As I sit here writing this post, I’ve just finished watching the latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Vimeo, on my laptop, at the dining table, while my Mum catches up on Doctor Doctor on the PC in our study. It’s an interesting contrast to the ‘shared viewership’ that I spoke of when writing my post about TV in my childhood, and I want to compare TV then to TV now, not just personally but in the broader context of the changing TV landscape. In my first post, I referenced David Morley’s assertion that ownership of a TV is what defines a household (Morley, Shared Territories, p89), and I spoke of this in relation to my own fond memories of shared TV viewing. But can we still say this of TV today? Is the TV still the focal point of the home when so much of what we watch isn’t on an actual television set?
In The Daily Mail, Katherine Rushton writes about the breakdown of this shared viewership when reporting on decreasing TV ratings, stating that, “The television used to be a cornerstone of British family life – something that parents would gather around with their children. But a change in habits means that one in 20 households has now given up their television set altogether.” (Rushton, Why one in 20 families have ditched their TV, online) It seems this move away from traditional TV is particularly motivated by younger viewers, as Australia’s Business Insider reports viewing figures amongst 18-24 year-olds dropped 20 per cent over the year to September 2015 (Udland, The number of people watching TV is falling off a cliff, online).
Reviewing my time-use diary I can certainly see this phenomenon in my own household. Where my mother’s TV viewing is tied almost exclusively to the actual TV (aside from catch-up on the computer), I find myself (in that 18-24 age bracket) watching most often on my laptop, and occasionally on a tablet or even mobile. The 2016 Deloitte Media Consumers Survey asserts that the device on which we watch content is usually whichever is most convenient, and I think this is certainly the case for me – I tend to opt for whatever has the most battery life left or is simply closest to me.
But the figures from the above sources are somewhat misleading in suggesting that TV viewership is decreasing. While I watch lots of content on my laptop and my tablet, rather than my TV set, I still regard it as ‘TV’ in the broader sense, and thus my time-use diary was fairly full – I would say I watch as much TV now as I ever have, if not more. This trend is common amongst my generation, many of whom still watch what might be described as TV content, even if it’s not on an actual TV. Chief executive of the television advertising group Thinkbox Lindsey Clay describes this trend when writing that “[millenials] are by far the biggest viewers of TV watched on other devices. However, we don’t have the figures for this yet . . . But what is clear is that TV remains the dominant youth medium both in terms of time spent watching it, reach and culturally.” (Williams, How young viewers are abandoning television, online)
So perhaps what is changing is not how much we watch TV, but simply how. Graeme Turner and Tinna Jay write about how the existence of smartphones and tablets has caused the once “mass communication” of TV to become “a highly personal medium of individualised, privatised consumption.” (Jay & Turner, Television Studies after TV, p2) A report from The Guardian further characterises the change in the way we engage with TV in alluding to the rise in multi-screening, with nearly fifty per cent of survey respondents admitting to it (The Guardian, author unspecified, Does your family sit round the TV together? online)
And yet, with all this talk of TV become personalised, I can’t help but notice in my own viewing habits that I still prefer watching TV with others. There are plenty of times in my TV diary where I’ve written that I watched something ‘because Mum was watching it’, despite the ease with which I could watch something else on another device. And while I have control over when and where I watch content, there are still shows that I sit down to watch at a scheduled time, whether it be on traditional free-to-air or a YouTube show. Even when watching on my laptop I’ll often plug it into the TV, so I can watch it with my Mum.
So when I look back at my previous post, and the way TV formed the basis for shared experience and family conversation, nothing’s actually changed. For me, although the format, technology and platforms are different, TV is still a medium I enjoy with others. Am I alone in doing so, in this world in which we’re all abandoning our TVs?
