GENRE

The French term "genre," meaning "gender," or "kind," is applied in various contexts throughout the study of an audiovisual medium. Television users and audiences are familiar with uses of the term that appear in popular television criticism, in programming strategies and schedules, and in the common designations found in newspaper and magazine listings. For those who make television the term is absolutely central to the organization and structure of the production industries. And in the study of television, genre criticism is a major approach, clearly dependent on systems of classification that sometimes agree with, and sometimes differ from, those used for industrial and advertising purposes.

Genre criticism can be said to have begun with the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who mentions different genres in the first sentence of his book De Poetica (Poetics), "Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak not only of the art in general but also of its species and their respective capacities...Epic poetry and Tragedy, as also Comedy...are all, viewed as a whole, modes of imitation." This same concept of "species" or "groups" of imitative forms can be used in study and analysis of television genres.

When people speak of "watching television," strictly speaking they mean they watch some kind of program that is broadcast by the medium of television or currently, programs distributed and received via cable or satellite systems. But a large percentage of these programs have a narrative structure--they tell stories. As a glance at any newspaper television log shows, there are many different kinds of narratives. Yet all television programs can be classified according to type; every program is a distinct work, but it is also a kind of program. The most common genres are commercials, news programs, situation comedies, soap operas, documentaries, sports shows, talk shows, action adventure programs, detective shows, science fiction shows, hospital dramas, and westerns. In principle, there may be a finite number of genres and each television show should fit into only one of them if the classification system works perfectly. In practice, however, there are mixed genres, combinations of kinds of programs, that complicate matters enormously. For example, a science fiction story that involves having the hero find a murderer is really a mixture of science fiction and detective genres.

Texts carried by a mass medium such as television, which have huge audiences, are often constructed in a manner that makes them easily understood by large numbers of people. As a result, they tend to be formulaic--that is, they observe certain familiar conventions which make it relatively easy for audiences to follow them. John Cawelti, who has written extensively on formulas in the mass media, suggests that texts can be placed along a continuum from invention (which involves new ways of organizing texts) to convention (which involves formulaic, often repeated ways of organizing texts).

The basic conventions found in narrative texts involve the following matters: time when story takes place; location where story takes place; characteristics of heroes and heroines; nature of villains and villainesses; characteristics of secondary characters; kinds of plots; themes found in the plots; costuming of main characters; means of locomotion; weaponry of heroes and villains.

These conventions vary from genre to genre. Thus, science-fiction stories tend to take place in the future, in outer space, and have courageous heroes and heroines with specific powers (mental or physical). These characters soar through space in rocket ships, battle against aliens and robots and villains with ray guns and lasers and similar devices. Detective stories usually take place in the present and have rather less-than-courageous heroes and heroines with specific skills and specialties and styles of behavior. They move through urban scapes in automobiles and do battle with criminals, using conventional weapons and their fists.

Even though the formulas of science-fiction or detective stories may be well established, enabling audiences to be familiar with the narrative events, each individual adventure is, to some degree, different. With series such as Star Trek or The Rockford Files, audience members who watch a number of the programs feel they know the characters, identify with them, and thus can understand their motivations and behavior. They may take pleasure, however, from observing small variations, learning more about a character's background, or predicting character behavior in unexpected circumstances.

It can be argued that formulas are subclasses of genres. Thus, the detective story genre has three basic formulas. The tough guy, hard-boiled private-eye detective formula is exemplified in a program like Mike Hammer. The classical detective formula, with cerebral detectives who are not members of police forces, are represented by figures such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The police procedural presents detectives who are members of a police force, who use crime laboratories and other technologies in their work, but must still rely on their intelligence and courage to find and apprehend murderers. Many of the most popular "cop" shows are police procedurals. The British series Prime Suspect is an excellent example of this formula. As these examples make clear, however, one problem for those who study television is identifying the continuing combinations and permutations of both formula and genre. Hill Street Blues, for example, solidly grounded in the tradition of the police procedural, also takes on many of the characteristics of prime time melodrama such as Dallas and Dynasty, complete with domestic struggles, psychological conflict, and a range of emotional complications not necessary in a classic procedural.

Indeed, among the more important questions related to the study of genres is the matter of the way genres evolve. There is, for example considerable difference between the production values of the original Star Trek and its latest incarnation, Star Trek: Voyager. Nevertheless, we still have the same kinds of characters and plots. This relationship between the two instances of an ongoing, unfolding, and developing "story" is complex and continually interesting.

There is also the matter of how genres are related to one another. Intertextual borrowings from one genre to another have led to new, mixed genres. In this regard it is crucial to consider varying roles of the medium and the impact that new technologies have had, and will have, on televised texts. If screen sizes continue to enlarge, will greater action, larger special effects, and more panoramic scenes alter television's tendency to explore intimate psychological involvement, character developments, and domestic arenas that are often the site of television comedy?

Such concerns are also central within the television industry, which in many ways is organized according to genre. In the United States, where television production is centered in Hollywood, this reliance on genre is as old as the film studio system, in which certain studios or units within studios, were closely identified with particular types of films--westerns, musicals, gangster narratives. The practice remains in place in the production of television. Certain independent producers are closely identified with particular genres, even with particular formulas within genres. Norman Lear's socially conscious situation comedies of the 1970s are a familiar example.

The more complicated example, perhaps, is MTM Entertainment, the production company originally founded to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After a string of successful comedies, MTM produced Lou Grant, a melodrama shaped around the social entanglements of a major metropolitan newspaper. This shift in production styles served as a transition as the company moved on to produce Hill Street Blues, which combined, as suggested, the police procedural and the prime time melodrama.

