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Superheroes and TV IV: Possibilities and pitfalls of contemporary television

THE TERM TVIII has been used in television studies to describe the state of television in the 21st century. This third state of television comes after TVI, the origins of the medium in a few broadcast networks whose programming was limited to certain times of day, and after TVII, the period of deregulation and expanded consumer choice in the 1980s and beyond when specialized cable channels emerged and network branding became relevant to attracting an increasingly fragmented audience. TVIII describes the era of television content dispersed across multiple platforms and available on-demand rather than on networks’ schedules.

Back in the very early days of the cultural studies of television, theorist Raymond Williams used the term “flow” to describe what he thought was the defining characteristic of the medium. For Williams, flow captured something unique about television that distinguished it from other visual culture such as film, or other sites of long-form narrative such as print. The concept has been so influential that it provides the name for one of the most influential sites for critical discussion of television. Flow describes the way that networks, in competition for the viewing audience, structure not only the individual episodes and series but seek to hold the audience’s attention for an entire evening of programming. Particular for broadcast networks dependent upon advertising revenue — the state of all television when Williams developed this concept — flow is essential to the value the networks offer to advertisers. They seek to hold your attention across the programming segment, which includes watching the commercials. The specific nature of flow changes as the conditions of production change, and broadcast networks have faced particular challenges in this era of DVRs, streaming sites such as Netflix and hulu, and competition from commercial-free cable networks. Although TVIII thus seemed to spell the end of flow, it has instead meant its reinvention as broadcast networks strive to find ways to sustain their audiences. Some of these changes are perhaps significant enough to announce an era of TV IV.

Marvel is an important player in this shifting landscape. Already dominating the big-screen with its popular superheroes films anchored around the Avengers, it has recently moved into broadcast television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Links between the series and the films strive to gain a crossover audience with frequent references to events from The Avengers film and with cameo appearances of big-screen actors on the small screen. Frequent advertisements for upcoming Marvel films aspire to keep the audience tuned to ABC even during commercial breaks, and this week the show will up the ante once again with the episode “The Well” set in the immediate aftermath of events of Thor: The Dark World. This is an intriguing experiment, capitalizing on the era of transmedia storytelling, and enabling fans to immerse themselves fully in this world with big-screen stories of the major players, and small screen stories of how the blockbuster events of the film are affecting regular people.

Even more intriguing is the recent announcement of four new superhero series to be produced by Netflix in its new deal with Marvel. Like the franchise film success that Marvel has achieved with individual superhero films leading to the Avengers team-up, and then back out again to new individual films, these Netflix series focused on Daredevil, Iron First, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage will culminate in a mini-series event about them joining together to form the Defenders. A number of things make this new enterprise intriguing: first, it suggests ways broadcast networks such as ABC and streaming services such as Netflix could reconfigure their relationship into one of mutual promotion of one another’s titles along the model of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the film franchise rather than continue a relationship of competition for viewers. Second, the heroes chosen for these series suggest promising ways that a larger shared universe of Marvel characters would enable space for something other than the white male heroes dominant in the film franchise. The ABC series already has a more ethnically diverse cast, as I’ve suggested earlier, but the possibilities for the Netflix series are even more intriguing, with one focused on Jessica Jones and another on Luke Cage. Not only would these series be anchored, respectively, around a female and an African American protagonist, but also the origin stories for each of these characters in the comics medium include back stories that comment on the casual sexism and racism of much of that medium’s history.

Another potentially TV IV strategy is the many ways that corporate culture has taken over the spaces that were once the domain of fan cultural production, what Henry Jenkins has called Convergence Culture. Examples of convergence culture include the many ways that websites, webisodes, spin-off comics, and extra-diegetic stories are now created as part of the marking of a series rather than solely created as expressions of fan enthusiasm. AMC is leading the pack in reinventing ways to capture the attention desired in the concept of flow with its use of talk-show series devoted to their most successful titles, ensuring that fans stayed tuned to their station even after an episode has aired. Once again it was a genre series that launched this shift: since its second season, new episodes of The Walking Dead are followed by a talk show devoted to analyzing the episodes as they air, Talking Dead. This year AMC successfully reproduced this format with Talking Bad, devoted to analyzing the final episodes of the most discussed television series at the time, Breaking Bad, which suggests that this relative low-cost way of gaining two hours of viewers based on one-hour of original scripted programming may be more widely reproduced. AMC further strives to keep people from changing the channel with online discussions in its “two-screen experience” — quizzes, extra images, and reminders about previous episodes that interact with the viewer as an episode airs, presumably to keep people too busy to leave the room during commercials.

The youth-oriented network CW, whose brand rapidly seems to be becoming genre television as even its historical teen drama Reign has added a supernatural element, has made the boldest move in these new strategies. Taking one step beyond product placement in an advertising campaign with Ford fiesta, the commercial feature a series of “missions” involving stunts planned using a Ford fiesta, people who aspire to work in the film and television industry brought in to do things such as style an episode or perform a stunt for one of the CW series. Actors from the shows appear in the commercials and the Ford Fiesta proves crucial to their success. The advertising campaign thus promotes both the car and the particular series that is featured in the “mission.” The car advertisement is thus transformed into another kind of entertainment, using narrative to promote self-fulfillment via products in the model of reality programs such as What Not to Where. A partnership between the CW’s superhero series Arrow and Bose takes this one step further in the “episodes” of Blood Rush that screen online and during commercial breaks. A narrative that is similar to fan fiction written to explain what happens in the interstices of a television episode, Blood Rush involves a mission between two minor characters on the series, Felicity and Roy. Like the regular series, the story is released from week to week, with each new episode of Arrow involving a new episode of Blood Rush during one of its commercial breaks. Sponsored by Bose and requiring the use of many Bose products to complete the mission, Blood Rush is not so obviously a commercial as are the Ford Fiesta “missions” but it takes us one step further in blurring the line between advertising and entertainment, product placement becoming the dominant aesthetic.

These various strategies for recapturing the viewing attention described by the concept of flow perhaps presage yet another era of television, in which our attention flows not only across segments from series to commercial to the new series on the same channel, but also across platforms as we flow between scripted drama and scripted advertising, television screen and online screen, broadcast network and streaming site. Whether we should see such developments as promising a richer experience of our chosen narrative worlds, or as a kind of personalized harassment along the lines of a Philip K. Dick story, remains an open question.

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