Book review

Legitimating television, by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine

Melanie E. S. Kohnen

New York University, New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Keywords— Class; Convergence; Fandom; Gender; Race; Reception studies; Taste; Technology; Television history; TV

Kohnen, Melanie E. S. 2012. Legitimating Television, by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 11.

Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine. Legitimating television: Media convergence and cultural status. New York: Routledge, 2012. $36.95 (232p) ISBN 978-0415880268.

[1] In Legitimating Television, Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine explore the shifting perceptions of television as a medium during the convergence era. Newman and Levine focus on the increasing cultural legitimation of television and examine the implications of this legitimation. Through an analysis of television production, style, narrative, reception, technology, and scholarship, they reveal that appreciation of different forms of television has not equally increased. Rather, they argue, the elevation of so-called quality television depends on the denigration of other forms, which are supposedly of lower quality. In other words, while critics and scholars celebrate the narratively complex prime-time drama and the single-camera sitcom, many of them overlook or dismiss soap operas, teen television, and multicam sitcoms. Likewise, Newman and Levine outline how press reports, technology reviews, and advertisements deem certain ways of watching television appropriate for the convergence era, including time-shifted viewing on HDTV sets, while disregarding other methods as behind the times, such as live viewing without circumvention of commercials. They argue that the elevation and denigration of certain genres, production styles, and technologies of reception correspond to and reaffirm existing hierarchies of taste. Through careful analysis, they demonstrate that convergence culture has not fundamentally changed the perception of television as a medium; rather, cultural elites mobilize discourses of convergence culture to distinguish "quality" television from the rest of TV, which these elites continue to associate with feminized, low-class mass entertainment. While Legitimating Television does not primarily engage with fandom, Newman and Levine's insights into television, convergence, and cultural hierarchies are directly relevant to scholars interested in audience and fan practices. After all, convergence culture seems to have fostered a new respect for fandom—indeed, media producers seek out and enter into conversations with fans. Legitimating Television lays the groundwork and offers a methodology for a nuanced understanding of what one might call industry-approved quality fandom—a construction that depends on denigrating other, undesirable fan practices.

[2] Legitimating Television comprises eight chapters, each of which focuses on a specific site in which discourses of legitimation play out. The first two chapters provide a theoretical and historical foundation for understanding processes of legitimation in the convergence era. The next three chapters focus on production, style, and genre: chapter 3 analyzes the perception and celebration of showrunners as auteurs, chapter 4 analyzes the critical appreciation of the single-camera sitcom, and chapter 5 historicizes the value placed on the narratively complex prime-time drama. The following two chapters are devoted to unpacking the significance of television technology. Chapter 6 delineates the increasing popularity of flatscreen HDTV sets and their place in the home, and chapter 7 examines DVRs, DVDs, and mobile TV as technologies that seem to provide more agency to the viewer. The book concludes with a chapter on the contribution of television studies and scholars of television to the cultural legitimation of television. The broad array of topics covered in the book conveys how deeply embedded the logic of legitimation has become in contemporary culture: it touches how we perceive those who produce television, the kinds of stories television tells, how we watch these stories, where and by what means we consume television, and how scholars write about television.

[3] The first two chapters place current processes of legitimation in a theoretical and historical context. By tracing the discourse of legitimation throughout television history, Newman and Levine challenge the idea that convergence-era television constitutes a break with and a move beyond television's past. Moreover, this historical overview establishes one of the core themes of the book, namely that TV's cultural legitimation depends on identifying certain areas of television as not being like TV at all. Even in the early days of TV, critics sought to distinguish certain forms of programming from network-era TV, which was associated with lower class levels, feminization, and the mass media. Newman and Levine trace this "class versus mass" rhetoric through the critical praise for 1950s anthology dramas, 1960s documentaries, and "relevant" programming in the 1970s to the lauding of the so-called quality drama in the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, critical and media industry discourses portray original programming on basic and premium cable as complex and cinematic. Throughout, programs that appeared most unlike usual television fare were seen as most legitimate and relevant. Convergence-era discourses of legitimation draw on this rhetoric while at the same time distancing current programming from that of the past. Newman and Levine highlight the role of fans in these processes of legitimation. For example, as mainstream media discussions began to elevate cult television programs such as Twin Peaks or The X-Files as different from and implicitly better than the rest of television, fans of these series also distinguished their appreciation of these series from that of the non-cult TV fan or viewer. Newman and Levine thus make the important point that both fan and industry discourses contributed to the legitimation of television.

