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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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