Television mocking it’s big brother Cinema?
Through parody is television mocking its big brother Cinema or is simply feeding the post-modern society?
Artistic achievement has, in most societies, usually seen as one of the highest goals for its citizens with artists held in highest esteem in society. The Classical civilizations of Rome and Ancient Greece are rightly regarded as artistic highlights of world civilizations due to the unprecedented status given to artists of all trades: poets, painters, bards, actors, sculptors and musicians.
This respect for excellence in the arts still exists today However modern art is unfortunately too often derided as a thing of paltry significance as compared to the great artists of the past. FPeriods of high accomplishment such as Ancient Greece or the Renaissance are rightly regarded as containing such artists whose skill and mastery of their respective disciplines may rarely be emulated, if ever.
However, is that a reason for giving up on modern artistic output? After all, the twentieth century was that of Pollock, Rockwell and Hockney. But lest we forget, in the annals of history, it is doubtful that the past 100 years will be remembered for their contribution to age-old art forms such as painting or sculpture. Instead, it seems likely and indeed fair that the 20th century will be remembered for the creation, popularization and investigation of the audio-visual arts of cinema and television.
From the first shots of the train moving out of Carpentras station, cinema has moved the hearts and minds of millions. The 20th century was witness to the greatest technological advancements in human history and artistic output followed suit. After the silent pictures of the 1900s first captures audiences to the first black-and-white talkies, cinematic progress could never be checked. From success to success, people round the world would be enchanted by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, awed by Harryhausen’s special effects, moved by Gone With The Wind and horrified by Birth Of A Nation.
Every decade would bring an advancement in cinematic output, something which would revolutionize the industry once again and bring new generations into cinemas. These constant progressions in cinema would take place at a far faster rate than in other arts due to several important factors. First of all, the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th-century had sent technological development across the world into a tail-spin which impacted cinema very positively by providing studios with a constant stream of new machinery, effects possibilities. The knock-on effect from this was of course that a steady stream of technicians would be trained and employed by the great studios. We will be analyzing the hiring and firing practices of the studio moguls as compared to the lifelong television employees further on in this dissertation.
Another great reason for the appeal of cinema would be the characters contained within it. The glamour of Hollywood until the 1940s would make audiences dream across five continents up to the present day. The gritty reality of much of today’s cinematic output had not even been imagined and movies were used to make people dream of a greater life. We will use this opportunity to further analyze the setting-up of the movie studios, the Jewish origins of most of the moguls and the taste of Americana they injected into their projects later on. Furthermore, we will draw up a detailed comparison between the early days of both film and television, analyzing which tactics worked better in the battles for a limited audience.
Even horrifying world events such as World War II would provide the film industry with invigoration as Hollywood and the pre-war German film studios would engage in a rivalry, the like of which has rarely been seen in the arts. With the Hollywood ban on exporting American films to the Third Reich, the motivation for German film-makers was extraordinary and names such as Murnau and Lang emerged as major players on the world cinema scene. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them fled Germany during or after the war to seek new lives in Hollywood.
Many failed but some met with varying measures of success, the greatest legacy of this time possibly contained in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, the ominous skyline filled with skyscrapers working as a tribute to Lang’s first impressions of seeing New York harbour from far out at sea. However, even from that darkest period of human history has emerged some of the most shocking and lasting pieces of film. The films shot by the Allied forces of the Nazi concentration camps have proved perhaps the most important factor of documentary cinema.
Beyond the artistry, beyond the emotional impact, cinema has provided humankind with an unlimited opportunity to document its own history, both good and bad. An opportunity television executives would notice and pick up on. Even today, the claims made by CNN and BBC such as ‘We are there as the news happens’ stem from the passion for news-stories instilled in people during the World War when small news flashes shown as previews before films in movie theatres were the only pictures civilians at home had of the war outside of newspapers. These propagandistic items were of course good for morale and television would soon enter into the fray, edging cinema out to take a monopoly over showing news programs.
