Legitimating Television – book report

Can highly recommend Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine (Routledge 2012). OK, it’s not about film let alone indie film, but there’s strong continuity between this book and Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture in the focus on discourses through which particular kinds of value are prescribed to texts that to which various notions of ‘quality’ are ascribed. Newman’s work on indie film has paralleled mine in some key respects (including a very similar analysis of the way in which the status of Juno was disputed in some indie discourses, something he examines in Indie and on which I focus in one chapter of Indie 2.0). When he gave a paper on this dimension of Juno at a conference on American independent film at Liverpool a couple of years ago, we both had a sense that the other was picking our academic pocket in some way (I remember Michael suggesting that I must have gained access to his hard drive after I made my contribution as one of the keynotes; I felt the same way!) although we had developed our similar ideas quite independently.

So now I’m starting a book on the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood – something I’ve not yet posted about directly but it was the context of the post on Williams below – and I pick up his book about quality in TV; so we’re both at it again (or, he’s beaten me to it again, if in a different arena). Some of the underlying issues here are very close to what I’m currently working through in the context of Hollywood, so it couldn’t be more timely for me. Studies of the notion of quality in TV – mostly focused on recent or relatively recent American output – aren’t short on the ground, but this is the best I’ve read so far because it really interrogates the concept at various levels. The key argument of the book is that all of the focus on certain privileged quality series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and progenitors such as Hill Street Blues – is predicated on an implied denigration, still, of all of the rest of TV, to which lower cultural status remains ascribed. A strong thread of this book is also devoted to the identification of the extent to which this is rooted particularly in genderized hierarchies through which quality is articulated in terms of ‘masculine’ dimensions that exist in opposition to long-standing conception of ‘ordinary’ TV as essentially ‘feminine’ both in character and dominant assumptions about modes of consumption.

Newman and Levine offer useful background material on notions of ‘golden ages’ in television, followed by an examination of the extent to which the ‘quality’ label is dependent on the identification of ‘auteur’ showrunner figures. Additional text-based chapters focus on distinctions between different forms of sitcom and the extent to which notions of quality can be understood in many cases to be based on the marking of difference from soap opera. The latter is a key point in relation to the gender characteristics attributed to different forms: such differences are asserted, the authors argue here, despite the fact that some key dimensions of the long-form ‘quality’ drama have their roots in daytime serials as much as in the more elevated forms with which they’re usually compared. It is of the ignoring of such links that Newman and Levine are particularly critical and it is in this kind of argument that they go beyond most existing studies of this kind of TV.

In addition to the analysis of particular TV series, and responses to these, they also examine within the same frame a number of broader issues relating to the cultural position of TV, including literally the situation of the set in the domestic or other spheres. A key component of the manner in which TV has been legitimated in recent years, Newman and Levine suggest, is through the changing image of the television set itself, in its recent ‘high-tech’ flatscreen HD incarnation. They chart here a shift into a ‘masculine’ sphere of technology and ‘mastery’ that mirrors the gender characteristics attributed to quality TV texts themselves. The same goes for their understanding of new modes of consumption, particularly those that permit more active agency on the part of the viewer, from the advent to VHS to DVD and DVR, and the discourses through which such technologies have been advertised.

The final chapter turns their attention to the role of academia in contributing to these various dimensions of legitimation – in the constitution of TV studies as a discipline in its own right (not entirely solidly established as yet) and through academic studies of quality TV, many of which, as they suggest, remain implicated in the same hierarchies of taste and value as those articulated in broader cultural discourses. It’s excellent stuff throughout, to the credit of both authors. I’m glad to see that Newman’s now researching a project relating to videogames, as that’s not somewhere I’m going anytime soon (although I have co-authored a book on the subject in the past). Please, Michael, don’t tell me you’re currently also writing about notions of quality in relation to Inception

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