Actually, I’m not. The Guardian article on multi-screening suggests that familial TV viewership is on the rise, as multi-screening provides a distraction for when you’ve lost the battle for the remote (The Guardian, online). And while the control mobile and online viewing affords is appealing, I think there’s always going to be a joy in watching TV with others. As one report from Sony stated, “Watching with others is still an important part of the television and video experience for many of us. Some shows still bring families together, in the way they have done for generations . . . it gives us a reason to be with family and friends; something to talk about, and share.” (Cooper, Why We Watch Television, p24)
Cooper, William. Why We Watch Television. United Kingdom: Sony, 2015. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
Deloitte. Media Consumer Survey 2016. Sydney: Deloitte, 2016. Web. 17 Oct 2016. Australian Media And Digital Preferences.
Morley, David. Home Territories. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Rushton, Katherine. “Why One In 20 Families Have Ditched Their TV: Changing Viewing Habits Mean Many Now Watch On Laptops Or Tablets – Or Simply Prefer Life Without One”. The Daily Mail 2016: Online. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
The Guardian. “Does Your Family Sit Round The TV Together?”. 2013: Online. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
Turner, Graeme and Tinna, Jay. Television Studies After TV. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Udland, Myles. “The Number Of People Watching TV Is Falling Off A Cliff”. The Business Insider 2015: Online. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
Williams, Christopher. “How Young Viewers Are Abandoning Television”. The Telegraph 2014: Online. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
When we think about ‘quality food’ or ‘quality music’, the definition of what ‘quality’ is seems to depend very much on who you ask, and what their tastes and preferences are. So ‘quality TV’ must be an equally subjective term, right?
As it happens, TV academics have come up with a standard definition (see what I did there) for ‘quality TV’, and it’s not necessarily related to how good you think a show actually is.
So what does define quality TV, and what fits into that category? When discussing this concept in the course, we looked at Sex and the City and Lena Dunham’s Girls, but I want to focus on another one of our screenings that I think is less controversial in being accepted as quality TV – HBO’s True Detective.
True Detective was certainly a critical success, but what is it that gives it that magic quality status when it has a lower Rotten Tomatoes rating than I am Cait (75% vs 84%)? In her chapter HBO and the Concept of Quality TV, Jane Feuer gives a few key characteristics of quality TV that can mostly be seen in True Detective:
- It’s serialised. (Feuer, HBO and the Concept of Quality TV, p149) While a quality TV episode might have some self-contained stories, its overall purpose is to progress a narrative or character arc that exists over a season. This is particularly evident in True Detective where the driving force of the season is the investigation of a case, framed by characters’ accounts of it 20 years later.
- Ensemble cast. (Feuer, p149) While True Detective doesn’t have the large and diverse cast of say Cold Feet (which Feuer uses as a case study), it certainly plays on the star power of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (in his glorious McConnaissance) to give weight to the drama and attract new viewers.
- Juxtaposition of comedy and drama. (Feuer, p149) While True Detective definitely errs on the bleak side (which I’ll discuss more a bit later), its moments of levity (such as Marty in episode one saying, “I just want you stop saying odd shit”) punctuate and intensify that bleakness, increasing the poignancy of the drama.
- Allusion to cinema/other art forms. (Feuer, p151) Feuer talks about the influence of arthouse cinema on Cold Feet, and I definitely think there’s an intentional cinematic look about True Detective, from the wide, overhead shots (such as this stark shot of a burnt-out church) to the expressive lighting.
In his lecture on quality TV, Glen mentioned a few other points that I think are all similarly applicable to True Detective: large budgets, location shooting, risque subject matter, focus on character (Donnar, It’s Not TV, Its HBO: Branding, Genre and Quality TV, slides 29-30) . . . Robert J Thompson even mentions that quality TV is conventionally an hour long (Thompson, Television’s second golden age: the quality shows, p79). But to me the most interesting point is Feuer’s suggestion that quality TV incorporates cinematic or artistic allusions. It’s almost as if to be quality TV, a show has to not be TV at all.
