Broadly, my dissertation argues that television syndication is not just a means of content distribution but also a cultural form unto itself. I explore the queer and feminist potential offered by the alternative economic frameworks of first-, second-, and SVOD (subscription video on demand) television syndication. Following from my training at UW-Madison and UT-Austin in critical cultural approaches to media studies, my dissertation uses a variety of methodologies to analyze and contextualize this feminist/queer potential across an array of various kinds of shows, genres, and decades of American programming: textual analysis, historiographic methods, audience research, and industry/production studies. As such, Syndicated Queerness as a dissertation is the foundation for a helpful teaching book later on not only because it updates our understanding of how syndication works for the 20-teens, but also because it fills a gap in media scholarship by usefully tracing the intricacies of TV’s most lucrative asset and exploring the invisible labor involved in TV syndication, outlining some of the economic considerations driving content, and bringing implications for audiences into focus for study.
I’ve organized the dissertation thematically, analyzing by different kinds: scripted and non-scripted programming with original exhibitions sold in syndication (first-run), reruns of existing shows to air on network affiliates, independent stations, or cable channels (second-run), and the changing syndication practices in the wake of SVOD and digital/new media convergence (SVOD). I’ve presented work from my dissertation at conferences like the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Console-ing Passions Feminist Media Studies Conference, the Film and History Conference and the Flow TV Conference.
Research for the project has been an exercise in joyful stress. Because syndicated programming is by its very nature ephemeral, I’ve spent several years developing my research archive to be used for the project. I’ve gathered together thousands of hours of rare programming with original “flow,” performed numerous interviews with audiences and viewers, and collaborated with industry professionals who’ve given me their time, their contacts, and access to their own archives, notably Roseanne Barr and Norman Lear. In February 2016, I was invited to Lear’s office in Beverly Hills to screen episodes of some of his “lost” syndicated serials of the 1970s, read production material and viewer letters from those shows, and work with him as well as a number of other actors, producers, and writers involved with his shows. This work will play a small part in my dissertation, which is more concept-oriented, but will be more fully developed in a second book project on Lear’s syndicated serials and features interviews with Lear, Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Gary Sandy, and Claudia Lamb among others.
My Research Trip to The Good Wife
Recently, I turned a moment of unexpected national social media exposure into an article for Television and New Media, “The Fashion of Florrick and FLOTUS: On Feminism, Gender Politics, and ‘Quality Television.'” Here’s the scoop behind it:
During the 2015 Presidential State of the Union Address, I experienced what it means to “go viral” when I tweeted a photo of Michelle Obama and The Good Wife lead Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) wearing the same Michael Kors Origami Collar tweed suit. The tweet was picked up by every major media outlet, style magazine, and morning news program in the country including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, Vanity Fair, Time Magazine, The New Yorker, and Marie Claire to name a few. It was also tweeted by Michael Kors himself along with The Good Wife‘s costume designer, Daniel Lawson, and used as fodder for interviews with Margulies during the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards the following week.
In the sixth episode of the final season (“Lies”), writers for the show parodied the moment during the presidential campaign of Alicia’s husband, Peter Florrick, when his strategist decides his nomination announcement should “echo Obama’s in every way” right down to what Alicia would be wearing. “The whole point, people, is to get the press to put the two photos side-by-side,” the Obamas and the Florricks.
The Good Wife‘s creators Robert and Michelle King subsequently invited me to the taping of the penultimate episode of the series (“Verdict”) for the benefit of the article and to inform my teaching. While there, I shadowed the episode’s director, Michael Zinberg, a few producers, and even spent time with Lawson in the wardrobe department.
Abstract: In this piece, I explore The Good Wife‘s particular uses of costuming and wardrobe and the consequent linkages to politics, feminism, and the discourse of “quality” television the show mediates. I argue that CBS borrows language from feminism to rehabilitate network broadcasting’s reputation as a dying medium in the wake of premium cable, time shifting, and cord-cutting. In the service of this strategy, I investigate how CBS dusts off an old tactic from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, using fashion to target a “quality” professional female audience and self-referentiality to resignify broadcast television as an activity for progressive, educated, and diverse women to whom the Obamas typically appeal. Ultimately, I argue that The Good Wife uses costuming with female characters to self-legitimate and brand itself as “quality” television.
The Open Mind
In 2012, under the guidance of Dr. Michele Hilmes, I began archival research on a 1950s New York City public affairs show called The Open Mind hosted by the late professor Richard D. Heffner. The show aired some of the first episodes in TV history dealing explicitly with homosexuality and was broadcast to audiences in New York where gay acts at the time were as illegal as they were unmentionable. Although certainly problematic if aired today, audiences at the time viewed the episodes as sensitive and empathetic even in the face of pressure from the Catholic church, which threatened to sue for the revocation of NBC’s license as the owner of the affiliate if future episodes on the subject were produced. “General” David Sarnoff told Heffner to “go ahead as planned” and two more episodes were aired on the subject in the following months.
I was struck by the tenor of gratitude in letters written to Heffner in response to the airing of the three episodes from viewers who had never heard the topic discussed whether in real life or on television. Many of the letters were encouraging and funny, but a few were written by gay viewers blown away by the coverage – and those letters were touching. I wanted them to tell a story beyond the scope of the paper I wrote for Dr. Hilmes. So the following year, I started production on a short film called letters to the open mind, which featured an assortment of letters read by a handful of actors to help enrich the cultural context in which the show first aired. Dr. Heffner helped with research for the project and participated in the film shortly before his death. It received laurels from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ LGBT Film Festival in 2014 and debuted academically at Console-ing Passions Feminist Media Studies Conference.
The process of making the film helped inform the way I approach media history and account for the biases of the present, the place digital media production has or can have in the future of our work as critics, the production and editing process (with all the split screens, it’s my editing tour de force), and the way I think of myself as a researcher and a teacher.