In John Caldwell’s essay for this week, he identifies various examples across networks and programs of “stunt” episodes on television. These stunt episodes exist largely as a means of creating a televised “event,” designed to spike ratings and therefore justify charging advertisers higher rates during key months of the year (February, May, and November). Caldwell—in one of his many enumerations—outlines two aims of these stunt episodes: to showcase/celebrate TV production culture, and to further update the relationship between that production culture and its audience.
Caldwell sees stunting as a practice in sync with the “made by committee,” pitch-driven program development of television in that they encourage stylistic hybridization. However, while he is rather dubious of the causes and effects of pitch-driven programming, I do not find him quite as critical about stunting. Rather, he identifies stunting as an effective business model to both attract larger audiences and push the boundaries of television aesthetics and stylization. His examples range across genres, from half-hour multi-cams to David E. Kelley soaps to Xena: Warrior Princess.
However, like Amalia talked about in her post in the Jenkins reading for the week, I am particularly interested in the way programs are today becoming more and more referential. I do not think this is fan-dictated, per se, but rather fan-engaged. As an example, shows like 30 Rock, Community, and The Office (US) built this referentiality into their diegesis. 30 Rock had multiple stunt episodes focused on Queen of Jordan, the reality show within a show starring Tracy’s wife Angie. This program was parodic of the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo (Bravo, of course, is owned by NBC, the network that housed 30 Rock). The Office, in a stealthily gratuitous example of product placement, built an episode around the Dunder Mifflin employees taking long breaks to play the game Call of Duty all under the guise of “team building.” Community, once NBC lost hope the program would ever gain more than a cult following and let Dan Harmon off his leash (for a time), essentially became a pop-culture-of-the-week sitcom, with each episode built around a different media text.
This level of referentiality is, like I said, a reward for savvy fans, though I am hesitant to give primary attribution to audiences. Rather, I think these programs are the culmination of many, many years of stunt episodes that allow showrunners to craft program concepts around this referentiality.