Beyond and Beside Narrative Structure

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Sometimes it seems as if everything on television tells a story. Commercials are filled with miniature narratives. Nightly newscasts and news magazine programs such as 60 Minutes (1968-) contain segments called "stories" that resemble narrative in the way they structure conflict and pose enigmas. Survivor (2000-) and other so-called "reality-TV" series are sold like soap operas-emphasizing dramatic conflict. As Fox executive vice president of programming, David Nevins, said about American High (2000), "We need to market the characters and the stories like you would market a good quality drama."' It all makes us wonder if there is anything real on TV, or if it is just one big fiction.

The simple response would be, no, there is nothing real on TV. The makers of television programs do not and cannot present a portion of reality (a car wreck, a football game, an earthquake) without first recasting it in the language of television and thereby modifying or "fictionalizing" it to some extent. They will necessarily present it from a certain camera angle and within a certain context of other shots. It will be accompanied by certain sound effects or music, and perhaps even narrated in a certain fashion. In their transition from reality to television, images and sounds are massaged, manipulated, and placed in new contexts. They are transformed into television material, cut to the measure of television.

But television's relationship to reality is not that simple. Many programs would not exist if we did not believe they were presenting some form of reality.

The quiz shows of the 1950s, for example, based their enormous success on the believable illusion that real contestants (i.e., ordinary people) were competing in an impartial, improvised contest, in real time, with an outcome that was not predetermined by a scriptwriter. When it was revealed that the contests were rigged-staged to maximize dramatic impact-viewers were appalled and congressional investigations begun. Obviously, the illusion of reality was paramount to quiz shows then. It continues to be a fundamental component of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (1999-) and the current crop of game shows, as well as news and sports programs and some commercials. Although all of these programs are fictionalized and manipulated on some level, each is also a "fiction (un)like any other"--as Bill Nichols has suggested, using a tricky bit of punctuation. They may not be pure reality, as they sometimes advertise themselves, but they are still distinct from standard television fiction.

It begs the issue, therefore, to say that all television is fiction or that every program tells stories. What is crucial is an understanding of how TV constructs its illusions of reality, its representations of the real; in other words, how some of its fictions are unlike other fictions. This section treads that slippery slope, suggesting some of the ways that non-narrative television (for lack of a more accurate term) represents reality. We discuss the aesthetic principles that undergird that representation, the economic choices that are made in the process, and the technological limitations to television showing reality "as it really is." Moreover, we need to remain mindful of television's basic structure of flow, interruption, and segmentation, and the restrictions it places on representing the real.

To accomplish these goals, we begin this section with some global considerations of television, reality, and "reality television." We then address the modes of non-narrative television and some of its particular genres (news, sports, and game shows). Non-narrative commercials are considered in a later section, in the context of commercials in general.


Everyone has his or her own commonsensical understanding of "reality." Most of us think of it as the world that all people exist in, where events-some caused by other events, some seemingly random-occur all the time everywhere.

Reality has no inherent meaning; or perhaps its meanings are so varied that they are virtually limitless. Things just keep happening, regardless of human attention or inattention to them: a woman drives to work, moss grows on a tree, a political prisoner is killed in a jail, a cat naps, the Soviet Union dissolves, two men play checkers, a president is elected. The real is "polymorphous," as John Fiske suggests. It assumes many shapes and styles, and is open to many interpretations.

Most important for our study, reality does not itself suggest interpretations or emphasize one event over another. A musical crescendo did not accompany the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A spotlight did not suddenly appear on the voting booth of the person who cast the deciding vote in the last presidential election. The meaning, the importance, the televisual and cultural significance of reality's events are determined by the makers of non-narrative television-as well as historians, newspaper columnists, textbook writers, and other cultural workers. These persons re-present a global reality back to all of us living in one small portion of it. Since we cannot experience all of reality directly, we must rely on television, magazines, newspapers, books, and movies to re-present it to us. Thus, our knowledge of the reality beyond our own personal sphere is always filtered through the mass media. In a very substantial sense, the media determine what is real and what is not, emphasizing certain events and ignoring others.

