Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.
Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.
He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.
A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).
The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.
The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.
People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.
He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.
What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.
The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.
The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.
To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.
But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze
American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.
Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.
I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.
What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.
These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.
But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.