Television Genres Research Paper

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The most basic definition of genre is a ‘type,’ ‘kind,’ or ‘sort’, and when applied to television, it refers to specific kinds or categories of programming. The categories may distinguish broad program types such as fiction and nonfiction, or may create narrower delineations such as the division of fictional programs into soap operas, cop shows, sitcoms, and hospital dramas, and non-fictional ones into sports, news, religious shows, talk shows, and so on.

Genres forge a strong link between the television audience and the television industry, a direct connection between the consumption and the production of programs. For a commercial television system, such as that of the USA, this link is of the utmost importance.

The phrase ‘television genres’ has unique meanings and ramifications for different television systems and audience members in different areas of the globe, but the general notion of television genres has had a profound effect on structuring television the world over. Many television systems were born in the throes of enormous struggles over what types of programs would constitute the broadcasting of the nation. Would they be educational and informative or pre- dominantly entertaining? Would they be religious or secular? Would they be high culture or popular? Would they be nationally produced or imported?

Even after the establishment of national television systems, heated debates over program types often emerged in establishing regulatory policies and shaping the future of the system. If systems were commercial, such as that of the USA, what would be the place of news, educational, or politically oppositional programming? If systems were state operated, such as those of many European, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations, what would be the place of entertainment, imported programs, and shows that might run counter to state policies or predominant religious beliefs?

Every national television system and their audiences need to be studied in great detail to determine exactly how genres have worked in their histories. A closer look at US television will detail some of the major ways that genres have participated in defining it along particular lines, in forging its commercial character, and in fashioning the culture of its viewers and nation. Because American television is currently imported in numerous countries of the world, a closer look at the functioning of genres in its operations will aid in understanding a great deal of television programming in circulation today, particularly from the point of view of its production. Such a look should also bring into focus various aspects of genre that can be compared and contrasted with the programming of other television systems in other areas of the globe.

1. Genre And The US Television Industry— A Historical Sketch

1.1 The Transition From Radio To Early Television

From the first flickers of the first cathode ray tubes in the living rooms of postwar America, the principle of genre was already at work in trying to create an audience for the new medium. By the early 1950s many popular radio shows of various generic categories appeared in television incarnations, including the western, The Lone Ranger, the quiz show, Twenty Questions, the soap opera, The Guiding Light, and the domestic comedies, Beulah, The Goldbergs, and The Life of Riley, to name only a few. This was because television inherited many of its programming and operating principles from US radio, which had developed over the previous 30 years into a thoroughgoing commercial system, dependent on advertiser dollars and governed by a ratings system for judging the popularity of shows.

Genres had become a major force in the economic workings of US broadcasting. Throughout their histories, the radio networks (NBC, CBS, and later ABC) and the television networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and the short-lived DuMont) gradually sought to determine, through ratings mechanisms and statistical sampling (diaries kept by families ‘scientifically’ selected by ratings companies, and later by a combination of diaries and meters hooked up to home receivers), how many listeners or viewers were tuned in to what programs; to catalog specific listener or viewer demographics (primarily according to age and gender); and to rate programs based on which ones attracted the most audience members. The implications of this phenomenon were more far-ranging than they may at first appear: the programs (and consequently their genres) that attracted the most audience members of the right ages (those aged 18–49 generally came to be the most valued) became the ones that the broadcasting industry wanted to produce and reproduce; programs and genres that seemed popular because of their ratings were reproduced or cloned, while others fell into oblivion.

This dynamic has endured throughout the history of US television. Specific genres have proliferated at different periods (westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, detectives and spies in the 1960s, ‘jiggle’ shows in the 1970s, prime-time soaps in the 1980s, situation comedies in the 1990s, reality programs in the 2000s, and so forth) because television networks could minimize financial risk by renewing contracts for shows with high ratings and choosing new pilot programs that fell within the tried and true category of proven ratings winners. The recoiling from innovation by sticking with highly rated genres became one of the hallmarks of US television.

It took until the late 1950s for genre to achieve its full-blown status in the functioning of the television industry. Two other factors, the influence of the New York theater and the technology of live television, had significant impacts on the emerging television medium in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Each of these factors themselves had strong implications for the development of genres on television.

