What Students Want to Write About (Final Project)
I have been absent from CST for too long. The reason for my absence has been entirely due to my commitment to work and students undergoing their ‘Final Year Project’.
In January I was given the honour and task of guiding 150 BATAR (BA Television and Radio) final-year students through their last, and arguably most important, Theory Essay. I also had to guide Students through a Critical Reflective Essay. My duties included providing lectures on how to tackle the essay question, lectures on how to approach critical essay writing, providing one-to-one sessions (over 100 students seen), and finally, to mark all 150 essays within 15 working days (that’s 10 essays a day folks). In all, I wrote approximately 30,000 words in feedback.
But I learned something too.
However, enough about me. This piece is really about the students and about students studying television – what they knew, what they wanted to write about, and how they think about television after three years of undertaking a degree in television, radio and broadcasting media. In all, the whole process provided me with a unique glimpse into not only what students manage to absorb in three years of studying television, but of what and how they watch television. Early on, I realised I could use my position and my contact with the students to conduct an unofficial and casual survey of the state of contemporary television as viewed and experienced by media students. It was the end of their learning process (Final Project), but the start of a new and different one for me.
Students had to answer an essay question which can be briefly paraphrased as such – Recent changes in the broadcast industry (digital media technologies) have impacted upon the type of content being produced. Assess the validity of this statement using examples.
It was a question which offered students a variety of approaches and my lectures focussed on showing students what they could look at – TV genres, particular TV programmes, social media, visible branding, TV channels, streaming services, etc. The question also hinted at television histories, or at least how a knowledge of television histories might be of use. In all, the question encouraged a summation and demonstration of television knowledge learned over the last 3 years, whilst also offering students an opportunity to provide original examples and approaches by way of answering the question.
Whilst a small number of students chose to answer the question via radio, I will here focus only on those (most of them) who answered the question via television.
I won’t provide exact statistics or numbers (this was a casual survey after all) but much of what I learned and some of the outcomes were both predictable and also gratifyingly surprising in terms of originality.
In terms of predictability, the number of students who wanted to use Netflix to answer the essay question was high – as were the numbers of students who wanted to discuss Game of Thrones (HBO 2011 – ). Netflix, to my mind, was always going to be the ‘first’ choice for students because most students, if they watch any television at all, experience it via Netflix. The student discount (in the UK) of £5.99 a month, plus the cultural cache, plus mobility, plus opportunities for collective and individual binge-watching, plus the absence of advertisement breaks (a big appeal I have learned), and its supreme indifference to scheduling (students can watch it at 2.00 am – when they are at their most active it would seem), means the television experience for most students is nearly always via Netflix (and it’s nearly always Netflix; not HULU, or any other streaming service). However, whilst Netflix might seem a no-brainer for discussing change in the broadcast industries the concept of ‘change’ itself seemed a stumbling point. Students knew Netflix was significant to the contemporary television experience, and therefore potentially significant in answering the essay question, yet as recent a development as Netflix is, it still required a television history to explain its significance.
Similarly, the cult status and shared experience of Game of Thrones (or GoT) meant that for most students, falling back on something in their comfort zone, or on something they knew (or thought they knew) was always going to be the first response. I say ‘first’ response because for all the information I have provided here in terms of the student viewing experience, the peculiar dynamics of streaming services, and how these and other elements show changes in the broadcast industry that have impacted upon the TYPE OF CONTENT BEING PRODUCED (essay question) it turns out that most students do not connect with Netflix on these levels, nor want to. Even allowing for the element of the on-demand escapism of Netflix as an overriding concern for students, the concept of Netflix as being indicative of ‘change’ seemed difficult to engage with – even with the help of McDonald and Smith-Rowsey (The Netflix Effect 2016), Jenner (‘Is This TVIV?’ 2016), and a host of other similar and excellent reading. What became apparent, and as McDonald and Smith-Rowsey point out, “Netflix has become a convenient avatar… to demonstrate… convergence culture” (2016: 2), yet as an example it needed to be related to a television history. This is significant because as McDonald and Smith-Rowsey also imply, it is open to question whether Netflix “alone is capable of summing up certain changes” (2016: 3).
Similarly, although GoT has a wide and active fan base, demonstrates ‘complex TV’ (Mittell 2015), ‘Quality TV’ (McCabe, Akass, et al 2007), niche programming, and provides a host of opportunities for social media interactivity – all of which indicate ‘change’ in the broadcast industries, and changes that have impacted upon the TYPE OF CONTENT BEING PRODUCED – to see these elements and the drama as a whole as indicative of ‘change’ proved the largest hurdle and most difficult connection to make. As such, although very often the ‘first’ choice for students to discuss and answer the essay question, both Netflix and GoT often gave way to other ideas and examples, or were approached with less enthusiasm and more caution than was at first envisaged. In essence, students gravitated towards Netflix largely because of certain programmes they viewed there, and partly because of its totemic status. The same can be said for GoT. However, most students do not see either in terms of change.
