The Chronicle Review

It’s Not TV. It’s the Syllabus.

The television-studies boom

September 20, 2017

HBO, Photofest
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in "Game of Thrones." The field of TV studies is surging as television becomes the dominant storytelling medium of our time.

Earlier this month, scholars from around the world gathered at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain for an academic conference on a topic of great importance to millions of people: Game of Thrones.

It was the first-ever scholarly meeting dedicated to the hit HBO show, but it’s hardly the first time the academy has considered it worthy of serious study. At Harvard University this fall, students can take a medieval history course rooted in the show and George R.R. Martin’s books. Another HBO show, The Wire, has been the subject of a class taught by William Julius Wilson on urban inequality. And for years now, there have been academic conferences for shows like The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and those are just ones I’ve attended.

The field of TV studies didn’t even exist when I first started on my path as a scholar and critic in the 1970s. Now, both the art form and the discipline devoted to it are experiencing a boom of sorts (something I’ve called the "Platinum Age of TV"). In some ways, TV studies are more needed now than ever — and not least because we elected a reality TV star as president.

TV has evolved into something our grandparents wouldn’t have recognized. From the method of delivery (streaming, social media) to content to form, television has developed in rich, unruly ways. But where once the medium bound the nation together, it has become, much like other media, fragmented and confusing, much better at catering to individual tastes but at the expense of offering a common language. That fracturing poses a challenge for scholars of an art form that has (last week’s lowest-rated Emmys notwithstanding) become the dominant storytelling medium of our time.

In The Image, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote, "I do not know of a regular course on the art of the movies in a department of literature in a single major university."

That was in 1962. Soon after that declaration, film studies exploded on campuses nationwide. It had taken more than 50 years for the movies to be accepted as a worthy subject of academic study.

The acceptance of TV as a serious subject of study has followed a similar path. "Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading," Marshall McLuhan, the first major guru of the medium of television, wrote in 1964, in his preface to Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. "Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form." With film and TV, especially, it seems to be a three-step process of advancement: first the technology, then the content, and then, finally, the acceptance as a meaningful art.

In the 1970s, when I was in college, only a handful of books existed that were dedicated solely to television. With dreams of becoming a TV critic, I had to cobble together my own TV-studies "major" at the University of Florida, by taking courses in communications law, statistics (to understand ratings), and various film-history courses.

Another TV professor, Horace Newcomb, had the same experience. He was studying literature and history in the 1960s but began to be interested in how TV was telling stories structurally. "The University of Chicago, where I went to graduate school, had no media studies, no film studies," he recalled. In the late ’60s, Newcomb sat in on an undergraduate course at Chicago taught by John Cawelti, whom Newcomb credits as "the first major person in the humanities to teach popular culture as a serious study." Newcomb ended up at the University of Maryland and became a TV critic for the Baltimore Sun.

Just as critics and academics were paying more attention to the content of television, the medium itself was becoming more artistically sophisticated. Todd Gitlin, for example, had the good fortune to train his spotlight on TV just as MTM Enterprises — the production company founded by Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, Grant Tinker, — was changing the industry with such groundbreaking series as Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues. Gitlin tracked three series, then in development, about the Vietnam War. The result was his 1983 book, Inside Prime Time, which dissected TV from both the creative and network sides.

And Gitlin wasn’t alone in producing scholarly work. A well-researched, well-written British collection called MTM: "Quality Television," more academic than mainstream, was published in 1984. By the end of the decade, books about television, along with college courses about TV, were becoming more commonplace. The big leap occurred the following decade when HBO unveiled The Sopranos, erasing all doubt about the medium’s worthiness as a subject of study. Since then, TV studies on college campuses has been a robust growth industry.

Not everyone finds the acceptance of TV as a subject of serious study something to celebrate. Gitlin recently told me that promoting such a thing as "essential TV" or "claiming for it some supreme theoretical merit" was "outlandish and ridiculous." For all the strides TV scholars have made, there is still some skepticism in academe. Courses in TV studies may be well-attended but that may indicate an assumption that the course will be "fun" as much as it reveals enthusiasm for the subject.

There’s no victory to declare in this war for legitimacy — not yet. And now, with the drastic changes the field has undergone in recent years, TV scholars need to reassess what function their discipline serves. A generation ago, local TV stations, programming syndicated reruns of old shows and movies, presented our entire nation a collective canon. From The Honeymooners to the Marx Brothers, we were given, and eagerly devoured, a shared communal syllabus. In this age of streaming and an endless roster of cable and satellite channels, this syllabus has been ripped up.

TV is worth studying for many reasons. It is how most Americans learn history. Both overtly and by implication, TV has much to teach us about race, about the fight for women’s equality, about the presence in society of previously invisible people, about myriad social and cultural issues. And as a form, TV has made leaps with each decade, becoming rich terrain for literary and visual analysis.

TV scholars can continue to dig into such terrain. But we can’t miss the larger picture. In a time of rapid transition, we need to remember the purpose TV once served — a common text for a vast, diverse country — and to reflect on how the discipline can revivify that purpose.

David Bianculli is a professor of TV and film at Rowan University, and a TV critic and guest host for NPR’s "Fresh Air with Terry Gross." His latest book, The Platinum Age of Television: From "I Love Lucy" to "The Walking Dead," How TV Became Terrific, has just been released in paperback by Anchor Books.