Robert J Thomspon talks about this in The Second Golden Age of TV, writing that, “The worst insult you could give to Barney Rosenzweig, the executive producer of Cagney and Lacey, was to tell him that his work was ‘too TV’. Twin Peaks was universally praised by critics for being ‘unlike anything we’d ever seen on television.’ In a medium long considered artless, the only artful TV is that which isn’t like all the rest of it.” (Thompson, p77)
I think this is particularly relevant to True Detective, coming as it does from HBO, a network known for quality TV and whose advertising rests on the premise: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” (Jaramillo, The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, and the Construction of a Quality Brand, p59) Elizabeth Alsop further links this phenomenon of TV that is not TV to True Detective when she writes, “Critically acclaimed genre series such as Game of Thrones and True Detective are using bleak self-seriousness to distance themselves from their lowbrow roots.” She talks not just of cinematic aspirations but even literary overtones, referencing the idea that The Wire‘s fans “have frequently analogized it to Dickens, as if to prevent its being designated as “mere” television.” (Alsop, The Unbearable Darkness of Prestige Television, p4)
This rise in quality TV, and its attempts to move away from what TV is traditionally thought to be, has been going on since the 80s and 90s, when Hollywood producers and actors began to bring some professional credibility to the TV world (Miller, It’s Not TV, pIX). But I think this phenomenon is particularly interesting in the context of the 21st century, as the move towards unconventional TV content is reflected in a move towards unconventional TV formats.
Deloitte’s 2016 media consumption survey states that TV is now primarily watched not on TV but on whatever device is most easily accessible (Deloitte, Media Consumer Survey 2016, online). Indeed, although True Detective is broadcast on TV airwaves, its season one finale hit the news when HBO’s streaming service ]struggled to keep up with the online demand for it and crashed (Fitzpatrick, HBO GO Technical Troubles Mar True Detective Finale, online).
So, we have a show that wants to be a movie that’s being watched on computers, tablets and mobile phones. Are the times a-changing? Is the increasing diversification of TV formats allowing the actual content to venture away from the traditional, leading us to a shiny new age of quality TV? Well maybe it’s not quite that drastic. If you ask Feuer:
” . . . quality drama always claims to be original in relation to the regular TV norms of its era. Yet generically speaking, an analysis of the first four episodes of the show reveals just about every formulaic characteristic . . .” (Feuer, p148)
Alsop, Elizabeth. “The Unbearable Darkness Of Prestige Television”. The Atlantic (2015): Online. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
Donnar, Glen. “It’s Not TV, Its HBO: Branding, Genre And Quality TV”. 2016. Presentation.
Deloitte. Media Consumer Survey 2016. Sydney: Deloitte, 2016. Web. 17 Oct 2016. Australian Media And Digital Preferences.
Feuer, Jane. “HBO And The Concept Of Quality TV”. Quality TV Contemporary American Television And Beyond. McCabe, Janet and Akass, Kim. 1st ed. New York: I B Taurus, 2007. 143-157. Print.
Fitzpatrick, Alex. “HBO GO Technical Troubles Mar True Detective Finale”. Time Magazine 2014: Online. Web. 17 Oct 2016.
Jaramillo, D. L. “The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, And The Construction Of A Quality Brand”. Journal of Communication Inquiry 26.1 (2002): 59-75. Web.
Miller, Toby. “Foreword”. It’s Not TV: Watching HBO In The Post-Television Age. Leverette, Marc, Ott, Brian L and Buckley, Cara Louise. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. IX-XII. Print.
Thompson, Robert J. “Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues To ER…”. Choice Reviews Online 34.04 (1996): 34-1984-34-1984. Web.
Well, it’s not every day you get to meet a director whose work has been shown and won awards at film festivals including Sydney Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, MIFF and even Sundance, but it happened to me on Tuesday. Kim had asked documentary, feature and short film creator Amiel Courtin-Wilson to come in to speak to us. Courtin-Wilson is one of those people you’ve never heard of but really should have. His films include Bastardy, about Uncle Jack Charles, Catch My Disease, about Ben Lee, and Hail, a feature in which a former prison inmate plays himself in a fictionalised version of his life.
In case that wasn’t daunting enough, Courtin-Wilson is much like an Olympian, in the sense that he makes you reflect on just how little you’ve achieved compared to when he was your age. By the time he was as old as I am now, Courtin-Wilson had had his first documentary Chasing Buddha featured at Sundance. But of course, his extensive achievements meant he had great advice about how establish yourself in the film world.
