Transnational TV PhD Course – Day One

First it’s back to the bases of transnational television with Janet McCabe and then we are off to the new frontiers with Jeanette Steemers. Read all about the first day of our debate with the transnational TV experts.

2017.05.16 | C. Bengesser

Why Transnationalism? – Eye-opening lecture by Janet McCabe

What looks new isn’t often quite as new as we think.

To get our diverse group of students and experts thinking about the topic they all share, Janet McCabe starts off the day with the question “Why Transnationalism?” and is thereby challenging what we actually mean when we talk about “the transnational”. She stresses that "often the transnational is taken as a given" – as a new, revolutionary paradigm that is replacing the national perspective on media production. However, Janet McCabe reminds us that “what looks new isn’t often quite as new as we think”. Systems of power trade and culture that have moved across the world have also existed way before television. She exemplifies this with the trade relations and the colonial histories across the Atlantic. The ideology and language of colonialist times, she shows, also inspired early research on transnational television flows, where cultural imperialism from powerful nations - mostly the US - was feared in the other TV nations. With today’s growing media conglomerates, “media hubs” in capitals like London and television-inspired tourism, the questions of imperialism reemerge.

In a second insight to transnational TV history, Janet McCabe urges the young researchers to not only consider the stories that can be found in TV archives and scholarly work, but also to look for what is not there: “Television is littered with abandoned projects”. These abandoned projects or programmes, which were not considered worthy of archiving – not least due to cultural snobbery in the academia – also open new doors for inquiry into television history and television how it is today. Considering that TV is an everchanging medium, this issue becomes more and more important.

What is important as a PhD researcher is a ‘hinterland’ of knowledge.

Janet McCabe’s lecture also raises awareness among the researchers not to lose sight of television as a specific medium: “Often I see scholars using television as an object for talking about something else.” But, she stresses that it is important to understand the object that we are working with, not only as an audiovisual text, but also in its contexts.

To put the thoughts about the concept of transnationalism and its implication for research into practice the group then compares the establishing sequences of Broen and its adaptation The Tunnel between The UK and France and The Bridge between Mexico and the USA.

Jeanette Steemers – The Shifts and Continuities of International Sales of TV Content

In the second lecture of the day, Jeanette Steemers shares her insight into the transnational TV distribution business. For her 2004 publication Selling Television she interviewed about 100 buyers of television in different countries and has since carried on with this perspective on the industry. This has given her the insight that “TV is a people business about relationships and gatekeepers.” She stresses that you cannot get to all information just by studying the structure and economics of the business: “You also need to understand the relationships between people and the ‘industry lore’", that is the accepted assumptions about television circulating in the industry (cf.: Timothy Havens).

You also need to understand the relationships between people and the ‘industry lore’.

In her current research, Jeanette Steemers observes the industry lore changing yet again, now focusing on the perceived end of flow television, internet distribution and big-budget US drama. But, she is keen to emphasize that there are a lot of things that don’t change. She reminds the audience of the talk about the “Golden Age of TV” embodied by dramas such as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, which are not from Netflix, but originated in the American channel system. Similarly, European drama has enjoyed its golden age with Nordic Noir, a public service TV origination that also managed to change the industry lore more in favour of subtitled drama.

Other points of continuity, she raises, are the continued importance of everyday television, which can be found across television cultures ranging from Keeping up with the Kardashians to Danish reality TV show Gutterne på Kutterne (The Boys at the Cutter). Furthermore, she highlights that the practice of TV scheduling has not disappeared but transformed into a practice of curating content for non-linear audiences.

Yet, there are also changes observable, particularly in the business of TV distribution. The consolidation in the UK distribution market,which Jeanette Steemers illustrates with a comparison between the early 2000s and now, has led to the business being dominated by a few US-owned companies. They not only market UK content but also programmes originating from other countries, not least in order to make up for the recent decline in original British productions. Also, Jeanette Steemer’s evidence from the industry press and elite interviews shows that the rights business is shifting: While the territoriality of rights is the backbone to the business, global players like Netflix now demand global rights. Also, content is marketed on different platforms simultaneously and the bouquet of rights that distributors can make money from has expanded.

What has not changed, despite of these shifting contexts, Jeanette Steemers argues, is the importance of national producers and channels for creating new TV dramas that can then drive sales abroad. So, ultimately, the lecture makes obvious, that even though television is constantly changing, there is a core that remains and part of this core is the truth that the transnational TV business cannot function without the local and national territories, where shows are originating from and being sold to.

