The Chronicle Review

The Paratext's the Thing

January 06, 2014

As the last episodes of Breaking Bad were counting down, AMC's promo pop-ups kept badgering viewers to partake of something called "the two-screen experience." Rather than sitting inert before a single 50-inch flat screen, you should log on to the show's website and participate in real-time chats and interactive razzle-dazzle. Me, I kept thinking: Breaking Bad is the best show on television, a text well worth my undivided attention. What the heck do I want with distracting digital clutter? One screen is plenty.

Increasingly, though, that is a minority opinion. For many viewers, critics, and scholars, the second (and third, fourth, and fifth) screen is as good as the first. In some quarters, the decorative wraparound material—the term of art is "paratext"—is outshining the prize in the box. The irritating distractions have morphed into the main attractions.

The paratext is the satellite debris orbiting and radiating out from the core text: what the post-­telecast chatfest Talking Dead is to The Walking Dead, what Madonna-vs.-Lady Gaga mashups are to the original music videos, what Wolverine action figures are to the X-Men franchise—what all the buzzing swarms of trailers, teasers, bloopers, tweets, swag, webisodes, podcasts, chat rooms, fanzines, geek conventions, DVD extras, synergistic tie-ins, and branded merchandise, in all their infinite varieties, are to the mother ship. If the main text is the great white shark, the paratext is the pilot fish—and if the old-school film critic wanted to sink his teeth into a close textual analysis of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), the paratextual critic prefers to dissect the creation and marketing of Bruce, the mechanical shark at the Universal Studios tour.

Not surprisingly, the territory was first staked out by a French literary theorist in the structuralist mode, Gérard Genette, whose Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, published in 1987 and translated by Cambridge University Press into English in 1997, can lay claim to putting the term into the mouths of graduate students and tenure-trackers. Genette was drawn to the "accompanying productions" flitting around and inside a text, the stuff before, after, and in medias res that filters our perception of it. "Now the paratext is neither on the interior nor on the exterior: It is both; it is on the threshold; and it is on this very site that we must study it, because essentially, perhaps, its being depends upon its site," he decreed with characteristic Gallic clarity. That is, the paratext may look like an expendable spleen, but it is really a vital organ beating within—and without—the body of the text and providing essential life support. (Genette also delineated categories like peritext, epitext, hypertext, and hypotext, but best to take this one prefix at a time.)

Genette's own paratextual affinities were literary—framing devices such as epigraphs, forewords, and afterwords, or supplemental resources such as authorial correspondence, interviews, and diaries—but media scholars quickly latched on to his peripheral vision to zoom in on the infestation of spinoffs and sidebars proliferating in the new digital environment.

To scan the media-studies journals and university-press book lists is to get a sense of how the unbilled extras are hogging the spotlight. For a variety of reasons—a tradition of number-crunching in its communications departments, an un-American penchant for Marxist economic theory, and a state-funded television behemoth—a lot of the research action takes place in England.

At the University of Nottingham, something of a pioneer outpost on the paratextual frontier, the media scholars Paul Grainge, editor of the influential collection Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture From Television to YouTube (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and Catherine Johnson, author of the trailblazing Branding Television (Routledge, 2012), are collaborating on an ambitious paratextual project with Red Bee Media and the British Film Institute for a forthcoming book, Promotional Screen Industries. (In the spirit of their topic, there is an accompanying website.) "Television promotion and design has grown into an art form in its own right, spawning trailers and channel idents that are as memorable for their creative genius as TV programs themselves," asserts the project's publicity release.

Grainge's collection contains a dozen articles on subaltern forms such as "idents," "bumpers," and "IPP's" (to translate from the British: station identifications, midshow teasers for the show you're watching, and "in-programme pointers" or what Yanks call "annoying digital pop-ups"). "'Ephemeral media' invokes screen forms defined by their briefness," writes Grainge. "It describes a range of temporally compressed media that can be viewed or consumed in seconds or minutes, from the promotional texts that function in television's interstitial space to the explosion of online short-forms enabled by web platforms such as YouTube." Grainge and his contributors aim to give the ephemera a permanent home in media studies.

