Tag Archives: Caldwell

The Election as American Television (From Broadcast Networks to the Internet)

12 Nov


Just around 67 million viewers tuned into the election, just short of the 2008 figure. Most major stations featured coverage (NBC, CNN, PBS, Fox News, MSNBC, WGN, CBS, etc…) While there is much to be said about the programming, especially in its undeniable relationship to the facilitation of politics, certain aspects of class were present in my thoughts while watching varied coverage last Tuesday:

Style – NBC was the clear winner throughout the night, both in ratings and critiques of most aesthetically pleasing presentation. Drawing off Caldwell’s “Excessive Style,” NBC and others rooted much of their programming with the notion that “videographic television since the 1980’s has been marked by acute hyperactivity and an obsession with effects” (Caldwell 12-13). From the touch screen televisions with the ability to recall the past four elections, and move the states around to play with the votes left to the finish, down to the specific font and color scheme. Almost all stations with coverage featured these effects, but NBC offered the sleekest and most cohesive presentation, as evidenced by the highest viewership.

Liveness – It’s rumored that Diane Sawyer was drunk throughout ABC’s coverage of the election, bringing the unscripted nature of the entire ordeal into light. The live coverage of the election is all the more apparent in Sawyer’s behavior on air; the air of nowness is abundant because this is something unplanned and uncalled for. Sawyer was not scripted to appear the way she did, it was her present translated to the audience’s present.

However, Caldwell abashes the “liveness” myth by arguing that “live” events are “comprehensively planned, scripted, and rehearsed; are in fact highly regulated and rigidly  controlled performances, fabricated to fit a restricted block of viewing time” (Caldwell 31). This is both accurate and less accurate in the context of the election; Caldwell originally discusses planned liveness in the context of Monday Night Football, which holds a routine easy to translate to “live” TV. Less so with the election—there was no specific knowledge of when states’ electoral votes would be called, or the president would be declared, or eventually when both Obama and Romney gave their respective speeches. This resulted in a fair amount of awkward airtime, such as images of empty stages and commentator assurance that they had no idea when anything would happen. Despite the preparedness network coverage came into the night with (see “style”) and a basic knowledge of how the night would likely progress (given past election coverage, awareness of key swing states, etc), the ambiguity of when key moments in the election would occur is perhaps what contributes to this idea of “liveness–” the programming is dependent on factors uncontrollable.

Social Setting – The election created both a literal social setting, as well as an implied one. The party at Reynolds Club is one small example of the structures established by the social nature of the election; people gathered across the nation to communally watch the television coverage, whether consciously (as parties) or unconsciously (in bars, as a family etc). What the election also did was to create an extremely influential water-cooler topic. While this may or may not be specific to programming instead of the events, this type of conversation and social interaction was certainly facilitated by television.

Election Binge ­– Mainly in the context of Tuesday’s theme, watching full coverage of the election was similar to television binge. Is binging on news coverage the same as binging on traditional television shows? The election certainly falls into what is “acceptable” to binge on—those who spent ages following the election and then many hours watching it are partaking in an American tradition, not addicts. I’m not sure about others, but I was not able to personally dedicate the amount of time required to fully watch coverage (from onset to both speeches having been given). Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that election coverage is binging, but would anybody else say they had similar thoughts? What constitutes binging—does it have to be 20+ hours and feature a narrative structure to count?

Related Videos:

NBC calls Obama as the winner

Diane Sawyer calls Minnesota

Tim and Eric: Awesomely Videographic Show, Great Job!

27 Oct


In his discussion of the televisual aesthetic in “Excessive Style,” Caldwell presents a stylistic spectrum that ranges from “cinematic” to “videographic” (12). The cinematic mode exploits the visual grammar, spectacle, and production values of film, ideally aiming for a softening of mediation and accentuating of immersion — the rich diegetic worlds of the artful HBO dramas that Anderson highlights are prime examples of this televisual mode. The videographic guise, however, is “marked by acute hyperactivity and an obsession with effects” (12-13), and ultimately heightens mediation through its aesthetic strategies of digital manipulation and imaging (i.e. the bizarre cyberpunk world of Max Headroom, and the hyper-awareness of the televisual apparatus in CNN news broadcasts). Both modes enable different kinds of televisual exhibitionism or stylistic embellishment, but I’m particularly interested in how the videographic mode can be exploited in jarring and self-reflexive ways.

Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim comedy block might just be the quintessential series that operates within this particular televisual aesthetic. Described by its creators as “the nightmare version of television,” Awesome Show is essentially a sketch comedy series that adopts its flow and aesthetic from the lo-fi world of public-access television, employing disorienting formal and narrative devices like glitch, faux-commercials, and telethon musical acts to create an atmosphere of surreal, uncanny, avant-garde, and self-aware camp. Each sketch is diegetically framed within the context of a fictional public-access channel called Channel 5 (although one can easily get lost or entranced in the hyperactive, non-sequitur progression and lose sight of this meta-framework), with fake commercial interruptions that use green screen and special effects to videographically mimic infomercials and commercials and promote useless products made by the Cinco Corporation (i.e. It’s Not Jackie Chan!: The Board Game, the Cinco MIDI Organizer, Sleepwatching Chair, etc.). Another recurring sketch where the videographic style lampoons or mimics a quotidian aspect of public-access TV is Uncle Muscle’s Hour, which features poor, decayed VHS-like picture quality suggestive of generation loss to evoke an uncanny surrealness and add to the discomfort of watching a sweating, crying, and salivating nervous wreck perform a telethon-style musical act — I’m still not quite sure if it’s funny, but it’s definitely visually arresting.

Honestly, there are so many more examples of Awesome Show‘s videographic eccentricity that I could link you all to. For whatever reason, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are “abso lutely” fascinated by the unpolished, unattractive aesthetic of bad public-access television, and hopefully I’ve started to illustrate how the series self-reflexively and comically exploits the hypermediated, stylistic excess of the videographic mode proposed by Caldwell to hold a (cracked, foggy, smudged) mirror to this lowly, oft ignored or merely glanced at televisual form.

The Myth of Liveness in College Football

26 Oct


John Caldwell’s chapter “Excessive Style” from his book, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television challenges the theoretical obsession with the “liveness” of television. He states that, “Television’s “most distinctive function [is] the live transmission of events … The now of the television event is equal to the now of the actual event.” (29). This type of one-to-one relationship makes sense intuitively, in  that what is happening on the television screen during a live event does get transmitted to the viewer with little to no delay; however, this idea becomes complicated when considering the level of regulation imposed on events while they are taking place. Caldwell presents a compelling example of this when he states, “Even the domestic broadcasting of live and unscripted media events—like ABC’s Monday Night Football, or major league baseball—are comprehensively planned, scripted, and rehearsed; are in fact highly regulated and rigidly controlled performances, fabricated to fit a restricted block of viewing time.” (31). Staying with Monday Night Football, I take his example to be referring to features like the announcing, commercial breaks, choreography, and essentially every aspect of the event that is not the act of playing football. However, even the flow, or the liveness, of any televised game is compromised by scheduled “media timeouts,” which frequently leave players and coaches milling about for several minutes throughout games. Anyone who has been to a televised football game should be familiar with these periods of dead time in which the game is stopped to allow for commercial breaks for the home audience.

But what happens when “media timeouts” begin to not only affect the perception of liveness for a television audience, and actually come into direct conflict with the progress of a game? This was the case for the University of Notre Dame football in 2010 when coach Brian Kelly took over – installing a no huddle, up tempo offense. This means that there is significantly less time between plays during an offensive drive. Designed to disadvantage a defense, such a strategy also directly clashes with the advertising interests of major networks by eliminating pauses that are traditionally taken advantage of by networks for advertising. Media timeouts suddenly became less available during long offensive drives. Notre Dame has an extremely lucrative, independent televising contract with NBC (They are unaffiliated with any major college football conference – allowing them to orchestrate such a deal independently.). Coach Kelly’s offensive scheme creates economic concerns in the restriction of advertising opportunities for a network paying top dollar to broadcast Notre Dame football (along with the accompanying advertisements) in prime time. The following came from coach Kelly regarding the conversations taking place between Notre Dame and NBC:

“The model out there has been ABC/ESPN for college football just because of the sheer volume of games they carry. There’s a model out there. All we’ve tried to do is address the model that we think would work well with us and there’s got to be a meeting somewhere halfway. I’m very confident we’re going to be able to do the things we want to do in terms of pushing the tempo without having to go to a commercial break.

That conversation’s taken place. Getting into the specifics, I’m not willing to do that, but I can tell you that that conversations between Jack (Swarbrick) and myself from Notre Dame along with the production people at NBC have taken place and I think we’re going to be able to meet somewhere in the middle.” 


I would like to suggest that, in this case, the myth of “liveness” that Caldwell addresses is even more extreme than he lets on – compromising not only live transmission, but also the very nature of football. Television essentially reshapes broadcasted events like football. Does this mean football is incompatible with broadcast? Certainly not, just look at the outrageous statistics for viewership. However, it does intensify the already unstable claim for liveliness addressed by Caldwell in the broadcast of events like college football.