Industry – American Television
US television networks, as a whole, constitute the largest television industry in the world. A significant majority of its programmes are syndicated globally.
This has played into notions of the cultural domination that America has in the world. Consider for a moment how much of the media you consume (film, television, computer games, websites, music, etc.) originates from the US.
American broadcast fiction occupies a significant proportion of UK broadcasting time. Broadcasting shows like Glee, CSI, House, Homeland, etc. are often bought by mainstream channels and are shown during prime time.
Like Britain, the US has a range of channels available over a range of platforms:
- Free to air (available to anyone with a TV) both commercial (e.g. Fox) and non-commercial (e.g. PBS);
- Commercial cable & satellite channels available in packages for a subscription (e.g. SyFy & TNT);
- Premium cable channels are available for individual subscription and are commercial free (e.g. HBO & Showtime).
Unlike Britain, TV is not centralised nationally. Television Networks (e.g. NBC, ABC and CBS) own or are affiliated to a range of state run channels which broadcast network shows.
This domination of American programming has meant that UK television makers have had to conform to American standards and formats if they wish UK products to find success globally. For example, the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who saw the programme conforming to US specifications for both episode and series lengths.
The Business of American Television
For the majority of American television, the primary revenue stream is advertising. 16 to 21 minutes of every hour of television is devoted to advertising. This dictates how long network commercial broadcast fiction can be. The average episode length is around 40 minutes. American fiction television tends to run in ‘seasons’, not series, and the length of a season is around 22 episodes.
The American television industry is driven by ratings. Mainstream audiences want what is popular, successful and familiar. Therefore, genre, formats and formulae are used, re-used and rehashed in an attempt to keep audiences with broadcasters.
Genres, formats and formulae become popular with audiences and so similar content is created. Recently, the police procedural show has become popular and the market has been flooded with variations (e.g. CSI, CSI Miami, CSI: NY, Bones, Law and Order, Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Criminal Minds, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Castle, Body of Proof, etc.). However, each of these variations will have a specific ‘hook’ or USP (unique selling point) which helps to differentiate them.
Television companies pitch ideas to make a pilot show for networks. The pilot shows are then tested with audiences, and the successful ones are then commissioned for further episodes. The networks will often cancel poorly performing television series mid-season, or will not renew programmes that lose viewers over a season.
The Advent of Quality Television
Traditionally, television was often viewed as film’s poor cousin. That is to say that people who worked in television often aimed to work in cinema, as this bought more prestige and more money.
However, early in the 00s, film directors, writers & actors started working on TV shows, finding greater security, control, opportunities for creativity and recognition.
Notable examples include:
- Aaron Sorkin (writer) The West Wing
- Alan Ball (writer) Six Feet Under & True Blood
- Bryan Singer (director) House
- Keifer Sutherland – 24, Touch
- Timothy Olyphant – Deadwood, Justified
- Glenn Close – Damages
- Martin Sheen – The West Wing
- Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg & Steve Buscemi – Boardwalk Empire
This movement back towards television has led to American television’s ‘boom years’, where emphasis was placed on the quality of writing, directing and performances. Globally, US broadcast fiction has gained a reputation for its quality. It has also become increasingly star-driven as film actors now see television as a viable outlet for their creativity and as an industry where they can have more influence.
The term ‘showrunner’ is one that is commonly used in American television to refer to the person in overall charge of a television programme. This person is often credited as the ‘creator’ or executive producer in the credits. Aside from being a producer, often they are also the head writer. The position is one that carries with it creative responsibility for the series.
Scott Collins of the LA Times described showrunners as “… a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers. They’re not just writers; they’re not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It’s one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world….[S]how runners make – and often create – the shows, and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter. In the “long tail” entertainment economy, viewers don’t watch networks. They don’t even care about networks. They watch shows. And they don’t care how they get them.” Read the full article here.
Famous showrunners include Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead).
The Walking Dead – Broadcasters
The Walking Dead is made by and shown on American cable channel AMC. In the UK it is shown on FX.
AMC (American Movie Classics) is a niche American cable television broadcaster. It was subscription broadcaster, similar to HBO and Showtime. However, following a financial re-evaluation, AMC executives made the decision to become a commercial broadcaster. However, it prides itself on having less advertising per hour than other commercial broadcasters. In recent years, it has gained a reputation for making and broadcasting original programming, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad being particular successes.
FX currently owns the broadcast rights for The Walking Dead in the UK. FX is a satellite television channel, owned by Fox Broadcasting. It broadcasts a variety of US fiction programming such as True Blood, Leverage, Burn Notice, Falling Skies, Family Guy and Better than Ted. Unlike its US sister station, FX broadcasts fiction bought from a variety of US television networks. It targets an audience that is primarily male and between the ages of 25 and 44.
