Channelling in to Television Cultures

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And so here it is: my final post.

Kids, it’s been fun. I have never given TV much thought at all, but I feel this course has changed that! TV isn’t just something that is just there in our lives – we either choose to engage with it or we don’t, and I feel we have explored many ways in which this happens in Television Cultures.

Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that this blog is largely just the ramblings of a 20-year-old RMIT student, part angsty venting, part theory-grounded work. Nonetheless, it’s all here:

2 Showcase Posts:

1. Transmedia, Fans and Facebook
I definitely did this post all wrong, but I was interested at looking into the nature of fans, prompted by the week 6 lecture on taste, and conversations in class.

2. Why we love Reality TV
A review of the week 10 lecture on Reality TV, further exploration of the genre propelled by the week 11 lecture on the makeover reality show.

3 Comment to Other Blogs:

1. Lucy Dayman’s Transmedia & The Webisode

2. Alex Roach’s [Showcasing] Matters of Taste

3. Paul Kelly’s Reality Check.


There we are 🙂

But anyway, enough about me, and TV. On with life.




There is a page on Wikipedia literally called ‘List of reality television programs’ that tries to list all reality TV shows ever aired. Check it out here. While it DOES state that the list is incomplete, how could a project like this ever even come close to be being finished? In my opinion, as long as there is reality, and as long as there are people with video cameras, reality TV will never cease.

There’s something about it that draws us to it. Perhaps it is what I discussed in my post last week about the ‘truth’ aspect of reality TV that keeps audiences around the world glued to the screen. The knowledge that ‘this actually happened, this is real footage’, gives a different feel to a show than fictional television. Again I want to reiterate that Arild Fetveit notes ‘we are experiencing a growing use of surveillance cameras, and a form of factual television that seems to depend more heavily on the evidential force of the photographic image than any previous form: reality TV’ (pg. 787).

So why then? Why are we so interested in reality television? Why does the enjoyment of witnessing real life events never cease to capture our attention? Why is it that, as Su Holmes points out, reality TV ‘resonates so extensively in the cultural sphere’ (2004, pg. 1)?

Gary Edgerton says of the TV show Mad Men: “whatever says ‘This was them then’ connotes ‘This is us now’, mutatis mutandis. The characters’ smugness is undermined by our knowing more than they do, but that targets our certainty. Those foolish mortals are us, fifty years ago but us.” (2011, pg. 87) I believe with reality TV there is a similar sort of superiority complex that infiltrates audiences’ minds. We believe that what we are watching on the screen is some way related to us, but we are ‘above’ these people, as we as viewers know more than they do. Perhaps there is still an element of uncertainty, however, as we may consider that put in the same situation we may react much like these people do. Take, for example, a show like Candid Camera that exposes people’s embarrassing reactions to pranks:

I would argue that there are different ‘levels’ of reality TV. Those using surveillance type cameras depict a more accurate reality than those with cameras set up specifically. Take, for example, a show like Highway Patrol or The Force, in which footage is largely gathered from:

• authentic footage from camera crews observing arrests or rescue operations;
• footage from surveillance videos;
• recordings (often by amateurs) of dramatic accidents and dangerous situations.
(Fetveit, pg. 792)

With shows like this, the action is real and there is no chance to go back and redo a scene. However, a show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (or any game show) is largely staged and rehearsed, leaving little room for ‘reality’ except in how contestants respond and act.

Another interesting thing that I came across on the Wikipedia list of reality TV programs was also a list of different categories that reality TV can fit into. These are:

• Documentary style
• Historical recreation
• Science
• Dating
• Law Enforcement/Military
• Makeover
• Lifestyle change
• Fantasies fulfilled
• Docusoaps (starring celebrities)
• Hidden camera
• Reality game shows
• Talent searches
• Spoofs
• Parodies

In terms of ‘genre’ it is almost impossible to define a genre to allocate to reality shows, as they obviously cover an extremely vast array of issues and themes. Toni Johnson-Woods says of the reality genre:

“‘Reality tv’ is an umbrella term encompassing a host of television programs: from the news to talk shows… In the broadest definition, reality-tv shows are unscripted and their participants are non-professional actors. But other than such general guidelines, the term ‘reality’ can describe a wide range of television programs… Because it is such a broad (and misleading) term, it is easier to subdivide reality-tv programs into genres such as lifestyle shows, documentaries, talk shows and quiz/game shows.” (pg. 52)

