The Examination of the Definition Behind Quality Television

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Newcomb and Hirsch assume that the interpretation of the audience comes too short. They claim that some analysts assume that the audience of television has the same interpretation as the researchers (562). Therefore, they assume that television has a “monolithic meaning” and is a “complex sort of political control” (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562). Also, they hardly consider the fact that the audience can create a different interpretation, which was not analyzed by the researchers yet (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562).

Newcomb and Hirsch also state that critics ignore facts like production and reception and that they are convinced that the audience of television is not qualified enough to evaluate the television program (562). Therefore, critics believe that the viewers shall accept the opinion and judgment of them (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562). Thus, critics can influence the viewers and tell them which shows can be considered Quality TV.

The authors name two models that can explain the differences between the two views. The first one is the “transportation view” (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562). It means that television is used for communication and to send messages, like the political ones (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562). Television has the characteristic being entertaining but the main function is transporting messages. On the other hand, the “ritual view” is for “representation of shared beliefs” (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562). The focus is not on messages anymore. In this view, the function of television is to maintain the society (Newcomb/ Hirsch 562).

Hartley Fiske claims that television has a “bardic function” (Newcomb/ Hirsch 564). It argues that television does not only have one function but many more and diverse meanings. Newcomb and Hirsch argue that television allows the fantasy of the viewers to grow and develop. Also, it comments on issues and makes statements about certain issues of the society (Newcomb/ Hirsch 566). They name the TV series “Father Knows Best” as an example (Newcomb/ Hirsch 565). In this series, the social roles of women are emphasized. The authors suggest examining different types of “analytical foci” (566) to see it as a whole, as well as examining the viewing strip and rhetoric (567). The viewing strip is the order, in which the audience watches TV in the evening (HHM). They also emphasize the fact that every television series will have different interpretations by different people (Newcomb/ Hirsch 569). To understand the aberrations and patterns, it is important to examine the “problem of interpretations” (Newcomb/ Hirsch 568). But that does not mean that one of them is considered right or wrong. All of them are right for the person who interprets it.

To research television, they also suggest examining the producers of the show because they create it and bring in their cultural values (Newcomb/ Hirsch 568). If you then consider television as a “cultural forum”, it asks for new viewpoints and analyzing older television again (Newcomb/ Hirsch 571). The cultural forum builds a platform where people of different groups can speak and discuss topics. The new model that the authors suggest, recognizes the interpretations of the audience that may be new and sees it as extraordinary and not unexpected (571). Therefore, they attribute the competence to the audience and that their analysis and interpretations are valid.

The scholarly debate on “Quality TV” has two sides. One is the “elementary discourse”1 and one the “specialist discourse”1 (Ernst/ Paul 9). The elementary discourse comes from the fans and not professional people. The specialist discourse is from scholars and scientists. The term “Quality TV” is on the border of both discourses. The specialist discourse uses only certain aspects of Quality TV like structural, aesthetic and media-theoretical aspects (Ernst/ Paul 9). Other contents are brought back to the elementary discourse (Ernst/ Paul 9).

Quality TV is not a new concept. Characteristics that are seen as quality are often not innovative or new concepts. Some of them can be found in old series, as well (Ernst/ Paul 10). Therefore, Ernst and Paul claim that series of the 1980s are more interesting to analyze because the aspects they use are in fact original and new, at that time (10). Because of that, it is useful to examine and deal with the history and theory of series. First of all, the authors argue that series are not the same as television and that series are not dependent on television anymore (Ernst/ Paul 11). They introduce three approaches to analyze television.

The first is the tight definition of television. It examines the audiovisual format and individual texts of series, like theme and genre, which are then analyzed with usual categories of media research (Ernst/ Paul 14). The specialist discourse differs with methodical and theoretical, and the way of presenting and dealing with topics (Ernst/ Paul 14). The second field is the research of serial narrative (Ernst/ Paul 14). Here they examine the difference between a serial of literature and a series of television, which makes the difference in the media (Ernst/ Paul 15). Also, they emphasize their analysis of the structure of a series. The last one is the research of serialization (Ernst/ Paul 15). It focuses on categories of the artistic mode. It stands in connection with similar processes like repetition and variety (Ernst/ Paul 16).

