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Visual Storytelling and Screen Culture

Jeremy G. Butler

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eBook - ePub


Visual Storytelling and Screen Culture

Jeremy G. Butler

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About This Book

For over two decades, Television has served as the foremost guide to television studies, offering readers an in-depth understanding of how television programs and commercials are made and how they function as producers of meaning. Author Jeremy G. Butler shows the ways in which camera style, lighting, set design, editing, and sound combine to produce meanings that viewers take away from their television experience.

Highlights of the fifth edition include:

  • An entirely new chapter by Amanda D. Lotz on television in the contemporary digital media environment.
  • Discussions integrated throughout on the latest developments in screen culture during the on-demand era—including the impact of binge-watching and the proliferation of screens (smartphones, tablets, computer monitors, etc.).
  • Updates on the effects of new digital technologies on TV style.

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Part I

Television Structures and Systems

1 An Introduction to Television Structures and Systems

Ebb and Flow in the Network Era

Television is dead. According to various pundits, it was killed by cable TV and the VCR in the 1980s; by the Internet and video games in the 1990s; by Netflix, TiVo, and the iPod in the 2000s; and by smartphones and the iPad in the 2010s.
Considering its multiple deaths, television’s corpse is remarkably active. The “television household universe,” to use a TV-rating term, still contains 118.4 million homes in the United States—accounting for 96 percent of all U.S. households.1 Perhaps surprisingly, the number of TV households has actually increased during most of the twenty-first century—dipping during 2010 to 2013 but then resuming its growth.2 And upwards of 20 million Americans continue to watch TV’s most popular recurring programs on conventional broadcast networks each week. This dwarfs the numbers that go see a particular movie, play a video game, check out individual videos on YouTube or Netflix, or stream a movie to a cell phone. Despite assaults on their primacy, broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, and PBS—and cable/satellite networks—ESPN, AMC, USA, Lifetime, TNT, HBO, and so on—are not prepared to concede defeat. Television remains the principal medium through which most people obtain visual entertainment and information and through which advertisers reach the largest audiences.
Yet, there is no denying that overall viewership is declining precipitously, television-viewing habits are changing rapidly, and advertisers are getting very nervous. While the number of TV viewers remains enormous, it is dropping quickly as viewers find other screens—principally, of their digital devices—more compelling. Advertisers are particularly anxious about new technologies that grant viewers increased control over programming. The remote control and VCR were just the beginning of this trend. TiVo and other digital video recorders (DVRs), as well as video-on-demand (VOD) services streamed via the Internet, not only let viewers time-shift programs; they also permit the pausing and rewinding of live broadcasts and fast-forwarding through commercials. And Internet-distributed television supports both time-shifting and location-shifting as viewers can watch Walking Dead while commuting on a bus instead of parked on their living room couch, tuned into the AMC channel at 10:00 p.m. Sundays.
What does all this mean for the study of television? Is a book such as the one you’re holding useless and outdated? Obviously, we do not think so. As Lynn Spigel writes in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition,
[W]hile mutated in form television remains a central mode of information and entertainment in our present-day global culture, and it appears that it will continue to do so for many years to come. Understanding what is new about the medium thus demands an understanding of both its past and present.3
To this end, we begin our study of television with a consideration of the medium’s structure circa 2018, which still greatly resembles how it has worked for the past 60 years. This is an “age of uncertainty” for television, however.4 And so Amanda D. Lotz will offer some thoughts on the impact of Internet-delivered TV in the next chapter. It is inaccurate, however, to assume that Internet-delivered TV has wholly replaced network-era television. We are not yet in a post-network era, as some scholars have suggested. Once the dust settles after this current stage of upheaval, it may even be that network-era TV and other legacy media survive as choices among a profusion of other options. After all, in the 1950s television usurped many of radio’s functions (and a lot of its advertising revenue), but radio persists in various forms in the present day. Fortunately, most of the analytical methods in the following chapters may be easily adapted to whatever form television takes in the future.