So while it is evident that reality TV comes in many different forms, what holds them all together is the notion that they do in fact depict (at least in part) ‘reality’. There is much discussion in the media, however, about how that ‘reality’ is warped. In many cases we are given the indication that our lives require improvement to meet that unrealistic standard of reality. Frances Bonner notes:

“Television’s role is to alert viewers to the existence of more products and services for their utility in the endless project of the self.” (pg. 104)

Nowhere is this more true than in the production of reality TV. This form of ‘infotainment’ is riddled with product placement and marketing techniques that make audiences want more in an effort to “improve” themselves. Perhaps this is why reality TV ‘resonates so extensively in the cultural sphere’ as Holmes put it. Peter Balint Langmar defines ‘cultural sphere’ as follows:

“I use the term ‘cultural sphere’ to mean the open cultural market, creating goods and services, where individuals are also active participants or actors. The cultural market is a profit-oriented sub-sphere of the cultural sphere.” (pg. 4)

Therefore reality TV fits right in with the market-type nature of the cultural sphere. As Brian pointed out in the lecture, reality TV creates experts that inform us of what to strive for. Tania Lewis agrees with this:

“The past few years have seen an explosion of lifestyle makeover television shows with audiences around the world being urged to ‘renovate’ everything from their homes to their pets, a process that has seen the emergence of an army of lifestyle gurus on television advising us on what not to eat and what not to wear.” (2009, pg. 1)

Michelle Bridges on The Biggest Loser

For me, this brings to mind Michelle Bridges, who became a household name in Australia following her involvement with The Biggest Loser. Much of her success as a fitness trainer is due to her role on the show, and the fact that it allowed her to become a trusted and well-known expert in health and fitness. “Supernanny” is another example. As an ‘expert’ in child discipline, Jo Frost has also become well-known from her reality TV show. (I wonder how many people utilize a ‘naughty chair’ because of her?)

Jo Frost as “Super Nanny”

Experts, advertising, making us feel like we aren’t good enough, letting us laugh at people doing embarrassing things… we just love reality TV.


Holmes, Su and Jermyn, Deborah. Understanding Reality Television. London: Taylor & Francis, 2004

Lewis, Tania. TV Transformations: Revealing the Makeover Show. Routledge, 2009

Johnson-Woods, Toni. Big Bother: why did that reality-tv show become such a phenomenon? University of Queensland Press, 2002

Fetveit, Arild. “Reality Tv in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?”. Media Culture and Society. SAGE Publications. Vol. 21: 787-804. 1999

Balint Langmar, Peter. “Cultural Sphere and Public Interest: Combining Free and Participatory Culture, Cultural Democracy and Critiques of Value Regimes to Rethink Policy, Artistic and Institutional Practices”. The American University of Paris, 2011.

Bonner, Frances. Ordinary Television: Analysing Popular TV. SAGE, 2003.



Annette Hill describes reality TV as ‘located in border territories, between information and entertainment, documentary and drama’ (pg. 2). She also mentions that it can be referred to as ‘popular factual television’, which I find interesting, as clearly, reality TV does not really depict facts. Or perhaps it does depict fact, but only in portions small enough to cloud the whole truth. The only way we can really observe truth, after all, is to witness it in reality and not from behind a camera lens.


However, as Roland Barthes once said, photography does have an ‘evidential force’ about it. This is something Arild Fetveit notes:


“The advent of digital manipulation and image generation techniques has seriously challenged the credibility of photographical discourses. At the same time, however, we are experiencing a growing use of surveillance cameras, and a form of factual television that seems to depend more heavily on the evidential force of the photographic image than any previous form: reality TV.” (pg. 787)


I find Fetveit’s argument very interesting, as he sees a ‘paradoxical’ relationship between the digital imaging revolution, and the proliferation of reality TV, which uses surveillance and ultimately relies on the ‘evidential force’ of cameras. While we perhaps do not watch all reality TV shows for evidence of real events (many shows needing a narrative, along with engaging characters and events to hold our interest), I think that this notion of ‘reality’ is the most important feature of the genre. It is the fact that what we are watching has actually happened that holds our interest – even though I would argue many of us are aware that we read the situation differently due to editing and structuring of events.


