Category Archives: television

‘Parks and Recreation’ and the Struggle of the Sitcom

Parks and Recreation

Today, I read that one of my favorite shows, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, is struggling so much in the ratings that they have enlisted the wooden, blank-eyed talents of pretty boy Rob Lowe to help attract female viewers. This is a show with a strong female cast which already has (for my money) and resident ladykiller in southern charmer Paul Schnieder. How could this be? I asked myself, but the answer was already clear: nobody watches sitcoms anymore.

This led me to check out the Nielson ratings for the first time since TV Guide was novel-sized, and boy, how things have changed. I remember way back when NBC was on top, and CBS was famous for old people programming like The Cosby Mysteries and Touched by an Angel. Now CBS is the number one network, riding high on programming about crime scene investigators, Naval investigators, investigators in Los Angeles, and psychic investigators, a decade-old reality game show, and a newsmagzine prominently featuring eightysomething anchors struggling to understand contemporary phenomena.  All of which constitutes, well, old people programming. CBS, not one to change horses midstream, has simply plowed ahead, operating under the assumption that aging boomers, the first television generation, would be their best bet. Leave those elusive big-spending youngsters to their Mad Men.

The most noticeable shift over the past fifteen years (using my TV Guide-reading timeline) has been the demise of the sitcom. This was where NBC flourished with their “Must-See TV” formula, a genius plan to dump terrible shows (The Single Guy, Veronica’s Closet, Jesse, Caroline in the City, and a host of short-lived failures) between shows like Seinfeld and Friends, as a way of duping those too lazy to change the channel. Charting the death of the sitcom is not new territory; well all know that reality TV is cheaper, crime shows have a higher success rate, and spin-offs are cowardly but a good bet (see the multitudes of CSIs and NCISs, as well as the putrid dramedy Private Practice). As I wrote in an earlier post on Television, Flow, & Liveness, both reality TV and serial drama create more urgency than sitcoms: American Idol and Lost need to be watched live if an audience member wants to experience all aspects of the show (and watercooler conversation counts). We have no need to watch sitcoms live; in fact, syndication has turned sitcoms into more of an anytime treat–Frasier with breakfast, Seinfeld before bed. Why should we be expected to get all excited about a prime time lineup of sitcoms? We’ll watch the American Idol  results because we need to see it now, and catch up on comedy during a Saturday morning hangover.

Sara Gilbert and Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory

Two sitcoms have found their way around this conundrum by adhering to the CBS philosophy of not changing a damn thing. Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, like ABC’s According to Jim before them, simply ignore the fact that television culture has changed since the 90s, and therefore cater to an audience that either doesn’t know things have changed, or wishes they hadn’t. Static camera, laugh track, wacky neighbors, funny theme song, check. Say what you will about these programs, but on the rare occasions I have tuned in, I was surprised by the comfort I felt settling into that old formula (not to mention indulging my love for nerd-heroes Jon Cryer and Johnny Galecki). The Big Bang Theory doesn’t want us to forget that Johnny Galecki was on Roseanne, but rather takes pains to remind us, featuring guest stars like Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf. You see? It seems to be saying, Things haven’t really changed. The Big Bang Theory wants audiences to be able to draw a straight line back to Roseanne, past The Simpsons, through Laverne and Shirley until we get back to square one. Next stop, golden age.

The ratings problems encountered by a great sitcom like Parks and Recreation can be traced to the lack of a direct link to the comforting golden age sitcom. It’s aligned itself closely with The Office, when really it’s more about character development and relationships than quirky discomfort. While I don’t think Parks and Rec should be turned into a Two and a Half Men clone, the position it and many shows find themselves in demonstrates that the sitcom is at a crossroads. It can be our cozy companion in childhood reminscence, or it can develop and establish itself as something new. Whatever happens, I just hope this beloved format can fight the crime show wave to the other side of 2010.

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Why Does Everyone Hate ‘The Marriage Ref’?

