October 12, 2010
By Peter Rooney
For all the hand-wringing about “What’s on TV these days,” working for television—as a writer, for example, or director, producer, actor, or cinematographer—remains an alluring goal for many a liberal arts graduate contemplating his or her professional future.
As well, there is no doubt that television continues to have a profound impact on society, whether through opinion-laden shows on Comedy Central, Fox and MSNBC; sports broadcasts and talent shows on the major networks; or appointment television dramas on premium networks such as HBO and Showtime.
Making sense of the “vast wasteland,” which is what Newton Minnow, the Federal Communications Commission chairman called television way back in the medium’s early days, is the goal of “Knowing Television,” a course in the film and media studies major that launched this fall.
The class is taught by Amelie Hastie, associate professor of English and chair of the recently formed program in Film and Media Studies, who describes it as follows in the college’s course catalog:
“For better or worse, U.S. broadcast television is a cultural form that is not commonly associated with knowledge. This course will take what might seem a radical counter-position to such assumptions—looking at the ways television teaches us what it is and even trains us in potential critical practices for investigating it. By considering its formal structure, its textual definitions, and the means through which we see it, we will map out how it is that we come to know television.”
“Knowing Television” is a blend of theory and practice, with readings ranging from McLuhan to Freud that students are expected to reflect upon in writing each week so that Hastie can determine whether the 29 students taking the course are absorbing its lessons.
During a recent class, she added another task to their next reading assignment, René Descartes’ seminal meditation, “Concerning God: That He Exists.”
“What I want you to do is this,” she announced: “Every time Descartes says ‘God,’ insert the word ‘television’ and see how that works. We’re thinking about an infinite source of knowledge and an infinite production of knowledge and belief. So, how do we apply that to our understanding of television?” (After the class, Hastie said she realized this assignment may seem odd, but its intent was to spark to discussion, and it succeeded in that. “The students ended up being able to make connections across the various readings in critical studies of television in connection with it,” she said.)
Then, Hastie turned to introductions, summoning Rubicon producer Henry Bromell '70 to the Stirn Auditorium lectern and calling the guest speaker, one of three visitors this semester, “the model of the Amherst alum.”
“He’s someone who’s done many things,” she said. “He’s a writer of novels and short stories, a writer and producer for television, and while he’s been working across these fields he’s totally excelled.”
Casually dressed in blue jeans and a striped blue shirt, holding a coffee cup as he ambled to the stage, Bromell, who’s written or produced for shows such as Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope, Homicide: Life on the Street and Brotherhood, recounted that his career in television had its roots on campus, where he arrived with a deep fondness for cinema but found little in the way of formal coursework.
“The college was very amenable to my suggestions, though,” he said. “I started a film society, finagled some Super 8 film and proceeded to make some really bad films.”
He credited professors for encouraging his love for writing and film, singling out English professor John Cameron as being especially supportive. Working in television had never occurred to him, he said, until Josh Brand, the creator of Northern Exposure, sought him out after reading some of his short stories.
In working with Brand, Bromell joined a small network of colleagues who were interested in subverting rules of various television genres such as the medical drama and detective show. That meant, he said, they began inserting more “parentheses and asides” into scripts, focused on ensemble rather that star-driven shows, and borrowed cinematography techniques from admired directors such as Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard.
Those Bromell has collaborated with over the years have included David Chase, who would go on to create The Sopranos, and who hired him to write for I’ll Fly Away; Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia and Chasing Amy; and David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Treme.
The people he mentioned, Bromell said, had one common denominator: they didn’t set out to work in television, but once there they found it to be an interesting–and worthwhile–medium, with its own set of challenges and opportunities.
“We turned our ambition and judgment to what was on hand, and we started this run,” he said.
Bromell’s run continues, most recently with Rubicon, an AMC drama that focuses on the analysis side of gathering intelligence in a post-9/11 world, when making sense out of information overload is a nerve-wracking, never-ending challenge.
For students taking the course, perspectives like Bromell’s are eye-opening in that they help reveal the richness and influence of a medium that they may have underestimated.
“Even though there is a lot of trashy television out there, there are many gems as well that can stand their own against the various ‘high-class’ media of today,” said Leah Longoria ’12. “Analyzing the television medium is just as important as analyzing film or literature, especially if you think about how much most of us watch it. I mean, most of us spend more time watching television than we do eating. How can we not analyze something that we spend so much time with?”
As the end of the class approached, Bromell fielded questions from students about visual influences for Rubicon (1970s conspiracy-themed movies such The Conversation, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, he said, along with directors Alan J. Pakula and Francis Ford Coppola); television viewing habits of young adults and how to measure them (“When they tell me, ‘Your demo is too old,’ I can honestly look them in the eye and say, ‘How do you know?’ Because they don’t.”); and the “political economy” of Rubicon appearing on basic cable rather than on pay cable. (The major difference between the two, according to Bromell: “HBO doesn’t have to sell ads, which means they’re in a different game. They’re in the subscription business.”)
As the class wrapped up and a student pressed him for thoughts on the future of television, Bromell had no simple answers.
Network television has lost 60 percent of its audience since Bromell started working in it during the early ’90s, he said, and there’s no reliable way to measure viewing habits of advertising’s most coveted demographic–young adults who increasingly are viewing most of their television on their computers. Those who do watch actual televisions tend to fast-forward through commercials, still the main source of basic cable and network revenue.
What it all adds up to, Bromell concluded, is that those in charge don’t know what to do.
“They’re making it up,” he said. Still, Bromell believes television is an important medium that, in the right hands, allows stories to be told in thought-provoking ways.
That said, he finished with a smile, “I’m not asking you to watch more television.”