Television’s Not-So-Distant Past: The Network Era

“Network-era television” refers to that time, in the not-so-distant past, when television broadcasting in the U.S. operated through a system in which three networks dominated general programming. Over the years, the number of networks multiplied—exploding to dozens of channels in the 1980s, with the widespread acceptance of cable and satellite delivery. For the sake of convenience, we will initially lump together TV shows that originate on over-the-air (a.k.a. “terrestrial”) broadcast networks with those that come into our home via cable and satellite systems. Viewers born in the 1980s and after likely grew up receiving both broadcast networks and cable-originating channels from cable and satellite distribution services such as Comcast and DirecTV, respectively. Although the rules governing broadcast networks and the nature of their businesses are very different from cable channels, they are all based on the idea of “casting” a single program at a time toward their viewers and attempting to entice those viewers to tune in while that broadcasting is actually happening. Programs are pushed toward viewers, and the viewers then decide whether to accept the networks’ invitations to watch at a particular time. Internet-distributed TV, in contrast, is where an individual viewer seeks a show and then pulls it toward them—on-demand, whenever they wish. Within the television industry, these two types of viewer experiences are known as linear and nonlinear television. The former consists of programs broadcast toward viewers at a specific time and as part of an ordered schedule of other individual programs—one after another, as in a line. The latter denotes programming that is acquired with no regard for the order in which it was provided on VOD services such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu.
The principles behind linear television are illuminated by the program guides displayed in cable/satellite user interfaces and printed in newspapers and magazines such as TV Guide. These venues find it convenient to represent the television schedule as a spreadsheet-like grid. In most of them, the channels run vertically down the left side of the grid, while half-hour time slots run horizontally along the top. (Table 1.1 shows one such grid—limited to over-the-air, linear channels—for a typical Sunday evening in November 2016.) The reasoning behind this array is obvious. At a glance, we can fix our location in the grid, noting the axis of channel (say, channel 9) and the axis of time (say, 7:00). After figuring that location, we can quickly see what will follow the current program in linear time (horizontal) and what is happening on other channels at that same time (vertical). Interactive, on-screen grids provided by Comcast, DirecTV, et al. also allow us to scroll horizontally and vertically to explore our current and upcoming options.
Grids such as these may help us understand the basic structure of network-era TV and the current experience of today’s linear television. Most listings emphasize programming time slots as much as the individual programs themselves. Television programs are positioned by network programmers and experienced by viewers as one program within a linear sequence of other programs in an ongoing series of timed segments. Further, programs are also associated—potentially linked—with other programs by their shared time slot. During the time that a television set is on in American households—over five hours per day, on average—we are carried along in the horizontal current of linear television time, flowing from one bit of TV to the next. Equally important, we may move vertically from one channel to another, creating associations among concurrent programs. A listing grid depicts visually these two axes of television’s structure: sequence (one thing after another) and association (connections among simultaneous programs).
We begin with this brief consideration of program listings because it illustrates the fundamental principle of network-era television’s linear structure. As Raymond Williams first argued in 1974, television differs crucially from other art forms in its blending of disparate units of narrative, information, and advertising into a never-ending flow of television.5 Although we often talk of watching a single television program as if it were a separate discrete entity, during the network era we more commonly simply watched television. The set was on. Programs, advertisements, and announcements came and went (horizontal axis). Mere fragments of programs, advertisements, and announcements flashed by as we switched channels (vertical axis). We stayed on the couch, drawn into the virtually ceaseless flow. We watched television as television more than we sought a specific television program. Or, at least, that is how TV watching worked during the peak of the network era and how linear TV can still work in numerous situations today. The pursuit of flow underpins linear networks’ programming of similar programs in succession—as when ABC scheduled four comedies in a row for Tuesday and Wednesday nights during the 2017–18 season. Many viewers—especially older viewers accustomed to network-era television—continue to experience linear TV flow in their homes, and TV sets in public spaces such as restaurants, doctors’ waiting rooms, and airport lounges flow programming in the direction of their captive audiences. As we’ll see in the next chapter, DVRs and Internet-distributed VOD TV challenge and disrupt this essential concept of flow, but its conventions refuse to be eliminated entirely.
The maintenance of television flow dominates nearly every aspect of the structures and systems of network-era television and its descendants. It determines how stories will be told, how advertisements will be constructed, and even how television’s visuals will be designed. Every chapter of this book will account in one way or another for the consequences of television flow. Before we start, however, we need to note three of this principle’s general ramifications:
  1. polysemy
  2. interruption
  3. segmentation.

Polysemy, Heterogeneity, Contradiction

Many critics of television presume that it speaks with a single voice, that it broadcasts meanings from a single perspective. Sometimes television’s significance becomes part of a national debate. During the 1992 presidential election campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle repeatedly advocated a return to traditional “family values,” an ideologically loaded term for conservative beliefs about the family. In one frequently discussed speech he singled out the TV pregnancy of an unwed sitcom mother—Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen)—as indicative of television’s assault on the family. He claimed she was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”6 For Quayle, the meanings presented on TV had systematically and unambiguously undermined the idea of the conventional nuclear family: father, mother, and correct number of children; the father working and the mother caring for children in the home; no divorce; no sex outside of marriage; and no single or gay parenthood. The phrase “family values” quickly became a rallying cry for conservatives, and today, over twenty years later, it is still invoked by right-wing politicians such as Sarah...

Table of contents