Quality television

Quality television

Quality television (also called "quality TV") is a term used by television scholars [Dr. David Lavery (the Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University in London); Dr Janet McCabe (Trinity College, Dublin);Kim Akass (London Metropolitan University); and Kristin Thompson, author of "Storytelling in Film and Television" (and co-author of several textbooks on film with her husband, David Bordwell). Thompson is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ] television critics [A "TV Guide" article entitled "Girls Power: WB Drama to Return" states "Score one for fans of quality television: The WB is on the verge of renewing its acclaimed freshman drama Gilmore Girls for a second season.] , and broadcasting advocacy groups ["Viewers For Quality Television" in the US, the Campaign for Quality Television Ltd.in the UK, and the Alliance for Children and Television (ACT) in Canada] to describe a genre or style of television programming that they argue is of higher quality, due to its subject matter or content. For several decades after World War II, television that was deemed to be "quality television" was mostly associated with government-funded public television networks [Government-funded public television networks such as the BBC produce "educational programming... [,] high quality documentaries and cinephile films" as a way "... to educate and ‘uplift’ the general population... [http://studiegids.uva.nl/web/sgs/nl/c/6785.html Course description: Visual Art and Television] (Open UvA college). Describes the complex relationships that art and television have maintained since the mid 20th century up to the present. (Art on TV; TV in Art; and TV as Art).] ; however, with the development of cable network specialty television channels in the 1980s and 1990s, US cable channels such as HBO made a number of television shows that some television critics argued were "quality television", such as "The Sopranos.

Claims that some television programs are of higher quality include a number subjective evaluations and value judgements. For example, Kristin Thompson's claim that "quality television" programs include "...a quality pedigree, a large ensemble cast, a series memory, creation of a new genre through recombination of older ones, self-consciousness, and pronounced tendencies toward the controversial and the realistic" [Cited in the Wilcox and Lavery article on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Available at:] includes a number of subjective evaluations. The criteria for "quality television" set out by the US group Viewers For Quality Television ("A quality show is something we anticipate... [it] focuses more on relationships... [and] explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought...") also require a number of subjective evaluations.

Fictional and non-fictional "quality television"

Fictional television programs that some television scholars and broadcasting advocacy groups argue are "quality television" include dramas such as "Twin Peaks", " Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "The Sopranos", and "The Simpsons". Kristin Thompson argues that some of these television dramas exhibit traits also found in art films, such as psychological realism, narrative complexity, and ambiguous plotlines. Nonfiction television programs that some television scholars and broadcasting advocacy groups argue are "quality television" include a range of serious, noncommercial programming aimed at a niche audience, such as documentaries and public affairs shows.

US "quality television"

Narrative complexity in American television drama

At the dawn of the medium and in the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, there had been complex dramas in the form of live anthology series each week such as Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, Goodyear Television Playhouse, and other such shows featuring talented writers along the lines of Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky who wrote stories about the human condition often through a dark eye and cynical and ironic outlook on life and social issues. These were live dramas broadcast for New York (city) 52 weeks with no hiatus, and such shows faded out of existence more and more with television dramas now being filmed in Los Angeles, California. However the essence and format of these dramas continued in the form of filmed anthology dramas such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and the Walt Disney anthology television series. With anthology series now being filmed in Los Angeles, these shows were broadcast for 39 weeks with a hiatus in the summer.

The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to three complex narrative formats which would come to dominate the American television landscape decades later. The primetime serial (radio and television) with Peyton Place based on the Grace Metalious novel and the hit movie of the same name starring Lana Turner. It was the first American television series to feature a frank discussion of sexuality in dramatic storylines. And also was the first primetime series to adopt a more serialized character driven approach to storytelling more often seen on daytime soap operas as opposed to the typical primetime series of the era which had a more episodic plot driven nature.

The Fugitive was the first to introduce the concept of story arc and character arc, in spite of the show's episodic nature, with David Janssen playing Dr. Richard Kimball, a man on the run to prove his innocence and to reveal the one armed was in fact his wife's killer. This led to a huge showdown in the final episode which resulted the broadcast being one the most watched television programs of all time and the concept of a series finale becoming popular ratings grabbers instead of the previous method of using a clip show as a final episode. The Fugive also spawned a feature film starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones along with a short remake of the series starring Timothy Daly.