1.2 The Genre Of Anthology Dramas

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many New York playwrights and directors worked in the emergent medium of TV to produce the spate of anthology dramas that have come to be equated with the phrase of ‘Golden Age’ of American television. These dramas, such as the well-known Requiem for a Heavyweight by Rod Serling, Marty by Paddy Chayefsky, and Thunder on Sycamore Street and Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, were aired on shows sponsored by individual advertisers and called anthology drama series, shows such as Playhouse 90, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, and US Steel Hour. Hundreds of these dramas or teleplays were produced during the 1950s—original plays every week for the numerous anthology programs on the air at the time. They were also produced live, on the sets of the three-camera television studios that came to epitomize one of the thrills of early television—viewers in their own living rooms seeing what was simultaneously happening in a distant space.

Although other programs and genres, some of them not live but shot on film such as the hugely popular comedy I Love Lucy, were attracting large groups of viewers, the anthology dramas constituted a genre of enormous critical and audience acclaim. By the middle of the 1950s, however, the anthology drama genre and live prime-time fictional programming as a whole was virtually obliterated.

As commercial enterprises, NBC, CBS, the young ABC, and corporate television sponsors struggled in the early 1950s to rationalize the television industry, to get it working in ways most profitable for their companies. This militated against anthology dramas in four ways. First, the dramas were too costly and too cumbersome to produce: each one required a new director and a new playwright who needed to conceive of an entirely new play. Second, the networks and advertisers began to consider the teleplays too controversial for national television, dealing as they often attempted to (though frequently muted by censorship) with serious social problems. Third, sponsors began to think of these dramas as nonconducive to advertising—their serious subject-matter was often considered too serious and their unglamorous, working-class characters too jarring to the spirit of consumption and the showcasing of products. Fourth, the live productions were not oriented toward future profits—they could not be rerun or exported.

1.3 Formulaic Filmed Genres

These business imperatives, which became more sharply formulated by the industry as the experimental years of the 1950s waned, led to the standardization of generic formulas and a factory-like system in American Television. Most entertainment programs, whether they were westerns, hospital dramas, police programs, situation or domestic comedies, came to develop narrative formulas with well-defined story premises and possibilities. (Even quiz shows, game shows, variety shows, newscasts, and sports programming gradually developed similar formulaic structures.) The programs had standard and repeatable characters (or hosts, reporters, anchors, and announcers), sets, wardrobes, and shot compositions. They were overwhelmingly shot on film (with the exception of news, sports, and daytime soaps) for maximal use in the rerun, syndication, and export markets. Equations were also made between different desired audience groups and different genres: men were drawn in with westerns, spy shows, cop shows, sports; women with comedies, hospital drama, and, of course, daytime soap operas; both men and women with quiz shows, variety shows, and game shows, and so forth. Filmed (and, from the 1970s on, some videotaped) formulaic genres thus came to serve as linchpins of the factory-like production process that dominated Network Era American television. They provided a way to control production costs and predict consumption patterns.

One popular genre, the quiz show, allowed the networks in the late 1950s to complete their corporate rationalization of the TV business by wresting the control of programming away from individual corporate sponsors—when a national scandal burst from the discovery that the producers of corporate sponsored popular quiz shows secretly provided answers to contestants, the networks argued that they (rather than the individual corporations who owned and sponsored the shows) were the only ones that could ensure the integrity of program content. NBC, CBS, and ABC effected a switch from a system in which individual companies sponsored individual programs (and therefore had the final say over a program’s content, renewal, or cancellation) to a system in which individual companies could only buy advertising spots before, after, or in the middle of programs controlled by the networks. From the later 1950s forward, therefore, the three major television networks could produce and reproduce formulaic genres in an assembly-line way with total control over their content, their longevity, and their cloning. Standardized genres came to have a powerful place in the operations of the entire American television system and its popular culture.

2. Genre And Television Audiences

2.1 Genres And Audience Pleasure

During the past 15 years, scholars have begun to analyse the reception by audience members of the type of delimited TV fare that the US system has, in fact, offered; and they have produced many intriguing studies of specific genres and their most avid viewers or fans. In his book Television Culture, John Fiske, the cultural theorist, examines the place of many different genres from soap operas to action adventure programs to game shows in the lives, fantasies, and pleasure domains of their many viewers. He strongly advocates (and has been criticized for taking too extreme of a position) looking at the ways viewers make use of television programs for their own enjoyment and even political empowerment, rather than focusing on the relationship of TV programs and audiences to the industry that produces and profits from them. Other scholars have taken a similar approach.