Ever since its premiere following the Olympics closing ceremony, critics have been shitting all over The Marriage Ref, NBC’s new Jerry Seinfeld-produced game show which features celebrities helping real life couples resolve marriage disputes. Entertainment Weekly called it “tedious” and Time‘s James Poniewozik used words like “corny,” “low-rent,” and “god-awful.” Even Ricky Gervais, appearing on the program alongside Larry David and Madonna (an intriguing lineup if ever there was one) exclaimed early on, “What is going on? This is a strange program. I feel like someone’s put crack in my drink. What is going on? This is the weirdest show I’ve ever been on. It’s already weird. It’s weird that I’m here with you two. I don’t know what they’re doing up there.” After watching two episodes, I’m not convinced it’s hopeless, and with some changes it could become a hit. Who doesn’t want to see famous and entertaining people sitting around making jokes with one another ? The View, after all is wildly popular, and the women featured on that show are not terribly funny or really famous for anything else (Whoopi aside).

Unfotunately, Poniewozik and Gervais are right: The Marriage Ref is corny, and uncomfortable and off-kilter. Seinfeld’s goal was apparently to harken back to the game shows of the 1960s, which often featured celebrities cracking jokes and bantering with one another. Perhaps it’s that dusty retro feel that makes The Marriage Ref so strange: TV has changed, and this kind of old-fashioned set up can at times come across as more strained than Cosmo Kramer’s dumpster-salvaged, imaginary Merv Griffin Show. The idea itself is not a bad one. Seinfeld has oodles of famous friends, and seeing them onscreen together week after week is a delight. And one can’t just put a bunch of celebrities on TV; they need something to talk about. The couples featured are wacky and familiar, though the presentation of the couple segments is perhaps edging scarily close to America’s Funniest Home Videos-style sound effects and Bob Saget voices. (Maybe it’s the jaunty background music? What is it, exactly?) This is where the corny comes in. Nothing on The Marriage Ref is untouched or left to stand on its own. Everything is fussed with and tortured, in what is indeed a very retro way, making it all feel hammy-awards-show-funny instead of prime time comedy funny.

The laughter is a big problem. Tom Papa may indeed be a funny comedian, but his monologue is stuffed with so much raucous, canned-sounding laughter that it’s impossible to appreciate his wit. There’s allegedly a studio audience, but one that I imagine is strapped to their chairs, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to laugh loudly at that ever-illuminating laughter sign. This is a mostly improvised comedy program. I understand that not every gem from the mouths of these famous funnypeople will have a crackerjack punchline. Some of it may be lame, some serious, some deeply unsettling. But what’s even more unsettling, in a David Lynch’s “Rabbits” sort of way? When the audience laughs uproariously at things that aren’t even really jokes. It’s creepy. And corny. And tedious.

Another misstep that has been pointed out by many critics is the presence of poor NBC newswoman Natalie Morales, who must have drawn the short straw somewhere along the line. Smiling uncomfortably and perched on a chair, she does “research” on her little computer and pipes up with banal statistics that she seems to realize we could have easily looked up ourselves if we really cared. This is another retro touch that, as much as Seinfeld may want it to, simply doesn’t work in the age of Wikipedia. Statistics are not hard to find, and this exercise backfires by leaving the guests of honor figeting uncomfortably in silence.

So what’s the point of my analysis? I’m just being hard on Jerry like all of these other critics, never forgiving him for leaving us to wallow in syndication after nine iconic Seinfeld seasons. I believe it’s true that Seinfeld’s involvement has made critics hate the show even more. What betrayal! What bitter disappointment! Our golden boy, our baby blue! But all is not lost. The Marriage Ref can be saved. There is a lot of tweaking that needs to be done. But the idea of three mismatched celebrities actually hanging out and talking to each other, instead of some neutral talk show host, is too exciting to pass up.

It actually reminds me of that other show about a bunch of famous people getting together, joking and arguing about stuff: Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. Jerry Seinfeld was actually featured on the very first episode of that program, which entertainingly combined politics, comedy, and the spectacle of dumb people arguing. Sadly, the show was cancelled amidst Mahr’s (ridiculously overblown) comments regarding the September 11th attacks, in what would be a death-knell for open political discussion on network television. I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate the show until the end of its run, but I think it’s something that The Marriage Ref could look to for guidance. Of course, I’m aware that TMR isn’t at all political, and is supposed to be goofy and lighthearted. But why is it so nervous? One of Mahr’s best qualities and a host (and occasional pundit) is his laid-back nature and sense of reason. TMR comes across as nervous and high-strung as George Costanza during a massage. It needs to let its guests relax, and breathe, and banter like they’ve all been trained to do by publicists and comedy club one-night-stands. It needs to present its likable couples as they are, and trust the audience to acknowledge their quirks for themselves. To answer my question, people hate The Marriage Ref because it tries too hard. Jerry, of all people, should know enough to just relax. He’s even Steven, after all. Things will work out for him.

