Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Core Post 2: the Status Quo vs Niche TV

In “Television as a Cultural Form,” Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch put forward a cultural basis for television analysis. This cultural view sees television as a distillation of public thought, wherein questions and discussions about popular problems of the day are asked, but not answered (564). They then suggest a forum model for analysis, placing each show in the context of the shows around it so that discussion is generated not only by the content of the individual shows but also by the contrast of shows in a TV night, day, or week.

When analyzing network television, this is a model that holds up surprisingly well. ABC’s Scandal, for instance had an episode on March 5, 2015 called “The Lawn Chair” which touched on Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement with a story about a protest that starts after a black man is shot by a cop. As foreseen by Newcomb and Hirsch, Scandal backed away from an ending that landed firmly on the side of the protesters or the police; the killer cop was revealed to be racist and corrupt, so the police force disowned him and the protesters were mollified.

Zooming out from the individual episode of Scandal, the show was scheduled as part of TGIT, three shows executive produced by showrunner Shonda Rhimes. On the night of March 5, the episode of Scandal was sandwiched between an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a show lauded for its diverse cast which nevertheless focused primarily on its white characters’ problems, and a rerun of How to Get Away with Murder, the Viola Davis-headed show that features people of color and LGBTQ characters even more prominently. Looking at Thursday night from this level, the dominance of Shondaland can be seen as one successful example of burgeoning diversity in representation and plotlines. Though if we zoom out even farther, we see that the rest of ABC’s programming is still primarily white and male, Shondaland’s Thursday night dominance being the exception rather than the rule.

This mode of cultural analysis sits more precariously when we look towards cable and online television, though. The latest season of Orphan Black (BBC America) and Jessica Jones (Netflix), both of which are scifi shows with online fanbases, recently tackled rape culture. In both cases, the male villains had nonconsensual sex with women, leading to serious repercussions. Rather than generating a discussion of these issues or approaching it from multiple sides - in this case, the side of the rapist - both shows portrayed their female heroines defeating the villain and making him atone for his sins. Both shows eschew discussion for a clear message: rape culture is dangerous and prevalent. I wonder if their new mode of distribution explains why. Both shows appeal to niche audiences (cable and online), so they don’t have to appease the status quo. A more directed focus, not only in content but also in message, may be what differentiates our burgeoning niche TV culture from the mass appeal broadcast culture of the past.

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