Shoverdose: @lizzieskurnick’s word for binge-watching a TV series.
Humpty Dumpty: ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word … [Lewis Carroll] For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “‘frumious’.
‘Nowadays people curate their experience of TV and cinema films’
Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) quietly crying — fired because a disabled man (Downton Abbey, Season 1:1)
Anna Smith (Joanne Froggart) come to comfort the just fired Mr Bates — saying “Tell us how you are getting on …. ” Downton Abbey 1:1) — it is true that we remember this subliminally in the 3rd season whey she & Bates are happy in Scotland
Dear friends and readers,
Among the many unusual subjects treated seriously at the recent American Popular Culture and American Culture Association country-wide conference in DC, was that of soap opera and serial story-telling. This phenomena on TV and in film was treated in sessions on it; in British Popular Culture (which includes mini-series); in Gender Studies on TV ( made up of programs with a serial arch, e.g., Girls, West Wing); and some of the many sessions on film adaptations.
This is a blog about who and how people watch soap operas and serial dramas nowadays; how people participate as fans on the Internet: very differently since we have all these new technologies which put us in control. We curate our experience of TV. Passionate fans influence and shape what they watch if it becomes popular. I offer a new word: shoverdose (show-overdose). I summarize a few papers on specific serials, including those on the CW channel, Days of Our Lives, an older Police Procedural, Downton Abbey, and Poldark and in these you will find summarized characteristics found in soap operas and serial story-telling.
I admit I don’t have any summaries on Jane Austen mini-series — that’s because I didn’t hear any papers on Austen mini-series. I admit to shoverdosing: on the 1995 Ang Lee & Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility; Andrew Davies‘s Little Dorrit and Sense and Sensibility; the 1981 Brideshead Revisited; lots of people have shoverdosed on Davies’s 1995 P&P and Fay Weldon’s 1979 P&P, Simon Raven’s The Pallisers.
So on soap opera and serial story-telling, how we watch these nowadays and a few of them: Two sessions on specific soap operas, one on the Poldark novels versus the two mini-series and Downton Abbey and a paper from a Film session on war films. First I’ll cover how people experience soap opera or serial story-telling on TV today and then specific serial dramas.
On Saturday, 9:45, Soap Opera II (4201) featured two papers, Marion Wren’s “Short Attention Span Theater: The Cultural Status of TV serial narratives in a Post-network era” and MJ Robinson’s “Curatorial Culture and the Future of Serialized TV.”
Wren asked, How do we watch TV? Jessica Helfand has argued that the Internet media has turned people into skimmers, people who multi-task, and skim an article while doing many other things on-line. The result is “narrative deprivation:” people have ceased to deep read.
Pessimism and anxiety lies behind such formulations. For example, Helfand does not take into account the phenomenon of binge watching (sometimes referred to as shoverdose — show overdose) which the availability of DVDs and all sorts of ways of controlling and time-shifting our watching has enabled us to do. Someone sits down and watches a whole season of whatever program he or she wants over several extended hours. This is diametrically diferent frmo the way audiences once watched serials and TV.
She suggested that advertisers have only the crudest methods and points of view on the audiences for such soap operas and serial TV and films. They regard viewers as so many eyeballs and when they can try to count them. So Downton Abbey drew 7.9 million for the 1st instalment of the 3rd season. One element in its success is its framing as “legacy,” as “heritage,” as elite and upper class. Therefore that it becomes the object of obsessive viewing is legimitized. Its upper class content and status as quality drama makes it a form of aspiration. This is what the branding did in this case. In previous sociological events of this type it was Jane Austen (the 1995 P&P), elite books and quality drama (Brideshead), historical heritage and regional cults (Upstairs, Downstairs, Cornwall for Poldark whom Graham said was first likened to GWTW).
Ms Wren then turned to examine what we know of the behavior of fandoms that surround such experiences. Henry Jenkins has written about them in Textual Poachers. Jenkins wrote that these fans are not assive; they are a participating culture; they are creative and extend the universe of the show to fit their preconceptions. They work at this, once upon a time by forming clubs, traveling to sites, writing fan letters, now by blogging, tweeting, again traveling to meet one another, by illegal downloading, by using web 2.0 media (I saw that in Poldark where fake videos misrepresenting the mini-series were made). They influenced the author and later seasons by their aggressive demands and insistent views. Both the makers and the viewers may be said to conspire together to often emphasize surprise to mystify the experience, to guard outsiders and one another from showing their what is the real motivation and need served. Viewers invent legitimizing narratives. The audience are communities to be exploited.