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Canadian time-travel soap ‘Being Erica’ returns. Don’t like the sound of that? Watch it anyway.

Canadian television has brought few imports to American over the years, though those that have made it across the border have developed surprising rabid followings, i.e. SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and Degrassi. Though these few successes have not done much to whet the American appetite for Canadian shows, cable channel SoapNet has begun to add the occasional Canadian soap/drama to its lineup of American daytime soaps and reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210, One Tree Hill, and The O.C. They began by broadcasting  2008’s elaborately trashy MVP (basically Footballers’ Wives with hockey), and last year ran the first season of Being Erica, a dramedy which plays more like a combination of Ally McBeal and The X Files than SoapNet’s typical programming.

Erin Karpluk as Erica Strange

The premise is this: Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk), a single Jewish Torontonian in her early thirties, is not happy with her life. She gets fired from her job, has strained relations with her family, and carries a torch for her married best friend. This all leads her to Dr. Tom (Michael Riley), a mysterious therapist who sends her back in time to work through her regrets. Each episode finds Erica hitting another on her list, from her parents’ divorce to her sister’s wedding to, ultimately, her brother’s death. These trips to the past usually feature some 90’s related fashion faux pas and cringingly misplaced references to Chumbawumba and Britney Spears. But the surprise is that it’s still good. Somehow this ridiculous premise becomes not only extremely watchable, but emotionally resonant.

Part of this success is due to the carefully drawn characters and their relationships. Erica is not, as one might initially think, a dizzy-neurotic stereotype in the mold of Friends. Her relationships with her parents, sister, and friend Katie are complicated, and their realism makes the show so genuine that the audience isn’t as concerned with the logistics of time travel. It’s also worth noting that Erica is a practicing Jew (her father’s a Rabbi), a fact that blends seamlessly into the show (one episode revolves around Erica’s Bat Mitzvah), and something we rarely see represented fully on American television. The only character that’s not quite up to snuff is Ethan, Erica’s milquetoast love interest who generates about as much heat on-screen as the icy Canadian tundra. But it’s inspiring, in a way, that the strongest characters on the show (and the strongest actors, led by the endearing Karpluk) are female.

The most affecting episode thus far was Being Erica‘s season one finale, in which Erica dealt with the death of her brother Leo. It’s these types of plotlines that give the show its weight. Leo’s death was there the whole season, rearing its ugly head just when we thought we could float away on a cloud of Ethan and Erica romance plots. Played by the expressive young (and might I say, dreamy, but ahem, young) actor Devon Bostick, Leo is a confused young man screwed up by his parents’ divorce. His death, though an accident, is the culmination of a year of discontent in the Strange household. So as not to ruin the dramatic heft of the episode for new viewers, I’ll just say that it’s a complicated plot that is somewhat resolved, but not as neatly as one might hope. Erica’s time travel is not supposed to change the events of her life; it’s supposed to change her perspective. It is, after all, therapy. It’s painful.

Which brings us to season two. Disappointingly, due to CBC budget cuts, this season will only feature twelve episodes. The first, “Being Dr. Tom” premiered last Wednesday and focused on the therapist’s mysterious past. It seems as though this season will go with a bit of a different angle (as many of Erica’s regrets have already been revisited), but hopefully it will keep showing the same warmth and commitment to character week after week. Not too shabby for a SoapNet show.

Being Erica season 2 airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SoapNet.

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Ode to Andy Richter, Antihero of Late Night

The Tonight Show controversy of late has audiences rallying around Conan O’Brien, that lanky redheaded purveyor of weirdness who spent years on the Late Show celebrating the absurd: the masturbating bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, “Driving the Desk,” staring contests and “In the Year 2000” were among the segments that lasted far longer and were way more memorable that even Conan himself would have predicted. His self-deprecating monologues and silly stunts with guests (like cutting Dave Foley’s hair) set him apart from the lame grandfatherly vibe of Jay Leno and Letterman’s biting sarcasm. Late Night with Conan O’Brien became one of my favorite shows in probably about 1997, when I was old enough to stay up that late and probably still not quite old enough to get all the jokes. I stopped watching it much in 2000, when the show lost some of its spark. The reason for this? The departure of Andy Richter.