You may have paused over the word "interstitial" above, a paratextual neologism for "the bits in between" the program lineup: If it is listed in TV Guide, it is not an interstitial. In Grainge's Ephemeral Media, John Ellis, a professor of media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, notes that on a cost-per-second basis interstitials (like traditional commercials) are more expensive and meticulously storyboarded than regular programming—a fact that in itself argues for their higher profile in media studies. Traditional commercials are technically interstitials, but they may or may not be classified as paratexts because they tend to play independently of a given program or network. Besides, to the paratextually minded, commercials are so 20th century. Outside of the Super Bowl, the 30-second spot is a vestige of a dying televisual universe.

In another article in the Grainge collection, John T. Caldwell, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, parses the paratextual taxonomy still further. Caldwell makes a "categorical distinction" between "'top-down' corporate paratexts and 'ground-up' worker paratexts"—between a motion-picture trailer from a major studio, say, and the copyright-defying YouTube video that demolishes same. Beware the manipulations of the big-money paratext; celebrate the subversive assault on monolithic entertainment conglomerates by the homemade paratext. However you slice your paratexts, "in today's digital media environment the 'text' itself is becoming increasingly dispersed and this makes paratexts more important and more interesting," says Catherine Johnson in an email. "This has led to a rise of paratextual material that really blurs the boundaries between 'promotion' and 'content,' from spinoff games and webisodes to interactive trailers and user-generated content (such as mashups)."

Jonathan Gray, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, agrees and doubles down. In his aptly titled Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York University Press, 2010), he interprets paratexts not simply as "add-ons, spinoffs, and also-rans," but as an integral part of the program. "They create texts, they manage them, and they fill them with many of the meanings that we associate with them," argues Gray. In calling for an "off-screen studies" to supplement established programs in screen studies and thereby "make sense of the wealth of other entities that saturate the media, and that construct film and television," he is really calling for an end to outmoded hierarchical distinctions. For Gray, the real text is "a larger unit than any film or show that may be a part of it; it is the entire storyworld as we know it." The text is actually all of the above, traditional "text" plus the tag-along paratexts.

In one sense, the critical appetite for extra servings is nothing new. At least since the demise of the New Criticism, where the critic's blinkered eyeballs were glued to the text to the exclusion of all outside forces, scholars of all stripes have attended to secondary material to provide a context, inform a reading, and in general make the meaning of a text richer and more resonant. Especially with the turn to hard-nosed history in the field of film studies in the late 1980s, itself a reaction to the loopier excesses of Euro high theory, cinephiles have flocked to motion­-picture archives to pore over press kits, studio production files, and fan magazines for big-picture background and gossipy tidbits.

To such scholars, a certified digital paratext like the commentary track on a DVD simply expands the range of information that might shed light on the primary document. Listening to a director looking back on a classic film from the 1960s or 1970s that he hasn't thought about frame-for-frame in decades, knowing that this is the one he will be remembered for, can be an illuminating, even moving, master class in filmmaking—as with, for example, John Frankenheimer's scene-for-scene breakdown of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) or Albert Maysles and the late Charlotte Zwerin's sharing their backstage pass on Gimme Shelter (1970).

Yet such old-school media scholarship always used what it called extra- (not para-) textual sources as lenses to bring the main text into clearer focus. The bits on the periphery were worthy of the critical intelligence only insofar as they illuminated the star attraction. The show was still the show. What all the paratextual critics have in common is that they are not particularly interested in individual television programs. In Show Sold Separately, Gray voices a consensus when he declares that paratexts "are often as complex and intricate, and as generative of meanings and engagement, as are the films and television shows that they orbit and establish." Not the play but the paratext is the thing.

For many paratextual critics, however, the paratexts themselves are but connecting threads in the larger fabric of the tele-world known as "branding," a term in corporate and now critical discourse that refers to the identifying imprint of the network. The irony of having a multichannel universe at your fingertips is that most viewers still pick from only a few options on the menu: my channels, my self. To stand out in the static, a network needs to entice viewers not just with a show but a more nurturing, totalizing experience. The net may be narrow (which is why it's called narrowcasting), but the experience needs to be deeply immersive and ever-reinforcing.

Johnson's Branding Television has already become a model for understanding how networks boldface their identities in a struggle to avoid becoming another face in the cable crowd. Stitching together interstitials, logos, and graphics, Johnson explores "the role of design in branding channels and the increasing emphasis on developing programs as brands that can be extended across multiple media platforms." As usual for the 21st-century media scholar, not to say media conglomerate, television viewing is really too narrow a term to contain the experience that television wants to embed. "Networks and programs alike," notes Johnson, "are now being constructed as brands designed to encourage audience loyalty and engagement with the text beyond the act of television viewing." Turning off the set no longer turns off the television.