Battlestar Galactica was perhaps one of the first dramatic series on American television to delve into a "show mythology", long before Twin Peaks, Babylon 5, The X-Files, or LOST which involved mixing both serialized and episodic narratives in a regular television series. The premise involved a rag tag fleet of survivors from the now destroyed Twelve Colonies of Man fleeing an attack from a destructive cybernetic race called The Cylons, hoping for a utopian thirteenth colony called Earth. The series starred Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame. The series was cancelled after one season due to rising budget costs yet spawned the filled Galactica 1980 a year later, and a reimagined version of the series on The Sci-Fi Channel which garnered more recognition, critical acclaim, and a longer run than the original series or Galactica 1980 put together. By this time, television series were 26 weeks a season with hiatus now in both the summer and winter.

In the 1980s, both serials and story arcs made a comeback with hit primetime soaps Dallas, its spinoff Knots Landing, their sister show Falcon Crest (all three series were produced at Lorimar) along with the Aaron Spelling produced Dynasty in spite of their mass appeal, campy nature, and sensationalism, these shows prompted more and more primetime dramas to use the serial format. Among these were dramas such as the Steven Bochco produced shows Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, and later NYPD Blue along other 1990s dramas. These latter dramas were known for their deep characterization with sometimes a particular show being in the middle of story, with another beginning, and another ending. These were serialized dramas without the melodramatic trappings of a "soap opera", hence the term "story arc". The 26 episodes seasons from a decade earlier had been reduced to 22 to allow for occasional breaks during the holidays.

In the 1990s and 2000s, a new model of television storytelling began being used in some US television programs such as Oz, The Sopranos, and later on with shows such as The Wire and Six Feet Under for HBO which adopted a business model of producing 13 week dramas over the course of five years or so. This was a marked departure from traditional network dramas which would start with thirteen episodes at the beginning of the season with another "back nine" episodes to finish the season, and allowed these cable dramas to have a shot at succeeding by not cancelling them within a year and cancelling before they lasted a decade, moving past their prime. Plus these shows were darker and much more realistic than the typical network drama, establishing dramatic television on cable as a solid alternative to the average drama on network television. However, it's a possible network television might moving toward this direction with the last few years of LOST which will each feature 16-17 episodes instead of 22, the typical network order.

cholars and Authors on Quality Television in the United States

Brown University professor Paul Buhle’s review of "Quality Popular Television" [eds. Mark Jancovich, James Lyons) London: BFI, 2003. Review available at: ] states that “high-culture critics almost uniformly considered films to be dreck until television—when they enshrined the cinema auteur. At the next stage...some television... [programs were] accorded the status of "art."” Some British professors [Dr. David Lavery (the Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University in London); Dr Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University); and Kim Akass (Manchester Metropolitan University)] and television writers argue that US television programming includes a number of quality shows. In April 2004, Dr Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Kim Akass (Manchester Metropolitan University) organized a conference on “American Quality Television” to examine the “particular strand of American television known as Quality TV” (e.g., "St Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, The Sopranos, Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under").

The BBC’s television listings magazine, "Radio Times" had an article in 2002 which asked ‘Why can’t Britain’s long-running dramas be more like America’s?’. David Gritten argued that the "...cream of American TV now stands for real quality", because US television dramas have "...the edge in portraying a broad gamut of human experience" and they are "...fast-paced, complex, smart and beautifully written."

Kristin Thompson the author of "Storytelling in Film and Television" [Some of her other publications include "Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique" (Harvard University Press, November 1999); "Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis" (Princeton University Press, August 1988); and, as a co-author with David Bordwell; "Film Art: An Introduction" (McGraw-Hill College, January 2003); "Film History: An Introduction" (McGraw-Hill College, August 2002)] (Harvard University Press, May 2003), argues that US television shows such as David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series have "...a loosening of causality, a greater emphasis on psychological or anecdotal realism, violations of classical clarity of space and time, explicit authorial comment, and ambiguity." Thompson. Available at:http://www.kamera.co.uk/books/new_hollywood_cinema.html] Thompson claims that series such as " Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "The Sopranos", and "The Simpsons" "...have altered long-standing notions of closure and single authorship", which means that "...television has wrought its own changes in traditional narrative form." Other television shows that have been called "art television," such as "The Simpsons", use a "...flurry of cultural references, intentionally inconsistent characterization, and considerable self-reflexivity about television conventions and the status of the programme as a television show."

