Archive for american tv

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper

 

So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

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U.S. Auto Know Better (Volume 2)

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by Tom Steward

Top Gear in the USA

While you’re enjoying the not-at-all tiresome spectacle of Dick Van Dyke dicking (or dyking) around on roller-skates as part of a major police murder investigation which he has no right to be involved in anyway, I thought I’d do a follow-up to my last blog about Top Gear. This one contains hard evidence of how this ‘Series of Unfortunate Bellends’ catches up with you when you’re an Englishman in the New World, in places you would never possibly expect. It also shows that Top Gear can be prime cultural capital to have in certain situations befacing a border-crossing Briton in and around the US, but only if used judiciously. To the best of my recollection, this is a transcript of a conversation between me and an agent at the border between the Mexico and the USA, having just come back from Tijuana:

(Tom walks up to checkpoint, passport in hand. Agent checks passport)

Agent: So, Top Gear or Fifth Gear?

Tom: Errr, hum, pum, well. Top Gear, I suppose.

Agent: Ah, you like the comedy, huh?

Tom: It’s certainly got that.

Despite my surprise, which evidently turned me into some sort of bumbling British huffer-puffer character in a 40s film played by Nigel Bruce, I couldn’t believe my luck. Instead of tricksy questions about where I’d been, what I’d done, and why the hell I was bothering them, I was being asked about television, something which I have professional expertise in. But this was a double-edged sword. I was about to get ahead of myself.

(Agent winds up ‘interview’. Tom begins to shuffle away)

Tom: They’re changing Top Gear, you know.

Agent: Visibly Alarmed What?!

Tom: They think it’s gotten too comic, so they’ll be less sitcom stuff in it.

Agent: Oh no.

At this point, I’m cursing my own stupidity. Here I had a border agent in the palm of my hand for merely being from the same country as ‘When Bigots Stage Accidents’ and I blow it! Couldn’t just leave it at a few innocuous exchanges, could I? No, I had to provide a production tidbit to bow out on, and then risk an angry border agent who’s just lost his favourite TV show shooting the messenger with extreme prejudice by detaining me forever. He didn’t, and I was on my way. But I’m sure the blow was lightened for him somewhat when this happened mere weeks later:

U.S. Auto Know Better

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

Born in the USA

Posted in BiogTV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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