[4] The next three chapters focus on production and programming. Newman and Levine highlight three interrelated sites of legitimation: the showrunner, the single-camera sitcom, and the prime-time serial. A definite strength of these chapters is the authors' multifaceted approach, which considers production, promotion, and reception as interrelated factors in the process of legitimation. This approach allows them to demonstrate how supposedly new modes of production and programming simultaneously draw on and reject television's past. The central example is the legitimation of the prime-time serial as cinematic and complex programming. The celebration of the prime-time drama in mainstream media criticism and industry discourses depends on the denigration of the genre that pioneered serialized storytelling, namely the soap opera. Despite the fact that the prime-time drama has borrowed storytelling techniques from soaps throughout TV history, production and promotional discourses strive to separate the two genres. Newman and Levine highlight several textual and extratextual strategies that distance the prime-time serial from soaps, including an emphasis on endings, a constraint on the degree of seriality, and a rejection of feminized, soapy subjects such as romance, family relationships, and heightened emotions. From Newman and Levine's point of view, these efforts to distinguish dramas from soaps are "fundamentally gendered ways of imagining and validating television narratives" with the aim of keeping feminine narratives "at the bottom of widely accepted hierarchies of value and taste" (99). Viewers who consume and enjoy this programming are also rejected or denigrated as a lower-quality audience. Overall, Newman and Levine's analysis of the prime-time serial clearly demonstrates that legitimation comes with a price. Going one step beyond their analysis, one can see that the delegitimation of certain feminine narratives leads to a similar delegitimation of fan practices that center on romance and relationships—practices that are often not hailed or celebrated by current media industry discourses, especially when they deviate from heterosexual or heteronormative perspectives.

[5] In the following two chapters, Newman and Levine move on to examine television technology's place in discourses of legitimation. Specifically, they examine the changing aesthetics of the television set and the impact of DVDs and DVRs on television viewing. For much of television's history, both the television set and the practice of viewing television were associated with the domestic sphere. The various shifts in television technologies during the convergence era aim to disentangle TV from the home and its feminine associations. As Newman and Levine outline, advertising of flatscreen HDTV sets emphasizes masculinity and affluence, rendering the television a desirable technological object. At the same time, digital technologies like DVRs and DVDs further facilitate the time-shifting that the VCR first made possible. The ability to overcome the broadcast schedule and avoid advertising becomes a defining characteristic of a "smart," upscale TV viewer who is in charge of his or her media experience. This smart TV viewer is opposed to a lower-class, feminized viewer who cannot master new technologies to shape his or her TV experience and is stuck watching on a broadcast schedule. Considering that the examination of (female) fans as early adopters of new technologies has an important place in fan studies, Newman and Levine's argument about the industry's shifting conceptualization of the TV viewer adds another dimension to the discourse about fans and technology.

[6] In addition to discussing time-shifting, Newman and Levine introduce the idea of space-shifting, watching television on mobile devices. By way of a careful reminder that TV has always also been watched outside of the home, they demonstrate that mobile viewing is not a revolutionary technological innovation, and its celebration is another strategy aimed at distancing convergence-era TV from its predecessors. Most importantly, advertising and media industry discourses paint mobile viewing as a way of escaping television's domestic confinement. At the conclusion of the two technology-oriented chapters, Newman and Levine observe that "television is thus legitimated not only by better content, whether considered as narrative representations or images or sounds, but also by better, more masculine, means of accessing that content" (152).

