Dawid Junke: Streaming is taking over the niche, TV series turn to religion
Why is it more and more difficult to keep up with new TV series? Are their creators fighting for our souls? What may the streaming revolution lead to? We’re attempting to answer these questions by talking to Dr Dawid Junke from the Institute of Culture Studies, author of “Transcendencja i sekularyzacja. Motywy religijne we współczesnych amerykańskich serialach telewizyjnych”.
How was Roslyn?
– Incredible. While I was in the US, I treated that place as my mecca. Los Angeles – alright. Seattle with its music – OK. But Roslyn was the most important one for me, because that’s where they were filming “Northern Exposure”.
Do you remember that series from your childhood?
– Yes. It was a complete phenomenon. My parents recorded the episodes on VHS tapes. As for my early childhood – “Northern Exposure” was first broadcast in Poland in 1993, three years after its American debut – I only remember flashes of it. I genuinely, consciously watched it a little bit later, on my parents’ VHS tapes. That’s when I learnt that TV series were more than just entertainment, with which I associated such standard productions as “The A-Team” and “MacGyver”.
– Of course, but they were made differently than the majority of modern TV productions. Simple morality plays, transparent rules. Action series were a bit like fairy tales.
Why was your view of TV series and productions changed by “Northern Exposure”?
– It featured a lot of philosophical contents, served in an easily-accessible way, mainly through the character of Chris in the Morning, who, by the way, was my favourite character. Later I paid more attention to Ed Chigliak, who was fascinated by film, just like me. I remember that in one of the episodes Fleischman was taunting Ed and saying: “It’s just movies! Get real!”. And Ed replied: “No, thanks”. And that’s the message I stick by to this day. As you can see, I’ve stayed with culture studies. (laughs)
“Northern Exposure” was philosophy, magical realism, crossing borders between fiction and reality, counterculture. “Twin Peaks”, which also featured most of those elements, was a little bit too scary for me. Some even called “Northern Exposure” a lighter, utopian alternative to “Twin Peaks”. Lynch and Frost showed the underbelly of American utopia, the dark side of the American dream. In “Northern Exposure” all of the most important values are validated. All characters coexist with one another. Even if there is conflict, it’s easy to settle. My fascination with that side of the series concluded in my Bachelor’s degree: “Northern Exposure” as utopia.
The 90’s was most likely a revolutionary period. TV writers started to go beyond the well-established standards.
– Actually it started a little bit earlier than that, but not everything from the States was reaching us. The prototype of many modern, quality series was in the 80’s “Hill Street Blues”. Apart from that there was “Moonlighting”.
With Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. I loved that series.
– It was great. Lots of breaking the fourth wall, playing with conventions. Even though those series were produced by open channels, their creators were already able to play with those elements. Whereas the abovementioned 90’s were ground-breaking also because cable networks were becoming more powerful, and they were free from censorship and many restrictions. Writers could do more in artistic terms, they didn’t have to always think how to make advertisers happy, because productions were financed by subscriptions.
So the first forerunners of the revolution in open channels were seen back in the 80’s. And then the 90’s came. “Buffy”. “The X-Files”. But I think that some waves from cable television didn’t reach open channels before the second decade of the 21st century. Or maybe not even from cable television but from streams. It’s only now that some series, despite poor viewing figures for the first episodes, can remain on air or even stay there for good, reaching niche audiences. It turns out that audience fragmentation is growing. All of a sudden open channels started looking more favourably at productions which allow them to use the niche and to look for different distribution channels.
I remember that still just a few years ago American open channels were ruthless in that respect. There were even such bizarre situations where an actor would appear on a talk-show as part of a pre-planned gig to promote a new TV series starring them… and the series had been cancelled a day before, still before the pilot’s premiere, because it had not been well received during test screenings. Now, as you said, the niche is appreciated. I think Netflix has changed that.
But before we get to Netflix and modern times, let’s talk about other early signs promising a more bold television, allowing creators to do more. While on that subject, we can’t forget about the series called “The Twilight Zone”…
– It’s perfection.
…which still influences many popular TV formats and productions. But “The Twilight Zone” came out very early – in the 50’s. Was it an exception or maybe a result of the growing pop culture, favourable to experiments? American pop culture that is, because – let’s be frank – pop culture came to us from the States. Americans had and still have a very strong impact in that regard.
– That’s true. They’ve furnished our imagination. They’ve certainly furnished my imagination.
