Mapping a Pluralistic Field: What Does Television Studies Really Look Like?

07Mar13

I’m spending the next few days in Chicago at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference, the annual gathering of scholars that I rarely miss (save for last year’s European stay). Below the fold is the paper I’m presenting Thursday on a panel about the state of television studies as a field – it’s a different type of presentation for me (more graphs!), but hopefully it’s useful.

First though, I want to link to a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about open access, MOOCs, and the like that is probably more broadly of interest. Read on if you’re interested in the inside-baseball arguments of television studies, or want to see a humanist playing around with numbers.

“Mapping a Pluralistic Field: What Does Television Studies Really Look Like?”

A recent trend in television scholarship is to begin articles and presentations with claims about trends in television scholarship. Although such sweeping declarations are typical for traditional territory-clearing justifications for why what you’re about say really, really matters, it does seem like a recent style is to characterize not just relevant gaps in the field, but to claim that the field as a whole is transforming. The language used to characterize such shifts is frequently “the turn,” whether a turn toward something (aesthetics, production studies, fan studies) or away from something else (cultural politics, history). Ron Becker offers one recent example of such rhetoric in his Antenna post summing up his Flow Conference paper:

Television studies is in the middle of what I would call a post-cultural-studies turn. The dramatic transformations of our object of study have redirected the attention of many scholars. More work, for example, is being done on aesthetics and form as well as on production and certain types of audience analysis (e.g., aca-fandom). Certainly many of these paths emerge out of cultural studies’ models and imperatives and some of the work being done in these areas are centrally motivated by a desire to engage with the unequal distribution of social power (for me, the heart of the cultural studies project). Others, however, seem differently invested. If television studies is drifting away from the cultural studies project (and I would argue it is), what might we do to revive the connection between the two?

Using Becker’s diagnosis as a case study for such diagnoses of the field’s direction and priorities, I am led to ask what exactly is the problem with such shifts in scholarly focus? After all, shouldn’t the field be pluralistic enough to embrace all sorts of topics, methods, and questions? One answer would be that Becker and others regard work on aesthetics, production, and aca-fandom as illegitimate scholarship, and thus want to purge it from the field—I assume that is not the case, both based on my own conversations with him and because I have not seen any direct attacks in that direction. (If that is the actual motive, then let’s have that debate out in the open.) The other answer I can think of involves the finite space for scholarship in the field: if these newer focuses are rising, then traditional work in cultural studies might become crowded out and marginalized. But this claim raises some key questions: has television studies actually turned? Does television scholarship now favor issues of aesthetics, fandom, and production practices over political and cultural concerns? These are empirical questions that can be researched, and that’s the goal of this presentation: mapping television studies to get a more accurate sense of what types of scholarship, if any, are dominant or marginal.

To accomplish this project, I first need two things: a corpus of scholarship to represent the field, and a set of categories to map that work. Defining a manageable corpus to stand-in for the entirety of television studies is quite difficult, as scholars tend to publish across a range of formats, from books to chapters to journal articles to blogs. In choosing a corpus, I needed to select work that would be accessible to be analyzed, thus ruling out conference presentations. It needed to be prominent enough to reflect top work that would help shape and reflect the field. It needed to be published without market considerations, ruling out books and anthologies that are often shaped by what publishers believe most marketable and appropriate for classroom use, not necessarily reflecting the full scope of the field. This leaves journals, whose submissions and acceptances are (ideally) based solely on quality of work, not popularity of topic. I needed to look at open calls only, as journals that publish theme issues (like Velvet Light Trap) or have an overall special focus (like Feminist Media Studies or Transformative Works and Cultures) would narrow the scope of scholarship. Finally, I needed a journal that was prolific and long-lasting enough to measure change, with a substantial number of television studies essays spanning many years; this ruled out broader titles like Cinema Journal and Critical Studies in Media Communication whose television coverage is more erratic.

These factors point to one title as the best corpus to chart television studies over the past decade: Television and New Media, the only television studies journal published in the United States with a broad scope covering the entire field. Started in 2000 around the same time that SCMS’s Television Studies Interest Group began, TVNM published quarterly until 2008, when it switched to a bimonthly, resulting in a total of 64 issues released thus far. In that time, there were 16 theme issues that were assembled through invitation or a narrow call, so they do not qualify for the corpus; after also excluding editorials, short commentaries, interviews, and book reviews, there were 203 articles of at least 10 pages to comprise my sample of television scholarship. Of those, 26 fell into the “and New Media” side of the journal with no television content, leaving a sample of 177 television studies articles spanning 14 years to categorize.