This is more so for shows like Big Brother and Masterchef, I suppose, wherein the audience enjoys the ‘reality’ aspect of what is taking place, yet is also vaguely aware that a story has been created using only snippets of actual action that happens in reality. Fetveit also points out the ‘reality’ factor that is essential to programmes like Cops, Crimewatch, and I if I can add my own: Highway Patrol. While these programmes use special effects such as recreation to construct a story, they also heavily rely on actual recorded evidence. He says:


“Though some of the reality TV programmes employ recreations… most rely on visual evidence of the following kinds:

  • authentic footage from camera crews observing arrests or rescue operations;
  • footage from surveillance videos;
  • recordings (often by amateurs) of dramatic accidents and dangerous situations.” (pg. 792)


Another important aspect of the reality TV genre as well I think is the stigma surrounding it, what Su Holmes calls a ‘nervousness’ which stems from:


“… a long history of fears both for and about the television audience which, it is implied, might be unable to engage with ‘hybrid’ or otherwise complex forms. Such fears are bound up again in issues of class and cultural value, and are arguably characterized by a paternalistic and conservative impulse that, within the terms of mass-society tradition, constructs the audience as vulnerable and malleable”. (pg. 10)


These ‘issues of class’ are largely what separate reality TV from ‘quality’ TV, at least at a status level. A lot more people in this TV Cultures class are going to feel comfortable admitting to an obsession with Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad than The X Factor or (Heaven forbid) Brynne: A Bedazzled Life (new series coming out soon – the ads make me cringe). And some of us are probably confused about reality TV: whether we love it or hate it – I think when it comes to reality TV there is a very fine line between the two. Holmes says, ‘there are people who love reality TV, and people who love to hate reality TV’ (pg. 2).


A psychological study conducted by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz entitled “Why People Watch Reality TV”, however, kind of goes against this assumption of mine. They found that ‘by far, the largest significant effect was for the motive of status. The more reality TV shows a person liked, the more status-oriented was the person’ (pg. 373). This suggests that people concerned about status will engage more in reality TV, despite the knowledge that it is a ‘lower’ form of television to those quality complex narratives we have discussed over the past few weeks in class. This makes sense too, as reality TV is accessible to all on commercial television, and can supply conversation topics (water-cooler conversation, one might say).


Reality TV is also dependent on certain construction values: selection of shots, camera positioning (angle, movement, shot type etc.), sound, and so on. Even in the episode of One Born Every Minute that we watched in the lecture today, these construction values were evident. We did not see the entire stories of the pregnant ladies played out exactly as they occurred (obviously that would take ages), but shots were selected so as to make an interesting story. The scene between Fabio and Joy arguing about the name of their baby could have been left out, but we were shown a lot of scenes like this where they were squabbling and complaining. I’m sure there were many moments of silence as well, or even times where they discussed other things and were saying lovely things to each other, but the editors played around with the footage and chose to just show us evidence of the couple’s struggle. This is what keeps the audience interested. As we saw in the interview of a man from Sylvania Waters, editors can even carry out events over several episodes so it seems that characters engage in the same kinds of activities all the time (i.e. getting drunk).


So to sum up, I think some of the key defining features of reality television as a genre are the ‘truth’ aspect of it, the baggage it carries relating to status and quality, and also the construction values that allow producers to formulate story lines using real evidence.





Fetveit, Arild. “Reality Tv in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?”. Media Culture and Society. SAGE Publications. Vol. 21: 787-804. 1999

Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Factual Entertainment and Television Audiences. Psychology Press. 2005.

Holmes, Su. Understanding Reality Television. Routledge. 2004.

Reiss, S. and Wiltz, J. “Why People Watch Reality TV”. Media Psychology Vol. 6: 363-378. 2009

Even after all these weeks I am still quite uncertain as to what constitutes ‘quality’ television. Part of it, I think, is definitely brand association particularly in regards to HBO and their almost copyright possession of ‘quality’. Other shows like Mad Men that are not affiliated with HBO can be seen to be quality because of their likeness to other HBO dramas.