These transitions and connections among genres are complicated still further when we recognize that the details extend to characters and actors. The transformation of Ed Asner's "Lou Grant" from a supporting, comic role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the serious, central character in a melodrama, required adjustment on the part of writers, producers, and audiences as well as the actor himself.

Moreover, genre is used to organize the actual production process in the television industry. Half-hour situation comedies are generally produced inside studios, before live audiences, with multiple cameras using either film or videotape to capture a script performed in sequence, line by line, scene by scene. The production schedule, from completed script to performance, usually requires five days, with additional days for post-production. The comedies are written by staffs of writers who often collaborate in a very intense manner up until the actual moments of performing the show. By contrast, one-hour action programs, melodramas, courtroom or hospital stories, are shot out of sequence, on location, with a single camera. These productions--actually small, one-hour movies--move from script to completed production in seven to nine days, again with additional time required for post-production. Even the scripts for half-hour comedies and one-hour programs are formatted differently on the page. It is easy to understand, then, why genre affords a handy organizational structure for the television industry.

But the use of this organized, routinized scheme of classification extends beyond the production stage. It is also used to organize the television schedule. The schedule is based on programmer assumptions about social and cultural organization, and genres are presumed to "match" certain aspects and classifications of daily experience. Early prime time, for example, is usually reserved for comedy. In the United States, even without official regulation of programming schedules, this means that certain types of programs are deemed suitable for "family" viewing. As the schedule progresses into later hours more serious programming--which often means more violent or sexually explicit--is preferred. And at various moments in the history of U.S. television, certain genres have been selected for production and scheduling because they are presumed to appeal to specific demographic groups--the youth audience, the yuppie audience, the older audience.


Little House on the Prairie


Adam 12


Dr. Kildare

These uses of genre are crucial because the categories function as far more than descriptive classifications. They are ways or organizing ideas about social issues, human experience, cultural behavior. Comedies, for example, may seem to be silly diversions in many cases, but often they are also very important arenas for exposing the "rules" and "standards" that go unnoticed in everyday life. Crime shows almost always explore notions of guilt, innocence, and justice. Melodramas touch on sensitive, delicate issues of personal interaction. Moreover, any of these genres can be altered to examine matters from new perspectives. Very serious social issues such as AIDS, abortion, health care, and crime have been explored in "comedies" and the mixtures of expectations and outcomes require audiences to adopt a different relationship with both the topics and the genre. In this sense genres are not merely descriptions or production facilitators--they are ways of thinking about the world.

There is, for example, the matter of the relationship between certain popular television genres, which lend themselves to violence and are permeated by violence, and society. A considerable amount of social science research indicates that repeated exposure to televised violence excites certain individuals, who are violence prone--but also has a negative impact on people in general by desensitizing them. And the exposure of young children to the kinds of adult problems found in soap operas and other dramas may also have harmful psychological effects. These issues, with questions of the impact these programs and genres may be having on viewers, on culture, and on society must be carefully considered when programs from these genres are aired or when they are selected by audiences for viewing.

All these genre related questions permeate television systems around the world. Genres drawn from specific cultural contexts are developed to express explicit social and cultural concerns. Often, however, because of the high costs involved in local production, audiences are already familiar with television produced in the United States, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, then imported to fill schedules. As a consequence, genres are often blended or shared. These "ways of thinking" have been moved across cultural and social lines all because they are cheap to purchase and program.

It is precisely these economic questions that underlie any complete understanding of the role of genre in television. In commercially-supported systems producers and programmers offer genres to audiences and shift their financial support toward those that draw large numbers or particularly desirable viewers. In systems rooted in public support, additional genres may be supplied for smaller audiences and more specialized groups, and non-formulaic presentations may provide a greater portion of the scheduled offerings without regard to costs.

But as these systems become more and more intertwined, the economic base becomes more evident. In the United States, for example, financing of television production is founded on the syndication of successful programs--resale for non-network, non-prime time distribution, and further resale to non-U.S. markets. In the U.S. syndication markets half-hour comedies are the primary commodity, the most popular items, and the search for the "hit" comedy drives many decisions by writers, producers, actors, network executives, and programmers. But U.S. comedies are not as popular in non-U.S. markets, where one-hour action programs are still the primary choices.

Producers and distributors must weigh costs of producing within a particular generic context against possible rewards. But they must also acknowledge that genres are systems of meaning and significance. Either the financial constraints or the cultural significance can be deemed the primary factor in understanding any given program, but both must be recognized to fully understand the significance of genre in television as a system. As a form of classification within the medium, then, genre is an active and indispensable concept at almost every level of practice. Whether future forms of television alter this significance remains to be seen.

-Arthur Asa Berger

FURTHER READING

Berger, Arthur Asa. Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1992.

Cawelti, John. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970.

_______________. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Eco, Umberto. "Innovation and Repetition: Between Modern and Post-modern Aesthetics." Daedalus (Boston), Fall 1985.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Kaminsky, Stuart M. American Film Genres. Dayton, Ohio: Pflaum, 1974.

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1974.

Rose, Brian Geoffrey. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1985.

Vande Berg, Leah R., and Lawrence A. Wenner, editors. Television Criticism: Approaches and Applications. White Plains, New York: Longman, 1991.

Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. Garden City, New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1964.

 

See also Action-Adventure Programs; Comedy Programs (Domestic Settings); Comedy Programs (Workplace Settings); Demographics; Detective Programs; Melodrama; Police Programs; Producer in Television; Programming; Spy Programs; Writier in Television; Workplace Programs