The Wire in the context of American television
In teaching my course on The Wire last year, I had my students do collaborative research & writing projects on various “contexts” that the show engages with, such as urban education, the drug war, and Baltimore history. This year, I’ve decided not to use that assignment – in part because the old projects are still online, and because I’ve thought of other assignments to try.
But I am having them read the first contextual essay from last year, one that I wrote about the relationship of the show to 21st century television. It’s nothing that warrants publication in more formal academic outlets, but I thought it would be useful pedagogically for other people teaching the show or just for a basic background for fans who might stumble upon my blog. So beneath the fold, I’m “reprinting” it here from my course site. As always, I welcome feedback and comments to improve the material.
UPDATE: I actually have revised this piece for publication, now available in the book The Wire: Race, Class & Genre, edited by Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro (University of Michigan Press, 2012). The published version is expanded and reframed somewhat, but builds on the draft posted below. Buy the book to see the new version along with a number of other great essays on The Wire!
The Wire is a product of 21st television, with particular opportunities and possibilities established by how the medium evolved in the 20th century. This page will outline the specific industrial, technological, and aesthetic contexts of television that helped shape The Wire, and enabled it to make it to commercial television in the first place.
The American television industry has traditionally been a closed market dominated by a small number of national networks, making it quite difficult for innovative programming to find its way to the air. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of the multichannel era, with dozens of cable channels entering the marketplace and providing alternatives to traditional broadcast networks. Even though most of these channels were owned or purchased by the same corporate conglomerates that owned the networks, an effect of the multichannel era was to create alternative options for producers looking to place programs. Until the late 1990s, few cable programs directly matched the standard fictional fare of networks, with high-budget comedies and dramas clustered on networks while cable focused on cheaper non-fiction genres, like news, sports, how-to, and talk shows, alongside reruns and films. The lower production costs for programming meant that cable channels could turn a profit with lower ratings and less advertising revenue than networks, setting the standard that a cable “hit” had a far lower threshold of popularity than traditional television shows.
Home Box Office (HBO) was an early cable channel starting in the 1970s that followed a different business model than most of its cable counterparts. HBO defines itself as a premium channel, charging an additional subscription fee beyond the standard monthly cable or satellite bill; in exchange, HBO features no advertising (aside from its own internal promotions) and can include greater degrees of nudity, violence, and profanity than on network and basic cable programs. The effect of HBO’s business model is that they are not driven by getting high ratings to sell slots to advertisers, but instead look for programming that is sufficiently desirable to convince viewers to spend and extra $10-15 a month for the service.
At first, HBO primarily programmed unedited feature films, making it a desirable way to see movies at home before VCRs were widespread across America. HBO earliest original programming featured sports programming, especially boxing, stand-up comedy shows full of raunchy profanity, and titillating “documentaries” like America Undercover and Real Sex. Such programming made HBO a popular option for many cable subscribers, but established its reputation as a fairly lowbrow channel catering to prurient interests.
The mid-1990s saw a shift in HBO’s strategy – the channel started offering fictional series comparable to the genres of network television, but with an edgy approach to stand-out from more conventional network shows. The Larry Sanders Show was never a huge hit, but its critically acclaimed satirical take on late night talk shows did appeal to a group of upscale viewers that could afford the channel’s premium cost. Subsequent comedies like Mr. Show and Tracy Takes On…, along with edgy talk shows Dennis Miller Live and The Chris Rock Show, helped improve HBO’s reputation as a sophisticated channel that could appeal to hipper and more affluent adult audiences.
Three programs from the late-1990s paved the way for The Wire. HBO’s first dramatic series, Oz, established that the channel would push boundaries of controversial content and portraying a world never seen on television before. Set in a maximum security prison ward, Oz took advantage of HBO’s loose content restrictions by featuring sex, violence, and profanity amongst its diverse cast of hardened criminals. While never a hit, the show’s dour and grim tone demonstrated HBO’s ability to create a series that aimed less to entertain through comforting formulas than to shock and challenge viewers’ sensibilities and expectations.
HBO’s first real hit program also took advantages of the channel’s loose content regulations. Sex and the City debuted in 1998 with an overt sexual tone, frequent nudity and profanity, and an explicit attitude matching its female-centered vision of upscale New York. While little in Sex and the City resembles The Wire‘s take on urban America, the show demonstrated the viability of HBO creating high-profile buzz-worthy original programs that break television conventions as a strategy to attract and retain subscribers.
The show that truly established the HBO brand as “not TV” was The Sopranos in 1999. The groundbreaking series took a film genre rarely seen on television, the gangster story, and offered a highly serialized tale of a mafia family in contemporary America. The series was hailed as one of the masterworks of the television medium, winning numerous awards and firmly establishing HBO as a highbrow channel with sophisticated original programming. It demonstrated the possibilities of HBO creating programming that not only justifies its subscription fees, but also functions to expand the aesthetic and creative possibilities of the television medium.