Probably every decade in television was called the golden era. But that classic golden era was the 50’s. It was the times of anthology drama, i.e. a format which we would call television play. A characteristic feature of that period was the performances of great acting companies – live performances, which were highly recognised by all critics. Basically people were already looking at productions from the perspective of outstanding artistic accomplishments and such productions would be referred to for many years afterwards when talking about the golden era. Sometimes TV plays were recreated in the form of full-length films. That was the fate, for example, of “12 Angry Men”.
And Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone”? That was certainly a great accomplishment. Serling achieved something that had never been seen on TV before – he gave the footage a film-like quality, which according to many theoreticians is currently, in new-generation television, one of the most important factors which determine production quality. Serling did it much earlier, among others because he worked with well-known operator George T. Clemense and highly-recognised film directors.
He combined quality with entertainment for mass audiences.
– And in many ways he was a TV producer who we’d call today a showrunner.
Hitchcock also did things like that.
– Right, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. One episode was directed by Józef Lejtes after his emigration from Poland.
Indeed, American anthology series were one dimension of quality television before the emergence of cable channels. Actually both streaming platforms and cable channels are repeating it now, but mostly not in the form of anthology series where every episode constitutes a separate story but in the form of anthology series where every season tells a separate story.
Just like in “American Horror Story”.
– “American Horror Story”, “True Detective”, “American Crime Story” and many other increasingly popular and usually critically-recognised productions, which have their fans despite the lack of an element which used to be very desirable, i.e. transferring a very strong emotional bond onto actors with whom we become bonded for six, seven or ten seasons. Here the cast rotates. In the case of “American Horror Story” part of the actors return in subsequent seasons, but in “True Detective” everyone’s replaced. But the tone of the story itself is enough.
Whereas an anthology series is also “Black Mirror”…
…which also would not have been created without “The Twilight Zone”.
– Right. It’s creator, Charlie Brooker, admits that was been strongly inspired by Serling. We can draw a straight line from “The Twilight Zone” to “Black Mirror”. While watching “Bandersnatch” (a special interactive episode of “Black Mirror” – ed.) I felt like it was a story from “The Twilight Zone”, with all of its characteristic humorous elements. That episode was even closer to “The Twilight Zone” than to some dark episodes form previous seasons.
That’s true. If you watched a few of them in a row…
…you could develop depression. (laughs)
You mentioned the year 1999 as a distinctive date. What happened then? What influenced another revolution in television?
– The release of two important series, new generation icons. First of all “The Sopranos” by David Chase on HBO, a cable channel, and secondly “West Wing” by Aaron Sorkin, one of the co-creators of the new wave of TV series, broadcast by NBC, i.e. an open terrestrial television channel.
In the case of “West Wing” we can also look for analogies. Just like there would be no “Black Mirror” without “The Twilight Zone”, without “West Wing”…
– …there’s be no “House of Cards”. Whereas “House of Cards” is a reverse of “West Wing”.
Because in “House of Cards” in the foreground we have evil, antihero. Which actually is another sign of change in television. In the past there had to be “the good one” and “the bad one”.
– In the 50’s they even had appropriate hats: white ones and black ones.
I was looking forward for Netflix to launch in Poland, because at the initial stages of its development it looked to me like a platform that filled the niche, through which it was possible to reach interesting documentaries, less popular but very good series and independent films, which had a short lifespan in American cinema and then they wouldn’t always reach Europe. Now Netflix is a giant, present in I believe 190 countries.
– In nearly all countries, except for Crimea, North Korea and Syria – countries where different embargos don’t allow the US to conduct full-scale activity. Whereas the Chinese don’t want to be culturally colonised by Americans. But Netflix has been able to reach China through the back door, by collaborating with the local streaming operator iQiyi.
And that transformation into an international giant poses a question: are we still at a stage when Netflix and other streaming platforms are changing television – or perhaps it’s already a time when they, ironically, change into traditional television? There are more and more streaming platforms and the competition between them is heating up with regard to copyright. Are they not becoming something they were fighting against just a few years ago, i.e. sort of television channels?
– There are indeed such concerns that when absolute oligopoly of streaming platform becomes a fact – for a long time Netflix was a monopolist which only fought with traditional distribution methods – sudden homogenisation will take place. However, the question is how will these platforms continue to be financed and what will the development models be when they run out of new subscribers to acquire because the whole cake has already been divided and we’ll probably be paying for a few platforms an amount similar to what people used to pay for cable TV – or more.
Tell me something about your latest book.