We must also consider another important area of research. The ‘parodying’ between television and cinema is a term of some ambiguity. Within this dissertation, we will also try and highlight the inherent differences between the terms of parody and emulation. As per rivalry in any kind of industry, some actions that may seem to be a parody of existing practices are in fact no more than emulation, a mere attempt to capitalize on a rival’s success. The concept of parody on the other hand is a very subtle one.
Although television and cinema are by definition filled with some of the most acerbic minds in the world, minds quite ripe to create parody, it is somewhat naïve to think that these people would be allowed to impact decisions on scheduling and programme production. Only those at the summit of their popularity would be allowed their own shows, let alone given creative control of their shows. A recent example of this happening in Britain would be So Graham Norton.
However, even these shows often fail as can be demonstrated as can be seen through the antics of stars such as Liza Minnelli, John McEnroe or Anna Nicole Smith. Thus, we can observe that the concept of pure parody being used by cinema and television for its own sake is somewhat mortifying, given the massive financial risks such an undertaking would incur. However, if parody was created to feed the viewing desires of a post-modern audience, then such an action becomes more realistic. To study this, we shall take an in-depth look at the nature of today’s post-modern audience and their viewing habits.
In this dissertation, we will be looking in more depth at the first fledgling footsteps of both these art forms, the characters that helped build them up to their global statuses as well as two important periods in their history. The 50s and 60s where cinema and television were in direct competition through the slow transition period of the 70s and 80s into the modern-day scenario of co-operation. With this journey through time, we will be looking at trends pioneered by each of them and looking at any sharing or borrowing of ideas between the two mediums, we shall observe their long and drawn-out rivalry as well as the numerous examples of co-operation between them.
The Glamour Years or the faint ridicule of cinema’s golden age
If 90% of leadership is showing up, then we can hardly be surprised at the manner in which the men who would become studio moguls quickly rose to the top of this brand new industry. The founders of Paramount, RKO, MGM, Fox and Warner Bros. were for the vast majority immigrants or children of immigrants who had come to America either to seek their fortune or who had grown up with the image of America as this place of opportunity.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, these views were far truer than they are now but to attain what one desired when the bar was so high, a lot of hard work would have to be carried out over many years. Thankfully, hard work was what these men’s families had been built on. Possessing this instinct along with a fine sense for business acumen, which some would sarcastically claim was due to their Jewish nature, Mayer, Goldwyn and the others would take the American cinematic market by storm. Before continuing, let us dispel any lingering images of these men helping each other out on their way to success.
They entered a ruthless line of business where they were in direct competition and they tried everything to ruin each other, from slandering each other in the popular press to stealing actors and actresses.
However, more united them than the moguls would have cared to admit. Since most of them had risen from humble beginnings, their visions of America were an embodiment of the American Dream that had influenced the migration of countless thousands from their home countries.
The MGM studio, for example, would become synonymous with Technicolor musicals such as The Wizard of Oz portraying the world as a happy, bright place where everyone lived contently. The Warners would take a more active interest in social commentary but even their early efforts never went too far in criticizing a society that had offered them so much.
Across the studio divide, the concepts of method acting had never even been considered and the goal of cinema was to make their actors and actresses look glamorous while portraying a style of life that would make every American dream in wonder. Why this image can be considered with a slight tint of ridicule is its existence in the middle of such troubled times. In the space of thirty years, America would fight in the two bloodiest conflicts in human history yet still, the studios churned out glossy movies, filled with beautiful dames and jolly banter.
But here, once again, we strike a familiar obstacle, one that both film and television have met too many times. Too often in criticism about their history, studios or television networks are blamed for the programmes they carry or films they produce. Unfortunately, whilst they cannot be absolved of all blame, the relationship between social trends and popular entertainment is an obvious one.