Jennifer Gillan, a professor of English and media studies at Bentley University and the author of Television and New Media: Must Click TV (Routledge, 2011), has also traded the exegesis of name-brand shows for an interest in network branding. Gillan's forthcoming book on the Disney Channel—tentatively titled Television Brandcasting—looks at the cable platform of the Mouse House as a continuous flow of Disneyfied content, a pubescent vortex where every nanosecond of air time is orchestrated to suck in the target demo, where the shows (which celebrate all things Disney) glide seamlessly into paratexts (ditto) and back, 24/7.

To the sorcerers behind the Magic Kingdom, the interchangeable doe-eyed cherubs starring in sitcoms like Austin & Ally and Liv and Maddie matter not: The Disney channel holds out an e-ticket to an Uncle Walt world that is bigger, longer-running, and more all-­encompassing than any single program. "The shows are really dumb," Gillan told me, half-jokingly, after a year of getting in touch with her inner tween, "but the paratexts are fascinating." The Society for Cinema and Media Studies shares the fascination: Gillan, Grainge, and Gray are scheduled to be part of a panel entitled "Producing Paratexts for Contemporary Film, Television, and Media" at its annual conference, in Seattle in March 2014.

If some of this sounds familiar, it should. The branding outlook harks back to the notion of televisual "flow" first formulated by the pioneering television critic Raymond Williams. In his 1974 classic Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Schocken Books), Williams argued that the TV experience is not about units of distinct temporality made up of 30-minute sitcoms or 60-minute dramas but the entire electronic slipstream, a video river washing over the viewer, who can never really hit pause. With the changeover from analog to digital technologies, the dam really burst—transforming the televisual flow into a multiplatform flood inundating viewers with imagery and whatever else happens to wash up.

Collectively, the paratextual cohort makes a powerful argument about reception and delivery in the digital age, where screens are as likely to be in your hand as in the living room, where the old boundaries—of time, place, and program—are dissolving before our eyes. To a new generation of web-wise and business-oriented media scholars, critics still bewitched by the autonomous integrity of the titled film or television show are hopelessly antiquarian in their understanding of how texts now send out meaning across multiple platforms. Little wonder that so much of the paratextual scholarship is more likely to draw from the fields of economics, technology, and sociology than from the humanities, where residual disciplinary affinities may still privilege the text as the holy of holies.

Yet if the executives who make and market television—and the scholars who write about it—seem fixated on branding, interstitials, and other incremental bits of data, the people who watch it remain firmly stuck in a retro-textist mode. Whether your tastes run to Duck Dynasty or Downton Abbey, tuning into television, on whatever platform, still means being reeled in by an individual program.

In 2012, in England, during the season finale of the beloved Doctor Who, an IPP popped up in the figure of the Irish comic Graham Norton, next up on the BBC lineup. Outraged fans all but descended on BBC headquarters with torches and pitchforks. "What in the motherloving name of Holy Jiminy was that animated Graham Norton doing appearing DURING Doctor Who?," sputtered a fan on a message board. "I don't give a flying fig what's on next, BBC1!"

I know how he feels—hacking through all the clutter to get to the good stuff. Likewise with network branding: Would anyone really give a flying fig whether Mad Men was on AMC or the Food Network? Oddly, the rise of media scholarship dedicated to 15-second bits and freeze-framed logos is occurring just as the longform serial drama has cemented its place as the main event in moving-image art, a nonephemeral format before which viewers seem quite willing to sit still for hour after hour. Perhaps, in jumping on to the wave of the future, the paratextual scholar may be ignoring the very real pleasures of the text to be had in the present.

Or to circle back to Breaking Bad: Sure, the entire gestalt massages the experience—the postmortems on Talking Bad, Bryan Cranston reciting Shelley's "Ozymandias" in a YouTube clip, or his black Heisenberg porkpie hats for sale on the web—but it is still the text, not the cultural particulate floating around in the aura of the art, that makes television matter.

Thomas Doherty is chair of the American-studies program at Brandeis University. His books include Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).