Frank Darabont — Showrunner
Darabont is an American film director, producer and screenwriter. He has been nominated for three Oscars. His most famous films include The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999), both of which he directed. Darabont wrote and directed the first episode of The Walking Dead, and served as showrunner for its first season.
The Walking Dead is an American television drama is most easily categorised as being part of the zombie cycle within the horror genre. The action takes place in post-apocalyptic America. The settings and characters are recognisably American, but it deals with themes that are universal – survival, family and society.
The Walking Dead is adapted from the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Television adaptations of existing literary works have become popular over the last few years, with True Blood and Dexter being successful examples.
Horror has often been regarded as a genre that is more successful in the cinema than on television, but there has been a recent rise in popularity of horror based broadcast fiction with American Horror Story, Supernatural and True Blood all employing the generic conventions of horror. Perhaps the forerunner of recent horror television was Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The advent of an increased amount of television horror can be attributed to the cost of generating convincing CGI coming down enough for it to be a feasible inclusion in a television show’s budget.
However, arguably the most significant influence on The Walking Dead is the work of George A. Romero, whose films including Night of the Living Dead (1963) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) helped popularise the zombie cycle in cinema.
Similarly to Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later (2002), the action begins when the protagonist, Deputy Rick Grimes, awakes from a coma to find a world that has been decimated by a virus that has turned humans into flesh-eating zombies. The first episode follows his recognition of ontological insecurity. He has to quickly learn how to avoid zombie attacks and sets out on a quest to find his wife and son.
The series was filmed on location in Atlanta, Georgia. The six episodes that constitute season one were made for about $3.4 million (screenrant.com) . The cast is led by British actor Andrew Lincoln. Lincoln is another in a long line of British actors who have lead American television shows, playing American characters. Other significant examples are Hugh Laurie (House), Dominic West (The Wire), Joseph Fiennes (Flash Forward) and Damien Lewis (Life, Homeland).
Age: 20 – 40. Obviously the graphic nature of the violence and the representation of the ‘walkers’ exclude a younger audience. For the same reason an older audience is also unlikely to be the target. A more mature audience will often reject graphic texts and will favour those rooted in reality.
Gender: Male. Arguably zombie cycle narratives appeal to men more than women. Perhaps this is because the texts relate a vision of the world where men are envisioned as the protector, and human society has been reset to a more primitive mode, where the emphasis is survival and defense. Often zombie narratives include festishisation of weapons which may appeal to a more traditional male audience.
Socio-economic group: B, C1. The primary audience is likely to be those with access to satellite television. They are also likely to able to engage in fandom via social networks and so will be technologically literate and will have the disposable income to facilitate this.
Overall, The Walking Dead is a text for a niche audience. This audience is also likely to include genre and cycle enthusiasts and those who were fans of the original source material.
“…There is one hugely disturbing scene when Jones has to sit and watch his wife, now a zombie, shuffling around in the street outside, while he desperately searches her face for any sign of the person she once was.
It’s moments like this that set it apart from films such as The Evil Dead. It has more in common with a more thoughtful, old-fashioned British storytelling tradition, such as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. This isn’t just about shocks and gore; it’s a thoughtful exploration of characters thrown into an unimaginably horrible world. Who will sink, who will swim, and who will become a zombie?
Having said that, nobody would accuse the makers of shying away from the blood-splatter: the camera, notably, never flinches. In one strangely moving scene, Grimes comes across a zombie – or rather the top half of one – dragging itself painfully across a field with its hands. The two seem to share a moment before he pulls out his enormous gun and blows its brains all over the grass. It’s part of the drama’s very strange mixture of compassion and nastiness…” Maxton Walker, The Guardian
“The Walking Dead” is a good watch, but a hard one. A very hard one. A faithful adaptation of the popular comic-book series, “The Walking Dead” drops us into a world overrun by aggressive, flesh-eating zombies who now threaten the few pockets of living humans that survived.
That may sound like a familiar setup to fans of zombie epics like “Dawn of the Dead.” Don’t be fooled. “The Walking Dead” is no campy horror flick full of winks, parody and self-aware excess. … Given the subject and the situation – apocalypse that could end life as we know it – that makes sense. It also makes the show relentless, a feeling not lessened by periodic bursts of extreme violence and menacing dialogue.
Fans of the comic book and first-rate psycho-horror may form a large enough audience to make this a hit. Those not in those groups may want to start by taking a deep breath” David Hinkley, The NY Daily News
“Just couldn’t get into the show. For starters, it’s not one bit scary. Gory, yes…Scary, no. I never found gore to be particularly scary. It just makes you want to barf is all. I read somewhere that the characters are somewhat hollow. I completely agree with that assessment. The only character I’ve cared about so far is the horse Next movie-maker that kills a horse or a dog in a movie gets a personal visit from me and a man-sized beat down in front of his family. I think the cinematography is the best part of this show. Other than that, I found this show to be disappointingly dull.” FinnBarker, User Review, Metacritic.com