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

As you wrote the book, you clearly struggled with the issue of how to balance the classic examples in the field, many of which reflect the successive generations of television scholarship, with the need for contemporary examples which are relevant to the current generation of students. How did you resolve that issue?

I hope I resolved it! The book was based on my own course (also entitled “Television and American Culture”) which has evolved over the past decade. I initially began teaching the course as a chronological history of broadcasting, starting with radio, moving through network television, and ending up in the convergent present – there are good textbooks to frame such a historical narrative. But I found that students taking the only television-centered course in the curriculum were itching to talk about the contemporary context – while I would highlight how early radio frames our understanding of 1990s internet, or 1950s single-sponsorship helps explain contemporary product placement, I found that the course wasn’t working well to either capture the historical or the contemporary, and needed to be restructured.

When I shifted to a topical format that mirrors the structure of the book, I found that historical examples could work well to help explain what students think they know about the present. Thus it’s essential to understand All in the Family to grasp South Park or Chappelle’s Show, or the 1950s quiz show cycle to contextualize the 2000s reality boom. While the book is not a substitute for a television history text or course, I hope it’s complementary to such histories, and lends itself to various teaching contexts. If a curriculum has only one TV-centric course (like at Middlebury), the book can frame the medium while introducing its history; if there are other courses in television history, the references should build on that exposure and knowledge to deepen students’ understanding. And the book hopefully stands alone outside the teaching context, serving as an introduction to the academic study of television for readers of all ages with an intellectual interest in media. Or at least that’s what I was aiming for.

A current debate in television studies centers around our tendency to focus on hip programs with self-reflective elements or on ensemble cast dramas to the exclusion of other genres and formats which often have much higher viewership. How did you confront this challenge in designing your textbook?

When choosing examples and areas to cover, my first imperative was to pick examples that spoke to students and encouraged them to look deeper into the shows that they know and enjoy. So while using programs like South Park, The Simpsons, Lost, and The Daily Show as examples does cater to my own tastes, it is really motivated by student interest – I have found that students get really excited when I tell them about my research on The Wire and Lost, much more than my work on Dragnet! Contemporary programs that get high ratings, like Two and a Half Men and NCIS, are not on the radar of most undergraduates, and thus fall short as pedagogical examples.

Additionally, I have no doubt that the historical significance of the more groundbreaking and “hip” shows will be more long-lasting than many of today’s conventional hits, and thus tackling innovations is a better long-term strategy than looking at today’s typical television. For example, John Fiske’s examination of Hart to Hart in Television Culture is a great analysis, but virtually incomprehensible to readers today who have never heard of the show. Todd Gitlin’s account of Hill Street Blues from the same era is much more readable and relevant because that more innovative show has lingered in consciousness and curricula.

That being said, I made a conscious effort to include sections on reality television, game shows, talk shows, soap operas, the news, and educational television. The world of television programming is so vast and expansive that it’s impossible to be comprehensive. I didn’t attempt to account for every genre and programming trend, but hopefully readers won’t come away with the common misconception that important or interesting television only airs in primetime on networks or premium cable.

I was struck looking at the references in your book by how much television studies has expanded and matured as a field over the past decade. How did the current state of this field impact the decisions you made in creating this book?

The primary job of a textbook is to synthesize the field into an introductory framework; given the growth of television studies in recent years, this was both exciting and daunting. I didn’t want to structure the book by methodology or theoretical approach, which is an organization that some other television textbooks use, so I mapped out the key elements of television and looked for scholarship addressing those core aspects. It also feels like the field has moved away from theoretical modeling and more toward an applied mode – take the approaches to the medium developed in previous eras, and provide detailed historical and analytical accounts of a wide range of examples and moments. Thus it was a rich vein of scholarship to mine.

