Television -- Critical Methods and Applications -- Contents and Intro

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PART ONE: Understanding Television's Structures and Systems

1: Television's Ebb and Flow

2: Narrative Structure: Television Stories

3: Building Narrative: Character, Actor, Star

4: Beyond and Beside Narrative Structure

PART TWO: Television's Style: Image and Sound

5: Style and Setting: Mise-en-Scene

6: Style and the Camera: Videography and Cinematography

7: Style and Editing

8: Style and Sound

9: A History of Television Style

PART THREE: Special Topics in Television Form

10: Music Television

11: Animated Television: The Narrative Cartoon

12: The Television Commercial

PART FOUR: Critical Analysis: Methodology

13: Alternatives to Empirical Study

Appendix: Sample Analyses



Should we take television seriously? Should we take television seriously as a cultural or aesthetic medium, as a text capable of producing meaning? Should we take When Animals Attack seriously? Should we commission studies on As the World Turns' visual style? Should an interpretation of the discourse of The Beverly Hillbillies be permitted in an academic journal? And, most pertinent to this guide, should there be college courses on these programs? Should The Simpsons be allowed in today's syllabi? Yes, we should study television in school. And, yes, we should take television seriously. Why? Because television provides meanings, many meanings, as it entertains. There is little doubt that it is the predominant meaning--producing and entertainment medium of the past 50 years. As such it demands our scrutiny. In order to dissect the pleasures and meanings that television affords us, we need an understanding of how narrative is structured, and how sets are designed, and how the camera positions the viewer's perspective, and how sound interacts with image.

Television: Critical Methods and Applications supplies the student with a whole toolbox of implements to disassemble television. It explains how television works, how television programs and commercials are made, and how they function as fertile producers of meanings. Television does not attempt to teach taste or aesthetics. It is less concerned with evaluation than with interpretation.

It resists asking, "Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer great art?" Instead, it poses the question, "What meanings does Buffy signify and how does it do so?" To answer this question brings viewers closer to understanding television as a meaning producing phenomenon, and thus helps them stay afloat in a sea of frequently contradictory meanings.

The form of analysis stressed here asks the viewer, first, to explore the structures of narrative, non-narrative, and commercial television material. Second, Television questions how those structures emphasize certain meanings (and re press others) to viewers. And third, it considers how television's images and sounds work together to create its programs, commercials, and assorted televisual flotsam and jetsam. Thus, this textbook works from the very concrete (light and shadow on an illuminated video screen, accompanied by sound) to the very abstract (discourses on many aspects of the human experience)--and back again.

Accordingly, Part One introduces the student to the principles organizing television's narrative and non-narrative content. Part Two explains how that content is communicated to the viewer through the medium's style, its manipulation of image and sound. Part Three addresses some specific television forms: music video, animation, and the commercial. Part Four departs from Television's consideration of television texts to survey the "critical" approaches that have been applied to the medium-as opposed to empirical methods. This part of the guide offers the student grounding in fields such as genre study, ideological analysis, feminist criticism, and so on. Finally, the Appendix provides guidance for writing papers about TV. It outlines how the principles of textual analysis developed over the previous sections may be applied to specific programs.

Television's first edition was written during the year that the World Wide Web fully incorporated images and sounds ( 1993, when the Mosaic browser was released). We're excited about the new possibilities for TV analysis that the World Wide Web provides, and we've developed a companion Web site for Television. Here you'll find sample student analyses, color versions of all the frame grabs (larger than reproduced here, too), and many additional television materials that we couldn't fit into the guide--including video clips.

Television was born of the author's frustration as a teacher of television criticism. Many television textbooks deal with the history and structure of television as an industry, but few offer students a way to analyze that industry's products from a critical perspective. Other TV textbooks emphasize the nuts-and-bolts of video production to the extent that they seldom have space to consider television meanings and how they are generated by those "nuts-and-bolts." Textbooks that do address television research and theory are often empirical in their orientation-relying on models first presented in psychology and sociology-and largely neglect the issue of critical interpretation.