In the exercise following the lecture, the PhD students put their parlance of ‘industry lore’ to the test. The challenge is coming up with a new television format or drama that can be sold abroad. This means not only having a creative idea, but also thinking about the market contexts and the gatekeepers involved in the particular markets. After their brainstorming, the groups pitch the ideas to our TV experts, who are posing as potential buyers. The idea of setting a drama at an embassy – a truly transnational premise – came up twice, but once as a political comedy and in the other case as a remake of Broen in Singapore and the Philippines. Project Runway with an ecological edge is another group’s idea for solving the German public service broadcaster ZDF’s problem of attracting young audiences.

Raising the issue of imperialism and biased perspectives once again

In the concluding debate of the day, the experts and participants are invited to respond to controversial statements about transnational television. The first statement asks whether transnational television is biased in a Western theoretical epistemology.

The study of transnational TV is skewed in a Western perspective.

Matt Hills agrees with this statement, but only up to a point: “The study of transnational TV is skewed in a Western perspective. So work on transnational TV is skewed, but the problem is less about the epistemology and the framework, but more about the situated-ness and position of the scholars.”

Lothar Mikos, stresses the importance of the contexts transnational TV research(ers) have grown up in: "Everyone has an academic biography and is influenced by what they read, what they have seen and listened to. So we are all part of – let’s call it – Western pop-culture." However, he acknowledges that such a perspective becomes problematic when we locate one phenomenon like “quality TV” only in the US-American market. Forming multi-national research groups, he proposes, could be a way out of these limitations.

Build international teams and then work with love, power and passion.

From the perspective of the TV market in Norway, Vilde Schanke Sundet underlines the problematic power structures in the field: “As a researcher in a small country, the literature about the BBC context is not necessarily relevant.” She explains that this literature emerging from research into the bigger TV markets, cannot always help to explain the reality researchers find elsewhere.

Adding to this, Débora Póvoa, a PhD student working on Brazilian TV drama at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, highlights that even though more research emerges on television markets in the global south, they are still looking at relations with the big Western players such as the UK, but: “We have many opportunities to witness flows from 'south to south'”. As an example of this, she cites such as the popularity of Turkish television dramas in Chile.

There are also other sources of bias outside the researcher.

Henry Chow, also a PhD student at Rotterdam brings another facet to the debate: “There are also other sources of bias outside the researcher. If we measure the importance of a market by value of export, richer countries are privileged, but if we look at the number of audiences, that might be different.” At the same time, he highlights that television as a medium itself is Western, a fact that should not be forgotten when criticizing the Western perspective of transnational TV research.

The second statement provoking debate is “Public service media is an imperialist and protectionist response to transnational television.” The students and the experts all take issue with the term “imperialist” and point to the great differences of what public service TV means in different national contexts.

Nonetheless, the tension between the global and the national market is definitely felt. The PhD students Mads Møller Andersen and Lynge Stegger Gemzøe, who both research the Danish broadcasting and production environment, stress that the Danish public broadcaster DR needs to be protectionist of the small nation’s TV market. This also means that at DR the transnational sales of Danish drama are ultimately framed as welcome contributions to the budget for making national television. Anne Marit Waade, however, cautions the audience to be critical of such industry talk, because what industry people say in the interviews may be very different from what they actually do.

Summing up the debate about this second statement and also the first day’s search for 'the transnational', Lothar Mikos emphasizes, that the tension between the global market and national television is a tension that is interesting for transnational television studies.

What we take home

What the PhD students value about this workshop in general is the opportunity for getting peer review on their projects and stepping out of the notorious isolation befalling PhD students. The insights and exercises of the day are valuable reminders of the bigger issues and the contexts that are surrounding the individual cases we research. Many of the participants appreciate the day’s impulses for increasing their reflexivity, be it about the ‘industry lore’ or their own positions as researchers. The urge to look up from the contemporary examples, to search for what has been there before and the criticality to keep asking what we actually mean when we talk about “the transnational” are two strategies, we take home to our desks. Also, the day has been full of new insights into the markets others are working on, which also serves as a useful reminder of the diversity of TV cultures across the globe.

In her opening lecture, Janet McCabe noted: “Just because a medium moves doesn’t mean that it is transnational.” To this we could add: Just because all our research topics are transnational, it does not mean that they are the same – not least because we as researchers are different both with our different cultural expertise and the potential biases we bring to the research.

PhD students