One key difference between HBO and other channels was their focus on being “creator-centered.” In typical commercial television, programs are dependent on network approval to remain on the airwaves, which leads creators to yield to network pressures and suggestions. This system often results in “least objectionable programming,” where producers and networks strip away any controversial or challenging content to avoid alienating audiences or advertisers. Because HBO is not worried about pleasing sponsors, they are less concerned with week-to-week ratings and avoiding controversy; instead they established themselves as a channel where creators were free to experiment and take risks.
In the wake of The Sopranos‘ success, the early 2000s were a boom time for risk-taking unconventional programming on HBO, includingthe family drama set in a funeral home Six Feet Under, the cringe-inducing comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, the revisionist Western Deadwood – and, of course, The Wire. HBO’s success led to similar edgy and risky programming emerging on other cable channels, including both premium competitor Showtime (Queer as Folk, The L Word, Weeds and Dexter) and basic cable channels like FX (The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me) and AMC (Mad Men and Breaking Bad). All of these series can be considered successful, despite rarely getting ratings that would be considered passable on broadcast networks, thus enabling programs that appeal to a smaller niche audience to thrive in the multichannel television era.
One key way that The Wire differed from other prestigious cable channel programs is the background of the creators. Most fictional television programs, whether network or cable, are created and produced by experienced television writers. Other HBO shows were run by well-established television writers, such as Oz‘s Tom Fontana (previous experience on St. Elsewhere and Homicide), Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David (Seinfeld), Sopranos‘s David Chase (The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure), Deadwood‘s David Milch (NYPD Blue), or Sex and the City‘s Darren Star (Melrose Place). The writers of The Wire come from diverse backgrounds mostly outside of television, with creator David Simon known primarily as a journalist and non-fiction writer with a short writing stint on Homicide (which was based on his non-fiction book), and co-creator Ed Burns drawing experience as a Baltimore police officer and school teacher. Other writers include crime novelists like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane, and journalists Rafael Alvarez and Bill Zorzi. Virtually no other American television series has a writing staff full of television-outsiders, marking The Wire‘s strong connection to HBO’s motto, “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.”
Certainly The Wire could have only emerged out of the world of premium cable, with its willingness for controversy, profanity, and a small but devoted audience. The show was also dependent on the particular context of television technology in the 2000s, making certain modes of viewership and fan engagement possible.
Traditionally television has been a schedule-driven medium, with networks programming series with prescribed timeslots. Research within the television industry suggests that most viewers typically only saw around 1/3 of the episodes of a favored series, and that event ardent fans could not be guaranteed to see more than 1/2 of a series during its first run. Thus producers realized they could not assume that a viewer had seen previous episodes or were watching a series in sequential order, leading to a mode of storytelling favoring self-contained episodes and redundant exposition.
The rise of home video helped change this limitation. VCRs became more widespread in the 1980s, although the difficulty in programming timers to record a program made it fairly uncommon for viewers to use the technology to “time-shift” favorite programs. The rise of DVRs in the 2000s made this a much more common practice, with viewers automatically recording their favored series and watching at their convenience – even though DVRs are still only found in a minority of households, they helped change the television industry’s assumption that viewers could not be expected to watch a series regularly and in sequence.
For HBO, the schedule has always been more flexible, as they regularly show the same program numerous times throughout the week; with the rise of digital cable, HBO multiplied into a number of sub-channels (like HBO2, HBO Comedy, and HBO Family), allowing a series to air dozens of times throughout the week and allow viewers to catch up at their convenience. The Wire also took advantage Video On Demand technology, with HBO making the later seasons available On Demand in advance of the regular schedule, as well as allowing viewers to binge of the archives of the show at their convenience.
HBO has also been a leader in the TV-on-DVD trend. Since many of their original series receive much more publicity and buzz than actual viewership, HBO sells DVD sets of most of its series, allowing non-subscribers to purchase or rent a series (thus augmenting the channel’s revenue) – The Wire‘s DVD sales certainly exceeded expectations given its overall low ratings on HBO. DVD viewing allows more flexible viewing, compiling a series aired over months or years into a more compressed timeframe, comparable to the collected publication of 19th century serial novels of Dickens or Tolstoy. DVD publishing also allows a series to be collected like literature and cinema, raising the cultural status of television programs.
Illicit technologies also allow the program to spread beyond the limits of HBO subscribers. File sharing software like BitTorrent or illegal streaming sites are filled with illegally shared copies of HBO series, enabling the shows to be watched without cost via computers. The Wire has another robust realm of illicit distribution – pirate DVDs of the series circulate in the urban undergroud economy. Reportedly, watching the show via these pirate copies has made the series a favorite amongst the African-American urban underclass who are portrayed on-screen.
