TV series in the contemporary cultural landscape

TV series in the contemporary cultural landscape

An insightful analysis on local and international television series by Armando Fumagalli, professor of Theory of Languages at the Catholic University of Milan and author of the recent book “The Dark Side - Bad Guys. Antagonists and anti-heroes of films and contemporary seriality”.

This past autumn saw the launch in Italy of two television series marking some of the largest production commitments in recent years for local networks: The Medici on RaiUno, and The Young Pope on Sky. The first had a budget of 25 million, and the second, 40 million: respectable numbers showing that Italy has entered the international market of big budget television series, with both achieving big sales in many countries around the world.

However, beyond the large differences in subject matter, these series, although linked by a similar economic investment, are somewhat emblematic of the vastly different production lines from which they were spawned.

On the one hand there are series that go to "generalist" channels, i.e. unencrypted and free networks (no fee) that broadcast to very large audiences. The approximately 7 million viewers of The Medici is an example. Other examples are series from the USA (current or which may have already have wrapped up) like CSI, The Good Wife, NCIS, Person of Interest, The Mentalist and, among the comedies, The Big Bang Theory, which reach audiences of 10 million or more viewers and in some cases, and some seasons, even touch the 20 million mark.

On the other hand, there are series broadcasted on pay channels, those in the US familiarly known as cable TV (because the signal is transmitted via cable), and which in some aspects are more innovative, but also very often the most transgressive: starting some years ago with Sex and the City and The Sopranos, and more recently Game of Thrones, Dexter, Spartacus, Californication, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, Westworld ,...

Both types of television series play an important role in the contemporary cultural scene, in particular with regards to the cultural consumption by kids and young adults.

If in fact national series are the most viewed by the broader general public (ranging from children to the elderly) – in Italy this includes Don Matteo and Montalbano above all, but there is something similar story in Germany, Spain, England and to a lesser extent in France – the audience of 18-35 year-olds most often prefers international series of Anglo-American origins.

What is interesting is that standard cable (and those of Netflix and Amazon, which will be discussed later) are based on a business model that is profoundly different from that of television series for generalist channels.

The latter is aimed at an audience as broad as possible to generate revenues to channels on which they are aired thanks to revenues generated from advertising breaks.

Series aired on paid channels do not generate profits on the number of viewers watching at the time, but rather on their "indirect image", their "perceived importance", which means that a viewer is convinced to make (or renew) the subscription for the pay channel because it does not want to be "out of the loop" – they don’t want to risk missing out on a television series that everyone (at least apparently) is talking about – perhaps also because it is being discussed a lot in the media.

So if someone produces (s) a series for CBS (or NBC, Fox ABC) in America or RaiUno or Channel 5 in Italy, he must ensure that as many people as possible see it , to satisfy the channels that have commissioned and aired it.

If someone works (s) for American channels like HBO (or AMC, Showtime, Starz, etc.), it is especially important that this series has enough of an "image" to be an important convincing element for those who must renew their subscription in a couple of months.

This is why HBO, since its inception in the 1970s – as all other similar networks - will invest in advertising and public relations on a single product that is considerably greater than that of the general networks ...

They must convince everyone that the series is a "major" and you “cannot miss it”… Whether it is viewed in large or small numbers is secondary. As it is well known, although The Young Pope got a viewership of almost one million in its premiere episode, the numbers crumbled in the second week, halving and reaching approximately 500,000 average viewers in the first run of subsequent episodes. But this is not necessarily a serious problem for a series whose aim was to build or strengthen the "notoriety" of the network that aired it.

This carelessness (always relative) at getting profit with big audiences– is having important consequences in terms of content. For example, it has made room for writers and producers to go into highly transgressive territory (something that usually – contrary to perceptions- does not guarantee a constant and high number of viewers) and even settling on territory that is culturally polarising, with themes such as dissolution of the family, critiques of all forms of religion, and the ideology that today is known as "gender".

This has also permitted the construction of very dark characters, not only and not so much within the crime world, but above all with bitter stories, involving a deep sense of radical existential dissatisfaction, which express a dark and pessimistic vision, radically negative, of existence.

This is done with a remarkably high technical quality of writing and production and obviously also with significant cultural differences, which here for the sake of brevity won’t be discussed.

Those of the paid premium channels are therefore the most transgressive and dark series, but also those of which is most spoken of - perhaps due to the amount invested in publicising them, maybe due to a relais at times infantile by the media, especially the newspapers- those who set the leading "opinion" which influences later on the public debate, other media, and thereby the taste of many other voices, and so they strongly direct broader culture. Here we are talking about very different series, such as Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The L Word, Masters of Sex, The Wire, Girls, Transparent ,...

Regarding the underlying ideology in American television series, there is a book published a few years ago (to which was given considerable attention weight in our Creatività al potere, Lindau, 2013), written by a young American intellectual, Ben Shapiro, and tellingly entitled Primetime Propaganda. After an extensive round of interviews with writers, producers, showrunners, he concluded very clearly that in many cases to guide the choices of these great professionals was not primarily the desire to have great success or to make a lot of money, but to advance cultural battles that they deemed important.

An example of this, the showrunner of Friends (one of the most popular products of the last decade), Martha Kaufmann, explained how she considered a great point of pride to have put a lesbian wedding in an episode and have it interpreted by an activist of that movement: getting marriage equality legislation was the aim, which was later actually obtained.

The series produced by companies that distribute directly through the internet (Netflix and Amazon) have followed the highly polarized and highly transgressive line of cable networks. In addition, there is the fact that they do not communicate data on the number of viewers and therefore we do not know the real success of theses series (above all Netflix series, House of Cards, which has been much talked about in recent years). But for sure they are having a strong impact on the professionals of media.

If in Hollywood cinema industry there is still room for a wide diversity of ways of seeing the world and every year there are still a good number of films that have a deep connection with the Judeo-Christian roots of European and American culture, such values are very limited within international television series.

A strong cultural bias and polarization have been craftily created, whose historical reasons cannot been developed here. There is truly an elite of writers and producers quantitatively very small (many of them pass from one series to another) keen on spreading their world view. It is not an accident that in America the question of the cultural bias of the media is an issue that periodically rekindled brightly in debates, as we have clearly seen recently in the presidential campaign.

One of the few really "different" series from the mainstream media, and one of extraordinary success in many countries of the world, was Downton Abbey, produced in England and a work primarily of Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter-creator. The great audience results it has had in many countries around the world show that there is space to tell stories in a different way, and with a different point of view... Even in this big world market.

Note: This article was previously published in Italian “Avvenire” newspaper on 17/12/2016 and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.