I was reminded of Richard Hoggart’s older book on The Uses of Literacy. He argued way back in the 1950s that TV was used politically; to persuade people they were part of imagined (= unreal) communities who espoused a group of values, values which were in this way proselytized for.
The real problem is to turn this into a business model to make as much money from it as possible. Ms Wren mentioned that AMC did not like when fans came onto twitter as faux characters; they felt this was plagiarism and maybe the fans would make money themselves. Twitter was told to pull such tweets and it did. The fans got very mad and AMC let them go back online as a form of on-line advertising because they did see the unlikelihood most fans would make any money.
Ms Wren seemed to want to suggest that binge watching, tweeting creatively about such a serial is depth viewing. But is it? What do the fans write? They write narratives and stay on the surface and miss much of the nuance of what itself is not subtle. OTOH, shoverdose is such a denigrating word and I know that immersion in a script, close study of parts of a mini-series (the juxtaposed shots) and its course texts and intertextuality yields as much depth of knowledge and understanding as any George Eliot novel.
By “Curatorial Culture” Ms MJ Robinson meant how viewers today can organize, select, arrange their own programming: “nowadays people curate their own experience of TV and cinema film.” In the past 5 years what has happened to TV watching resembles what happened in the 15 years to music listening and the last decade to journalism. TV watching used to be top down: the executives chose when you would watch, and you had to stay within the patterns of airing set forth by the channel. TV now can be consumed at any time, any where on a variety of machines. TVs come with “apps”. On YouTube viewers make their own movies. There is such a behavior as “churning:” people join briefly to watch whatever is the promotional offering and then unsubscribe.
Thus the Nielson family viewer ratings which the TV larger channels still cling to (partly they don’t want to know how few people might watch a program or who they are or even what is preferred for real) are hopelessly outdated. The “televisual has become an undifferentiated landscape.” What happens is programmers are fighting for audience shares that they do not know how to translate into direct revenue. Or they are trying to monetize the serial watching in new ways. For example, Netflix did a deal with a Norwegian company to release 8 episodes of a very popular serial, but it was set up in a way that forced the viewer to watch them sequentially.
The aim is to find out when content is used and attach an advertisement to the use. There was always a problem predicting popularity which often increases slowly. So Seinfeld had ratings in the basement in the first season and in the second, soared. The Poldark mini-series was at first ridiculed. Now the difficulty is much greater. On the Internet you find an increasing number of “apps” where to watch a program you have to click on “facebook” first (or twitter or some other social media place) and that way you are counted.
Companies keep their data to themselves. Netflix does not release its the ratings it has from its rentals publicly. There are laws against cable companies mining their data; your privacy is protected unless you are thought to be part of Al Quaeda. They’ve never been able to predict with any ease what the public will make a cult about next.
Helen Mirren as Concerned Cop (Prime Suspect, Season 6)
Soap Opera II at 9:45 also had a paper on a channel dedicated to soap operas for teenage girls, and Soap Opera III at 11:30 (4301) papers on what made a commercial success, a specific mainstream program breaking taboos and types of programs not seen as soaps but have the same characteristics.
A brief survey of the serials discussed. Kayti Lausch discussed the CW channel and its teen serials, i.e., Gossip Girls, Vampire Diaries (any title with the word “diary” in it is aimed at girls), Secret Circle, Melrose Place, The Beautiful Life. Voice-over also identifies a show as for women. In type they are very like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The characters are often mean to one another and there is a lot of conventionalized sex. The characters are rarely at work or school, and when they are there, their interest is not in their work; there is little for the young women to do, and every week there’s some sort of party.
Melissa Ames suggested that when the content really reflects the mood and of a given era the serial is a success. The problem with this is you end up offering a tautology as an explanation, e.g., since this show demonized the rich was a success its era was one where the rich were propagandized against. She described repeating typical stories: revenge is popular, melodramatic deaths, mistaken identities, the fragility of loyal love, tawdry trials, and of course the family is central. She suggested the programs she studied shows any sense of shared sacrifice has faded, people blame victims, escapist content preferred. She had in mind programs like Dallas, the Sopranos, Games of Thrones, Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
Kimberly Smith discussed the introduction of gay characters into The Days of Our Lives. Gay characters had been seen in soap operas from 1991 on, but Days of Our Lives made Sonny Kiriakis, a character central to the series, a member of one of the primary families, and Will Horton, a son of another family fall in love. Ms Smith screened a powerful scene where Horton’s father comes in to object and is clearly intensely hostile, and another where the two lovers behave sentimentally and emotionally the way heterosexual couples are often filmed. Some of the fans protested hysterically but enough accepted to make this pair of characters a staple of the show.