Digital technologies also helped create a dedicated fanbase around The Wire. While the show did not get the mainstream press coverage of The Sopranos or Deadwood, a number of dedicated fans used blogs to promote the show and convene fan discussions, such as blogger Jason Kottke and online magazine Slate. Additionally, television critics have moved into blogging, with group critic blogs like The House Next Door and individual critics like Alan Sepinwall and Tim Goodman emerging as important advocates for the series online. These distribution and consumption technologies have enabled The Wire reach a broader audience than HBO’s ratings might suggest.
Shifts in the television industry and technology since the 1990s have enabled the creative possibilities of television to expand in interesting new ways that would have been unthinkable in earlier eras. The Wire fits into many of these trends, while also establishing its own norms and style.
One key development is in a mode of storytelling that critics have labeled “narrative complexity.” Breaking down the boundary between highly serialized daytime soap operas and strictly self-contained episodic series in primetime, the 1980s saw the growth of more serialized primetime programs, like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Cheers. While such programs did incorporate more long term story arcs, they primarily used serial formats to narrate relationship dramas of romance or character development; such shows typically avoided complex plot structures that required viewers to watch every episode in sequence to follow the story.
The 1990s saw more serialization emerge in action and mystery plots – Twin Peaks focused on a murder mystery over the course of two seasons, The X-Files weaved a complex conspiracy narrative for years, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured season-long battles between the heroes and a “big bad” villain. While such shows were more cult rather than mainstream hits, they opened the door for a series to focus its efforts on telling longer stories across a range of genres, as comedies like Seinfeld and dramedies like Northern Exposure played with long form storytelling.
The rise of original cable programming contributed to this growth in narrative complexity, as The Sopranos married a serialized format with experiments blurring fantasy and reality, subjective narration, and purposefully confusing techniques more typical of art cinema than television. The 2000s saw a proliferation of narrative complexity, among hit shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives, and 24, cult series like Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, and Alias, as well as short-lived experiments like Boomtown, Jack & Bobby, and Daybreak. For prestigious premium cable programs, complex storytelling became the norm, a reward for elite audiences willing to pay for more sophisticated entertainment and eventually collect series on DVD.
In many ways, The Wire is part of this trend of narrative complexity. The show is highly serialized, with each episode serving as a chapter in a much larger volume. No episode stands alone, and it is virtually inconceivable to watch the series out-of-order with any coherence. The story being told is quite complex, portraying a wide array of characters and asking viewers to follow along with complicated procedures and systems without spelling it out for them. Plot lines dangle for years, reemerging without notice or explicit exposition. Certainly a show like The Wire depended on the trails blazed in the 1990s to allow for its mode of long-form storytelling.
In other ways, The Wire is much more conventional in its aesthetics. Unlike shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, The Wire uses objective narration, unfiltered by individual characters – we never get dream sequences, internal monologue, or restricted perspectives. In this way, The Wire draws more from traditional workplace dramas like medical or cop shows. The Wire avoids the temporal play of other complex series, like Lost and 24, and refuses self-conscious techniques like flashbacks, voice-overs, and reflexive captions common on other programs today. The visual and storytelling style of The Wire is more naturalistic, drawing upon the conventions of documentary and social realism to match Simon’s own background in non-fiction journalism.
One of the show’s chief strategies might be called “productive confusion.” While traditionally commercial television has demanded redundancy and clarity at all costs, to allow for new or erratic viewers, Simon and the writers have always assumed that viewers should have to work to understand their fictional vision of Baltimore. They refuse to dumb down the worlds they portray, or offer expository dialogue to explain terms, procedures, or motivations; instead, they want viewers to feel disoriented and confused, with the accompanying satisfaction when a narrative element becomes clear weeks or even years later. Even more than its narrative techniques, The Wire‘s internal storyworld is arguable the most complex ever to appear on American television, providing a rich experience that encourages – or even demands – multiple viewings.
While the show’s aesthetics certainly build on a multitude of influences that offer options to both the creators and the industry, virtually no programs that have followed The Wire seem to have embraced its innovations. The series remains the most densely-packed and populated world ever seen on American television, and demands more of its audience to understand its world than virtually any other show. Whether the show will prove to yield a new branch of possibilities for television creativity, or be remembered as a truly unique exception to the norms of the medium, there is no doubt that The Wire stands as an exceptional peak within the terrain of fictional television.
- Gary R Edgerton and Jeffrey P Jones, eds., The Essential HBO Reader (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).
- Deborah L. Jaramillo, “The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, and the Construction of a Quality Brand,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 59-75.
- Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television and New Media 7, no. 4 (2006): 335-360.
- Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
- Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (2006): 29-40.
- Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Megan Mullen, Television in the Multichannel Age: A Brief History of Cable Television (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008).
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