Unsurprisingly, his first piece of advice was to just go for it – make the most of every opportunity and get as much material produced as you can. He made the quite important point as well (I think) that often it’s the projects you’re not as invested in at first that become your masterpieces, so you should really put time and effort into everything. For example, he spoke about how Chasing Buddha was originally written as a speculative exercise for university, and that it was only after writing the script that he decided to actually make it.
He spoke about the importance of building and maintaining relationships, and interestingly not just with people already in the industry but with classmates and friends. As he pointed out, although they can’t offer you a job now, if your classmates end up in the industry in 20 years time and remember you, that might give you the edge. Courtin-Wilson has worked with the same DOP for all of his projects since Chasing Buddha, a guy who was a buddy from high school.
And it’s no wonder he’s stuck with the same guy as his films are visually beautiful. We watched scenes and trailers from Hail, Ruin, Bastardy, Cicada and others, and each one was aesthetically wonderful. It’s again quite daunting, because while I’m sure Courtin-Wilson has spent many years learning his craft, there is a part of me that thinks that kind of artistic vision must come from raw talent that you’re born with (according to his Wiki page, his parents are both artists, which doesn’t surprise me a bit!).
Dan saw a similarity between his subjects and that of one of Courtin-Wilson’s films, and so asked a question regarding documentary ethics and the line between expose and exploitation. Courtin-Wilson, softly spoken and eloquent, struck me as a very genuine person who would be highly invested in his subjects and treat them very well, and he spoke about befriending Jack Charles rather than just being his profiler. His advice was to give the subjects a voice through the editing stages, to ensure that they were comfortable with the final project.
Courtin-Wilson ended his talk by suggesting that he was always on the lookout for interns – music to our student ears! I’ve just taken on an internship, and the more experimental route he seems to be taking with his new work is far too visionary for my unimaginative mind, but I really hope someone in our class takes him up on the offer as it would be just fantastic to learn from someone who has clearly mastered the craft of documentary-making.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that telling people you’ve just attended a conference makes them think you’re a lot more professional than you are.
Open Channel’s Generation Next conferences run annually, and provide opportunities for young people to hear from and connect with screen creators who are already established in the industry.
This year’s conference was called Your future, what next?, and as a previous attendee of the Generation Next conferences I was lucky enough to get a discounted ticket. Held at the Docklands Studios, the conference featured a great range of speakers from Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope to Jocelyn Moorhouse and Benjamin Law. It was fantastic to be able to hear from such a wide range of media practitioners, and to be able to learn from them, but it was also quite daunting; a theme of the conference seemed to be ‘you’ve got at least ten more years before you can expect to have a decent job’ . . . eek!
Nonetheless, I enjoyed going, and it was perfect timing during the mid-semester break as it gave me something to do my blog post on! There was more of a focus on fictional content, but there were a few sessions featuring and even dedicated to documentary as well. For example, we heard from Jacob Hickey, a former BBC journalist who’d worked on Immigration Nation and Inside the Firestorm. Another speaker on the same panel was Susie Jones, the factual entertainment development executive at Matchbox Productions.
But in terms of Go Out Into The World And Do Good Things, probably the most interesting speaker was Anna Grieve. Anna is the creator of Big Stories, Small Towns, described on its website as “a unique model of community engagement and participation.” The website is highly interactive, with video material categorised in several different ways (by town, by theme, etc), encouraging the audience to explore the films at their own pace.
It’s a really interesting project for me because this idea of audience participation (as opposed to just subject participation) is something I want to explore with my own project. I’ve been leaning towards having a physical space in which audiences can explore the various elements of my work but it’s interesting to see how it can be done by digital means as well.
Other documentarians at the conference included Nicole Ma (Dances With Ecstasy, Putuparri) and Chris Kamen (Small is Beautiful, and one of my favourite docos, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea). While not all of the documentary filmmakers at the conference had the same explicit focus on interactive documentary as Anna Grieve, of course the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject is always important so it was interesting to hear all their thoughts.
