what i watched last week
#10: performance (donald cammell and nicolas roeg, 1970)

watching television

Jonathan Sterne has an excellent piece on Flow, “Formatted to Fit Your Screen”, that examines the difference between how we watch television, and how we talk about watching television:

For most of the medium’s history, watching television meant watching a television, a sensibility still well-established in practical reason and everyday conversation. But of course, this is no longer the case. We now live in an in-between moment, when it is possible for educated and thoughtful people to spend many hours of their lives watching television shows and yet not think of themselves as watching television.

Jonathan doesn’t spend much time here talking about specific content. He addresses the changing ways we watch television, suggesting many areas fruitful for further analysis. About YouTube, he writes, “what inside the text ontologically separates shorts made for YouTube from television shorts on YouTube?”

Besides enjoying the article and learning much from it, I also, as always, found myself thinking about it in relation to my own television watching (or better, my own writing about television). My friend Charlie often notes that my analysis of texts relies a lot on interpretations of narrative. I am, you could say, a rather old-fashioned literary critic, perhaps best exemplified by my dissertation, where I took texts (hard-boiled detective novels) that were so lacking in traditional, canonical literary value that it was assumed I’d take some kind of cultural approach to the works. Instead, I treated them like any other piece of literature, even devoting an entire chapter to a close reading of Mickey Spillane.

Similarly, Jonathan’s piece, looking at television as a technology, as a format, as a cultural institution, gets at important angles that I tend to neglect when I say “boy, Emmy Rossum sure is good in Shameless.”

Obviously, the way I watch television now is different from how I watched it in 1962. I have my big-screen TV, which is always my first choice for TV viewing. The Blu-ray player is connected to the TV, and Blu-ray is my preferred medium for watching. If it’s a TV show that my wife and I both watch, and it’s not particularly interesting in a visual or audio sense (think House), I’ll watch downstairs on “her” TV, which is a smaller HDTV with no external speakers. When we spend time in bed at the end of the day “winding down” (what she does … I’ve still got a couple of hours in me), instead of reading a book less taxing than whatever scholarly text I’m taking on, I’ll watch an old TV series on my Kindle Fire (right now, I’m in the middle of Season Two of Brotherhood, a Showtime series I missed out on). When we went to Hawaii last fall (pre-Kindle Fire), I passed the time watching Season One of Battlestar Galactica on my smartphone. And, like everyone else, I spend a lot of time watching videos online. (I’d detail my 1962 viewing habits for comparison, but they were pretty standard: one TV for a family of 7, three broadcast networks to choose from, B&W, with an antenna atop the house to get the stations.)

The point here is that I don’t often talk about the technology or the format, and I spend less time doing cultural analysis than I might expect from myself. No, I talk about the writing and the acting. I focus on showrunners, because they are the most influential people these days (if I define “influential” by thinking only of creative talent). I accept that certain genres do nothing for me. But I don’t generally address the “conditions of production and circulation” that Jonathan discusses in his essay. The closest I come is when I talk about the different levels of freedom allowed to pay cable, basic cable, and broadcast networks. But even then, I come at the topic mostly through narrative … I’m a verbose version of those warnings before shows. There usually aren’t any for broadcast TV, basic cable shows like Sons of Anarchy get Viewer Discretion Advised announcements along with details like “contains disturbing violence and sexual situation”, and pay cable gets “contains extreme violence” (HBO) and “nudity, nudity, and more nudity” (Showtime). Steven Rubio’s Online Life tells you how they manage to fit that violence and nudity (or lack of same) into a series.

Beyond my apparently ingrained need to see things through the narrative lens, what it comes down to is that, despite my academic background, my writing on television resembles TV critics like Alan Sepinwall, Mo Ryan, or Tim Goodman more than it does academics who study communications. While I’ve had a few pieces in academic anthologies, the most common place to find my published writing on television is via Smart Pop Books, where I had half-a-dozen essays in the last several years.

Perhaps this all relates to this blog’s guiding quote from Pauline Kael, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” When you read my thoughts on television, what you’re really getting is my memoirs. That leaves a lot of room for substantial analysis of the kind you can find at places like Flow on a regular basis. I read a lot of that kind of analysis, and hand out the +1’s and Likes as often as anyone. But the things that inspire me to write a blog post tend to be the ones where I get to write about myself.

Meanwhile, you really need to read Jonathan’s essay. Take my word for it.