I am not for one moment trying to make out my students are shallow – far from it. All of them passed and all of them eventually made the connection explicitly in the end, but what I am trying to point out is that both these examples, and their potential status as arbiters of change in television, are not understood as instinctively or even empirically in terms of change as it is by myself and other colleagues who have largely experienced these changes first hand. There is a salutary lesson to be learned here regarding the importance of television histories – and histories in general. When we talk about changes in television and in the broadcast industry as a whole, we are tacitly talking about television/broadcast histories.
What students bring to the learning of television is personal experience of watching television and this comes with a history, but many students do not experience this as a history and for many students, digital and streaming technologies have always been there. But how do we teach students to think historically? As Darien-Smith and Turnbull point out in their anthology, Remembering Television (2013), the “everyday ‘informal knowledge’ about television and its technology as experienced by those who are watching it” is often seen at odds with or separate from attempts to make television an academic discipline and “the appropriate fashionable theory to analyse it”. If we who teach television have one role, it is to teach students to make these connections. The lack of historical thinking seems even more puzzling when we consider how self-reflexive television is these days, an observation that Scannell makes when he relates how “television today makes the historical process visible” (Darien-Smith/Turnbull 2013: 4). At the programme level there are a few television programmes that attempt to do just this. A few students chose to answer the question using the BBC’s Doctor Who (1963-89/ 2005- ). In many ways it was a highly appropriate example to use, the programme spanning, as it does all of Ellis’s television eras (2000) – TVI, TVII, TVIII (and Jenner’s TVIV) – and illustrating change in the type of content being produced, via a variety of digital media technologies and transmedia strategies (Perryman 2008).
Another appropriate example, but this time at a genre level, was Reality TV. If there is one television genre which highlights change in the broadcast industry and its impact upon the type of content being produced it is Reality TV. Quite a few students wanted to answer the essay question via Reality TV, but again only at the level of personal experience and personal preferences – Made in Chelsea, TOWIE, Real Housewives, etc. Whilst each one of these programmes/franchises had the potential to address the question, what was needed was a history. As Holmes and Jermyn (2004) and Murray and Ouelette (2004) make clear, we can only truly understand the phenomenon of Reality TV if we see it as part of historical industrial change.
The problem may lie in what Hartley describes as television’s ability to “constitute both a history of ‘me’ in terms of the individual and a history of ‘us’…as a group, family, or nation” (2013: 4), and also, I would argue, as an institution. Those students who struggled with concepts of change understood instinctively the former, whilst those students who tended to do well, understood the latter – that their personal experience, likes, dislikes, and preferences were just a small part of a much bigger picture and history.
So much for predictability. There were some essays however that positively shone in terms of original approaches to the essay question and it was here, in the unpredictable category, where learning seemed to be demonstrated. One particular essay which stood out looked at the evolution of the Eurovision Song Contest (1956 – ). Again, as with the Doctor Who example, Eurovision spans the all of the TV eras and developments envisaged by Ellis and Jenner respectively, and its willingness (an understood necessity) to embrace digital technology and change in the broadcast industry offered both an appropriate and original study. Again, it also demonstrated a history. However, essays such as these were not broadly representative and this may tell us something about how and what we teach when teaching television. I would hazard a guess that not many television courses or modules spend too much time on subjects or using examples such as Eurovision, yet in some respects these are probably the sort of objects that offer much in the way of knowledge of television viewing. They provide television histories; what they lack in terms of ‘quality’ they make up for in terms of being broadly representative (popular culture), and they offer a (Euro)vision of collective TV viewing, unhitched from national ideology, that predates the transnational, global streaming experience of Netflix – albeit with only a choice of one programme. But if my experience of student’s viewing experience is anything to go by, it is clear that they do watch popular programming. Similarly, they are not all aca-fans, and mobility, convenience, and escapism (on-demand) is just as important as ideas of quality – especially when you have a lot of essays to write (or mark). Next year my findings might be different. But that’s another history.
Kenneth A Longden has lectured as part of the academic staff at Liverpool John Moores University in Media, Critical, and Creative Arts, and studied for a MPhil/PhD in Transnational Narratives at The University of Winchester. He is a Fellow HEA, and a Peer-Reviewer for various academic journals. He has been published by Intellect Books and Palgrave MacMillan, and writes on Popular Narrative, Film, Television, Fandom, and Popular Culture. He is currently lecturing at Salford University.
Bennett, J. and Strange, N., 2011. Television as digital media. Duke University Press.
Darian-Smith, K. and Turnbull, S. eds., 2013. Remembering television: Histories, technologies, memories. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Holmes, S. and Jermyn, D., 2004. Understanding reality television. Psychology Press.
Jenner, M., 2016. Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New media & society, 18(2), pp.257-273.
McDonald, K. and Smith-Rowsey, D. eds., 2016. The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
McCabe, J.E., McCabe, J. and Akass, K. eds., 2007. Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond. IB Tauris.
Murray, S. and Ouellette, L. eds., 2004. Reality TV: Remaking television culture. NYU Press.
 The many times I had to emphasise and write out this phrase in the feedback…