Roberta Brody described a specific serial called Law and Order, which has since had a number of imitations: it did not tell the personal lives of the police; the story was tightly organized, a new case or set of characters brought in for each episode; little back story even for the central case; it’s an ensemble cast (so costs less as there is no star salary); heavily event-driven, with abrupt closings. These share elements with soap operas: melodrama (provocation, pangs, and penalties); themes include heinous rimes, victims who are victims but if they have committed a crime are punished; a conflict of duty and personal feeling; hidden babies, rejected children, rebellious teenagers at risk; poor choice of partners (husbands, wives); substance abuse, mental illness, and loneliness for central characters. She went over a typical story. Her thesis was that the soap opera elements are rarely acknowledged and part of the reason for the series’ success.
I asked if these had evolved in Police Procedural like Prime Suspect and Five Full Days where we do learn about the detectives’ lives, and have feminist themes. She insisted that these “new” kinds of Police Procedurals did not belong to “proper” Law and Order programs; had been influenced by PBS or BBD mystery series. I asked if the Law and Order programs had been aimed at men, and instead of answering this, she said that when it was discovered men watched more than women, women were added to the permanent cast.
I heard three papers on Downton Abbey. The first, by Joanna Abtahi, was one of three on depictions of WW1 in Film and History (Thursday 9:45 am, 2244). She said DA was the first season presented as frivolous escapist fare which climaxed suddenly in the Earl of Grantham declaring the nation is at war. The second season saw a dramatic transformation. This character-driven drama now presented itself as accurate. She presented the view of the great war as a useless waste of millions of life, futile, with the ordinary man seen as indispensable as simply the “conventional usual view;” and argued that DA was countering this with the idea that the war created meaningful experiences, showed that the patriarchy was concerned for the social order, with the community pulling together in the face of “great peril.” Matthew’s behavior shows he deserves his authority; The snobbish selfish Mary becomes care-worn, Sybil a nurse who runs off with Branson, Thomas hitherto a villain, an understandable man, who destroys his hand to escape death on the battlefield, and cries over a suicidal patient. She suggested that the program suggested today the UK is more trustful of its government (! — ignoring the huge strikes against the destructive Tory elite gov’t).
John Greenfield and Janice Blandford gave papers on Downton Abbey in “British Popular Culture 4 (Thurs, 1:15 pm, 2420) which startled me: they took the program at its surface value and did not critique its values; Ms Blandford seemed to think the portrait of Robert Grantham (she called him Robert) was realistic. Ms Blandford bought into Edith as vicious, Daisy as dutiful and therefore gaining an obliged new father who helps her “assert herself.” Robert feels the “way elite people then felt about their estates” (high idealism); upholding the social order right and good. Mr Greenfield claimed in the 3rd season Robert (he also did not call the character Lord Grantham) is humiliated and defeated in the 3rd season (victim of new technology and world); Mrs Hughes is strong in the way she befriends Ethel and defies Mr Carson; Edith has become a feminist; a gay plot came to the forefront (! — it has been there all along); Tom transcends his old role; it all ends on “the exhilarating [?] birth of the child.” The death of Matthew he thought must’ve prompted shouts of “swerve” “swerve” across “the nation.” He conceded the woman servants were oppressed.
The reality is Lord Grantham remains in charge throughout and only he has the power to make the police go away and not arrest Matthew. He says he values Matthew for his cricket-playing.
Mr Greenfield discussed serial story-telling in a Freudian way. He suggested its serial production allowed for twists and turns and multiple plots and death, and that Fellowes has mastered the form and uses it captivatingly. He quoted Linda Hughes and Michael Lund on the serial novel in Victorian magazines: pleasure may be discharged again and again as female sexuality is supposed enjoyed (as opposed to male which does not practice sustained arousal).
I raised my hand and said, “lets imagine Anthony Trollope seeing this series. He’d laugh raucously. Great houses are political linch-pins where wheeling and dealing and patronage goes on. As to all these abstractions, he’d see through it as unreal.” I described Trollope’s fiction which Fellowes has been influenced by but where Fellowes’ mind is fuzzy and narrowly aimed; Trollope is precise with wide and thorough knowledge of his era.
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark returning from the rape of Elizabeth (Poldark, 1975-76, Part 15)
Julie Taddeo’s paper (in the same Thursday session on British Popular Culture) was on the treatment of women in the Poldark worlds’ she compared the way Ross’s rape of Elizabeth was treated in TV mini-series as opposed to the Poldark novels. For a summary, see continuation in comments section.