Thompson compares David Lynch's film "Blue Velvet" and the television series "Twin Peaks" and "...asks whether there can be an "art television" comparable to the more familiar "art cinema." [Kristin Thompson. "Storytelling in Film and Television. Summary available at:"] An art film is a typically a serious, noncommercial, independently made film that is aimed at a niche audience, rather than a mass audience. Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an “art film” using a “...canon of films and those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films.” Jason Mittell, an assistant professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College, notes that many of the innovative television programs of the past twenty years have come from creators who launched their careers in film, a medium with more traditional cultural cachet," such as David Lynch, Barry Levinson, Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, and J. J. Abrams. [Jason Mittell. Available at:http://segueuserfiles.middlebury.edu/jmittell/mittell%20narrative%20complexity.pdf.]

Viewers for Quality Television

In the US, an organization called Viewers For Quality Television was formed in the 1980s to encourage the production and broadcasting of shows that the group argued were "quality television". The group polls their membership and builds consensus through a monthly newsletter. The group's founder Dorothy Swanson argued that "A quality show is something we anticipate before and savor after. It focuses more on relationships than situations; it explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought and is remembered tomorrow. A quality show colors life in shades of grey."

The group supported comedy shows such as "Frank's Place, Designing Women," or "Brooklyn Bridge", and dramas such as "ER, Murder One" or "NYPD Blue". The group's annual rankings were monitored by broadcast industry executives, as the rankings showed the preferences of the so-called "high demographic" programming that appeals to university-educated, higher-income television viewers, a niche audience that is sought out by advertisers.

As television shows become increasingly popular as DVD rentals and purchases, media industries are trying to increase the “rewatchability” of programs. If a television program has a simple plot that can be understood in a single viewing, viewers will be less likely to want to purchase a DVD recordings of this television show. However, if a show as a complex narrative construction and richly detailed content, viewers will be more inclined to want to "rewatch episodes or segments to parse out complex moments."

As well, the "...rise of narrative complexity has also seen the rise in amateur television criticism, as sites like televisionwithoutpity.com have emerged to provide thoughtful and humorous commentaries on weekly episodes." According to Steven Johnson, narratively complex television shows provide viewers with a "cognitive workout" that can help to increase their "...problem-solving and observational" skills.

UK "quality television"

In the UK, television plays from the 1950s and 1960s tackled a range of controversial subjects, yet still managed to garner large audiences. These televised plays were regarded as a benchmark of high-quality British television drama, part of what some television historians refer to as the "golden age" of British television. British television drama writer John Hopkins has been noted for “...successful [ly] pioneering...the short series for serious drama,” which “...established an important precedent in Britain” and served as a model for subsequent television writers such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale. [Bob Millington. HOPKINS, JOHN. Available at:]

The UK's National Film and Television School (NFTS), which teaches creative and commercial skills, notes the "... tension which has given us popular cinema, serious as well as entertaining television, and allowed both media to become art forms in their own right." The UK public broadcaster-produced series' "The Jewel in the Crown" and "Brideshead Revisited" "...came to represent the "acme of British quality" and the "Jewel in the Crown" was "...held up as the epitome of excellence" and described as the "title everyone reaches for when asked for a definition of 'quality television'". [Peter McLuskie. Article on "Jewel in the Crown". Available at:]

The Arts Council of England's event "Day of British Film" states that the council's "top priority is to make strategic interventions in programme-making for network television broadcast... by co-producing "...programmes made by independent producers with television partners." The Art Film Festival examined television issues such as "Short-length programming: art in the age of satellite television", which examines "...ways in which contemporary, often aesthetically difficult work can be presented on network television in ways that are innovative but accessible." [ [ 403 Forbidden ] ] Kristin Thompson argues that a show from the British public broadcaster, "The Singing Detective", has what she defines as "art television" aspects similar to those that she finds in Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series

Dr. David Lavery, the Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University (in London) has written a number of articles and book chapters on television that he argues is "quality television." He co-edited "Twin Peaks in the Rearview Mirror: Appraisals and Reappraisals of the Show That Was Supposed to Change TV" and wrote “Quirky Quality TV: Revisiting "Northern Exposure".” (from "Critical Studies in Television" 1.2 (Autumn 2006): 34-38). In April 2004, Dr Janet McCabe and Kim Akass organized a conference on “American Quality Television” (described above in the section on the US) and have recently published a book 'Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond' (November 2007, I.B. Tauris). This collection is part of their Reading Contemporary Television series and, along with their contributors, they discuss various definitions of Quality TV.