At a time in its history when America was fighting wars, undergoing a recession as well as Prohibition, the last thing American audiences wanted was to be served up with depressing fare that they could identify with. If another example of this is needed, look at what kind of cinema was popularized in the 50s. After the war, the film noir came of age and rose to ascendancy when American society was doing well and people felt good about themselves. A crucial fact that those who are all too quick to lay blame at the feet of the studios is that films and television programs will only be made if their creators feel they will be well-received by the general public.
Television’s first faltering footsteps
The intertwining and complex relationship between cinema and television cannot only be analyzed from the perspectives of programme similarity and audience sharing. Those who decided on what programmes should be commissioned, those who researched audiences to determine what kind of target audiences should be tapped, those who decided on what type of scheduling to choose at any given time of day, these television executives, producers and network directors would be the ones that would outline how television would evolve from one year to the next.
As has been explained, television channels found themselves confronted with a very difficult challenge. Whereas film studios had been opened in great pomp and ceremony with the budgets of their moguls behind them thus allowing them to find their feet and carve their respective identities without a vast amount of competitive pressure placed upon them. Television did not benefit from such an auspicious start. The challenge that faced channels was to find their own identities and thus capture individual audience shares whilst fighting an uphill struggle to dislodge cinema from its spot atop the entertainment mountain. To take this would kind a special kind of organization.
How could television not only catch up to cinema but also surpass it in popularity? Well, television started out with two significant advantages. Firstly, that of money. The far larger amount of broadcasting time inherent to television made it a much more viable target for financial gain than cinema which could only show any adverts to limited audiences. The commercial prospects of television soon became clear and this links us neatly with its second trump card. Throughout the 50s, television’s popularity exploded and families were rushing to buy them. The reason this had not occurred during the 1940s was that regulations concerning this new kind of entertainment were still getting sorted out and freed of problems.
At the end of the 40s, television was still a luxury and commissions for TV channels had only really affected the East and West Coasts. However, in the 50s, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) decided to make the acquisition of such a commission far easier and soon, channels began appearing across the States, often broadcasting to a small area but carrying only limited-interest stories for its local people. Thus, television watching became a far more personal affair. As far as programme content, a specific identity for television developed slowly through the 50s with the launching of successful sitcoms such as I Love Lucy which carried high audience shares across the country.
However, we can distinguish here the first example of a parody between two entertainment methods. Shows that were once popular on radio were being copied to television, with I Love Lucy a prime example of this. (Wikipedia, 2005) illustrates the identity-forming process of television by explaining how local television stations helped shape this process. Moving on from merely showing advertisements for local companies, they began showing small serials and talk shows, some of which became national phenomenons. The local nature of this kind of television would eventually mostly fade away by the 70s but the damage done to cinema was irreparable. Television had entered the hearts and minds of successive American generations and it was here to stay.
Here, we can draw a major comparison between cinema and television potentially parodying it. Merely watching a few episodes of these old-school sitcoms, we cannot help but be struck at the similarity of tone to the pre-war Hollywood days. It is necessary to diverge briefly to explain the state of mind of 1950s America. Before the war, the USA had undergone a massive recession caused by the Wall Street Crash and thus, it had fallen to the entertainment industry to help people forget their woes. The film industry had done this, as shown above, but the changes it had caused had not died away.
Although World War II had caused the death of many a gallant young man, it had lifted the USA into a very buoyant mindset. With the European powers needing a decade more to recover from the conflict, with Japan’s military and economic potential temporarily annihilated, with China still reeling from its murderous invasion, the Soviet Union remained the only true challenge to America’s supremacy. But the Cold War had not yet begun in earnest and in the late 40s and early 50s, the USA saw itself as the world’s only true superpower. The much denigrated Eisenhower presidency kept the economy stable through a tricky balancing act and for most of America, life was good.