Equally important, the media manipulate and process those events that they have selected for us. Reality is mediated according to technological abilities (cameras cannot capture what occurs in darkness) and economic imperatives (footage of moss growing will not earn advertising dollars). It is also mediated according to ideological, institutionalized parameters such as the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) code of ethics. From where we viewers sit it is often difficult, if not impossible, to isolate the actual events from their processed version. We are often unable to "separate reality from reality as-described" because we have no direct knowledge of that reality. We are only exposed to its description, to reality-as-described. That is, the only alternatives to the media's description of reality are other descriptions generated by other media. For instance, most of our knowledge of the U.S. war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91 was based on television news reports, which were tightly controlled by the U.S. government. These reports initially presented one description of the events: a clean, honorable, practically bloodless rout of Iraqi forces by U.S. troops, aided by their technologically advanced weaponry.

Alternative descriptions of a different reality eventually surfaced-reports that detailed the burying alive of Iraqi soldiers by U.S. Army bulldozers and the high percentage of U.S. soldiers who were killed or wounded by so-called friendly fire.

The point is not that these later reports were more real than the early ones, but that both were incomplete descriptions of reality that emphasized some events and ignored others. We viewers had to counterbalance one reality-as-described with another--as we must constantly do when watching nonfiction television.

Short of traveling to Kuwait, personally examining the battlefields, interviewing Iraqi and U.S. soldiers, and perhaps shuffling through the memos of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, President George H.W. Bush, and their generals, we viewers will never be able to generate our own description of this war. We have no choice but to rely on its varying and incomplete representations in the media.

This section does not offer analytic methods that will allow the reader to glean reality or truth from media representations of the real world. But it does examine the structure of those representations, allowing the reader to better understand them as such rather than as reality itself.

Before we start, however, it may be helpful to adopt two of Bill Nichols's terms for discussing the reality depicted by television.

First, Nichols prefers the phrase historical world or historical reality over the term reality. This distinction helps him stress that nonfiction television is not able to represent an unmediated reality. Instead, nonfiction television is always signifying a processed, selected, ordered, interpreted, and incomplete reality. Just as historians fashion a narrative out of reality's jumble of events, so do nonfiction television texts denote a particular reading of reality. The terms historical world and historical reality do not refer solely to events of major significance, as when a sports reporter announces that the breaking of a record is a "historical event:' Rather, historical in our sense of the term refers globally to all the events that could be represented on television--that is, to those aspects of the real world that may be used to tell stories.

Second, Nichols introduces the term social actor into the debate on non fiction television and film. As he explains, "This term stands for Individuals 'or 'people.' ... I use 'social actor' to stress the degree to which individuals represent themselves to others; this can be construed as a performance. The term is also meant to remind us that social actors, people, retain the capacity to act within the historical arena where they perform."5 When we see people in nonfiction television programs, we see them as social beings, as individuals functioning within a society of other individuals. Whether the individuals on TV are anonymous persons describing car accidents or Michael J. Fox announcing his contracting Parkinson's disease, their appearances on television are warranted by their social significance, their significance to society. And, as Nichols implies, persons on television act according to social codes of behavior to represent themselves to others. In a sense, we all perform according to certain conventions in public; we all act conventionalized social roles. When we go to a restaurant, we wait to be seated, eat food in a certain prescribed order (salad, entree, dessert), and pay in response to the presentation of the bill.

Each of these actions is part of a learned behavior, a role, that we perform in a particular social setting. Persons who deviate too greatly from these socially approved roles are removed from society and placed in prisons or psychiatric hospitals.

In sum, then, nonfiction television presents to the viewer the interaction of social actors in the historical world. In parallel fashion, fiction television presents the interaction of constructed characters, portrayed by professional actors, in a narrative world. It's easy to see how the two might become blurred--as was illustrated by the historical world's presidency of professional actor Ronald Reagan. Moreover, television frequently encourages the confusion of social actors and professional actors, as in commercials where actors wear lab coats and imitate scientists or where professional wrestlers have scripted storylines that take precedence over uncontrolled competition. Despite television's common meshing of historical world and narrative world, much programming still depends on distinguishing between the two. News and sports programs would be disdained and ignored if they lost contact with the historical world. Our goal is to better understand how the contact between the historical world and the narrative world of television is depicted.