Unlike the above-cited scholars, who discuss the contributions made by fictional television programs that they deem to be "quality television", Dieter Daniels argues that there "...is no form of high television culture that could be seen as a lasting cultural asset to be preserved for future generations", except for the "music clip." Daniels' article "Television—Art or Anti-art?" states the music clips (e.g., music videos) that "have emerged since the 1980s" have "...attracted accolades in the context of art and become part of museum collections", and that they "...are often seen as a continuation of the 1920s avant-garde absolute films." [ [ 403 Forbidden ] ]

Campaign for Quality Television

In the UK, the Campaign for Quality Television Ltd. was set up in 1988. The Campaign aims to promote public service television, choice and quality for all viewers in the UK, and promote television programming which informs and educates people from all sectors of society. They call for a "true breadth of quality" and advocate for adequate funding for public service television. In 1998, the Campaign published two reports: Serious "Documentaries on ITV", and "The Purposes of Broadcasting". In 1999, the Campaign published "A Shrinking Iceberg Slowly Travelling South", which examined the pressures of broadcasting and the impact on programmes. [ [ 403 Forbidden ] ]

Canadian "quality television"

Television broadcasting in Canada is strongly influenced by the UK and US broadcasting systems. The Canadian broadcasting system's legislative foundation, the "Broadcasting Act", and its public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are both modeled on the UK broadcasting system and its use of a government-funded public broadcaster. In addition, the Canadian broadcasting system is influenced by the US broadcasting system. Most Canadians receive a number of US channels, either through over-the-air broadcasting (e.g., in border cities such as Windsor) or in cable TV packages. As well, Canadian commercial broadcasters' schedules are dominated by popular US shows.

Shows deemed to be "quality television" in Canada are usually produced and broadcast by the public broadcaster (CBC) or by the provincial educational broadcasters, such as Ontario's TVO, Saskatchewan's SCN, the BC Knowledge, and Quebec's Tele-Quebec.

The Alliance for Children and Television

The Alliance for Children and Television [http://www.act-aet.tv/enapropos.htm] (ACT) is a Canadian non-profit organization that uses advocacy, awards ceremonies and other recognition, and professional training to promote Canadian children’s media. ACT lobbies governments about the issue of children’s screen-based entertainment. ACT encourages the production of high-quality programs and advocates the production and airing of the largest possible number high-quality programs for Canadian children and youth.

The ACT "statement of quality" provided the foundation for the Children’s Television Charter, which is currently being ratified by governments and broadcasters around the world. ACT argues that "quality television is television deemed excellent in both form and content, geared to the needs and expectations of its target viewers while meeting recognized industry standards." Furthermore, the organization claims that "the content of programs should be relevant and entertaining, stimulate the intellect and the imagination, and foster openness toward others. It should also be an accurate reflection of the world in which children grow up, respecting their dignity and promoting learning." [See the ACT STATEMENT OF QUALITY paragraph, at http://www.act-aet.tv/enapropos.htm]

Further reading

*Janet McCabe and Kim Akass. "Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond." Nov 2007. ISBN 1845115104
* "Quality Popular Television". Edited by Professor Mark Jancovich (Senior lecturer in film and television at the University of East Anglia) and James Lyons (lecturer in film at the University of Exeter). Published April 2003. Paperback ISBN 0851709419; Hardback ISBN 0851709400. This book discusses "quality popular television" shows such as "Ally McBeal, Martial Law, Buffy,Lois and Clark, Star Trek: The Next Generation" and" Ellen". [ [ 403 Forbidden ] ]
* Ava Collins. "Intellectuals, power and quality television" in the "Journal Cultural Studies". Issue Volume 7, Number 1/January 1993.
* Lealand, G. "Searching for quality television in New Zealand: Hunting the moa?" in the "INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF CULTURAL STUDIES". 2001, VOL 4; NUMB 4, pages 448-455. Published by SAGE PUBLICATIONS in Great Britain. ISBN ISSN 1367-8779


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