Reinventing the Television Studies Textbook: An Interview with Jason Mittell (Part One)

I can think of very few examples of textbooks that have made original contributions to scholarship in media studies: Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art and Film History books may be the notable exception. I generally prefer not to use textbooks in my classes, exposing my students to cutting edge articles from books and journals, and increasingly to blog posts from key public intellectuals. Most textbooks homogenize and generalize, lacking the particularity and pointedness of other kinds of academic writing. They try to appeal to everyone, try to include everything that matters, and in the process, they mask the criteria which shape their construction of the field.

For these reasons, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Jason Mittell, who I consider to be one of the top thinkers in television studies, was tackling the task of writing a textbook for this field. Mittell has been working on late on the issue of complexity in television narrative, having already contributed to our understanding of genre and television. We share a common intellectual background — both being alums of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Communications Arts Program. Mittell is involved in our Convergence Culture Consortium and recently posted some interesting thoughts on his Just TV blog which compliments my focus on “spreadability” with what he calls “drillability.” You can learn more about Television and American Culture here.

I had a chance to read some of this textbook project in draft form and was excited by what I saw, so as soon as I heard Television and American Culture was being released, I contact Mittell to do an interview for this blog.

Let me be clear: Mittell has done what I would not have thought possible, creating a compelling, up-to-date wide-reaching, nuanced, readable, and engaging introduction to television studies, a textbook which does what we want a good textbook to do but doesn’t read at all like a textbook. As you will see, I wanted to get the genre theorist Mittell to reflect on textbooks as a genre and on the ways he chose to reinvent that genre through this project. In talking about Television Studies textbooks, Mittell also offers some reflections on why we should study TV and what the current state of the field looks like.

You open the book with a consideration of the Janet Jackson flap at the Super Bowl. What does this incident teach us about the range of different ways television functions in relation to American culture?

This was the first section I wrote during the book proposal process. I knew that the book’s core model would be to show how television, like all media, can be understood as spanning a number of facets that are often treated separately – this was based on the “circuit of culture” model emerging out of British cultural studies in the 1990s. For television, the six facets that I identified are commercial industry, democratic institution, textual form, site of cultural representation, part of everyday life, and technological medium – the first draft of the book actually had only six (very long!) chapters, each covering one of these facets.

In drafting the book’s introduction, I needed to come up with an example that would literally sell the book – to publishers looking at the proposal, to faculty reviewing the book for adoption, and to students on the core concepts and engaging tone to keep them reading. This was in late 2004, so the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” was still a current event, with ongoing legislative and judicial processes. It struck me as a perfect example to demonstrate this circuit of television in action, comprising the full scope of issues within an example that was very easy to write about – you don’t need to see the clip to understand the case study, while many other examples that I could have used required more familiarity with a program, channel, genre, etc. The only problem is that the writing process took long enough that what started as a hot-button contemporary example reads a bit dated for today’s students – and in a few years, it will be old news. So I’m keeping an eye out for a newer example to plug-in for the book’s revised edition.

Many textbooks strive for a “neutral” voice which balances out competing perspectives in the field. You do lay out competing arguments here, but as you note in your introduction, you also take sides, constructing your own arguments about key contemporary trends and programs. How do you see your book relating to the genre expectations surrounding the “textbook”?

When I decided to tackle a textbook, I spent some time reading through a number of textbooks on the market, both within media studies and other fields. What struck me most was how disengaging and dull the majority of them were. Even when they were written by authors who can be lively and compelling writers in their other scholarship, the genre of the textbook seemed to follow the edict of a lot of network television: provide least objectionable content. They present material in a seemingly objective, overly-simplified manner, and write without passion or personality.

I had no interest in writing such a book. And my experiences as a teacher suggests that forcing neutrality, oversimplification, and disengagement results in bad pedagogy and bored students. While I want students to grasp material such as the differences between broadcast networks and cable channels, that’s not the core of education to me – instead, they should be thinking about the significance of these systems more than simply recalling them. So I made it clear to interested publishers that I wanted to write a textbook with a more engaging voice and distinct argumentation – to quote my proposal, “By explicitly offering arguments and challenging assumptions, the book will be designed to engage students and force them to question their own positions, rather than the more typical textbook goal of recalling factual information.” Oxford University Press fully embraced this approach, encouraging me to write the book for a sophisticated and engaged reader, not the typical textbook model.