A friend of SNL head writer and Conan producer (and voice of Triumph) Robert Smigel, Richter was originally hired as a writer for Late Night, but just before the show aired was brought on as an Ed McMahon-style sidekick. And the rest is history. Salon’s Heather Havrilesky wrote yesterday on Salon about how Conan has never been afraid to be weird, to trust that American audiences were not simply looking for a retread of Johnny Carson’s gentle schtick. But a lot of the time on Late Night, Conan played straight man to his growing cadre of weirdo sidekicks: first Andy, then Max, then Joel, the psychotic announcer. Andy Richter’s late night persona involved decidedly more than just supplying a “human laugh track,” a la McMahon. He wasn’t the best friend, guy-next-door kind of sidekick but rather an awkward, hapless eccentric who often became of the focus of a sketch’s humor (as in the classic staring contests).

Andy’s chubby, baby-faced appearance and Midwestern background made him the perfect Mutt and Jeff-style opposite to Conan’s gawky New Englander. During Conan and Andy’s nightly bull sessions, a conversation about Andy’s weekend, delivered with aw, shucks good humor, would typically spin into off-color stories that hinted at an odd and depraved lifestyle. Unlike Max Weinberg, who we want to love but who weirds us out, Andy’s weirdness is what makes him a lovable comedian and sidekick. It also makes him a gamble for a talk show. This is the joke that Andy’s best sketches are often built around: he’s not the kind of guy most people are dying to see on television. His persona makes Conan O’Brien look comparably suave and camera-ready.

In one of my favorite Late Night sketches ever (which doesn’t seem to be available online), Andy trains to become a weatherman, only to find that he lacks all the appropriate skills (charisma, self-confidence, an understanding of how television works) and even wears a bright blue suit that causes him to blend into the weather map. In another early segment, “Runaway with Andy” (a travel show spoof narrated by Robin Leach), he travels to Coney Island with Abe Vigoda, where they taunt guard dogs and wander aimlessly, unhappily, past rows of boarded up amusements. And who could forget his fake talk show, “Andi,” which fails to produce proper guests or any conflict? Andy Richter, antihero.

I don’t know what Andy plans to do now (from his statement though, I’d guess he’s pretty pissed), but I hope he gets another chance to work his queasy-awkward magic on television audiences. It seems his best foray into television, the short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe (great vid of highlights here), has developed enough of a cult following to warrant a DVD release. However, he’s had enough failed sitcoms that this slap in the face from NBC might be his last straw. I hope not!

The world of late night is better with Andy Richter in it.

And I leave you with some great links:

Andy’s POV (terrible quality, but classic Andy)

Andy performing Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” (also bad quality recording)

Andy wiping the floor with Wolf Blitzer and Dana Delaney on Jeopardy

The Circle Line Show (Classic Late Night)

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Aughts TV Revisited: The Magic of “The Office”

I must admit, the beginning of the aughts did not set my expectations high for television in the new millenium. Reality shows were in full controversial flux, with the likes of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Joe Millionaire making headlines for bringing out the worst in people. There was the influx of boring game shows with Matrix-like sets (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link), the growth of procedural dramas, and the quite decline of my favorite genre, the sitcom. The nineties seemed impossible to top, having given us the greatness of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons at its best. The networks tried to hang onto the genre with flat family centered fare like Yes, Dear and According to Jim. But in 2001, a BBC show called The Office came along that reinvented the sitcom and made the aughts bearable long after its short run. Its American version, along with newer hits Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Arrested Development owe it a debt in terms of style and subtlety. The Office‘s influence is more potent than ever six years after its series finale.

With the American Office currently surfing that same tide that compelled Fonzie to jump the shark, it becomes clear that one of the smartest decisions Gervais and Merchant made with the original was letting it go in its prime. Part of this was due to early struggles with ratings, but on American television it is unheard of for a show to complete two seasons and two specials, achieve massive international success and acclaim, and then go quietly into the night. This decision leaves the show fresh in our minds and joyfully re-watchable; it hangs together like a film, and its seriality is emphasized and clear. No plot becomes unwieldy or far-fetched as so many sitcom plots do. The first season is more lighthearted and comedic, with the second season twisting into drama and bringing us to an almost gut-wrenching low point in the first Christmas special.

