January 9, 2007
Is Serial Programming a Format or a Genre? Slippery Language in the Popular Press

The New York Times is the latest authority to chime in on the controversy of the Fall 2006 television lineup, as people still debate about complex television and the failure of some of the new shows this fall.

By this point, I find that so much of the negativity surrounding seriality has become the way the failure of these various shows have been covered in the popular press, particularly in considering serial programming a genre. That's the language used by reporter Edward Wyatt in this story. After first calling serial programming a "format," he later writes, "All of which has left some fans of the genre wondering whether it is worth committing to untested new serials, or better to wait and see if a new series will be around for more than a few weeks."

That raises an interesting question. Serial programming is not new. Maybe there is a particular bent of serial programming to this new format, but the idea of storylines that connect from week-to-week has helped drive narrative interest in some shows for a long time now. But, to me, the serial format is a mode of storytelling, not a genre of story, at least not in the sense television genres are usually discussed in.

What we have here is a question about genre and how it fits in with form versus content. The problem here in general is this discussion of a genre that seems to be failing to gain attention, but one source points out in the story that more shows in general are serialized this year and that the fact that some of them failed obscures the fact that most TV shows fail every year and that this is no more of a trend than usual. That source, Jeffrey D. Bader from ABC Entertainment pointed to the success of new series like Heroes on NBC, Jericho on CBS, and Brothers & Sisters on ABC as all shows who have a serial format and who are not just surviving but could be considered "working," in his language.

Jason Mittell recently discussed the phenomenon ofunmotivated complexity, in which shows use the serial format in a way that attempts to make the subject matter more complex than it really is, referring to The Nine and the way it reveals what happened in the bank but shows it in flashbacks for no reasons, since all of the characters should have known what happens. In other words, there's no logical reason to obstruct those facts other than to make the show complex.

Meanwhile, this article points out that these shows often assume readers should care about characters before they actually do, such as having a character kidnapped in the first episode without really having an emotional connection with that character. In other words, seriality is not enough to make a show good. In each of these retelling of the stories, it seems that the "truth" hits in the middle of the story, while the popular thrust still seems to be, "We thought these shows would work, but obviously people just don't have the time for these complex shows." Of course that's true, but to borrow a phrase from Lynn Liccardo in a recent comment here on the site, it's treating "seriality" as a genre (which I don't think it is in the first place) that has a "zero sum game," in which there is only a set number of serial television viewers and they are all competing for those same viewers. Why can't it just be that these shows didn't have the complexity to connect with viewers. By this, I mean not narrative complexity, which they obviously had, but perhaps they lack psychological or moral or emotional complexity, to borrow a phrase from Dr. David Thorburn here at MIT. In other words, there are many ways to look at "complexity," and the way the demise of some of these shows has happened indicates a narrowing of the meaning of that word.

I think the same issue is happening with daytime television, which I continue to have problems with the way in which all these discussions of seriality overlook the nine shows on daytime that have used this format for years or even many decades in some cases. For soap operas, the problem is again a confusion with form and content, so that people start believing that these shows, because they use a serial form, are all a part of the same genre of content, which is not necessarily true. The problem is that even the people in the industry believe it at this point, so that dramas that would supposedly be set in the workplace--General Hospital; dramas about the rich and famous--The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful; dramas about the spectacular and the supernatural, such as Passions and Days of Our Lives; and shows about the real lives of regular people, like As the World Turns and One Life to Live seem to suddenly become not that dissimilar from each other, as the writers of shows themselves confuse the shows they are writing with each other, falling into this genre trap.

Should we compare Heroes and Grey's Anatomy? Of course, it doesn't hurt to, but are they fundamentally the same type of show? What connects The OC and 24? Seriality, of course, but are they of the same genre, really? What are the traditional markers of genre?

Language may not make all that big of a difference--see the recent word debate about "fan community" and "fandom," for instance, in a previous post--but I think the terms we use to discuss a subject are an indicator for how we frame an understand that subject.

The article points out one other interesting point that has been made before but deserves to be repeated. As networks continue to cancel so quickly, it likely makes viewers even more reluctant to invest in these shows. And, if viewers don't want to invest in these shows unless they have a guarantee they will last, it seems like it might get even harder to make serial shows last.

For previous posts on this subject, look here.



Just want to point to my blog following-up Sam's post here.


Jason, thanks for pointing out your post, and I would encourage everyone else to read Jason's take as well. I think he's absolutely right about the way in which momentum and spin can create sweeping generalizations about the viability of a television format, in this case serialization and complexity, which are perhaps lumped together too often in these types of conversations.