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Newman, UW-Milwaukee Console-ing Passions April 2008, Santa Barbara, CA We might think of the upscaling of American television in the post-network era in two distinct but related senses. In the first, upscaling is a product of market fragmentation. This should be understood in terms of the audience’s class: shows like Mad Men and channels like HBO successfully appeal to an affluent niche. Not surprisingly, this has raised TV in cultural status, especially among cultural élites. Thus the recent proclamations in the pages of the New York Times and its ilk that television is in a Golden Age and is essential for cultural literacy.1 As Christopher Anderson writes, television is increasingly being considered from an aesthetic disposition, and artistic and social status tend to follow one another.2 But a second sense of upscaling, which is more centrally the topic of this paper, refers to the aesthetics of the television text, and in particular the forms of TV typically considered in aesthetic terms: prime-time comedies and dramas. One way of making TV appeal to an upscale consumer has been to upgrade conventions of production, visual style and storytelling. Or more precisely, to create an impression of an upgrade, through textual strategies but also rhetorically, through contextual discourses like comments writers and producers make to reporters and in supplementary features on DVD. All together, these constitute an effort at the cultural legitimation of television. When an artform rises in status, it often does so by positioning itself in relation to other legitimated or delegitimated ones, as photography once did by aligning itself with painting, and as cinema once did by contrasting itself against TV.3 Central to television’s upscaling, both textual and contextual, is an association between certain kinds of TV and
2 cinema, and also between more and less legitimated kinds of TV. For instance, critics and TV industry professionals often say that The Sopranos was as good as anything at the multiplex. By routinely making a cinematic analogy, television culture has been working to legitimate the medium and improve its status. Two developments of the past decade have been especially important in this regard: the move toward widescreen television images and the fashion for single-camera comedies. In both cases, technological, economic, and cultural forces have all contributed to the cinematization of television. The move toward widescreen TV must be seen within a number of contexts. One is technology: television programming shot on film or high-def video can be framed in a number of aspect ratios, most commonly the 4:3 of NTSC and the 16:9 of HDTV. Actually most programming shot today for 16:9 is also “protected” for 4:3, meaning that the production is framing for multiple aspect ratios. Another context is economic: television producers since the late 90s have seen the 16:9 framing as “protecting their future” (i.e., producing content for eventual syndication and DVD sales at a time when the 16:9 set is standard) while appealing to a desirable audience. Within the culture of TV production, many creatives (directors, cinematographers) prefer to shoot widescreen because this aspect ratio is closer to that of contemporary films. Indeed, the 16x9 HD frame was designed to fit widescreen films on TV (ironic, since Hollywood adopted widescreen to distinguish its image from television’s) and is always promoted as more movie-like. Within the culture of TV consumption, many viewers prefer to see widescreen images that fill their new 16x9 sets. But the distinction between squarish 4:3 and widescreen 16:9 is one centrally defined as a contest of connotations: the old, boxy image is televisual; the new, expansive one is cinematic. Cinematic here means classy,
3 artistic, and sophisticated. Although there is nothing inherently better or worse about either ratio, in the discourse surrounding the move to widescreen TV, one rarely hears a kind word about 4:3. Widescreen TV images appeared in the U.S. before the wide adoption of widescreen TV sets, spurred by the popularizing of letterboxed movie images on DVD. ER was in its seventh season in November, 2000, when it became NBC’s first program to air in a widescreen aspect ratio, with horizontal black stripes along the top and bottom of the standard-definition picture.4 In describing the difference between the conventional 4:3 frame and the wider frame within the frame, the Washington Post’s Tom Shales explained that many viewers would be familiar with the new format from watching widescreen movies on DVD, laser disc, and VHS. (The black stripes would not appear on HD sets, which few viewers owned in 2000 but which promised to become increasingly popular within a few years.) Shales made clear an aesthetic preference for the wider ratio, asserting that it “is more satisfying and compelling to the eye, perhaps simply because it’s closer to the human field of vision.” 5 ER was not the first television show to switch to a widescreen format for broadcasting. It was preceded by a number of programs, including The X-Files, which aired an episode in 1998 with split-screen and other sequences in widescreen evoking the visual style of its cinematic spin-off of that summer.6 Even if some were not yet familiar with widescreen video versions of movies, television viewers at the turn of the millennium were certainly becoming familiar with the letterbox look from advertising and music videos.7 In 1999, Advertising Age described the letterbox as advertising’s “look du jour” and explained its appeal by evoking associations with foreign,