The defining characteristic of nonfiction television is its apparent relation ship to the historical world. Unfortunately, there is not much agreement among television theorists regarding this fundamental relationship. This causes much confusion, as you can imagine. For our purposes, it is best to rely on a strategy devised by Nichols and elaborated on by Julianne Burton.6 Using and modifying slightly their approach, we may distinguish nonfiction television's four principal modes of representation-the ways that it depicts historical reality and addresses itself to the viewer about that version of reality:

1. Expository (or rhetorical)

2. Interactive

3. Observational

4. Reflexive


As we consider each mode we will examine how the television text corresponds to the historical world it appears to represent. Individual nonfiction genres (news, sports, game shows, etc.) are not limited to one single mode, but instead draw on each as needed. We will particularize some of these genres and their uses of these modes below.

Expository Mode. The essential component of an expository television text is that it presents an argument about the historical world. It assertively or even aggressively selects and organizes the "facts" of that world and presents them to the viewer in a direct address. For example, a commercial for the exercise videotape, 8 Minute Abs, presents a shot of rippling abdominal muscles (Fig. 1), and the narrator announces "Over 1,000,000 stomachs have gotten tighter with 8 Minute Abs!" The commercial is choosing evidence from the historical world to give credence to its argument-as well as repressing counter evidence (per haps just as many stomachs failed to get tighter). In this case, the evidence for the tape's effectiveness is both visual (the image of a muscular abdomen) and verbal (the narration) -and is emphasized through the conjunction of the two.

Note that even though this exercise commercial is manipulating material from the historical world, it is not relying on narrative form to guide its manipulation. The logic, the guiding principle, of this commercial is rhetorical rather than narrative. There are many ways that rhetoric, arguments, may be structured. In this case, evidence (a series of images and words) is presented and then a conclusion is propounded ("Call now to buy this taper). In other expository texts the conclusion may come first, or a question will be rhetorically posed ("Should you buy this tape?" ) so that the argument may answer it ("Yes, you should!"); or perhaps emotional appeals will be made rather than evidence cited. Even narrative may be put in the service of rhetoric. A commercial may tell a story to illustrate a point, for instance. But narrative is not absolutely necessary for expository texts; plenty of them argue a position without telling a story. Thus, even though the 8 Minute Abs commercial is not an unvarnished, unmediated chunk of the historical world, it is still not narrative and not fiction, in the narrow sense of the words.

Note also that this commercial, as in many expository texts, addresses its argument directly to us. In effect, it is saying, "Hey you! Here is the proof for my argument. Now, you come buy this tape!" This contrasts sharply with the address of narrative television, which speaks to us indirectly, obliquely. Most narrative television programs do not acknowledge the viewer (excepting shows such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show [1950-58] and Malcolm in the Middle [2000-] where characters speak to the camera). Instead, the characters interact as if there were no one watching. This is a charade, of course. There are millions watching. But the point is that the characters do not speak directly to us, as they often do in expository texts. Characters in narrative TV address one another. They are sealed within their narrative or diegetic worlds. Thus, we are not the direct target of the dialogue, as we are in many rhetorical texts.

There is little doubt that commercials are based on rhetoric, argument, and persuasion; but what of other nonfiction television such as network news? Nichols contends that network news also falls within the expository mode. His point is that reporters and anchorpersons make sense of the chaotic and semantically overloaded historical world. They select facts from that world and organize them into a coherent presentation. And while doing that, reporters are arguing implicitly for the validity of their specific selections and their organization; often they are even arguing explicitly for a specific interpretation of these facts. The news anchor, for Nichols, is the ultimate structuring authority in the expository mode. Walter Cronkite, who anchored CBS's evening news casts for nearly two decades (1962-81), proclaimed "And that's the way it is" at the end of each program. He was certifying the truth value of CBS News's selection and arrangement of the material (its evidence) drawn from historical reality.


One other aspect that establishes the news as an expository text is its use of direct address. In television news, the anchors face the cameras directly and present their argument to us-just as an advertisement presents its claims.

Their gaze at the camera is facilitated by the TelePrompTer, an inventive bit of technology that is placed directly in front of the lens, seemingly blocking it (Fig. 2). The copy is displayed on a video monitor pointed upwards, which is reflected in an angled, two-way mirror. The camera shoots right through it.