Complexity is another point and an important category of the new series. Continuation lays in the focus here. Luhmann calls it a phenomenon that happens when the elements of the structure are connected through selection (Ernst/ Paul 19). This means that not every element fits with every other element (Ernst/ Paul 19). Thus, “narrative special effects” are created, where it is not certain for the viewer which element or selection follows up (Ernst/ Paul 19). They also argue that the complexity cannot be reduced to quantitative factors like plot or characters (20). The semantic of complexity comes in the focus here (Ernst/ Paul 20). This means the importance of terms and their complexity. Also, it is a phenomenon of intertextual ambiguity, economic reception and the coping with complexity (Ernst/ Paul 20).

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Television was not seen as a cultural capital for many people. Ernst and Paul explain this with the fact that it did not fulfill its full potential as a medium yet (21). Many series were made for housewives and mostly viewed by them. New series tried to distinguish themselves from soap operas for women because they were not seen as quality (Ernst/ Paul 22). Gender is a huge topic in American culture. Feminism and emancipation might have developed more and more, but the traditional role of a woman is still in some heads. Especially, in the late 20th century. Following, the masculinization of series happened to show the viewers that these series are high in quality. They tried to get rid of the feminized version, which was seen as “passive-female-undemanding”1 (Ernst/ Paul 22) and reform it to “active-masculine-demanding”1 (Ernst/ Paul 22).

The gender debate followed a cultural debate. Diversity became a huge topic. It is very noticeable that people of color were rarely represented in the first time of television series. The authors argue that “post-racial is not post-racism” (23). Television series act as a system of critique for the American society or political system. Series often deal with issues like gender roles, racism and other controversial topics (Ernst/ Paul 24). Ernst and Paul name “breaking bad” as a perfect example for the critique of the American health system, where a man with cancer becomes a drug boss. (24).

Däwes defines transgressive television as a “blurring of boundaries of genre, of fictional time and space, of plot patterns, and character types, of social and ethical norms, of language, and of visual representation” (18). She argues that the most successful series are transgressive television (18). They are not limited to one genre or time and merge to a new hybrid form. But these shifts also mean new kinds of production and “new patterns of viewing” (Däwes 20). Because of the flexibility of these series, it makes it more interesting for the viewers. Also, the producers have more freedom to create certain series and have the possibilities to change the plot like they want to.

Däwes critiques Quality TV as a strongly subjective term (22). She also says that every person has a different perception of quality. Therefore, it is hard to determine, which aspects are quality, and which are not. Robert J. Thompson created twelve criteria for Quality TV (Däwes 22). Däwes argues that not every criterion can be equally applied to different shows, that are considered “quality” (22). Thus, it may be unfair to certain shows, which may not be considered “quality” with these characteristics but are seen as a part of Quality TV by the audience. She suggests replacing Quality TV with her term “transgressive television” (Däwes 23). With this term, it would be easier to analyze shows and to categorize them as quality. Still, this version may be better for most of the series but not all of them are transgressive.

Taboos and abjection are key elements of transgressive television (Däwes 23). Many Quality TV series feature very often violence and sex scenes. Also, the role of protagonist and antagonist often merge because in this genre are no strict boundaries (Däwes 25). Politics have an important role in transgressive television. Many popular series cope with the political system, like Netflix´s “House of Cards” or “The Good Wife” (Däwes 25). Also, many series cannot be put into one genre because they fulfill different aspects of different genres. There are rarely any quality series that is only a comedy or only a drama. The variety is what makes them Quality TV. Even though it does not stay in the boundaries of genre, it is remarkable that most of them apply to the genre “family show”, as Däwes explains (26).