But anyway, the lecture today indicated several guidelines as to what makes a quality TV show:

  • attribution of authorship
  • large budgets
  • ability to represent difficult/adult/taboo subjects
  •  promiscuous approach to genre
  •  emphasis on building immersive storyworlds
  •  slow plot development
  •  character-centred
  •  availability of paratexts
  •  experimentation with extended modes of audience engagement

So what makes Mad Men “quality” TV? It fits into all of the above categories, I think. Writer and producer Matthew Weiner is attributed in the opening credits of every episode, and the budget stands at a whopping $2 million (at least!) per episode. While I haven’t seen many episodes yet, it is already obvious that some subjects are treated with insensitivity, such as blatant sexism (which is possibly an over-exaggeration of values that actually existed in the 1960s). Then there is that incredibly uncomfortable scene at the doctor’s in the pilot episode… only a quality TV show could get away with something like that.

I feel that this treatment towards women is so blatantly bad because in a broader way it suggests our (humankind’s) continual bad behaviour towards certain peoples. Take, for example, Gary Edgerton’s comment:

“In Mad Men whatever says ‘This was them then’ connotes ‘This is us now’, mutatis mutandis. The characters’ smugness is undermined by our knowing more than they do, but that targets our certainty. Those foolish mortals are us, fifty years ago but us. Fifty years hence our present values and conventions may prove as foolish to the next enlightened age as these are to ours. When our advantage in cultural perspective tempts us to feel superior, the satire of the 1950s complacency turns upon ours.” (pg. 87)

In terms of the ‘promiscuous approach to genre’, Mad Men certainly fits the bill. Is it a period drama? Is it a satire? Is it “quality” TV? The ‘hybrid’ type genre is obvious. Furthermore, the show is slow-paced and character-centred. Not much action actually takes place at all. Being Australian (and not having access to the Mad Men series at all right now) I know little about the ‘immersive storyworld’ connected to the series, however by visiting the Mad Men website, it seems that there are interactive transmedia forms that go along with it – games, webisodes, quizzes, ‘behind the scenes’ footage and so on. (Available to Americans?? As if.)

However, to quote Brian directly, what makes Mad Men really stand out as a quality show is that:

“it’s just frickin’ beautiful.” (Morris, 2012)

And so now I have to engage in a close textual analysis of the episode we watched in the lecture. * sigh * I don’t want to. Just kidding! I totally want to!! Give me HDs.

The scene that stood out most to me from episode 13, season 1, “The Wheel”, was the very final one, as Don is on his way back home from work. We see him isolated and out of place on a crowded train as he heads home, the camera panning across the busy carriage full of happy, moving people to rest on him sitting reservedly to the right of the screen. We then see him enter his house, call out ‘hello’ and walk into the kitchen to find his wife and the kids about to leave for the Thanksgiving holiday. He announces he will be coming with them, and an emotional Betty watches on as he hugs his ecstatic children. The audience is shocked and disappointed when the scene cuts to Don entering the house again, revealing that he was actually only imagining the first sequence of events. Betty and the children have already left, so Don sits on the stairs and rests his head in his hands.

The Invisible Culture blog says the following of the scene:

“The episode’s denouement, then, is all the more fitting as a double ending in which desire abuts reality. Don arrives home and catches Betty and the children as they’re about to head out the door; just in time, he is able to accompany them to Betty’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Then, the scene repeats: Don arrives home and his family is already gone, the first arrival only a fantasy of his return. In this scene, Don’s nostalgia, on such stark display during the Kodak pitch, works forward instead of backwards, projecting an impossible vision of familial forgiveness into a future that will never be realized.”

I love this narrative technique of playing out the two endings, as it seems to stand in contrast to the rest of the episode. Although I can’t entirely speak confidently on the nature of Mad Men as a complex narrative (as I have only seen the first and last episodes of season one), it seems to try to convey a sense of ‘reality’ in that the narrative is generally linear and logical. This ending sequence messes up that logical flow, and in working with a 1960s themed era this technique surprises us. We don’t expect it because the show does not normally flow like this, and because the 1960s itself doesn’t expect it (the video camera, and the ability to watch a moment in time over and over still relatively new).

This scene drew my attention as it made me think of an argument made by Jason Mittell:

“The operational aesthetic is heightened in spectacular moments within narratively complex programs, specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects.” (pg. 35)

Indeed, I would argue that this ending scene acts as a ‘special effect’, pulling us out of the comfortable progression of chronological events.