– In the book I talk about religious motifs in modern American TV series, whereas modernity is understood here as a period starting from the abovementioned year 1999. I ultimately concentrated on six productions, because I was interested in an in-depth analysis rather than in creating a catalogue. The impulse that inspired me to work was the things I was hearing from time to time about how our world is becoming secularised. The United States is similar to Poland in that regard. We can’t talk about secularisation in the strict sense, because the percentage of atheists is still very low – but the group of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious is growing, which Americans also perceive as a secularisation process.
Can I ask which group you belong to?
– I’m a practising Catholic.
– In the book I don’t try to hide the fact that the selection of the series could have been subconsciously based on my outlook on life. But I conducted my research from the perspective of cultural studies rather than religious studies or theology. The series I describe are a cultural phenomenon to me. I found it interesting that on one hand we’re talking about secularisation and on the other hand there are more and more religious series or series which treat religion seriously. It is a paradox. Streaming platforms are gaining power. HBO is gaining power – HBO is known for its bold dramas, and is considered by many conservative critics as an evil, left-wing channel which attacks traditional American values, a propaganda machine for the liberals. But on the other hand the same HBO airs “The Leftovers”, which was called the most serious religious TV series by James Poniewozik from the New York Times. We have “True Detective” – I discuss this series in the book – where religious motifs are treated very seriously in the first season. “Lost” could even be considered an evangelistic series. And there’s also “The Good Place” and “Preacher”…
So on one hand we theoretically have progressing secularisation and on the other hand lots of series which take on religious issues. I was interested in the origin of that phenomenon. I also wanted to check how religion was portrayed, because an observation in itself that religious motifs are featured in TV productions does not tell us anything yet. Is this the religion of the spiritual but non-religious ones, privatised, detached from tradition? Or are we dealing with typically religious topics?
I’m also interested in one more phenomenon: why in much more civilised times – civilised from the perspective of the abovementioned Republican critics – when everything was done rightly on TV, television practically didn’t deal with religion, and if religion found itself on TV screens, it was in the form of “Touched by an Angel” or “Highway to Heaven”. They were pleasant, family TV series. The whole family could watch them together because you could be certain that a moralising message would be presented in the finale. The standard in terms of production was alright, but they lacked a deeper reflection. Producers were afraid to talk about controversial subjects. Television started becoming involved in religion when it had been freed from actual censorship – for example – of the Catholic League, when the influence of conservative pressure groups had decreased. Interestingly, this did not lead to a departure from religion, producers just started approaching and treating it seriously.
At the start of our conversation you admitted that the American pop culture has shaped you. We also talked about the growing power of American streaming platforms with an international reach, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and about cultural traditions – which are not as universal as it may seem straight away – which dominate popular TV series. Now let’s connect the three pieces of the puzzle and try to think about the influence of the global expansion of streaming platforms on shaping the outlook of new generations.
– This discussion has been going on since media first became the subject of research. What is the impact of culture and culture industry – which is a term used by the Frankfurt School – becoming uniform, i.e. of masses being shaped by the media based on the interests, as we’d now say, of the one percent, which – as noted by Zygmunt Bauman – is transnational and liquid. Many researchers see a potential threat in that impact. But I think that the relationship between culture and its recipients is not unilateral, it works on the basis of feedback. Culture shapes us but also reflects us. And this is another issue that I find fascinating in the context of TV series research: to what degree do they contain elements which should shape our views and to what degree pop culture is a sign of the zeitgeist, a barometer of change. I say “pop culture” because it is where – maybe faster than in art culture, which tries to comment on the reality and respond on an ongoing basis, which is why it may miss certain things – important signs of changes in the society appear.
Do you spend a lot of time watching TV series?
– Yes, because I’m still researching them. But I don’t have so many binge-watching sessions anymore as at the start of the streaming revolution. Partially this results from the fact that I’ve got other commitments, and partially from the fact that at least part of the series I try to watch with my girlfriend and then we have to work out the logistics. (laughs)
“Don’t watch it without me”?
– That is one of the greatest crimes of our times – the sin of Netflix adultery. (laughs)
Interview by Michał Raińczuk
Dawid Junke. Born in 1989. Holder of a doctoral degree in humanities, cultural anthropologist, Assistant Professor at the Cultural Studies Institute of the University in Wrocław. His research interests concentrate on popular culture, especially on the cultural aspects of production and reception of TV series. Member of the Polish Culture Studies Society, Polish Film and Media Research Society and “Trickster” Association of Pop Culture Researchers and Pop Culture Education.
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