What remains most influential about The Office as a sitcom is its documentary-style set up, with cameras catching what appear to be offhand exchanges and conducting confessional-style interviews with characters. The dialogue is tightly scripted, and it’s a tribute to great writing and acting that it appears so off-the-cuff.  It is through this innocuous lens that we meet David Brent, Gervais’s self-absorbed boss who tells juvenile jokes and talks in circles about his life and management philosophies (he’d like to be remembered as “the man who put a smile on the face of all who he met”). But he’s so much more than that. His childish jealousy and insecurity lead to a number of the show’s best moments (a singalong of his band, Foregone Conclusion’s, repertoire; a dance-off with Swindon boss Neil), and his personal experiences later in the series are the most affecting. We also have Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a character who is at once a serious know-it-all and a childish naif; Tim (Martin Freeman), a witty average joe who still, at the age of 30, sleeps in his childhood bedroom and has no idea what to do with his life;  and Dawn (Lucy Davis), a bored receptionist set to marry a creep who won’t let her pursue her dream of being an artist.

We grow to love these characters despite the obvious flaws and poor decision-making of each, and in addition to laughing at and with them, we also feel wounded with Tim when he’s bullied by Chris Finch, trapped with Dawn when she moves to Florida with Lee, and rejected with David when he loses his job at Wernam-Hogg. We’ve all spent time in a place like Slough, less a town and more of a state of mind: bleak, confining, routine. The Office Christmas specials were the most impressive of the series because they weren’t afraid to dwell, to an uncomfortable extent, on the dark undertones of the show. The point of the Office, is seems to me, was to focus on the ways in which people get trapped in jobs and life, and how we cope with this by scaling our fantasies down and attempting to act them out within these confines. We see this in the way David slumps in his hotel after a degrading promotional appearance, and in the way Tim accepts David’s old position and begins adopting his own Brent-ish management speak.

The end of the series is, of course, some of the most satisfying television ever created (from Tim’s illustrated note to Dawn, “Never give up,” to David’s long-awaited dressing-down of Chris Finch). The characters seem to finally have what they need to move forward in life. The series doesn’t push it, however, so once the euphoria wears off we won’t be stuck seeing the characters’ lives falter once again. What makes The Office so special, I think, is something its imitators can’t get a handle on: dynamics. Like great composers, Gervais and Merchant attuned the audience to subtle shifts in mood. They brought us down and back up again, the whole time laughing, squirming, and feeling.

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Television, “Flow” and “Liveness”

Last Saturday evening, I attempted, yet again, to participate in a Saturday Night Live live thread offered by Jezebel.com, one of the few outlets for casual, adult fans of television shows to participate in. All I had to do was create a profile, and then I could join the group in discussing everything from Seth Rogen’s hosting abilities to ads airing on the commercial breaks. I was foiled again, however. It turns out that Jezebel requires “auditioning” to be a commenter on their site, which means that until I build up an impressive cache of witticisms, nothing I say will appear on the site. Unfortunately, this means the clever comment I attempted to post regarding Seth Rogen’s new “mall cop” film will not appear on the site until this week’s SNL liveblog is ancient history. Nervous as I was to enter this seemingly close-knit group of Jezebel and SNL devotees, it was even more ostracizing to learn that I was being screened as a potentially antagonistic, boring, or simple-minded commenter with nothing better to do than clog up their threads with my petty ramblings. I have yet to be approved, as there’s something pitiful about posting comments you know won’t show up soon, or possibly ever. This interesting turn of events, however, does relate to my post from two weeks ago on Gawker Media. Jezebel, as one of the Gawker sites, has a snarky-yet-sweet reputation to uphold. Much like Gawker’s “follow my example” Oscars liveblog, Jezebel‘s commenting policy puts restrictions on participants in order to uphold a certain image and credibility. If they open up the live thread to just anyone, they fear they’ll become a site like Perez Hilton, whose commenters are known for their crude, expletive-laden and banal posts.