Deciding how to categorize this corpus was more straightforward, as there is a fair amount of consensus as to the broad contours of media studies, broken down into categories of industry, text, audience, medium, and the like. I chose to use the framework I am most familiar with: the six facets of television that I outline in my book Television & American Culture: Commercial Industry, Democratic Institution, Textual Form, Cultural Representation, Everyday Practice, and Technological Medium. These were adapted from similar models developed by other media scholars, and as far as I know are not controversial in excluding or privileging particular academic interests or fields. I conceived of these facets broadly and adapted them for the broader global scope of TVNM, allowing Industry to include non-commercial production practices, Democratic Institution to encompass broader issues of nation and policy beyond just democracy, and Everyday Practice to encompass all aspects of reception.

To categorize the essays, I created a spreadsheet logging each article, and assigned it a primary category and up to two secondary areas—18% of the essays only received a primary designation into one of these six fields, as they seemed solely rooted in a singular topic and approach, while 62% had a single secondary facet and 20% had two secondaries. My criteria for judgement was certainly subjective, based on my reading of the essay and understanding of the field; I’m sure that some people might disagree with my classifications, especially between primary and secondary facets, so I’ve made my spreadsheet available to be downloaded and I welcome feedback on the classifications. As examples, two of the most downloaded essays (according to the journal’s website) are “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans” by Mark Andrejevic, and “Free TV: File-Sharing and the Value of Television” by Michael Newman. I categorized Andrejevic’s piece primarily in Reception, as it studies the practices of online fans, and secondarily within both Industry (regarding how producers engage with the site) and Medium (as it considers how online media impact television reception); I placed Newman’s essay primarily in Medium, as its argument focuses on how technological shifts impact our understanding of television, and secondarily in Reception, concerning illicit viewing practices. While there’s certainly a case to be made for alternate primary categorizations in such examples, I analyzed the data on both primary and secondary categories to minimize the impact of such judgment calls.

While creating the article log, I included in each entry its authors, publication information, the keywords as listed in the journal, the country focused on in the essay, any key programs examined, and whether the piece was historical or contemporary in scope. This did lead to some interesting insights about the journal’s content. For instance, there were 15 keywords that got at least five hits (not counting the generic “television”), listed here in descending order of frequency: reality TV, globalization, gender, broadcasting, new media, race, celebrity, Internet, masculinity, media, media policy, national identity, nationalism, neoliberalism, and television history. Of course the process of assigning keywords is quite subjective and variable, and frequent terms are broad enough to cross many approaches to television studies. Another interesting insight from the data is that despite some scholars complaining that too much of television scholarship focuses on a narrow group of “quality” programming, only two series were written about more than once: Seinfeld has three essays, and The Office had two. The journal’s contents are certainly American-centric, with 56% of essays focused on U.S. television, but given its American publication home (and the global importance of U.S. television), almost half of the pieces being non-American is actually surprising. The accusation of television studies’s contemporary focus seems to be true, with 78% of articles focusing on contemporary topics (defined as within 10 years of the article’s publication), although the presence of “new media” in the journal’s title might discourage more historical submissions.

Word Cloud

As to the main data, how did the scope of the journal’s articles map onto the categories of television studies? We could hypothesize that if the field were to be equally balanced between these six facets, then each category would command around 17% of the articles, but the data are far more unbalanced than that—the top two categories comprise 26% and 23% of articles, while the bottom two receive only 6% and 11%. Not surprisingly to me, the most prolific category, comprising more than a quarter of articles, is Cultural Representation, considering how television portrays various identity categories and conveys dominant social norms—this has long been the main focus of television studies, and the contents of TVNM bear that out. The second category at 23% is Industry, both political economic critiques and production culture analyses. The third category at 20% is issues of Nation, whether regulatory and policy studies or discussions of national practices of media and citizenship—together these three categories comprise almost 70% of the journal’s focus. On the less frequent end of the scale, Textual Form comprised only 6% of articles, covering issues of narrative, style, and genre, while Medium Technology, including issues of transmedia transformations and medium history, was the focus of 11% of the essays. Reception, including fandom and general audience studies, fell into fourth place with 14%, still below the average prediction of 17%. Based on these overall data, it would seem like the focus of the field is very much centered on issues of industry, politics, and representation, not form and fandom.