[7] Legitimating Television concludes with a chapter on TV scholarship as part of the process of legitimation. Newman and Levine concede that their own television consumption practices make them participants in television's legitimation. They use this insight as motivation for issuing the following call: "Television scholars can and should strive for awareness and transparency in the ways their tastes shape their practices, including their practices of teaching and scholarship" (154). They highlight several aspects of television scholarship that, in their opinion, reinforce processes of legitimation, including rhetoric that paints convergence-era TV as a golden age; an almost exclusive focus on the most legitimated programs, such as narratively complex prime-time serials and single-camera sitcoms; and acceptance of industry logic without critical interrogation, which they find most prominent in studies of programming on HBO and other premium cable channels. In order to resist a reaffirmation of legitimation in scholarship, Newman and Levine advocate for "a cultural-studies influenced television studies, one that understands television and all popular culture as a site of struggle over taste and value" (154). Their analyses in the preceding chapters underline the necessity of such a multifaceted approach, lending urgency to their call to action.

[8] While there is no chapter dedicated exclusively to audiences and fan practices, Newman and Levine touch on fandom several times throughout the book. The most relevant chapters in this regard are chapter 3, "The Showrunner as Auteur"; chapter 7, "Technologies of Agency"; and chapter 8, "Television Scholarship and/as Legitimation." In their discussion of fan activities, Newman and Levine focus on how changes in technology and in the media industry led to a mainstreaming of fan practices. For example, the VCR enabled fans of the early cult TV series Twin Peaks to scrutinize the television text, and Usenet groups became gathering sites for fans. They argue that such scrutinizing and gathering became more widespread during the convergence era, when an active engagement with television became part of the smart viewer's identity. In the discourse of legitimation, "the audience conceived as 'mass' during the network era is newly liberated by the cult television text, the object of intense fandom, which itself is in part a product of interactive new technologies" (144). Once again, they show that fandom does not always or necessarily exist in opposition to media industry goals, but rather plays a part in the convergence-era legitimation of television.

[9] An important but also slightly problematic insight arises out of Newman and Levine's discussion of the changing relationships between industry and audiences. The authors observe that networks and producers have started to court the cult TV fan as an ideal viewer. While Newman and Levine note that the elevation of the cult TV fan dismisses other, more casual viewers, they neglect to differentiate between different types of fans and their relationship to networks and producers. The media industry does not embrace all fans equally, after all. It is this gap in Newman and Levine's characterization of convergence-era audiences that opens up opportunities for further investigation by fan scholars. Following through on Newman and Levine's analysis and methodology leads to the insight that media industry discourses embrace a particular type of fan, namely a masculinized fan who debates matters such as narrative complexity and showrunners' creative visions in a passionate but intellectual way. This type of cult TV fan is elevated above the feminized fan—the stereotypical fangirl—whose engagement is perceived to be more intensely emotional and devoted to practices that cannot be easily monetized. In other words, Newman and Levine's observations about the gendered hierarchies that shape convergence-era perceptions of production, programming, and technology also extend to ideas about proper and improper fans. So-called quality television finds its match in what we might call quality fandom. While quality fandom is lauded by industry insiders and critics, who might identify themselves as part of it, this praise rests on the dismissal of other fan practices. The rise of quality fandom and its implications for industry-audience relationships would be compelling subjects for fan scholars.

[10] Overall, Legitimating Television offers a crucial intervention in the popular and scholarly conception of television's increasing cultural significance. Its multifaceted approach and wide variety of examples render it relevant to a large number of scholarly projects. As a teaching tool, Newman and Levine's engaging and clear style make Legitimating Television suitable for both the graduate and undergraduate classroom, especially as a counterpoint to popular or scholarly sources that regard the increased cultural status of contemporary television in a more favorable light.

License URL:

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. TWC is a member of DOAJ. Contact the Editor with questions.