YSA Quality TV/Transmedia

Posted by admin on November 15, 2011 in Development, Writing |

Just a quick post (a habit I’ll try and get into so I post often!) to share a list of the distinguishing characteristics of “quality television”. The characteristics are developed by academic Robert J. Thompson in response to the emergence of “quality TV” is American television beginning with Hills Street Blues, and includes Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, and contemporary series such as The Sopranos. I’m just clearing out my office, and found these notes from his book Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER (1996). Consider these in the context of transmedia and the emerging or need for quality transmedia projects. What is similar and what is different?

  1. ‘Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV.’ (page. 13)
  2. Quality TV usually has a quality pedigree. Shows made by artists whose reputations were made in other, classier media,like film, are prime candidates.’ (page 14)
  3. Quality TV attracts an audience with blue chip demographics. The upscale, well-educated, urban-dwelling, young viewers advertisers so desire to reach tend to make up a much larger percentage of the audience of these shows than of other kinds of programs.’ (page 14)
  4. ‘Desirable demographics notwithstanding, quality shows must often undergo a noble struggle against profit-mongering networks and nonappreciative audiences. The hottest battles between Art and Commerce, between creative writer-producers and bottom-line-concious executives are often played out during the runs of these series. […] When a quality show does become a hit, it is often after a long struggle and some unusual circumstances.’ (page 14)
  5. Quality TV tends to have a large ensemble cast. The variety of characters allows for a variety of viewpoints since multiple plots must usually be employed to accommodate all of the characters.’ (page 14)
  6. Quality TV has a memory. Though it may or may not be serialized in continuing story lines, these shows tend to refer back to previous episodes. Characters develop and change as the series goes on.’ (page 14)
  7. Quality TV creates a new genre by mixing old ones. […] All quality shows integrate comedy and tragedy in a way Aristotle would never have approved.’ (page 15)
  8. Quality TV tends to be literary and writer-based. The writing is usually more complex than in other types of programming.’ (page 15)
  9. Quality TV is self-conscious. Oblique allusions are made to both high and popular culture, but mostly of TV itself.’ (page 15)
  10. The subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial. […] The overall message almost always tends toward liberal humanism.’ (page 15)
  11. Quality TV aspires toward “realism“.’ (page 15)

Thompson then says that “series which exhibit these eleven characteristics listed above are usually enthusiastically showered with awards and critical acclaim” (page 15). He goes on to comment on the similarity of TV shows:

As this list suggests, when looked at all together, these “quality” programs all begin to look a lot alike. What emerges by the time we get to the 1990s is that “quality TV” has become a genre in itself complete with its own set of formulaic characteristics. […] Quality television came to refer to shows with a particular set of characteristics that we normally associate with “good,” “artsy,” and “classy.” But we can say that of other media as well. The films that play in the city art houses also have a surprisingly lot in common with each other. Serious novels, paintings, and films have distinct set of characteristics that distinguish them from bestsellers, K-Mart seascapes, and Hollywood blockbusters. (page 16)

At many times during his book, Thompson refers to the techniques creators of these shows used to help with audiences that don’t watch every episode and those that do. I learnt a few techniques from Hills Street Blues! He finishes by talking about this approach:

But it is a formula that includes thoughtful writing, innovative stories, and strong performances among its principal characteristics. By institutionalizing “quality” programming into an imitatable formula, the creators of such shows have found a way to make artistically interesting programs that are compatible with prime-time television’s demands for predictability. (page 192)

Interesting stuff. I think it will take longer for gatekeepers (commissioning agents, funding bodies, broadcasters, etc) to identify quality…but it is emerging regardless!

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