Henry Jenkins (1992), Constance Penley (1991), and Camille Bacon-Smith (1992), for example, have intensively studied fans of the science fiction genre, particularly those of Star Trek. They show how these fans take an industrially produced formulaic television genre and turn it to their own ends, making it part of their own lives and creative endeavors. Jenkins, for instance, chronicles the passionate investments of fans in the culture surrounding Star Trek conventions. Penley details the ways a group of women viewers rewrite Star Trek narratives with their own unique plots for their own illustrated fanzines. Jenkins’ notion of ‘textual poaching’ has, in fact, been taken up by a number of cultural critics to describe the ways that viewers of commercially produced genres can ‘poach’ or rifle through these programs (programs produced by a capitalist culture industry) in order to derive pleasures that may have nothing to do with the intentions of the television networks and advertisers to generate audiences as consumers.

2.2 Genres And Society—Gender, Race, Sexuality, Nation, And The Family

Various facets of contemporary US society and its citizenry have been examined in relation to television genres. How, for example, do genres contribute to defining femininity and masculinity, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationhood, and notions of the family? How, in other words, do genres contribute to shaping the norms of those social facets—to defining what ‘normal’ femininity or masculinity means, what it means to be white or black in a society such as the US? How, on the other hand, might viewers use TV genres to question or challenge dominant societal norms?

Scholars such as Tania Modleski (1984), Robert Allen (1985), and Dorothy Hobson (1982) analyse the ways that many women viewers (particularly those caring for small children in the home) have made soap opera an integral part of their everyday lives, pleasures, and friendship networks. Modleski elaborates upon ways that women viewers derive sometimes unpredictable meanings and pleasures from the soaps. She argues, for example, that some women viewers identify with the ubiquitous villainess characters in soap operas as a way of getting fictional revenge on a social system that minimizes women’s power, work, and social contributions. Scholars studying sports programming are currently trying to analyze the ways that sports produce meanings of conventional (macho) masculinity but at the same time may engender in their male viewers nonconventional meanings of men being emotionally, tied to other men in overt displays of friendship, and so forth.

Julie D’Acci (1994), in a study of the popular crime drama Cagney and Lacey, demonstrates how TV genres contribute to the ways that masculinity and femininity are defined and actually lived out in society. This cop show, starring two women, became a women’s program—a hybrid of cop show, soap opera, and comedy—in order to attract an audience of working women with the kind of genre fare TV executives thought such an audience wanted to see. The show also became part of a social movement for women’s rights and equality, and an important rallying point for its many committed women viewers. Szu-ping Lin (2000) uses a similar approach in studying the importance of a Taiwanese genre called Hsiang-Tu Hsi. These nightly run melodramas have become an integral part of wide-ranging public debates on women’s issues and rights in contemporary Taiwan.

In US television, black characters and stories have historically been confined to the genre of situation comedy and denied the range of representation and seriousness that dramatic shows can afford. Herman Gray (1995) has demonstrated how one of the most innovative programs on American television, Frank’s Place (about an African American college professor who inherits his father’s New Orleans restaurant), met with quick cancellation because it was genre transgressive, combining elements of the comic and the dramatic, a transgression that the TV industry found untenable given its history of corralling black characters and subject-matter in the comic terrain. However, Crystal Brent Zook (1999) chronicles the importance of African American writers and production teams in producing comedies for the FOX network that, although working within the confines of the stereotypical genre, deal in more progressive ways with black stories and characters. Tricia Rose (1997), for her part, argues that the music video genre has given voice to African American women artists and a sense of empowerment to African American women viewers. Gloria Abernathy-Lear (1992) illustrates the ways some African American women viewers make use of the primarily white-oriented daytime soap operas to, among other things, critique and lay bare the shortcomings of a dysfunctional white-dominated society.

From the point of view of sexuality, Ronald Becker (1998) has examined the spate of gay-themed comedies in the 1990s, discussing how these programs contribute to ongoing public debates about sexuality, and help explore the boundaries of sexual identity for their gay, lesbian, and heterosexual viewers. And from the point of view of nationalism, Michael Kachman (1999) has demonstrated how the television spy genre participated in defining ‘America’ and the American citizen during the Cold War along particular xenophobic lines.

Finally, researchers such as David Morley in Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure and Ellen Seiter in Television and New Media Audiences have conducted ethnographic studies of TV viewers to show how TV programs affect both family life and children. Morley profiles, for example, how different genres become grounds of power struggle in the daily life of some British families, with possession of the remote control falling along conventional gender based lines—male ‘heads’ of households have the clicker and consequently the power to decide what genres the family will watch and when.