This renders the copy invisible to the camera and us, but allows the anchor to see it (Fig. 3). As Mike Budd, Steve Craig, and Clay Steinman contend, the TelePrompTer "makes it possible for anchors and others to appear to be telling us things that come from them rather than from something they are reading." It thereby lends authority to the claims they make about historical reality. (Politicians commonly use similar devices when making speeches to heighten their contact with the audience.) Anchors also introduce us to field reporters, who then present their reports directly to us. At the beginning and end of reporters' stories or packages, as they are sometimes called, they may speak to the anchor (and not to us); but the majority of the newscast is addressed directly to the viewer. Thus, news does not use the form of address most common to TV narrative, but rather shares its mode of address with the commercial.

Interactive Mode. The interactive text represents the mixing of the historical world with the realm of the video/film maker. This mingling occurs in one of two ways: The social actor is brought into a television studio (e.g., talk shows, game shows); or a representative of television goes out into the historical world to provoke a response from social actors (e.g., the investigative reports of 60 Minutes and Dateline [1992-]). Thus, the interaction between social actors and television may occur on television's turf or out in historical reality.


In either case, the interactive mode differs from the expository mode in terms of how it addresses the viewer. Like narrative television, the address of interactive texts is not directed toward the viewer. The social actors within the text speak with the television producers rather than to us. When Mike Wallace confronts a corrupt politician and the politician argues with Wallace, the two are addressing each other, not us. We may identify with Wallace (or with the politician, depending on our sympathies) and thus feel that the politician's responses are indirectly aimed at us. But these politicians are not speaking directly to us. They indirectly address us through our emissaries, the TV reporters.

In other cases, the social actor can become our textual representative-as in game shows such as the long-running The Price Is Right (1956-1965, 1972-), where participants are chosen from the audience (Fig. 4). We presumably identify with the participants, who are, like us, members of the historical world.

Through the contestants we interact vicariously with the host, Bob Barker. Thus, when Barker addresses participants at their podiums (Fig. 5) and asks them to guess the price of a toaster, he is indirectly addressing us (Fig. 6). Regardless of with whom we identify in an interactive text (social actor or television producer), we are not placed in the same viewer position as in the expository text, where we are often addressed directly.


When social actors enter the realm of television, they are representatives of "our" world, of historical reality, but it would be naive to suppose that social actors are not affected by their contact with television. Any social actor appearing on TV is subjected immediately to the medium's rules and conventions. Contestants on game shows or "guests" appearing on interview programs (whether The Oprah Winfrey Show [1984-] or Nightline [1979-1)8 are screened before the show; those unsuited for television's needs (based on visual interest, verbal skill, suitability to a particular topic) are filtered out early. Once the cameras are on, these social actors are permitted to speak "in their own words." However, the framing questions are Barker's and Winfrey's and Ted Koppel's; the rhythm of the show is strictly controlled by the hosts; and the final edit belongs to the producer. Even more than talk shows, game shows rigidly limit improvisation by situating the social actor within a tightly structured competition.

Hypothetically, there are many ways that television people could interact with social actors. They could touch one another or write letters or gesture with their hands. But, of course, the principal form this interaction takes is speech, dialogue, conversation--in short, interviewing. And it is in the interview that we may locate the rudimentary logic of the interactive text. Where the expository text is governed by the logic of the argument and gathering evidence, the interactive text's logic is largely shaped by how the interview is structured.

Even game shows, which adhere to a logic of competition and the format of the specific game, also contain instances of interviewing between the host and the social actors--though obviously they are much less central than are interviews in talk shows and the like.

We particularize two basic types of interviews. They are grounded in the degree to which the interviewer is present, visually and verbally, within the text:9 the dialogue and the pseudo-monologue.

In a dialogue, the voices of the interviewer and the interviewee are both heard, and both persons may be visible on camera-as in Barbara Walters' interviews of celebrities. The participants exchange comments, speaking "freely" to one another. Of course, interviewers are always in positions of relative power, since they determine which questions to ask and how to frame them. The interviewers, or their bosses, also decide who shall be interviewed to begin with and thus who has the televisual clout to warrant an invitation. A television dialogue doesn't begin unless the interviewer chooses to point the cameras in the direction of a particular social actor. Because of this unequal power relation ship the dialogue can never be truly free. It always fits within the constraints of television.