4 independent, and “important” films. One of the main motivations, agency creatives say, is that it makes their work more “cinematic” -- that is, it imbues the spot with the look and feel of a feature film.8 In all of these examples, letterboxing is motivated by a connection between the shape and framing of the image and the quality of the content. Even as some kinds of programming were going widesceen, the vast majority of TV shows at time—talk, news, sports, sitcoms, cartoons—were filling the traditional 4:3 frame, and letterboxing was a way of distinguishing quality programs from the rest of the schedule. The emergence of widescreen television was part of a larger phenomenon of rising public awareness of aspect ratios and the desirability of their preservation in transfer of films to video. The introduction of DVDs into the American market in 1997 was attended by considerable publicity and promotion touting the advantages of the new technology. DVD “extras” would often include commentaries, like laser discs. In many ways, the DVD format allowed for the spread of the laser disc’s mode of appreciative consumption beyond its devoted cinephile and technophile audience. This included the discursive construction of the letterboxed image more common on DVD than VHS as culturally distinguished and aesthetically superior. Thus the televisual adoption of letterboxing—especially for shows addressed at upper- and middle-class, adult, male viewers—functions ideologically, privileging masculine and upscale tastes. Around the same time that 16x9 TV sets were becoming widely available to consumers, television productions started to shift toward more widescreen compositions, though networks were exceedingly cautious about airing widescreen images in standard
5 definition broadcasts. It became a norm in quality TV production to frame for multiple ratios to give the network options. Cinematographers and television showrunners alike tended to prefer widescreen, but networks were reluctant to letterbox. The Sopranos aired fullframe at first until David Chase prevailed upon HBO to letterbox the series.9 HBO’s viewer surveys had convinced them that the audience was opposed to letterboxing in 1999; perhaps that had changed by 2001.10 Alias, which debuted in 2001, was framed in 16:9 but broadcast in 4:3. Everyone involved behind-the-scenes in making the show, from editors to network executives, watched its rough cuts and final masters in a letterbox format, but the home audience saw a squarish frame because ABC would not air a widescreen version.11 Similarly, creatives on quality dramas of the period like Felicity, The West Wing, and Boston Public advocated for widescreen composition but were constrained by their networks from doing so out of a fear of annoying and alienating consumers.12 Bob Zitter, an HBO Vice-President, told Variety in 2001 that “People don’t like smaller pictures.”13 Those shows that did air with the black bands were the ones successful enough to risk turning some viewers off, and also those with an audience deemed sophisticated enough to understand the upscale significance of widescreen. Jeff Zucker said that NBC could get away with a letterboxed ER because the show is “in a class by itself.”14 John Wells (its showrunner), said letterboxing marked his program as classy and distinguished, an effect that contemporaneous advertising achieved using the same device.15 (Aside here on the “shoot-and-protect” multiple aspect ratio framing, illustrated by the two frames from the first season: the point is, there is nothing inherently more or less artistic about either one; it’s more a matter of connotation.) The West Wing began to
6 air letterboxed in 2001, as did Angel. It is significant here that it is not just the composition of the image in a different shape that marks the improvement in status, but the legitimating reshaping of the television frame with black bands, an effect more noticeable to most viewers, implying a deficiency in 4:3 sets as a technology. The letterbox, now familiar from DVDs, carried cultural legitimacy. Around the same time that TV drama was going wide, another genre of quality programming was upscaling in its own way, also abetted by the discourse of cinematization. Beginning around 2000, the situation comedy showed changes in some of its most basic conventions, even as it suffered declines in the Nielsen ratings. The traditional sit-com since I Love Lucy had followed a fairly set format: a three-wall set; multiple cameras recording film or tape in front of a live audience who laugh and applaud; a theatrical style of performance punctuating the dramatic progression with entrances and exits; and humor relying on a pattern of setup-punchline, verbal wit, and often physical comedy. Shows like Malcolm in the Middle, the lone new hit sitcom of the 2000 season, would reject many of these conventions and prove that a single-camera show could succeed on a network.16 (Others over the course of the decade would include Arrested Development, Scrubs, and 30 Rock; Wikipedia lists nearly 100 of these, most from the 2000s.17) In place of the live audience (or laugh track), single-camera comedies punctuate their humor with aggressive musical cues and use voice-over narration, often ironically. By filming in four-wall sets with a single camera, these programs can shoot from more angles and can more easily insert frequent cuts to goofy subjective sequences, like flashbacks and fantasies. (In Scrubs, JD imagines being greeted as he enters the hospital as though he were a pimp, and we cut to a quick “punch-in” shot literalizing his