Primary focus of all articles

Primary focus of all articles

As I noted earlier, the primary category designation is subject to more subjective judgments, as it can be difficult to place a multifaceted article into a singular category. Looking at the data combining primary and secondary designations provides a different vision of the journal’s foci, hopefully reducing the impact of subjective judgments and capturing more balance in focus. We need to look at counts of categories rather than percentages, because the variable numbers of secondary designations makes it hard to imagine the count as a portion of a whole, but charting the counts of articles falling into each category offers a perspective on the balance. The top three above-average categories are the same from the primary ranking, although Nation includes the largest number of articles when including secondary designations. Both Medium and Form expand proportionally, but still are below expectations for a balanced field.

Combined count of primary & secondary focuses in all articles

Combined count of primary & secondary focuses in all articles

Of course one of the questions I set out to answer is whether the field has shifted over time—might the weighting we see throughout the journal’s run obscure these new trends in the field? We can compare the percentages of articles with a primary focus on each category before and after 2008, an approximate midpoint in my sample, and indeed some changes are notable. From 2000 to 2007, Form was truly marginal as a primary focus, with only 1 article out of 82 (“The Frenzy of the Audible : Pleasure, Authenticity, and Recorded Laughter” by Jacob Smith), while from 2008 to the present, 11% of articles are primarily focused on formal topics. However the growth in formal analysis does not come at the expense of more typically political topics of Representation and Nation, both of which see no significant changes at the midpoint; instead, the main drop comes in a reduction of Medium studies, from 13% pre-2008 to 8% since—a surprising result given the importance of recent technological transformations and massive shifts in what we consider the television medium. Along with slight drops in both Industry and Reception studies, the balance since 2008 is certainly different concerning Form, but overall the journal’s focus has not radically transformed to suggest a massive turn in the field. We can similarly include secondary categories to chart changes in these proportions—in this comparison, we can see the most balanced range of essays, with only Nation significantly above average and Reception significantly below. But yet again, there is no evidence of a transformation toward an unbalanced field where traditional issues of cultural studies are marginalized.

Compared proportions of primary focus, pre-/post-2008

Compared proportions of primary focus, pre-/post-2008

Comparison of primary & secondary combined, pre-/post-2008

Comparison of primary & secondary combined, pre-/post-2008

Another way to examine the change over time within the journal’s contents is to look more granularly at categorical trends over TVNM’s 13 years. To capture this change, we can look at each year’s set of articles and chart the percentage of them falling into a category as either primary or secondary.[1] Graphing the number of each category over time confirms the consistent grouping of Nation, Industry, and Representation as above-average, and Form, Reception, and Medium as below, but it is hard to discern changes over time with the fluctuation between different time periods. We can better visualize these tendencies by charting trendlines from these data, performing a basic regression analysis to level out the fluctuations. What these pictures tell us most clearly is that Form is definitely on the rise as both primary and secondary characteristics, but still falls below average in its share of articles, with the rise more stemming from how few articles concerned form in the first half of the journal’s run. Other trends are less stark, although Medium and Reception are certainly declining in importance, and Nation, Industry, and Representation have some overall shifting in weights within the top three in both primary and secondary categories.

Primary trendlines annual Primary-secondary trendlines annual

So what can we learn from this data? First off, claims that cultural politics have been marginalized within the field seem unfounded, as majority of essays still foreground issues of Nation, Representation and Industry. Likewise, formal analysis is certainly more common today than it was ten years ago, but it is still appears with below average frequency. Most surprisingly to me, articles concerning medium and technology are in decline, despite the massive shifts in television technology that we are currently experiencing.

As for what do we do with this research, it does raise the question about how representative TVNM is of the field as a whole—after all it is only one journal whose reputation and editorial guidance might shape the submissions and selection process. We could do similar analysis of other journals, as well as books, anthologies, websites, and conference programs, although the mitigating factors and issues of access make such data complicated. Ultimately, unless new analyses prove that my account is not representative of the field as a whole, I would hope we could retire saying that the field is “turning” without backing up those claims. I see no evidence that new trends are crowding out other types of scholarship, as there is ample space for all types of television studies. Instead of spending time decrying what’s wrong with the field, we should do the type of work that we believe needs to be done; if we all focus on doing the type of media scholarship that we most want to see represent the field, then the field will effectively represent us all.


Many thanks to my friends & colleagues Matt Kimble and Caitlin Myers for their crash courses in data analysis.

[1] Note that because of a large number of special issues, 2003 only had 3 television-themed articles, so I grouped it with 2002 to create a larger, more consistent sample; likewise I grouped the two issues published thus far in 2013 with 2012.

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