In a pseudo-monologue, a similar interchange occurs between a social actor and a television representative, but it is presented differently. Interviewers and their questions are not evident in the text. Only the interviewee's answers are included. Thus, it makes it appear as if social actors were speaking directly about their experiences or opinions, even though they have been prompted by the interviewers' questions. This approach is commonly used in news stories about disasters. We don't see or hear the reporters' questions about how the disaster affected the victims and witnesses, but we see and hear their responses to the questions. The reporter remains invisible and unheard, thus making it seem as if social actors were speaking without prompting--in their own voices.

The pseudomonologue blurs the line between expository and interactive nonfiction. What is presented to us as monologues of interviewees' comments, an unmediated expression of their thoughts, is actually the result of interactive dialogues between the interviewers and the interviewees. That is, the pseudomonologue often appears as if the social actor were speaking directly to the viewer, as in exposition; but most viewers know pseudomonologues were originally addressed to reporters constructing their stories. The news reporter will tell us that the hurricane has wrought devastation. The story will then cut to pseudomonologues of hurricane victims describing their plight--seemingly to us directly. Hence, the pseudomonologue is often used as evidence in the ordering of "reality" into a comprehensible logic and the development of a television argument about the historical world. It is not surprising, therefore, that numerous commercials have used pseudomonologues as testimonials for their products' superiority.

Observational Mode. Expository and interactive modes dominate non-narrative television, but there are occasions when the presence of television producers becomes nearly invisible and where their manipulation of the historical world is relatively minimal. In observational mode the producer observes rather than argues about (exposition) or mixes with social actors (interaction). Of course, this is always something of a sham. The moment a camera begins to select one view, and consequently neglect another, manipulation and argument begin. And just by being in the same room with social actors, videographers will begin to interact with them, influencing behavior-even if they don't speak with each other. Still, there are nonfiction programs that invite us to suspend our distrust of television's "devious" ways. For their impact, these programs depend on our belief in the television producer's nonintervention.

The most famous television experiment along these lines was An American Family (1973), a 12-part PBS series that observed the family of Pat and Bill Loud.

Cameras recorded over 300 hours of the day-to-day life of what was supposed to be a stable, average U.S. family. Direct interaction between the filmmakers and the family members was minimized. Over the course of the filming, however, the family fell apart--the parents decided to divorce and one son announced that he was gay. Rather than organize this raw material into a treatise on the decay of the U.S. family, however, the producers presented it mostly without explicit commentary in the form of voice-overs or direct interviews with the family members. It was as close to pure observation as television ever gets.

More recently, other programs have toyed with this concept. Cops (1989-) is presented as if we were patrolling U.S. streets with police officers, observing their daily experiences. The show does includes some pseudomonologues of officers explaining (to us) what is occurring. But the bulk of the program is videotape of them in action, interacting with lawbreakers rather than with the camera. Significantly, there is no narrator providing an overall continuity to the program. The social actors speak for themselves. MTV has had great success with the observational mode in The Real World (1991). Its premise is announced at the start of each episode: "This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real". The situation is clearly contrived by Bunim/Murray Productions for MTV, but the videotaping is mostly done in observational mode: no narrator, few interviews (pseudomonologues), little interaction between the videographers and the "subjects" (Fig. 7). Furthermore, The Real World illustrated just how artificial the division be tween videographers and a cast of social actors can be. During a Jamaican segment in the first season, one male producer and one female cast member crossed the line and became romantically involved. MTV handled it by removing the producer from the project--and putting him in front of the camera, videotaping him socializing with the woman. He wasn't permitted to be both part of the television world (as a producer) and part of the historical world (as a cast member). One cannot observe and participate at the same time, according to the logic of the observational mode.

The observational mode was influenced in the 1990s by the ever-shrinking technology of surveillance cameras and microphones. Their inconspicuous size has enabled TV producers to observe human behavior without betraying the presence of the camera-unlike Cops and The Real World where the cameras are never totally invisible (note the intrusive camera in Fig. 7). Programs such as Busted On the Job: Caught On Tape (1996-) and Taxicab Confessions (1995-) rely on such technology. The former uses actual surveillance videotape of employee misbehavior. The latter places lipstick-sized cameras in a taxicab where the drivers encourage their passengers to talk intimately about their lives (Fig. 8). In both situations, the persons on tape do not realize they are being recorded, which is the ultimate goal of the observational mode. However, Taxicab Confession is not purely observational, since it places an undercover TV "host" in the cab with the unsuspecting passengers. By provoking the passengers, these hosts violate the principal of the observers not affecting the observed.