“In contemporary narratively complex shows such variations in storytelling strategies are more commonplace and signalled with much more subtlety or delay; these shows are constructed without fear of temporary confusion for viewers. Fantasy sequences abound… present visions of events that oscillate between character subjectivity and diegetic reality, playing with the ambiguous boundary to offer character depth, suspense, and comedic effect.” (pg. 37)

In this case, the effect is insight into Don’s thought and fantasies, and an acknowledgement of the strain in his relationship with his family.


Invisible Culture – electronic journal of visual culture
Accessed 25/09/12

O’Barr, William M. “Mad Men:Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class”. Advertising & Society Review Volume 11, Issue 4, 2011. (Project Muse)

AMC Website – Mad Men
Accessed 23/09/12

Mittell, J. Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. The Velvet Light Trap
Number 58, Fall 2006.

Edgerton, Gary R. Mad Men: Reading Contemporary Television. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 2011.

Given the nature of television at the present time, it is difficult to determine what being a ‘fan’ entails. Henry Jenkins takes a strong stand on what a fan is. I was going to make the disappointingly ignorant statement that his work on fandom is outdated (simply because he has been writing on fans for decades!), but then I found his blog. It’s so hard to call a man ‘outdated’ when he posts more on his blog than I do. However, can I build upon Henry Jenkins’ incredible work on his blog and in ‘Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture’ (2006)? Can I use my own knowledge of young people, and what I see on social media to create a different idea of a ‘fan’?

Because you see, I don’t think fandom is exactly a black and white thing. You can be a ‘fan’ of anything really, without having to submit to the stereotypes of being a hardcore fan. In his book ‘Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture’ Jenkins uses the example of Star Trek fans and how they have been portrayed as

‘… “kooks” obsessed with trivia, celebrities, and collectibles; as misfits and “crazies”; as “a lot of overweight women, a lot of divorced and single women”; as childish adults; in short, as people who have little or no “life” apart from their fascination with this particular program’. (pg. 11)

A ‘Bronies’ Convention

We all know this stereotypical view of intense fans, but do we really see it? At first, I thought no. Then I watched the following short documentary, and took note of the “Bronies”:

I have a few random friends on Facebook that are into Cosplay and post new strange pictures of themselves every now and again, but here in Australia I don’t feel like fandom is displayed through massive conventions and dressing up as characters. Fans of TV shows watch webisodes, make funny memes, write fan fiction, make parodies and share their adoration via the internet. I would say that transmedia fuels fandom in some ways among my age group.

With the rise of social media, transmedia spread is more effective than ever. Television programs can have their own Facebook pages through which people can access webisodes, artwork, memes, comments, forums and other websites, all just by pressing a ‘like’ button. We barely have to go searching for the extra material that makes up the immersive world of our favourite shows – it comes to us.

And so, I would like to float the idea that being a ‘fan’ is more mainstream due to this transmedia revolution. What is being a ‘fan’ after all?

a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular sport, art form, or famous person : football fans | I’m a fan of this author.
fandom |ˈfandəm| noun
ORIGIN late 19th cent. (originally U.S.): abbreviation of fanatic .

Therefore, we do not necessarily have to go to the extremity of attending conventions and dressing up as characters from our favourite shows to express out admiration or interest in them.

I will use an example of a show I have recently become a fan of: Doctor Who. (Please see my post on this.) This show obviously has a large following – extremely large actually. There are Doctor Who fans clubs for every state of Australia, and so many websites dedicated to forums and fanfiction. I highly doubt, however, that every Doctor Who fan is like this:

It is also interesting to see the rather amateur state of the official Doctor Who fan club of Australia, compared with the Doctor Who page on Facebook. There is a post on this page every few hours, always up to date and always on interesting new things such as pictures, webisodes, and even Doctor Who related recipes??!!! It would be easy for a fan to get all the latest news and facts on this one page, while also having the option to engage in discussion by commenting.

Before the latest season of Doctor Who aired a few weeks ago, the Doctor Who Facebook page posted a link to a BBC mini-series called ‘Pond Life’, as a teaser leading towards the next season. These webisodes actually added vital information to the text, revealing the disintegration of Amy and Rory’s relationship before the shocking revelation in the first episode of season 7 that they were filing for a divorce. To fans that have liked the Facebook page, or looked to the BBC website for extra material, this allowed them to know extra information about the lives of the characters, further immersing audiences in the text. It is important to note how transmedia allows for this to happen, even though following a link that pops up on your Facebook news feed may not seem like fan-like behaviour.