7 fantasy; in 30 Rock, Tracy’s old novelty hit “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” is made into more than just a verbal joke when we get six seconds of a music video punched in, a technique unthinkable in a traditional show like All in the Family.) Some of these new sitcoms break the fourth wall, as when Malcolm addresses the camera directly and when the characters in The Office give their mock interviews. The TV industry and the critical establishment seized on the distinction between traditional, multi-camera sitcoms and the new, single-camera sitcoms as one not only of stylistic progress and innovation (despite the existence of single-camera shows for decades) but also of preferring a more culturally legitimate alternative—and one deemed cinematic. Invariably in descriptions of single-camera shows, cast members, producers, network executives, and journalists explain the style as being “like a movie”: each shot has its own setup and the shooting schedule is thus longer and complexified. Greg Garcia, the creator of My Name is Earl, makes clear this logic: “We try to give it a look that feels more like an independent feature film. To the extent that we’re successful doing that, it feels like a movie rather than a TV show.” Making clear that the single-camera style is not merely an alternative to the traditional sitcom, but a rejection of its premises, Garcia says, “It’s a comedy that comes out of character and not out of a set-up and a punchline.”18 Using editing and music to signal humor is deemed more cinematic than using verbal jokes and pratfalls, and perhaps the stylistic departure most welcome within the discourse of upscaling television is the absence of a laugh track. The explanation for this is always put in terms of respect for the audience, which is complimented for being smart enough not to need to be told when to laugh.19
8 However, the putative sophistication of the single-camera sitcom audience may also be the obstacle to these shows breaking through in the ratings. Two and a Half Men, a traditional multi-camera show, has been a hit for CBS, but no single-camera program has approached its ratings. The sitcoms that win accolades and awards tend to be singlecamera shows, including premium cable programs. Since 1999, a number of singlecamera shows have won the outstanding comedy Emmy, including Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, Arrested Development, The Office and 30 Rock. Industry professionals believe that critics tend to favor single-camera shows because of their preference the sophisticated; their role demands discernment and fashionable taste; it is probably harder for a multi-camera pilot to get a positive review. According to industry conventional wisdom, audiences generally are not aware of a stylistic difference between traditional and new sitcom styles, and yet large audiences still seem more likely to find the traditional style appealing. The single-camera shows are constructed within contextual discourses as edgy and smart, but as Variety reported in 2007, “edgy may find critics, but it often struggles to build an aud of significant size.”20 A similar distinction between multi-camera shows as “mass” and single-camera shows as “class” obtains in the creative side of the industry as well, as cinematographers, directors, and many actors claim to prefer shooting “like a movie.” For the cinematographers, single-camera shooting allows for more careful lighting and allows them to avoid the flat, even illumination that multi-camera shooting demands.21 The look of a single-camera comedy is typically still bright, colorful, even cartoonish, but the possibilities of expression in this style appeal more to the aspirations of craft professionals whose identities depend on displaying technical skill and artistry. The budgets are higher for
9 single-camera shows and the shooting schedules longer and more complicated, and more like the typical feature film shoot than a live-to-film TV production. Like the move toward widescreen images, the cinematization of TV comedy is the product of a number of contextual forces. The economics of the post-network industry allows for programming to target niche audiences, including upscale demographics. The culture of consumption on DVRs and DVDs affords a kind of ultraclever comedy that encourages repeat viewing. High-def video cameras and digital postproduction make shooting more footage in more setups than sitcoms traditionally would affordable and manageable. But one thing these two developments share is their mobilization of aesthetic signifiers to cultivate modalities of taste. As Bourdieu argues, taste preferences require the negation of distastes, of rejected styles unworthy of the status pursued by the taste culture.22 In both of my examples, the elevation of one aesthetic comes at the expense of another. Widescreen is the enemy of fullscreen, just as single-cam is the antidote to multi-cam. In elevating some television to the level of the cinematic, the discourse of recent and contemporary American TV requires the presence of the traditionally televisual as a negated Other, a mark against which to judge itself.