Contemporary series differ from the old ones because of their “cinematic approach” (Edgerton 35). New series often function as movies, which are split up in different episodes. Their quality is so high and their plot structure so complex that they could be a movie. Edgerton mentions the theory of Klein that the audience watches television no matter what quality, which is called the “ ´Least Objectionable Program´ theory” (37). Channels like CBS, NBC and ABC cared not much about the quality because they thought that the viewers did not have a lot of channels to choose from, at that time (Edgerton 37). HBO changed the market with satellite TV. The number of channels almost tripled from 1980 to 1990 (Edgerton 39). HBO started to invest in programming, limiting output and producing high quality series, movies, etc. (Edgerton 40). Also, Netflix is a changed the market again in the present. Netflix is able to reach people all over the world and combines movies with television series, as well as self-produced series (Edgerton 48f). It offers every generation a fitting movie or series, which can be reached from anywhere (Edgerton 49). Netflix and OTT streaming platforms are a great business model.

“The Sopranos” is seen as an example of Quality TV. Different reasons are responsible for the breakthrough of this show. Edgerton states that “The Sopranos” has an “epic novelistic structure, a cinematic vocabulary, and a dystopian worldview” (43). All these characteristics are responsible for the success of the TV show. He also says that their success comes from the ambiguous plotlines and morally compromised characters (43). The production takes its part of the success, as well. “The Sopranos” conflate “intimacy, immediacy and [the] complexity” (Edgerton 43) of the narrative. He also talks about the variety of themes, better technical techniques and a higher quality of production (43). Because other series were not as high in quality as “The Sopranos”, this series blew up. It is seen as the starting point of a new era of television. Many series were created because of the success of “The Sopranos” (Edgerton 42f). Not only the quality made it so popular, but also David Chase. He controlled everything and chose only the best writers (Edgerton 44). Also, he was strict with the script, as Edgerton states (44).

Edgerton does not specifically state what he defines as Quality TV. But you can assume that he takes “The Sopranos” as an ideal of Quality TV. Obviously, the quality of the production, the characters, and the narrative are a huge point of his definition. He talks about the “ambiguous plotlines” (43), which can be interpreted as complexity, which may be a point of his definition of quality, as well.

In summary, all authors give different aspects of the research of television series and of Quality TV. Newcomb and Hirsch talk about the transportation and ritual model to analyze television series, where television series either function as message transporters or representations of society. Also, they see television as a cultural forum, which is a platform for people to discuss. Whereas Ernst and Paul name three approaches for television researches. The focus in this approach lies in examining the individual parts of television series. Ernst and Paul go with the term of “Quality TV” and show different discourses around this topic. Also, it seems that they do not think of the possibility of fluid genre in their tight research. In contrast, Däwes critiques the term in its subjectivity and wants to replace it (23). She suggests the term “transgressive television”, which considers television series as fluid forms that are not trapped in one genre or character type. Edgerton describes an example of a Quality TV series and ignores the term completely. It lets assume that the term is not suitable for the television series debate.

Because it is difficult to define this term, Thompson tried to create criteria. As Däwes states, it is impossible for this model to be equally fair (22). Therefore, a study from Harnischmacher and Lux suggested adapting Thompson´s model (14). In my opinion, their version is more suitable to define which show can be seen as Quality TV. But you shall not forget that Quality TV is different for everyone. Every person has different expectations and requests for a series. Because of that, the approach of Ernst and Paul must be considered. For the Quality TV debate, you must distinguish elementary and specialist discourse. For the specialist discourse, you can use the model from Thompson or Harnischmacher and Lux. In contrast, the elementary discourse is subjective and needs to stay this way. You cannot compare opinions from different people.

Every author states that the production of a series is one of the keys to Quality TV. Also, most of them talk about complexity. Däwes calls it “transgressive television”, which is a form of complexity, Ernst and Paul define this part directly and Edgerton lets it shine through his analysis of “The Sopranos”. Therefore, it is important for Quality TV to have a complex plot, characters and so on. Furthermore, they all see television series as a part of culture. The series cope with political topics, discuss issues and deal with social problems.

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