After Tuesday’s theory-based class, Thursday was all about putting it into practice. Our guest lecturer was Giulio, an Italian documentary maker whose task was to teach us the basics of filming an interview.
We started by setting up our tripods and our audio. A handy tip I’d never thought of before was to record your second track a bit lower as a back-up in case your audio peaks. But the main focus of the class was framing and the cinematographic side of the interview. We looked at the aperture, the focus, the white balance, and other features of our cameras (another handy tip was that the viewfinder only works when the screen is put away, solving a mystery I’ve been trying to puzzle out at work!). I felt like I knew most of the technical things but it was good to think about it in the context of documentary – considering factors such as depth of field around the subject, background, how wide or close the shot should be to evoke a certain tone, etc.
Of course, it was then time to Go Out Into The World and Do Good Things (TM). The original plan had been to ask strangers on the street for interviews to really challenge our abilities in getting good material out of a subject. However, most of the class decided that we wanted to focus instead on getting the technical side of filming down pat so we opted to interview each other.
In my little group of three, we were inspired by the Old Melbourne Gaol and decided to create a (not so) true crime doco, with ourselves featuring as the criminals. We had a lot of fun coming up with our unlawful histories, and Jason pulled out an Oscar-worthy performance in his retelling of the time he stole a pen. We didn’t get a chance to do any editing but over the course of the next few weeks (if any of us can be bothered) it’s sure to become a hilarious short. Maybe we didn’t learn as much about interviewing as we could have but it was a super fun way to practice the technical aspects of using the camera.
This week our focus was on how to conduct interviews. On Tuesday Kim showed us a range of interviews from different documentarians to show us the different styles of interviewing we might like to use, and to think about ways to incorporate our theme of ‘participation’ in our interviews.
We first looked at the famous example of Chronicle of a Summer, in which French directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (or, more precisely, their minions) asked random Parisians whether or not they were happy, amongst other things. I’d seen part of Chronique D’un Ete before but what was particularly interesting and relevant for this class was the sequence that featured the subjects actually watching parts of the film and reflecting on it themselves. It was a sort of hyper-reflexivity; not just the film-makers acknowledging the role of the camera but the subjects doing so as well.
The second example was one from the renowned Werner Herzog, in this case interviewing a reticent researcher about arctic penguins. Herzog’s voice was very present in the piece (both metaphorically and literally), and we discussed whether his leading questions were successful in drawing out a more colourful response from a reluctant interviewee, or were attempts to skew the truth to fit a narrative he had already established.
Another example was an interview with Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven) explaining his own interviewing techniques. Interestingly, where I’ve always thought the standard for documentaries (in my own experience, both as a viewer and as a creator) is to have the subject talking to the presenter off-screen, Morris had actually created a device whereby he could comfortably film subjects talking straight down the barrel. It makes for an interesting effect. Personally, I always think it looks more natural for a subject to be talking to the side of the camera, but there is something in Morris’ technique that really works for his own documentaries.
Finally, we explored the line between participation and exploitation in Lauren Greenfield’s Kids + Money. The section we watched was two tween sisters with quite a lot of money at their disposal. It was fascinating to watch, but afterwards the class consensus seemed to be that it leaned towards the exploitative. They were only young girls, and it really seemed as though we were being encouraged to dislike them, as Dan described when pointing out the scene where there is a jump cut from one of the girls making a particularly snide comment to their mother claiming to have two ‘beautiful’ girls.
As a post-script, we watched a scene from Brian Hill’s Pornography the Musical, a – well, a musical about pornography, that also happened to be a documentary. I’d previously seen Hill’s musical documentary Drinking for England, in a similar vein. It’s a very weird concept, and I find it quite uncomfortable to watch (think the camp and melodrama of a musical, except with real people singing about their real lives), but then part of me thinks maybe that’s the point. It’s really relevant to my own piece though I think, because of the way the subjects are complicit in the dramatisation of their stories because they know that it contributes to a depiction of their character that is ultimately truthful. This idea of the fiction conveying the truth is what I want to capture in my project so it was really interesting to see an example of it.
