Flyer: Transgressive Television

“Erstwhile in Vienna…”: Brief conference report on ‘Transgressive Television: Politics, Crime, and Citizenship in 21st-Century American TV Series’ – An international Conference, 01.-03.10.2014, Amerika Haus, Vienna

The last three days have been a blast – I am just now on my way back from a visit to Vienna, Austria, where I attended the international conference “Transgressive Television”, and I am more than glad to have been part of a lively forum of Television Studies scholarship, which – contrary to many shouts about the death of Television – is as alive and kicking as the medium itself. Right from the start, what struck me as particularly interesting is the fact that, with only a fraction of the people present with a background in Film or Media Studies, Television Studies in Europe seems to generally be part more of the cultural and literary roots of American Studies.But back to the event: organized by Prof Birgit Däwes (University of Vienna) in cooperation with the Embassy of the United States in Austria, the conference provided a space for more than a dozen presentations that revolved around questions of transgression in regards to politics, power, representations of ethnicity and gender, the role of the anti-hero and, in particular, the criminal exemplified on a diverse selection of both well-known as well as new contemporary TV shows including The Wire (HBO, 2002-8), Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-13), The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007), House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-), Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008-), Scandal (ABC, 2012-), Dexter (Showtime, 2006-13), Hannibal (NBC, 2013-), and True Detective (HBO, 2014-).

Keynote-Edgerton-2014-Vienna
Keynote by Prof Gary Edgerton
Image: (C) 2014, Embassy of the United States in Austria

The opening keynote held by one of Television Studies’ eminent scholars, Prof Gary Edgerton, provided an intriguing introduction to the world of what is now popularly known as “Quality Television” – although, as was voiced by many of the participants during the conference, the label is a controversial and contested one.

In his talk, Edgerton framed Television’s status quo with an amazingly multifaceted as well as detailed diachronic analysis of developments in the US TV industry during the last twenty years and its effects on a new way of producing as well as structuring television serials. Regarding the technology, Edgerton highlighted two aspects of the medium’s larger evolution that affect how television works today: an evolution from regional to national to international to global (through the corresponding carrier media such as network, cable, satellite and the internet), and an evolution from the massive TV set in the living room to a multiplicity of devices (smartphone, tablet, TV, etc.) that was facilitated through the unprecedented impact of the internet, which enabled television content to become streamable and opened up a multitude of ways of consumption.

Furthermore, Edgerton highlighted the emergence of a whole generation of showrunners during the 1990s, who learned their craft at the sets of a first generation of groundbreaking shows such as St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-8), Hill Street Blues (MTM/NBC, 1981-7) and Thirtysomething (ABC, 1987-91), and whom he labels “New Serialists”. According to Edgerton, many of these New Serialists, including now-famous showrunners such as David Chase, Matt Weiner, David Milch, and Tom Fontana, kick-started a more personal, more aesthetically complex and more morally ambiguous narrative style at the turn of the century and nowadays are the driving force behind much of contemporary successful serial television, a televisual form that Edgerton labeled “America’s Signature Art Form” during the first 15 years of the 21st century.

At this point, I will not delve deeper into the whole collection of presentations that followed during the next one and a half days – please make sure to visit tvseries.univie.ac.at for a detailed list of specific topics presented at the conference. To sum up the broad variety of television texts and approaches, I have to say that I found almost all of the presented perspectives – which oscillated between ‘close reading’-approaches of a single television text and shorter analyses of multiple texts in order to highlight an overarching issue or theme – to be highly valuable and intriguing examples of how television can be studied in 2014.

The closing roundtable discussion then served as the conference’s season finale, so to speak, and, apart from Birgit Däwes and Gary Edgerton, icluded two representatives of Austrian print journalism and the local television industry. Gary Edgerton opened up the debate with some conclusive remarks and further details on the future of television and, in particular, the role of Netflix and other DCPs (digital content providers) in the current media landscape and prophesied that television – if not in the form of technology – will surely continue to thrive as a cultural practice for at least the next half-century. Regarding the role of Netflix and others, Edgerton was skeptical about the longevity of their business model because of emerging new technological barriers that the industry will soon meet, since the current internet bandwidth usage in the US by Netflix users alone already amounts to 25% of all web traffic – and nobody knows what happens if the user numbers further increase and the repercussions that will have for the web traffic regulation and the internet per se.

From that starting point emerged a discussion on the notion of “Quality” that quickly centered on the international comparability of US vs. European productions and corresponding question regarding the output of European complex TV serials, which in comparison still struggles on the verge of non-existence. In that context, a perceived stark contrast on the European continent and of particularly Austrian and German television was highlighted, that, with an apparent mentality of Least Objectionable Programming that seems to be present in almost all of the networks (and, of course, with a small sample of notable examples to prove the rule), has much deeper structural problems to face than does the US American counterpart. Further comparisons between issues of success measurement in regards to ratings that, particularly in the European context, at the present moment fail to represent large groups of users that use other than the traditional ways to watch TV.

So, to conclude, this event has been a truly productive and amazingly interesting one, with a broad and diverse collection of perspectives on the role of contemporary television within the larger sociocultural context of today.

Tobias Steiner

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