of commercial breaks). Have online platforms and new modes of viewing also affected the narrative configuration of recent television series?

I’d argue first for a distinction between advertiser-supported and subscriber-supported cable channels. Only series created for subscriber-supported channels (HBO, Showtime) lack commercial breaks. Moreover, many of these series were produced with the expectation that they would later be sold to advertiser-supported channels, so while conventional broadcast narrative structure may be less apparent or rigidly required, this structure is not completely lacking.

The transformation introduced by original series is far more extensive than narrative structure and extends to tone, topics, and characterization. This derives directly from different measures of success enabled by the different revenue model of all cable channels from broadcast networks and between ad-supported and subscriber-supported cable.

Series created for portals such as Netflix and Amazon Video are even less bound to narrative conventions because they exist free from a schedule (although even HBO series allowed flexible episode lengths). Series produced for portals also don’t assume a viewer will wait a week between episodes. It is too early to speak about changes in narrative configuration that result. In many ways the “freedom” from “constraint” of constructing an episode of a specific length and knowing audiences will have to wait a week between episodes has yielded a lot of indulgent television. The freedom from editing to a prescribed episode length has led to stodgy pacing that will likely correct in time. Likewise, the freedom audiences have to view one, two or all the episodes at a time challenges creators’ strategies for narrative development. A ten-hour “movie,” as some have referred to these series, does not have a tested structure. Nor is the same structure likely to work for those (the few) who binge all ten episodes at once as opposed to those who watch an episode or two in a sitting. This seems to me a significant challenge that creatives and audiences need to negotiate.

3 It seems a commonplace to talk about how contemporary television series call for a more active and/or demanding audience, but, is there really a profound change in the paradigm of what a spectator is?

No, the change isn’t paradigmatic, rather it is possible for series to create more variation in the audience experience. Audience members ultimately chose their level of engagement—as has always been the case. For example—even going back over a decade now—a show like Lost allowed some audience members to engage in the series’ mysteries outside the television narrative with great depth. But many simply watched the show. Likewise, some series may have abundant live tweeting, but engaging in this conversation is up to the audience member. You could say that there is more variation in the range of activities that can be included in spectatorship.

4 What are the most successful television series in terms of audience and criticism in your country? Are they national and local productions or are they international television series? Does this have any influence on the national identity or collective imagination of the country?

There is significant variation in critical and popular success. There are few U.S. productions watched by a large national audience. The most watched are sports matches—championship games of American football, baseball, and basketball. Most watched regular series in 2016 included Big Bang Theory, NCIS, The Walking Dead, and Bull. But, with the exception of The Walking Dead, critics focus on series such as Game of Thrones, The Americans, This is Us, and  Girls and rarely comment upon the most popular series. The series that critics most engage with tend to attract a much smaller audience than most watched series. Mad Men was perhaps the best illustration. Until 2010, series produced for cable channels drew smaller audiences than the 75 most watched shows on broadcast networks in a given week, and yet these were the series that drew the majority of critics’ attention.

Almost all of the commonly viewed series are U.S. produced. It is easier than it has ever been to access series originating elsewhere, but it is still outside the common practice of most viewers or the “general audience.” The U.S. industry is also watching for successful series produced elsewhere and remaking them to a greater degree than used to be standard.

With the large U.S. population and the current quantity of original production, it is arguably the case that even Americans watching American productions hardly produces a sense of national identity or collective imagination anymore. I’m just starting on a project that aims to see if the same patterns of polarization that have been identified in news sources are evident in entertainment viewing. Preliminary evidence suggests substantial gulfs.

5 Do the television series that are produced in your country reproduce the genre codes and other characteristics from mainstream international television series, or are there distinctive narrative structures or models? Are there any examples that show hybridization between local and ‘imported’ characteristics?

That’s hard to say. There is so much domestic production that yes, a lot of series reproduce genre codes and characteristics and yes, there are some shows using more distinctive structures and models. Because the range of series is so extensive and so little imported, it is difficult to assess hybridization. The shift to seasons with fewer episodes might be one of the most significant practices long customary elsewhere to be increasingly common in the U.S.