By contrast with Jenkins’ earlier view of the stereotypical fan, I want to note that in his book ‘Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture’ he states:

“I wanted to construct an alternative image of fan cultures, one that saw media consumers as active, critically engaged, and creative.” (pg. 1)

This goes against the view of fans being unintelligent, ‘crazy’ and misfits. Much of Jenkins’ work surrounds participatory culture, and how media audiences are active and engaged, and seek out fan culture in order to contribute to the construction of television shows, not simply seek an alternative reality and become lost in the fantasy of another world. This, I think, is exactly what I am trying to prove by highlighting how fans are active on Facebook: they can interact with television shows and immerse themselves in the texts alongside other fans, without having to drastically alter their regular lifestyles and routines.

To finish up, I want to align this idea of Jenkins’ – that fans can be active and creative – with Stuart Hall’s Reception Theory. Fans are, ultimately, the ideal representation of the ‘active’ audience. They read into texts, immerse themselves in the worlds they follow and construct for themselves, and contribute to this by creating their own fanfiction, analysing the text and even just making a simple comment on Facebook.


Jenkins, Henry (2006). Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. Studies in culture and communication. New York: Routledge.

Henry Jenkins’ Blog:

Doctor Who Club of Australia:

BBC Website:

What kind of show is Big Love? That is the question.


What a broad, strange thing to ask. Do we even think about this when we watch TV? Do we strain to think about what genre it is? What audience is going to watch it? How the identity of the network company alters our view of it? Do we care about how complex it is, or if television scholars consider it ‘quality’ TV?


For the most part, no. We don’t think of these things. We don’t care. We just watch what interests us. For some people this is shows that display ‘narrative complexity’, for others a simple soap opera will do the trick. We why have to categorise them all is beyond me, but okay.


A commenter on Michael Kackman’s piece on Flow TV, Jeffrey Sconce, highlights how unusual it is that we equate complexity with quality:


“…the unexamined equation of quality with complexity is a particularly strange move for television studies to make. It reached its apotheosis in the Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You” book from a few years back, with its rather hilarious charts demonstrating how much more complex and thus worthy “The Sopranos” were in relation to “Starsky and Hutch.” Complex TV is apparently better because it forces you to make more neural connections, in the same way that video games are good for hand-eye coordination!”


Considering Big Love was Brian’s choice this week on our discussion on quality TV, I suppose it falls under this category. Michael Kackman loosely describes such narrative complex programs as:


“those that blend episodic and serial narrative techniques, build upon extended back stories of both plot and character, are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself.”


I would say that Big Love is more of an episodic structure than a serial. The focus is on the overall movement of the plot, rather than the small conflicts and resolutions that take place episode-to-episode. The main driving force of the show is that the family situation is so unusual: the main character has three wives, and has had children with all of these wives, yet they all live together as one family entity. This challenges the notion of the typical American nuclear family, and the institution of marriage, while also strengthening the idea that the Big love family is unusual, and that the normal family functions better (*statement open to criticism*).



In terms of genre, I like how Jason Mittel puts it:


“My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera!”


Sure, soap opera is a fairly solid genre with all of its respective assumptions, but this notion of complex television shows… is this a genre in itself? Given what Mittel describes as the function of soap operas – “immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge” – it would appear that there is a parallel between soap operas and these long form complex narratives.


In Big Love, we rely a lot on what the dialogue provides us: it demonstrates the jealousy of the wives, the feelings of the children, the strong stance on polygamous marriage that Bill Henrickson has. It is also true of Big Love that viewers are rewarded with ‘long-term accrual of character knowledge’. Watching the final episode of the series after watching the pilot, I actually began to tear up when Bill was dying and looking up at all of his wives. I was able to see from the pilot episode that he had feelings for them all and loved them deeply, and it was truly rewarding to see how far they had come as a family. It would have been even more rewarding had I seen all the problems they had encountered between the first and last episodes as well, I am sure.



So, to answer my original question, Big Love is an HBO branded (and therefore a “quality”) television show. The brand literally does carry ‘baggage’ with it, and works to form the genre along with the show’s specifics. While it shares aspects of soap operas and melodramas, the way in which it blends episodic and serial structuring, as well as its position within the HBO brand leaves it categorised along with other shows of narrative complexity. I would also argue that this is also due to the time in which it was created, as long form complex narratives have been developed and studied at large during the early 21st century.