The author has relied on non-empirical models for inspiration. Much of Television will look familiar to readers who have encountered film criticism textbooks. Moreover, Television also bears the marks of literary criticism, semiotics (the study of signs and meaning), and ideological criticism. It draws on each of these approaches where appropriate, but the authors are concerned above all else to analyze television as television.

At the time this guide is being revised for its second edition (Autumn 2000), the boundaries between television and other media are fast dissolving. When one looks at a "television" screen these days, one could be playing a video game or responding to e-mail instead of watching a TV program. As digital broadcasting and "enhanced TV" become the standard, our TV sets begin to look more and more like our computers. And as CDs and DVDs play through our computers and we digitally edit home movies, our computers begin to look more and more like our stereos, VCRs, and televisions.

This is not just a time of great technological shifts. There have also been huge changes in the economics of television--particularly in the United States.

The broadcast networks are under siege from newer media. They no longer command our attention as they did from the 1950s to the 1970s. Some critics have even proclaimed an end to the "Broadcast Era" of television, but the mode of production associated with broadcast television is far from dead. Recognizing the accelerated convergence of contemporary media, this second edition of Television incorporates new sections on digital television, computer-based imaging, and the impact of new digital media like the World Wide Web.

To keep Television comprehensible (and a reasonable length), we have had to set some perimeters-even though we occasionally stroll across them. Television is still principally a guide about commercial, network television. And its examples are drawn largely from U.S. television (with occasional reference to Canadian and British TV). It would be dangerous to assume that this particular model of television defines everything one sees on the television set or that it is an unchanging monolith or that it is the same throughout the world. Clearly it is not. But still, television originated as a commercial, network medium and will continue to have an impact as such for the foreseeable future.

Television, then, cannot hope to be a comprehensive guide to deconstructing everything that appears on a video screen. No single volume could. It does, however, offer the student a better understanding of television's principal manifestation: the ever-present, ever-flowing, commercial television system.


This accessible and student-friendly text explains how television constructs meaning and encourages readers to incorporate critical thinking into their TV viewing. Television contains hundreds of illustrations from current and classic TV programs, and a new companion Web site ( supplements the text with color frame grabs and illustrative video clips. Also new for this second edition is a section discussing television commercials, as well as updated examples from recent television programs.

Television introduces students to the processes through which television tells stories, presents news, and sells products to its viewers. Looking beyond the "how to" techniques of producing television content, this text examines how videography, acting, lighting, set design, editing, and sound work together to produce the meanings that viewers take away from their television experience. Television also provides critical and historical contexts, explaining how critical methods have been applied to the medium and highlighting the evolution of television style through the decades.

With its distinctive approach to examining television, this text is intended for courses in television critical studies, and is also suitable for media and screen studies. In addition, Television will encourage critical thinking in television production courses.

Comments on the first edition of Television: Critical Methods and Applications

"Students should come away from this guide with greater understanding of the economic and institutional factors influencing what they see: just as important; they should gain a richer awareness of t h e skill, and even the artistry. involved in creating a television shows now. This guide can help make students more sensitive and critical consumers of the major mass medium- , our time."

-David Bordwell, University of Wisconsin

"In short, Jeremy Butler's Television is the best teaching tool I have yet found for introducing undergraduates to the concepts and practices of analyzing the television medium."

-Edward R. O'Neill, Bryn Mawr College

"...the best textbook on television available today. Butler provides a comprehensive introduction to television genres, cultural and critical approaches, modes of production and formal and aesthetic analysis.

Through engaging examples, ranging from cartoons to sitcoms to MTV, Butler introduces students to the best of media theory in clear and entertaining style."

-Ellen Seiter, UC-San Diego

"This is, quite simply, the best book out there for teaching introductory TV courses. The text is well-conceived and engaging, and Butler does a superb job of illustrating the formal and aesthetic structures of television in a clear and readable manner."

-Tara McPherson. School of Cinema-TV. USC.

Also see:

Foundations of Communication Theory

Television Production Guide

Air Time--An Intro to Television Broadcasting

Building Blocks of Local Radio-TV Copy

Color TV Circuit Operation Guide


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Updated: Tuesday, 2021-08-24 10:40 PST