The Americana dream adapted to no longer be a picture of great wealth but of blissful happiness. The family unit of 2.4 children, living in the comfortable and safe suburban districts with a white picket fence around a big house, was a dream that many wished to achieve and television could reflect that. Shows such as I Love Lucy portrayed a heavenly, glossy picture of American society which is ultimately matched nowhere in entertainment except among the idyllic American communities shown in early studio films. The Warners, Mayer and the others had all built up their studios from the ground up thanks to their own hard work. They were living proof of the possibilities America offered and thus showed this in their films. Television in the 50s emulated this entirely. The era was different, the clothing more modern but the ensemble feeling remained the same.
This was not merely borne out in television sitcoms but also in adverts. Sitcoms would be interrupted for commercial upon commercial selling the latest washing-machine, vacuum-cleaner or kitchen appliance without which the dutiful housewife could not live. It is oddly ironic that many of today’s stereotypes about the 50s are a product of this kind of television. It needs to be remembered, However, that this often derided type of family life where the children skipped to school, rosy-cheeked and clutching an apple, while the father gave his loving wife a demure kiss on the cheek before heading to the office in his beautiful Chevrolet is not merely a myth. Around the suburbs of New York, San Francisco and the like, many families not only lived this kind of life but their children and grandchildren still do today. However, the way in which television chose to reflect this society in a utopian sense, glossing over any unpleasantness, was a definite rehashing of the technique used by the film studios of Hollywood twenty years previously.
The adaptation of the two mediums and their direct battle for audience shares
As television successfully found its feet and began a posing direct threat to cinema, studios were forced to change. After all, no other new form of entertainment had entered general society since the arrival of cinema before television and thus, cinema would have to fight to keep its audiences. A couple of things could be seen as certain before these changes would proceed. Firstly, cinema would never rival television for mass popularity and market potential due to the overwhelming availability of television and its presence in an increasing number of households across America.
Secondly, one of television’s worrying tendencies was to garner a lot of advertising money from a wide swathe of big American companies. Electrical appliances, cars, clothes, foodstuffs and drinks were all sold on television during commercial breaks, a fact that cinema could not copy. However, studio executives soon found ways round this problem, ways in which although adverts could not be shown during the movie, surreptitious showing of products could have a similar effect. Product placement was born.
Admittedly, in a society which with every passing year produces more and wastes more, it seems that studios have become less adept at making product placement seem natural rather than obvious. The 007 series had always been a treasure trove for companies wishing to place their symbols on James Bond’s latest gadget. With the arrival of Pierce Brosnan into the role However, any shred of subtlety vanished to be replaced with highly obvious use of products. For example, Brosnan’s type of car had always been one of the highlights of the film.
In Die Another Day, the presence of the painfully named Aston Martin ‘Vanish’ only served as a sales pitch for the Vanquish. Such utterly shameless product placement did reach a crescendo in 2004 where the amount of plugging for Sony and Converse in I, Robot would have made Isaac Asimov turn in his grave. However, such behaviour can shed some light onto the type of post-modern audience that we are evolving in. Those detractors who claim that post-modernism is merely the natural by-product of such a senselessly wasteful society whose mechanisms result in the attempted alienation of anyone showing a shred of individuality.
Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain but what is lamentable is that the artistic integrity which has existed since Aristotle is being compromised in cinema out of the desire to keep up with television. Thankfully, the presence of adverts in television, even if sometimes the length of advert breaks can be infuriating has meant this has not happened in television’s case. If we evolve in a post-modernist society, then these differing methods of merely pandering to our consumer’s instincts could seem to be a by-product of intense competition between two forms of popular entertainment.
Unfortunately, cinema’s rapid changes would lead to renewed controversy over its spectatorship and its impact thereupon as explained by Lynn Spigel. The concept of spectatorship in itself is a fascinating one, not just within the framework of this dissertation, but also within the field of cinema and television research. The bearings that society can have upon an audience’s watching habits are a crucial fact to understanding how individuals, larger target groups or entire demographics will react to any kind of program. (Spigel, 1998) places the birth of the issue of spectatorship in the 70s as film studies began increasing in popularity.