Reflexive Mode. Certain non-narrative programs invite the viewer to examine the techniques of television production and the conventions of non narrative programs themselves. These texts could be said to reflect back on their own devices. Hence, they may be called reflexive programs.



Reflexive texts differ from other modes of non-narrative television in their relationship to the historical world and its representation. A reflexive text does not just depict that world-making an argument about it or interacting with it or observing it-as most non-narrative TV does. Rather, it draws our attention to the process of depiction itself, shifting the focus away from historical reality proper to the text-reality relationship. In Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988), for example, some facts are presented about the murder conviction of Randall Adams, a social actor in the historical world. But the essence of the program is the different narratives surrounding the murder, which Morris presents to us in ambiguous, stylized recreations. Morris does not advocate a single truth as much as he critiques the idea of finding truth and implicitly breaks down the mechanisms that are used to tell stories about historical reality.

It is a film both about truth and about the tendency of TV and film to represent reality by transforming it into narrative.

Not surprisingly, The Thin Blue Line, which was shown on PBS after an initial theatrical run, belongs to a rare breed of documentary television. Not many programs are willing to call into question their basic assumptions, as The Thin Blue Line does. To do so often raises doubt about a program's truthfulness, which is dangerous to any documentary. So the reflexive mode remains on the edges of documentary television, the result of somewhat avant-garde experimentations with the medium.



Reflexivity is less menacing to the foundations of commercials and non narrative comedy programs, where it reveals itself in parody and pastiche. The Late Show with David Letterman (1993-), for example, reflects back on the conventions and devices of talk shows for much of its humor. In typical reflexive fashion, it is both a talk show and a parody of one. The targets of Letterman's parodies extend from talk shows to the whole of television. The Late Show's debut featured old shots of Ed Sullivan (whose variety show was broadcast from the same studio decades earlier) cut together so that it appeared he was still alive and was introducing Letterman (Fig. 9). Later in the same episode a clip of Sullivan was also used in a comic bit involving his "spirit" and Paul Newman (Fig. 10). A large part of the humor in these bits derived from their implicit reference to televisual figures, devices, and conventions. The same sort of reflexivity operates in other non-narrative television comedy-such as many of the skits on Saturday Night Live (1975-). To pick one recurring skit from many, " Wayne's World" is obviously a TV parody-choosing low-budget, public-access cable television programs as its target.

Television comedy's self-parody and reflexivity are parts of a long-standing tradition, one which is essential to television's evolution. As a television device or convention ages, it is ridiculed through parody, and then replaced with a modification of it. Thus, while reflexivity is relatively rare in non-narrative documentary works and can endanger basic assumptions about truth and historical reality, it is quite common in non-narrative comedy-refreshing the form and rejuvenating stale conventions.


These non-narrative modes-expository, interactive, observational, reflexive- find expression in a broad variety of television programs. We may make some sense out of the chaos of non-narrative programs by categorizing them into specific genres. Much as we might categorize narrative programs into such genres as the soap opera and the sitcom, we will specify three types of non narrative material:

• Newscasts

• Sports programs

• Game shows

This is not a comprehensive list. There are other non-narrative genres (e.g., talk shows and science programs such as Nova [1973-]), but these three will serve to illustrate the diversity in non-narrative television. We will, however, return to non-narrative genres when we discuss commercials in the following section.

The categories above are echoed by economically based divisions within the TV industry and its ancillaries. Completely separate staffs at the networks and the syndication studios are assigned to handle news, sports, and "entertainment" (as if news and sports weren't entertaining). Beyond the industry's view of itself, however, the viewer/critic can make important distinctions among these genres, based on the non-narrative texts themselves and their relationship to the viewer.

Network and Local Newscasts

The newscasts produced on national networks (both broadcast and cable) and on local stations all share a common assumption about historical reality: An event is not significant, is not newsworthy, unless it disrupts the ordinary, day-to day functioning of life on earth. Presumptions of newsworthiness immediately channel TV news away from the common incidents in reality and direct it toward the odd, the unusual, and the unsettling. Once an incident ceases to disrupt the norm, it stops being "news" and disappears from the television screen. We are not likely to see a newscast begin, "Gravity: It's still holding things down!" Typically, network news producers select the following types of events from the enormous miscellany of the historical world:

• Catastrophes: natural and otherwise.