Despite this liveblogging roadblock, I was still able to follow along with the live thread while watching Saturday Night Live (despite the Beavis and Butthead reruns tempting me from MTV2). Trying to keep up with the comments on the live thread (which were on the whole witty and entertaining), and thinking up my own comments (which I couldn’t help but do though they wouldn’t be published) took a lot of my attention, an aspect of liveblogging I acknowledged a few weeks ago when I tried my hand at it. This led to me to reflect on Raymond Williams’ famous concept of “flow,” and how its definition is being altered in the digital age. In Television, Williams defines flow as a then-new way of thinking about television. Viewing, when controlled by an audience with multiple options, becomes not programming but flow, or the television sequences a viewer takes in in a single sitting. He writes, “It is evident that what is now called ‘an evening’s viewing’ is in some ways planned, by providers and then by viewers, as a whole; that it is in any event planned in discernible sequences which in this sense override particular programme units” (Williams 93). What happens, then, if flow starts to encompass more than what is on TV? With liveblogging, viewers are combining these online dialogue “sequences” with their regular television viewing, and because it’s directly related to the program, it seems to be part of flow. Even networks are picking up on this and scheduling “live chats” with various contestants, actors, creators, etc. for directly after the programs on which they’re featured. We might also consider American Idol’s voting process a part of its flow, meaning that “an evening’s viewing” constitutes not only a television, but a cell phone.

np-00304-c1Henry Jenkins and others have written on the concept of “overflow,” a term derived from Williams that covers the process of one medium’s content (like a television show) spilling over into other media (like a video game or fan forum). However, I would argue that liveblogging and something like American Idol‘s voting process are unique, and both fit into Williams’ definition of flow, as they are not just connected by content, but by simultaneous experience.

In his essay “Television’s Next Generation,” William Uricchio states that the concept of flow has changed because “the agency of the television programmer has been displaced by the RCD-equipped viewer, who in turn has been displaced by metadata programmers and adaptive agent designers” (Uricchio 178). He also foresees that “the liveness and pseduo-liveness that Williams described as a characteristic of the medium will be dropped for the virtuality and omnipresence offered by filters and adaptive agents in combination with digital video recorders” (Uricchio 179). It’s true that DVRs, TIVO and online streaming of television have changed the way we think of flow, how sequences and disruptions are structured, and who has a stake in planned flow (now more people than ever). However, Uricchio’s argument about the liveness of television overlooks the very practices I’ve been discussing. Due to the aggressiveness of the online “spoiling” community, pseudo-liveness has become almost as important to popular television today as pseudo-realness. Reality shows, especially American Idol, thrive on liveness. It’s what makes them relevant and important to their audiences. The incorporation of other media into television flow is a product of this “liveness.” Viewers need to vote directly after an Idol broadcast by texting with their phones. Saturday Night Live viewers rate good and bad sketches on Jezebel‘s live thread while they’re watching them.

Sure, because of DVRs, VCRs, online streaming, syndication, etc., viewers no longer have to turn on the television at a certain time to see a certain show. However, the fast-paced Internet television fan community (as well as the structure of reality shows like Idol) make it desirable for viewers to be there the first time around. The pseudo-liveness that might have begun as simply a “characteristic of the medium” has actually become an important selling point for television, perhaps the key to its relevance. Like radio, it offers spontaneity and a refreshingly limited number of options. As I noted in my last post on liveblogging the real, we want to feel present in our own culture; to be there to respond, document, and remember. Convergence culture supports this desire, which in turn supports television’s place in our lives.

Works Cited

Uricchio, William. “Television’s Next Generation.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Eds. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Routledge, 1974.

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Liveblogging the Real

So far on this blog, I’ve discussed liveblogging and television viewing mostly as it relates to narrative television shows and reality shows. There’s another area in which liveblogging is becoming more popular, however, and that’s news and real media events. CNN has led the pack on the news/liveblog pairing by offering open threads during two of their most popular programs, Larry King Live (which is more of an entertainment program) and Anderson Cooper 360. Yesterday’s edition of the latter featured fans first commenting about the show and Cooper himself (“Wow Anderson…what an introduction,” “Anderson’s back! Loved the live broadcasts from London”), then turning to discussing the news of the day. What is interesting (though not surprising) about these news-show liveblogs is that there is not a lot of commentary about the program itself and the way its presenting the news. Like most people watching a news program, they are simply looking for others to discuss the events of the world with as they hear about them. On this particular evening, the main subjects were the Binghamton, NY shootings and Iowa’s court decision upholding same-sex marriage rights. Some sample comments:

Maren in Oregon: [on Binghamton] The circumstances of the killings are all different, but the story of the killers seems always the same: loner, collect or buy serious weapons; silent, anti-social, depressed.

