May 19, 2007
Reframing the Text: Television and New Ways of Viewing

Another interesting post I recently encountered that I thought might be of interest to the C3 readership came through C3 Affiliated Faculty Jason Mittell's blog, focusing on storytelling technologies and the relationship to television in particular.

His post is based on a post from Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's blog. Mittell focuses particularly on a comment Bordwell makes--"We can't easily draw conclusions about how films are constructed on the basis of how they're presented and consumed. Changes in viewing practices don't automatically entail changes in storytelling."

But Mittell points out that, while these presentation and consumption patterns may not lead automatically to different storytelling practices in film (although Bordwell points out that the ability to rewatch film does make it easier to draw on prior films and a deeper knowledge now that the texts can be so easily archived by fans), television is another story.

Most films are standalone artistic endeavors, where television shows are directly affected by their real-time consumption, considering that the fans consume the narrative while it is ongoing in a way that is not true of most films, aside from movie series. So, I think the impact of the DVR, Internet TV, mobile TV, etc., is pronounced here as well. Mittell is particularly looking, however, at archiving technologies in this case.

Jason looks particularly at the history of the rerun in syndication on television and how the existence of that market changed business practices well before the home video market popped up for film. He points out that one of the reasons that series did not build storylines from week-to-week was that syndication would often not air them in order, meaning that the series had to be built in a way that order was not important. Thus, the episodic format developed.

Of course, soap operas are an exception to this rule, as Jason well knows I would point out, but it does not counteract his point, as soap operas rarely had any means of re-airing, and most of these shows have only aired once in the U.S. in history, and many episodes of various series were not even permanently archived. He writes, "To achieve these continuing stories, primetime borrowed from daytime serials that had been running continuing storyworlds for decades, building in technologies of redundancy to allow viewers to miss episodes without much penalty and focusing primarily on character relationships." And he points out that timeshifting and archiving created ways for fans to provide archiving and reviewing in a way that network television did not offer.

Mittell points out that the rise of serialization goes alongside the development of home video and the VCR. He concludes that cult shows that required taping and reviewing to understand the full impact arose throughout the 1990s but that "the VCR timeshift has always been a marginal practice for hardcore fans, not the norm for a mass audience, and thus remained lodged within the terrain of cult programming."

Now, however, the DVD series creates a way for the text to be consumed as a whole, and Mitell concludes that the change is less about the ability to rewatch or the technology but rather "the reframing of a television series or season as a discrete object."

I think his argument has great merit, and it also draws the need for context to a television series in a way that a film doesn't have to worry about. What I mean is that a television series has to be divided into clear categories for people to be able to conceptualize them as a discrete object, which may be seasons, or else certain types of "best of" contexts, such as the various SNL DVD releases.

Soap operas, pro wrestling, news shows, game shows...these texts still defy these categorizations because they don't have the clear season designation. I have written before about the WWE 24/7 On Demand model, for instance, which is developing context around a wealth of content that is not easily divided into seasons or categories. In this case, Mittell is talking about the importance of contextual repackaging to define what television content means, and I think producers in these areas have to be more creative than most primetime series, which as more limited amounts of programming, in being able to take on this "reframing" process.