• International relations: political and armed conflicts.

• National politics: legal and judicial activities, election campaigns, politicians' other enterprises.

• Law and order: crime and the activities of criminals.

• Economics: financial trends.

• Celebrities: marriages, scandals, deaths.

Local newscasts deal with many of the same subjects but on a smaller scale. The catastrophes are car accidents and house fires rather than earthquakes, and the politicians are governors and mayors rather than presidents, but the approach is modeled on the national newscasts. Local newscasts also incorporate sports and weather information that the national networks do not address.

Newscasts largely use an expository mode to present information collected from the historical world. That is, evidence is displayed to support a reporter's or editor's particular interpretation of events. Inevitably this evidence is arranged, ordered, into some form of conflict: Democrat versus Republican, individual versus institution, police versus killer. The basic logic of most news stories is an argument where the historical world is explained as a series of conflicts.

Conflict is normally most obvious and deadly in the case of international warfare-pitting one nation against another. NBC's and CBS's coverage of a particular international incident may illustrate the expository nature of TV news. The Balkan war of 1991 to 1995 was a particularly difficult one for TV news to fit into a simple structure of "A versus B." Battles raged among Serb, Croat, and Muslim factions in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (parts of the former Yugoslavia). Moreover, peace-keeping forces from NATO and the UN were thrown into the middle of this complicated situation. In September 1992 a UN plane flying relief supplies was shot down in Bosnia. CBS and NBC both featured Bosnian relief efforts in their nightly newscast-highlighting attempts to bring food and medicine to the town of Gorazde.

As in most incidents outside North America, CBS and NBC relied on exactly the same video footage from Bosnia. The only differences in the two stories were the editing and the voice-over added by CBS's and NBC's reporters based in London: Tom Fenton and Keith Miller, respectively. The CBS story includes footage of decaying Serb bodies that are excluded from the NBC story (Fig. 11). And the CBS story ends with shots of Muslim fighters on a hilltop (which are also excluded from the NBC story), with Fenton commenting, "Now the main concern will be to keep a lifeline open for the newly liberated town. That will depend on if the Muslims can continue to hold on to the high ground around them" (Fig. 12). In contrast, NBC chose to end with a shot of the deserted airport runway and the remark, "If the plane was shot down, then the UN will somehow have to eliminate the threat" (Fig. 13).


Remembering that reporters Fenton (CBS) and Miller (NBC) worked from the same video (the same images of historical reality), what differences can we observe in the "arguments" they present about that reality? NBC's story argues that the main conflict in this incident is between UN relief workers and the forces that shot down the plane-forces that were not yet determined.

CBS includes that conflict as a major part of the story, but Miller's editing and voice-over add a different perspective. Miller argues that the Muslims are valiant freedom fighters by placing them literally and figuratively on the "high ground" (Fig. 12). They are "liberating" the town, forcefully pushing back the Serb paramilitary forces (resulting in decomposing bodies in the road [Fig. 11]). Since none of CBS's or NBC's viewers were actually in Gorazde that day, they have no way to authenticate either of these reports through personal experience.

They have only these "stories," told in an expository mode, on which to make their judgments. However, by remaining alert to the connotations of terms like "liberated" and "high ground" viewers may better understand how news organizations are constructing their arguments about the historical world.

Reporters are encouraged to view the historical world in terms of conflicts and not cooperation or collaboration. They are trained to present an issue "in a way that is balanced, accurate and fair"-as it is stated in the RTNDA code of ethics. Let's examine for a moment what it means to be "balanced:' A balanced presentation presumes two sides that are in conflict. It is the reporter's job to argue each side without prejudice. Consequently, reporters seek the core conflict of an issue and then use the expository mode to articulate each side of that conflict. Just as television narrative is fueled by conflict, so is television news.

Further, most news stories find a way to reduce the conflict to the impact on or the opinions of particular individuals-regardless of how abstract and general the topic may be. Complicated economic developments are illustrated by the inability of a specific person to find work. Airplane crashes are related in the words of the individual survivor-or dramatized in the fate of the specific victim. Reporters "cast" social actors in roles that illustrate abstract topics.