This approach is certainly forged by my experiences teaching at a top-flight liberal arts college like Middlebury. I work with students who are taking my course as part of a broader liberal arts curriculum, not a pre-professional track that typifies a lot of Communications departments. To fit into an institution like Middlebury College, I need to make the study of television an intellectually-engaging and interdisciplinary endeavor – I wrote this book in many ways to spread that approach of “television studies as a liberal art” more broadly to other types of institutions. I’m optimistic that a lot of faculty will find my book more engaging to teach because it “talks up” to students, rather than assumes that they need to be distracted by glossy photos and random sidebars. We’ll have to see how it’s received by both faculty and students, but I wrote the book that I want to teach from (or would have wanted to read as an undergraduate 20 years ago).

The cover of your book shows contemporary television projected across a range of different screens, some of which look like the boxes we’ve used for years, and

some represent mobile phones, computers, and other emerging platforms. Does the cover of the book signal the obsolescence of its content? At what point as we

explode the range of distribution options, does television cease to be television as a specific medium and begin to blur over into all of the other media around it?

When I started working on this book in 2004, YouTube didn’t exist, iPods had no video capabilities, and networks had only just begun to experiment with putting their programs online. By the time the book came out in 2009, the idea of television as defined by the box in your living room had lost its centrality. And there’s no doubt that the last five years are not the end of this core technological shift – honestly, I don’t know what “television” will mean in another five years. But I’m certain that the history of the medium and its industrial and regulatory systems will still matter – whatever technological ecosystem we’ll be living in during the 2010s and beyond, some remnant of television will matter, just as the lingering presence and influence of print, theater, cinema, and radio still matter today.

The cover was designed to signal the book’s engagement with technologies and programming of the past, present, and future. I suggested the idea of “lots of different shows on a variety of devices” to Oxford, and they came up with a design that I really love. But I’m sure in another decade, it will look like a dinosaur! Of course, the very idea of publishing a “textbook” might be arcane by then as well, so clearly I’ve embarked on a project with a potentially short half-life for both content and form.

You could argue that many of the topics you deal with here – convergence, digitalization, globalization, branding, shifts in audience measurement – are impacting all media. What do you see as the relationship between television studies and a more generalized media studies? Can we read the title of your blog, “JustTV,” as a statement of sorts about how you position yourself in the space between television and media studies?

I see television studies as both on the forefront of media studies, and in danger of being forgotten. In many ways, television studies has led the charge for a humanistic model of media studies, and it has really set the model for a mode of scholarship that is both theoretically sophisticated and accessibly written, socially engaged yet historically grounded. This is probably in large part due to the luck of the draw in its intellectual history, as the field came of age after the peak of high theory in film & literary studies, and was in the right place at the right time to introduce the British cultural studies model to America, in large part through the work of our mutual mentor John Fiske. When I look at the best of media scholarship today, whether it’s about videogames, popular music, or transmedia narrative, I see the influence of television studies of the past two decades and the model it helped establish.

But the danger of convergence is an assumption that all media are the same. This is certainly a lesson that the industry has faced repeatedly, as with ill-fated devices like WebTV, and I’ve seen similar scholarly missteps when academics trained in literature or film try to study a different medium as if it were simply another textual form (I won’t name names here…). Specific aspects of television, from regulation to ratings, help shape the medium to an extent that you can’t simply disregard the industrial systems and viewer practices that are unique to television. So my fear is that as television becomes more diffused – either through technological transformation or dilution across media – media scholars will neglect the specific practices and systems that shape our understanding of the medium. The specific lessons and facets of television studies shouldn’t be lost as the boundaries of the medium blurs.

As for the name of my blog, Just TV refers both to the dismissive reflex common to academics viewing television, and an attempt to delineate the blog’s scope. I do embrace broader issues in media studies, such as gaming, fair use, fandom, etc., but try to tie it to the specificities of television whenever possible. I hope that work like mine and many of my TV-centric peers helps legitimize the medium in the eyes of academia, just as the programming itself is becoming more accepted and embraced by scholars across disciplines. But I’m reminded of a wonderful talk that Charlotte Brunsdon gave at Society for Cinema and Media Studies a few years ago – she warned that “poor old television” might get lost in the transition from cinema studies to a digital-centric media studies, and called for scholarly spaces that still privilege television. Hopefully Just TV fits that bill.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media

Culture, and Chair of Film & Media Culture, at Middlebury College. He is the

author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American

Culture (Routledge, 2004), Television & American Culture (Oxford UP,

2009), numerous essays in journals and anthologies, and the blog Just TV. He

is currently writing a digital book on narrative complexity in contemporary

American television.

Comments

  1. Kevin McLeod says:

    Textbooks are inherently paradoxical. Since the TV industry is about to go through some pretty vast changes (Showtime has ordered no new episodes, the idea of Pilots may be converted to testing sequences) due entirely to economics isn’t a textbook always going to be untimely?