Michael Kackman, 2010, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’

Jason Mittel, 2009, ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’


What is ‘quality’? Surely our idea of what is good quality TV also depends on our own separate tastes, as explored last week. However, it would appear that ‘quality’ is fast becoming equivalent to the concept of the complex narrative TV show. Jason Mittell states:

“a new form of entertainment has emerged over the past two decades to both critical and popular acclaim. This model of television storytelling is distinct for its use of narrative complexity as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception.” (Mittell, pg. 29).

As discussed in the lecture, this long-form narrative is best encapsulated in HBO productions. We’ve all heard of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and HBO’s famous series, and although not all of these have rated spectacularly, they have all been successful in building up HBO’s reputation and brand image, which Mittell points out is thought of as ‘being more sophisticated than traditional television and thus worthy of a monthly premium’ (Mittell, pg. 31).

In his article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, Mittell makes several arguments about complex narratives.Firstly, he defines what he calls ‘narrative complexity’ as the following:

“At its most basic level, narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration – not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance. Rejecting the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form, narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres.” (Mittell, pg. 32)

So, essentially what I feel he labels narrative complexity is something in between episodic and serial narrative. Each episode can be viewed on its own and has its own ‘mini resolutions’ inclusive, however it also fits into the wider series as part of a larger resolution process. Mittell stresses that it is a ‘shifting balance’ between the two which makes the narrative complex – it ‘is not as uniform and convention driven as episodic or serial norms (in fact, its most defining characteristic might be its unconventionality)’ (Mittell, pg. 30). An example of this is in how TV shows ‘oscillate between long-term arc storytelling and stand-alone episodes’ (pg. 33). Mittell gives the example of The X Files, Buffy and Seinfeld. To give one of my own, Friends operates a bit like this, with each episode viewable on its own, but also tying into the entire series with ongoing in jokes, such as Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break”.

I like that one of Mittell’s firmest arguments is that TV is of a classification of its own, therefore he denies its relation to cinema, and narrative complexity’s tie to “novelistic” television’. By evaluating television on its own as separate from other media, he reveals its truths.

‘Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed,’ (pg. 30) he says. In a way this ties to what a classmate, Lucy, said in her blog on transmedia and webisodes from week 4. Her argument was that just because a popular TV show had an online presence, didn’t mean it was effective as transmedia. Similarly, Mittell highlights that popular shows are not necessarily all that complex, and complex narratives are not necessarily loved by all. I love that he points out:

“…value judgements should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre.” (pg. 30)

I.E. HBO is not the best thing since sliced bread. Personally, I think Game of Thrones is alright, The Wire was rubbish…. dare I go on?!

I find it kind of ironic that we are analyzing TV like this and separating the good quality from the bad quality, when this is essentially what TV does to us as audiences as well. As Brian pointed out in today’s lecture, there can be good quality audiences. Those are the kind of niche audiences that have a lot of disposable income and can invest a lot of time and money into TV shows. This is not the kind of audience member who will watch whatever is on TV, flick through the channels and passively watch their screens, but the kind of person who will pay for the DVD box set of the show and actively engage with it by watching webisodes and talking about it online. These audiences are valuable, much more so than thousands of passive audience members. Mittell calls them a ’boutique audience of more upscale educated viewers who typically avoid television’ (pg. 31).

It is also interesting that Mittell spends a lot of time focusing on audience self-consciousness in narrative complexity. A little too much time even I think?? He paints the audience as incredibly aware and intelligent, suggesting they ‘watch complex programs in part to see “how will they do it?”‘ (pg. 35). The concepts of ‘operational reflexivity’ and ‘operational aesthetic’ also indicate that audience members are concerned with the construction of stories and texts and how they themselves can analyse and engage with them. To suggest that ‘this mode of formally aware viewing is highly encouraged by these programs, as their pleasures are embedded in a level of awareness that transcends the traditional focus on diagetic action typical of most viewers’ (pg. 36), seems a bit extreme to me. I also find it hard to see what kinds of shows are NOT complex. He mentions Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Malcolm in the Middle, which I wouldn’t have really considered to be on the same scale as The Sopranos and such.


Mittel, J. Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. The Velvet Light Trap
Number 58, Fall 2006.