It was interesting to see what facets of television have not gotten much scholarly attention, and frame the book to invite further investigation. One large area that seems to have been underexplored in recent years is advertising – besides a few specific case studies (like your own work on American Idol) and the typical broad jeremiads against commercialism, I found a lack of culturally-oriented accounts of the contemporary advertising environment, which is undergoing such rapid transformation. This is certainly a fertile area for any graduate students looking for a new project!

There were two smaller areas that seem to have been outside the main thrust of television studies, but I strategically included to inspire more research: copyright and media literacy. Both of these realms are inspiring a tremendous amount of activism and scholarship in other fields, but they have not been addressed by American television scholars as much as I would hope (I do think media literacy education is more central to British television scholarship). Again, I hope the brief sections on these areas will encourage further research.

Others have argued that there has been much more work on the ideological and economic dimensions of television, especially in regard to television audiences, than to the aesthetic dimensions. What challenges did you find in writing the chapters that deal with more formal issues?

A good indicator is that Chapter 5, “Making Meanings” (about the formal dimensions of the television text) is the only one without any endnotes! Not to suggest that there is no scholarship in this area, but it certainly has been less explored than issues of industry, reception, and representation. Most of the core scholarship on the formal elements of television is quite dated today, dealing with examples and modes of production that are less central to contemporary television. In some ways, scholars have been reluctant to return to questions of form and aesthetics due to the politicization of the field (which I’ve written about elsewhere concerning Lost). But I also think it’s because there hasn’t been a recent tradition to build on, and the comparable scholarship from the 1970s is hard to update. So I hope these chapters help lay things out enough to encourage scholars to build on this foundation.

Chapter 5 was in many ways the most difficult to write because of the vast number of terms and ideas that need to be laid out. I was trying to distill a vast formal vocabulary and framework into a succinct chapter, accounting for the variety of television styles spanning fiction and non-fiction, live and recorded onto various media. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of American high school graduates have not been exposed to any formal media education – while we can assume that a college-bound student has at least been exposed to some basic concepts of literary style, there are no guarantees that anybody has been taught the basics of editing and camerawork. Students do know a lot as savvy media consumers or self-taught producers, but the lack of consistent terminology and conceptual framework means that an introductory media course has to cover a lot of ground. So the sections on form and aesthetics is a large “brain dump” of material, that will hopefully be clear enough to provide a solid foundation for students to engage in their own analyses of television programming.

You provide a good deal of original research and analysis in this book. What do you see as the relationship between this textbook and your other scholarly projects, such as you work on genre theory and television, or your analysis of complexity in contemporary television narrative?

When I started the textbook project, my Genre & Television book had recently been released and I was starting to build my narrative project. I conceived as the two modes of writing as distinct – the textbook would be synthesizing other people’s research, and the narrative book would be my own ideas more in line with my first book. But as I got deeper into the textbook, I found that these two modes of writing were far less distinct from one another than I had thought. The textbook does build on others’ works more fully, but I’m still framing arguments, selecting examples and evidence, and guiding readers through a narrative. I also became enamored of a more accessible writing style – while I’ve always tried to write with a minimum of jargon or density, looking back on early publications shows how much my writing style has changed (hopefully for the better!). So I anticipate that even though the ideas will be less synthetic, I hope that the tone and style of my narrative work is more like the textbook than my earlier scholarship.

The other key influence on my writing has been blogging. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how gratifying it is to be able to put up an essay in progress and see the hits accumulate, knowing that people are reading your work, engaging with it, and offering feedback. The textbook has been out in print for a little over a month now, and I feel like it’s less public than it was when I was posting chapter sections on my blog – reading a book is so private and detached from the author. I hope the textbook’s website becomes a place of more active engagement and community once it is adopted and used in classes, but that’s still an unchartered model. In planning my book on narrative, I’m striving to find ways to capture the engagement and immediacy of blogging, even while achieving the more archival mode of book publishing – but that’s a topic for another interview.

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.


  1. Geoffrey Long says:

    I can’t wait to snag a copy!