This rise in popularity and its link to audience research are vital as we can use them to comprehend not just how an audience would react to a pioneering film or series in either cinema or television but also how it would react to a parody or any kind of wholesale copying of a popular film or series by another medium of entertainment. The issues raised by Spigel are ones, she claims, whose roots lie back in the ideals of Marx and Lacan. From a psycho-analytical perspective, Spigel writes of the complexities of spectatorship research given the psychological aspects behind it.
Although Spigel’s thoughts may be questioned in themselves, they do offer conclusive evidence of audience diversity today and how carefully each aspect of this diversity needs to be considered before deciding on scheduling or production. In this, we can see the great precautions television executives must need to take in order to contemplate parodying of any kind of popular film.
Modern television, its workings and its impact upon the world
Big, brash, loud. Three words which could describe much of the television programmes produced in America in recent years. Long gone is the demure image of the family sitting down to enjoy some good old American-style programming with shows such as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie. Let’s face it, if these shows were produced today, they would face some accusations of glorifying witchcraft, yet another practice banned in Leviticus’ long list of gripes against the world.
Somehow, the image of ABC being picketed for showing re-runs of Bewitched may at first strike us as absurd but with careful thought, does this seem so unlikely? One of the major problems facing network directors and schedulers is the problems they could face if showing any material seen as even slightly offensive to anybody. We will not engage here in mindless America-bashing but in a country that has long defended the right to free speech, both the film and television industries are being lambasted by religious and family protection groups for promoting violence and pornography.
Whilst this could be understood if horror films were shown at hours when children watched TV or if their cartoons professed truly immoral practices but when complaints relate to Elmer Fudd shooting Bugs Bunny, one can wonder if the world has gone crazy. However insane these complaints can appear to be, they are still a startlingly important reality for today’s television. They form one of the biggest pressures on television executives who are caught in a tricky balancing act. They must maintain their audience shares by scheduling popular programming whilst also keeping packs of demented denigrators at bay.
Interestingly, regulations concerning the effect of violent or sexual programming have been in place for decades. After all, most channels, even now with the new glut of cable and digital operators, have respected the 9 o’clock watershed before broadcasting any overly offensive material. Have they been secretly breaching rules of moral conduct in recent years? Whilst it is certain that television programmes do have an impact on those who watch them and while children will always care little about rules or regulations that protect them from exposition to negative images, can this be said to be the wholesale fault of the television industry? If the people want games, then games they shall have.
This syllogism is one without which television stations cannot operate and although appeals could be made for public decency, violent and pornographic programmes will only be made and shown as long as the public has an interest in them. Thus, society should look to what elements within itself cause television to broadcast this type of programming rather than attack television for it. A recent example that shows just what a level of frenzy has been reached was the 2004 Superbowl. Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson provided the entertainment when Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson’s outfit, exposing her pierced right breast.
Whether the stunt was pre-prepared or not has not been made crystal clear but the furore that surrounded the incident was mind-boggling. The family protection and decency groups went insane, denouncing all film and television workers as Hollywood sleaze. The fact that this slip occurred during an event with global broadcasting and with audiences reaching into the hundreds of millions blew it out of all proportion. For some reason, that a breast had been shown on national television before the watershed was seen as being a massive breach of public decency and as potentially warping the fragile little minds of innocent children.
This level of problems goes a long way to showing the tonnage of pressure placed upon television channels. However, it is thankfully a trend that has not seemed to take hold outside the USA. The EU, Japan and Canada are subjected to the same kind of programming and although some complaints are voiced, they never garner so much media attention. Thus, we can see that the manners in which television panders to its audiences vary from country to country. We have highlighted television’s modus operandi in the USA but let us consider a cross-section of Japanese audiovisual entertainment. More than 20% of Japan’s cinematic output and a vast swathe of its popular television programs are made up of anime.