Unfortunately due to Kim’s absence and an ill-timed medical appointment I missed out on a whole week of GOITWADGT (yeah, I have to think of a better acronym . . .). Thursday we were due to present our video essays to the group for reflections and feedback so obviously I’ll be doing mine in class on Tuesday (remembering to bring my dice of course!). But what with newfangled gadgets these days such as the interwebs I’m fortunate to be able to catch up on some of the others’ essays on their blogs (those who have posted them, anyway). I’ve included some below so you can see just how good my classmates are; I’m reluctant to show you how outshined I am but it’s fantastic to have such skilled and creative people around me to give feedback and push me to produce the best work I can.
Dan’s video essay on Birrarung Marr (the Yarra)
In a more recent post Dan was really critical of this piece, saying that it wasn’t technically or creatively up to scratch. I think he’s being quite harsh on himself. While the ‘argument’ or ‘discourse’ of his essay isn’t necessarily as clear as it could be, I understand the general message he’s trying to convey (the dangers of the over-development and urbanisation of the area) and I think this is aided by a dramatic tone throughout the film. I think his editing is quite successful – it’s pacy and synchronised with the music which gives the whole film a foreboding, rhythmic feel that’s really effective.
Fab’s essay on the Camberwell Markets
I think Fab really nailed the concept of an essay film – structurally and aesthetically it’s very similar to the stuff we looked at in class, with her voice and perspective guiding us through the film. Aesthetically I really liked it; I’ve looked at some of Fab’s photography on her blog and admired it, particularly with the interesting subject matter that is the Camberwell Market, and I think she’s used her eye for framing well in this film. I find it interesting that she went with the theme of nostalgia as a starting point, rather than going straight to discussing the market; I think that was a really novel approach to looking at it and I wonder how much that will form a part of her final project.
Okay, so I actually couldn’t find any others – only about half the class’s blogs are linked on our homepage and most of them haven’t uploaded their essays to their blogs. Which I totally understand – it can be hard to surrender your work up to being viewable by the rest of the world (including creepy classmates like me who stalk your work wearing a pink dressing gown and listening to jazz on a Sunday morning). But I’m glad I got to see these two and hopefully on Tuesday there will be a few others still to present so I can see more of my classmates’ work and get a sense of where they’re all heading for their final projects.
This week Kim headed off to the U S of A but that didn’t mean a break for us documentarians in Go out Into the World and do Good Things, because our second project brief was due: the video essay.
The brief for the video essay was fairly broad, as it’s a fairly broad genre. We had to produce a 3-5 minute video from our own personal perspective that explored some of our initial ideas regarding our final project. It would be part pitch, part research journey and part teaser trailer.
All the readings we had about video essays spoke about the importance of the authorial voice, and because Dungeons and Dragons players are my focus for the final project, I was immediately inspired by the role of the dungeon master in the game. Basically, the dungeon master is the person who narrates the story and guides the players through their quest. Because this seemed to me to be similar to the way in which the authorial voice guides viewers through a video essay, I thought I could do something a little bit different and turn my video essay into an interactive game of D&D.
Of course, I still wanted to actually convey the information I’d discovered through my research, and emphasise my argument that D&D players are not the lonely, incapable geeks that they are often portrayed as. To demonstrate this point, I created a video in which the viewer is invited to roll a dice to choose a ‘character’. Each of the options took them to a branch of the story where something good or bad happened to them depending on the number of the dice roll.
I was only able to create one place where the videos branched off, as it was too labour-intensive to multiply the options by six again, so it wasn’t as interactive as it could have been. I also think that the attempt to create a more narrative-based focus detracted somewhat from the video being an ‘essay’ as it was less formal and less informational. However, as this project brief was fairly broad, I don’t regret going down this path with my video because I think it was a little bit more interesting than a standard video essay comprised solely of found videos, images and text and I think it did successfully convey the ideas that I wanted it to.