Oct 24, 2011

REVIEW | Television in Transition, Shawn Shimpach, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Television in Transition, Shawn Shimpach, 2010
Television in Transition is a scholarly dissection of what television, as an industry and art medium, is capable of doing to thrive in a world where technology threatens to make anyone with a smartphone an executive producer.

As an art form, television in the contemporary period is undergoing what many critics believe to be a Golden Age.  While there is still a near-infinite amount of mindless trash (this is not a bad thing!) available on the airwaves, there are also an amazing amount of programs featuring great storytelling and aesthetically appealing production values.  We are not to the point where for every Bad Girls Club there's a Breaking Bad, but generally speaking, it's a good time to be alive for TV fans.

In my opinion, Television in Transition is an underachieving success.  The author accomplishes his purported goal, but given the research and obvious work put into the book, it could have been so much more.  Admittedly, my expectations may have been set a bit high by what I originally perceived to be a wider focus on the medium as a whole.

Shimpach uses the first chapter to examine the changes in technology, regulations and the world in general over the past thirty years and the challenges these have brought to the disseminators of television.  The second chapter, titled "The Hero," is an in-depth look at what makes an heroic character successful in television.  According to the author: a heterosexual white male.  He begins the chapter by bringing up nineteen different moderately successful shows featuring non-white or female protagonists and then immediately dismisses them.  This is where the focus begins to narrow.

The third chapter, "How to Watch Television," is the final setup chapter before the case studies begin.  Shimpach discusses the four examples to come and the proper manner (textually speaking) in which to view the programs.  Highlander, Smallville, 24, and Doctor Who are the basis of the final four chapters and the crux of the book's in-depth analysis.
Smallville, 2001  

These sections are highly informative as well as entertaining.  The chapters examine the way each of these programs found a new way to tell a commercially viable story about a good looking white guy and the obstacles they (the showrunners, not the characters) had to overcome.  Doctor Who doesn't quite fit with the rest of these, and I strongly suspect it got lumped in because the author's a fan and it fits with a complex metaphor he makes about TV as a spatial and temporal medium.

He concludes with what seems to be the beginning of another chapter: an examination of NBC's Heroes and their use of a diversified cast and multi-platform approach to storytelling.  But he mentions the show's cancellation and fails to draw any strong links between it and his other studies.

My problem with Television in Transition is probably my own.  From the jacket:
...examines the narrative and institutional paradigms of textual afterlife to offer a highly original explanation of how innovation takes place within the television industry's management of predictability, risk, and familiarity.
It's just that with an author this capable and talented, I really wanted him to look at other shows that were going on while he was conducting his study.  Shows like The Sopranos or Arrested Development whose success* relied on the "innovation" of telling a good story and telling it well.  It would have been nice to have seen him cover a wider array of subject matter, but I guess like a good TV episode, he just left me wanting more.

*Yes, I said success.  Although the major networks still rely mainly on the antiquated Nielsen ratings, content producers are finally beginning to realize that DVD sales or the prestige a show brings to a network can sometimes mean more than how much a 30-second ad spot sells for.  So by the new metric and in the long run, Arrested Development was a success.

- John Elmore


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