Anime cartoons usually contain far more involved storyline than their American counterparts, replete with high levels of violence, sexy and skimpily-clad female characters and yet, these are watched by children of all ages. Does Japan thus see a higher violence rate among young children? No, in fact, the proportion of it is far lower in Japan than it is in the USA. However, even Japanese anime does not make it onto American airwaves without massive cuts by the censorship office. A good example of this is constituted by the popular anime series, Dragonball Z. In it, a group of fighters defend Earth from invasion by evil aliens or androids. Throughout its 250+ episodes, the show contains high levels of violence, including dismembering, decapitation and the beating of children.
As can be imagined, when the show was broadcast in America on Cartoon Network, all these passages were cut to spare the minds of our children. However, in Japan, Dragonball Z aired in all its unadulterated gore and no-one seemed the worse for wear. This is not to say that so much violence on TV is good. Indeed, it is lamentable that it should exist at all but it is highly unfair to lay the blame for any consequences at the feet of an industry which is doing its best to keep as many people happy as possible.
Although, we have taken a standpoint in attacking America for its high sensitivity when it comes to protecting its children, we have recently been confronted with proof that this type of protest does not only occur in the USA. For ten years, Jerry Springer shocked the nation with its own brand of low chatshow humour. Famed topics of debate involved the KKK, incest and bestiality. It had met with both acclaim and criticism at home, some calling it a true social commentary, other cheap laughter at others’ misfortunes. Anyway, the comedic potential of the idea was soon seen and in 2002, it was turned into a musical named Jerry Springer: The Opera, starring David Soul as Jerry Springer, showing in the West End and on Broadway.
Controversy courted it throughout but its great success shouted down these demons. However, in January 2005, the BBC decided to show the musical in its entirety. As soon as this decision was made public, Christian right-wing groups attacked the BBC for insulting Christians when it would not dare the same about Muslims or Jews. While this claim did have some merit, the BBC ignored these claims and broadcast the show at 10 o’clock on a Monday night with clear warning beforehand about the potentially offensive content within it.
Examples of this type of occurrence could number in their hundreds but they are an ideal way of investigating how modern audiences identify with television programmes and react to them. One of the basic tenets is that post-modernism is that reactions to any situation are processes created by each individual and that thus, clear definitions of knowledge or art encompassing a group or a society are baseless. In this, it can be argued that the very concept of a post-modern audience is flawed. However, whatever theory we choose to engage with, we cannot reject human nature.
In the last twenty years, it seems that many among the generation of young people across America who fought in the 60s and 70s against Vietnam, against the Cold War, for Civil Rights and for many other noble causes have become dangerously jaded. America’s quality of life at the end of the 70s and in the 80s reached a high unseen since the 50s. Although the gap between rich and poor was ever-widening, the lifestyles of the middle and upper classes were prodigious. America was still afflicted with problems in Iran, Central America but the Soviet Block was crumbling and the mood among the general population was good.
However, in the 80s and 90s occurred a phenomenon that not many people had truly predicted. The baby-boomers who had so been influential in re-shaping America after World War II were themselves beginning to be required to pass the torch to the next generation. Thus, the norms of society that they had created were themselves being challenged by their children. This shift occurred through the appropriation of traditional American areas of life by the younger generation such as television, cinema, the press as well as the fledgling Internet.
We will look in further detail at the emergence of teenagers as a separate marketing entity and the impact of the home video on cinema and television as it entered this confused social maze. (Carberry, 2000) picks up on the popular image of television being viewed as a window on the world. This image, although adequate in some respects, also fails to pay attention to one crucial fact about television. If we look out of a window, we are certain that we will see will be real. A television does not offer this capacity.
Television programmes are constructed and even factual news bulletins or documentaries can be edited to look the way the news director wants them to. We know enough of methods of communication to realize the propagandistic power of television and therefore we are conscious that we must always take a step back when rationalizing about something we have seen on television.
Television, by its very nature, is as big a construct as cinema however