Alessandra Stanley, “You Are What You Watch,” New York Times (23 September 2007); Heather Havrilesky, “TV’s Golden Age,” Salon (21 August 2006), http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/2006/08/21/golden_age/ ; James Poniewozik, “JP Radio: Say It Loud: I Watch TV and I’m Proud” Tuned In (27 September 2007), http://timeblog.com/tuned_in/2007/09/jp_radio_say_it_loud_i_watch_t.html.
Christopher Anderson, “Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television,” in Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones, eds., The Essential HBO Reader (Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2008), 23-41. 3 Richard Christopherson, “From Folk Art to Fine Art: A Transformation in the Meaning of Photographic Work,” Urban Life and Culture 3 (1974), 123-57; Shyon Baumann, Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007).
This episode was “The Visit,” originally aired 16 November 2000.
Tom Shales, “Vital Signs: ‘ER’ Still Full of Life” Washington Post (16 November 2000), C01. Bill Carter, “’X-Files’ Tries to Keep Its Murky Promise,” New York Times (7 November 1998), B7.
MTV videos were often letterboxed in the 1990s. Ann Sherber, “Letterboxing Spreads Its Horizons Studios Find Growing Acceptance Of Format” Billboard (25 January 1997). See for instance, Beck’s video for “Devil’s Haircut” (1997), available online http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG3sS8RBdms (accessed 28 April 2008).
Anthony Vagnoni, “Out of the Box” Advertising Age 70 (8 November 1999). John Dempsey, “Letterboxing format a d.p.’s delight” Variety (18 April 2001).
Eric Rudolph, “Mob Psychology,” American Cinematographer 80 (October 1999), 62-4.
Jean Oppenheimer, “Espionage 101,” American Cinematographer 83 (November 2002), 84-9.
Stephanie Argy, “Big City Girl,” American Cinematographer 80 (February 1999), 76-8; Jean Oppenheimer, “The Halls of Power,” American Cinematographer 81 (October 2000), 74-83; Dempsey (n. xx).
Eriq Gardner, “Open Wide: Why The Sopranos and ER Put Those Black Bands Across Your Screen,” Slate (6 February 2002), http://www.slate.com/id/2061664/.
Bernard Weintraub, “The ‘Malcolm’ Sensibility: New Sitcom’s Early Success May Spawn Host of Imitators” New York Times (24 January 2000).
Wikipedia, “List of single-camera sitcoms” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_singlecamera_sitcoms.
Deborah Eckerling, “The Small Screen: My Name is Earl” Scr(i)pt (January/February 2007), 76-81. For an example listen to the DVD commentary track on the pilot episode of Malcolm in the Middle. Nicole Laporte, “Why Don’t Smart Comedies Build Big Audiences?” Variety (12 June 2007). Jon Silberg, “Making Sitcoms ‘Sexy,’” American Cinematographer 89 (March 2008), 58-65.
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 56.
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