Barbara in Boston: [on Iowa] I think this is a civil rights issue and that rulings like this are progress towards greater civil liberties for all.

More on Binghamton:

Isabel: What traumatic situation for the mother of this lady …

Emma: Unbelievable…….I wonder if they’ll ever find out what set him off.

The comments proceed like this throughout the thread. There is not a lot of argument on this particular evening, but a lot of support: when commenters respond to each other, they tend to make remarks like “Good point!” and then add to or answer another commenter’s question. The tone here is obviously quite different from that of the snarky responses to narrative television. There is the sober recognition that this is real, and there’s no joking around.

One benefit some might see to liveblogs of this nature would be the possibility of a critical close reading in the vein of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Viewers watching have the chance to analyze and respond to the way the news media spins narratives, reveals its biases, and manipulates the audience. There has been some of this cropping up on the web, mostly related to Fox News, but these are all separate blog: this kind of analysis rarely takes place in the liveblogs offered by the networks themselves.

Liveblogging is also part and parcel of the age in which newsworthy events unfold before us in real time, via the media. In his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard writes about how the media build up to certain events, like wars, and subsequent media “coverage” of them is no longer war at all, but becomes pure illusion. He writes, “We are no longer in a logic of the passage from virtual to actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual” (Baudrillard 27). He goes on to state that it is precisely the “real time” nature of media coverage of war that caused this shift: ” ‘real time’ information loses itself in a completely unreal space, finally furnishing the images of pure, useless, instantaneous television where its primordial function interrupts, namely that of filling a vacuum, blocking up the screen hole through which escapes the substance of events” (Baudrillard 31). He discusses the Gulf War coverage and its predilection for extensive focus on planning, strategy, speculation, and buildup, and notes Saddam Hussein (and others’) awareness of the performative and narrative aspects of this television war.

The feature of this type of coverage that is most relevant here, however, is the cavalcade of “experts” and “specialists” trotted out to analyze each situation as it unfolds before our eyes. This is a feature that has become ubiquitous on cable (and network) television news, and the news event liveblog has, in many ways, become an extension of it. The liveblog allows us not only to register our reactions to certain events, but to take part in what we think might just be an important historical event. We want to saturate ourselves in this event, feel a part of it, predict it, and perhaps (especially in the case of 9/11) help others solve or make sense of it. Baudrillard writes, “The war, along with the fake and presumptive warriors, generals, experts, and television presenters we see speculating about it all through the day, watches itself in a mirror: am I pretty enough, am I operational enough, am I spectacular enough, am I sophisticated enough to make an entry onto the historical stage?” (Baudrillard 31-32)

At this point, media coverage of September 11th is the most interesting evidence we have of the way real time media changes the way we view the world. Though there were no liveblogs (that I could locate) of the event, regular people participated in the coverage by photographing, videotaping, and later recounting their versions of events to various news outlets. Television coverage of the event (available via youtube) demonstrates exactly what makes real time media participation so irresistable: the “narrative” is still coming together, and we have the power to shape it. Many conspiracy theories have come from the fact that there were so many conflicting eye witness accounts thrown around in the media immediately following the attacks. Awestruck bystanders reported seeing military planes, exploding bombs, and many other things that were later discounted, but they remained in the minds of those of us watching. The real time coverage in this case seemed to be the opposite of the Gulf War coverage as characterized by Baudrillard: there was no buildup, just event and aftermath, and an atmosphere of unpredictability and panic exuded from our TV sets. It was only in the coverage following the initial hysteria that the narrative began to come together, leading to the intensely manipulated media coverage of the “war on terror” and the Iraq War to follow.

It is this type of spontaneity, then, that I think today’s livebloggers wish to capture when they chronicle news events. We want to capture a historical event before it becomes history, but most of the time, as in the case of Obama’s inaguration, the events and public reaction to them have been predetermined. We hope, through liveblogging, to capture an honest moment of history-in-the-making, like the Zapruder film or NBC’s live shot of tower two being struck.

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