Television Narrative Symposium: A Conference Report

By Martin Zeller-Jacques and Christopher Hogg
Printable version Friday 10 February 2012 Last updated at 11:20

Television Narrative Symposium, University of York, 28th May, 2011

The recent discursive boom around ‘quality’ television and the resultant textual turn in television scholarship has led to a wealth of new work on television narrative during the past decade.  In addition to a range of edited collections devoted to individual series and to the quality television phenomenon in general, there have been a variety of book-length treatments of the changes in contemporary television narrative, including Glen Creeber’s Serial Television (2004), Robin Nelson’s State of Play (2007) and Trisha Dunleavy’s Television Drama (2010), as well as important contributions made in Sharon Marie Ross’s work on television and the internet, and seminal articles by Jason Mittell, Michael Newman and Greg Smith.  Seeking to clarify and develop upon the work of these scholars, the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, in conjunction with the Centre for Modern Studies, at the University of York recently brought together a range of established academics and postgraduate researchers in a Television Narrative Symposium. 

The first panel of the day focused on questions of branding and its effect on narrative.  Anthony Smith (University of Nottingham) offered a detailed investigation of the loss-leader strategies underlying AMC’s use of original series imitating the slow narrative pace and visual distinction of many subscription cable series in order to increase the value of its entire brand.  Lacking the in-house production capabilities and direct commodity relationship with consumers enjoyed by subscription cable powerhouses like HBO, AMC, Smith argued, is even more reliant upon establishing a distinctive brand which can increase both subscription fees and advertising revenues channel-wide.  Continuing the mixture of formal and industrial analysis, Catherine Oakley (University of York), examined the Mad Men’s liminality both in terms of its narrative structure and the gaps between seasons forced upon the show by the well-publicised conflict between creator/producer Matthew Weiner and AMC.  Revisiting discourses around branding from a UK perspective, Douglas McNaughton (Queen Margaret University) examined the relaunch of the BBC’s Dr Who.  Basing his analysis on a study of online fan reactions to the series, he contended that recent iterations of the series functioned simultaneously as rebranding, remake and ultimately as Baudrillardian simulation of Dr Who.

Following on from Jason Mittel’s work, the second panel was devoted to examinations of narrative complexity in contemporary American television.  Heather McLendon (University of York) examined the way Lost utilized the operational aesthetic to hook viewers with its early episodes.  Meanwhile, both Manel Jiminez-Morales (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Martin Zeller-Jacques (University of York) examined the end-focused complex television shows they had both dubbed ‘apocalyptic’ television narratives.  While Jiminez-Morales approached these shows through the lens of the narratological work of Roland Barthes and the transformation of American society in the wake of September 11th, Zeller-Jacques did so through a combination of textual and contextual analysis.  Both, however, drew attention to the effect on such narratives of the twin pressures to both continue indefinitely and to progress towards an already-defined ending.

The final panel of the day drew upon a variety of disciplinary approaches.  Joanne Knowles (Liverpool John Moores University) discussed the postfeminist romance narratives of recent television dramas depicting the ‘alternative lives’ of supernaturally or sexually exceptional heroines of True Blood and The Secret Diaries of a Call Girl.  Meanwhile Christopher Hogg (University of York) examined the tension between long-form serial television narratives and formal acting training which focuses on character development in short-form narratives, and outlined a planned programme of interviews with various television performers as an area for further study.  Returning to textual analysis, Maria Glombek (University of York) analysed the representation of powerful and intelligent characters in American serial dramas, illuminating the narrative and ideological assumptions purveyed in House, Bones, The Mentalist and Numb3rs.

The keynote was delivered by Dr Matt Hills (Cardiff University) and examined ‘Reimagined Cult Television: Remakes, Reboots and Narratives of Neo-Cult’.  Using ‘Neo-Cult’ texts such as the relaunched Dr Who as a prism through which to examine different levels of narrative address and narrative engagement, Hills proposed a discursive approach to television narrative which would acknowledge the effect of paratextual positioning as well as various audience discourses in shaping the perception of television and transmedia narratives.  Challenging understandings of narrative as something intrinsic to a particular text, he drew together various threads of the papers which had already been presented, citing examinations of the effect of marketing or audience engagement upon narrative as evidence of an emerging trend towards a discursive understanding of narrative.  By providing a unifying impulse to these previously disconnected approaches, Hills issued a call for new approaches to television narrative which might be capable of addressing the manifold multi-media narratives of television’s present and future.



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