The work cited here represents only the tip of the iceberg of studies on the relationship between popular commercial television genres and social life in the world beyond the home screen. Much more research is already in print and under way. The importance of television genres as definers of societal norms and as rallying points for viewers becomes more and more evident.

3. Television Genres—Theoretical Considerations

In an influential article on television genre, media scholar Jane Feuer groups most theoretical work on TV genre into three different camps—the aesthetic, the ritual, and the ideological (Feuer 1992). According to her schema, the aesthetic approach includes attempts to define genre solely in terms of the artistic or formal components of a television program or ‘text’ (apart from its social or historical context), and particularly with deference to the ‘author’ of that text. The ritual approach, on the other hand, sees genre as intimately tied to its social context. It conceives of genre (and all television) as a ‘cultural forum’ that helps maintain the social order and aids it in adapting to change (see Newcomb and Hirsch 1983). Genres serve an important, though tacit, cultural function, in that they feed back to viewers important meanings about the culture at large, and thus become ‘an exchange between industry and audience, an exchange through which a culture speaks to itself’ (Feuer 1992, p. 145). According to this take, some workplace sitcoms of the 1970s (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Alice, for example) aid viewers in adapting to the social change involving women’s massive entry into the workforce at the time.

In contrast, the ideological approach ‘views genre as an instrument of control.’ Thus at the level of the television industry genres assure an audience for the networks and advertisers. At the level of the programs themselves genres serve to reproduce the ideology of the capitalist system. At the level of the audience, familiar genres help make it seem that the ideologies expressed in the programs are just plain common sense, the way things naturally are (rather than capitalist-based consumer-creating ideologies) (p. 145).

Feuer goes on to describe the ways that television scholars have begun to combine the ritual and ideological approaches to account for the active production of meanings by the viewers as well as the TV industry, and therefore the constant conflict (rather than the ease) in the reproduction of ideology. She also contends that such a combination has allowed TV and film critics to conclude that by means of genres, audiences unconsciously confront and grapple with many societal contradictions such as law and order vs. individuality (the gangster genre), nature vs. culture (the western), the work ethic vs. the pleasure principle (the musical), and so forth.

Rick Altman (1984) also incorporates a ritual and ideological approach when he uses a linguistic model to conclude that genres are comprised of ‘semantic elements’ (standard generic components such as cowboys, horses, guns, saloons, for a western) and a ‘syntax’ (the crystallized generic meaning of a western such as a white male hero as the ‘necessary’ bridge between nature and culture). This syntax develops over time and may express both a dominant ideology and the changes and challenges that bubble up in a culture. Many scholars stress that no matter which of these positions one espouses, genres develop historically and should be understood as fluid and changing rather than as fixed entities.

These various approaches are not necessarily incompatible. An ‘integrated approach,’ as exemplified here, conceives genre as operating at the intersection of the television industry, the audience, the text, and the social context. Jason Mittell (2001) takes the integrated approach further and argues that most previous scholarly work on genre (such as that just recapitulated) proceeds too much from what he calls a ‘textualist assumption’—an assumption that places too much emphasis on genre as equivalent to the program itself, as essentially a description of a particular kind of TV text. On the contrary, he argues, instead of examining genres as textual attributes, they can best be understood as cultural categories, belonging to specific historical moments and contexts.

For Mittell, genres are not comprised of the programs that they categorize, but by the practices of industries and audiences that use generic categories to define television programming. Thus when we want to study sitcoms, he says that instead of confining our analysis to the examination of sitcom texts (individual programs over time), we should explore how television networks schedule sitcoms, how audience members define their own tastes in terms of program choices, and how critics use particular standards to judge the genre—all strategies of definition, interpretation, and evaluation that link the sitcom to cultural norms, hierarchies, and relations of power. This shift in analytic focus looks beyond media texts themselves to understand their operation in the culture at large, and parallels a reconfiguration of genre within literary and film studies as well.

4. Television Genre And The Future

Since the break-up of the three-network domination over US television and the proliferation of cable channels that began in the mid-1980s, genres are playing a somewhat different role in American commercial culture. Now entire channels are founded on their generic status—a Sci Fi channel, a Romance channel, a Golf channel, a Comedy channel, a Cooking channel, and so forth. The confluence of television and the internet in the coming years, and the possibility of completely individualized regimes of viewing, similarly present many more possibilities for the interaction of genres and viewers’ everyday lives. Likewise, the creation of global television markets and communities only underscores the importance of looking more closely at the way genres operate cross-nationally and cross-culturally. Robert Allen’s To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World (1995) furnishes an exemplary model of this type of work.


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