Despite the development of cable news channels during the 1980s, the for mat of U.S. broadcast newscasts (national and local) has not changed much recently. At the center of this format is the news anchor (or anchors; many newscasts use two). The anchors serve several purposes. Principally, they maintain the television flow, introducing packages (news stories), as well as weather and sports components, and guiding the viewer into commercial breaks with teasers (brief announcements of upcoming stories). Because anchors frame every element of the newscast (setting them up beforehand and often commenting afterward) they are also represented as authenticating and authorizing the views of the historical world that the reporters and meteorologists deliver.

This is regardless of whether the stories were actually chosen by the news cast's producers or someone other than the anchors. As the newscast's authority figures, the anchors offer to make ideological sense out of the day's random events, as Cronkite's "And that's the way it is" suggests. They serve as the central spokespersons for the newscast's exposition. Reporters out in the field create expository packages about the historical world, and the anchors stamp them with their approval.

Television newscasts differ in form depending on when they are telecast during the day, where they fit into television's flow. Morning newscasts emphasize the weather and the time of day; late-night newscasts summarize the day's events. The preeminent network newscast is broadcast in the evening at 5:30 or 6:30, depending on the viewer's time zone. Local news usually follows, and often precedes, this newscast. These network and local newscasts share the basic organizing principle of an anchor providing continuity to a program, but their form differs in its structure because the local newscast is designed to complement the national newscast, to fill in regional information not pertaining to national interests. It's as if the network and local evening newscasts must be taken together to provide the "total" picture of the historical world. We may make some generalizations about how each evening newscast organizes the material it presents.

In day-to-day news production, it is the producer, not the anchor, who establishes the structure of a newscast by setting the order of the stories. (Some anchors, such as Dan Rather, also hold the title of executive producer.) This order is determined by journalistic principles, aesthetic factors, and economic determinants. The basic journalistic guidelines, which television shares with print journalism, are:

• Timeliness (How recently did the event occur?)

• Prominence (How famous are the participants?)

• Proximity (Did it occur close to the viewers?)

• Pertinence (Will it affect viewers' lives?

Sometimes abbreviated as WIIFM impact. I.e., there should be a clear answer when viewers ask, "What's in it for me?")

• Unusualness (Is it a common event or something unique?)

• Conflict (Will it lend itself to the news' structure of "pro versus con"?) Other practical and logistical factors that also influence TV news priorities include:

• Visual impact (Are there strong, affective video images available?)

• Cost (For example, was a video truck rented to do a live, remote broadcast?)

• Promotional value (Does the story boost the station's/network's prestige? For example, is it an exclusive interview that illustrates the superior news gathering ability of the station or network?) If all of these factors are equal, network news programs tend to move from the general to the specific, from the international to the national to the regional--including editorial material toward the end of the newscast.

Also, network news tends to begin with hard news and move toward soft news at the program's end. Although these terms are not very well defined, hard news is generally thought of as stories addressing the social-examining events that affect U.S. society as a whole (e.g., national and international relations). Soft news deals with the personal-gossip, scandal, murder, mayhem, and so-called human interest stories (which is something of a misnomer since all news stories interest some humans). Hard news, it is presumed, appeals to viewers' intellect; soft news attracts the emotions. Soft news also includes weather and sports.

Significantly, soft news often does not fit the journalistic criteria of timeliness, prominence, proximity, or pertinence that is applied to "rear hard news. A soft news story about a gourd the shape of Michael Jackson's head, for instance, is neither timely, prominent (it doesn't involve Jackson directly), nearby, or pertinent to most viewers. Because it lacks these qualities, it often is placed at the newcast's conclusion. It serves as filler and may be cut if other packages run long.

Television inherited this hard/soft notion from the print media, where we find hard news on the front page of The New York Times and (extremely) soft news in The National Enquirer. Hard news is the better respected of the two, which is indicative of journalism's trivialization and neglect of the personal.

There may also be some sexism lurking in this distinction, as women's issues often exist within the realm of the personal.

The mixture of material in local newscasts and its categorization are different from the national newscasts. On a local level, the newscast is categorized into segments of news, sports, and weather. This division is somewhat artificial, however, for all three segments are, in a sense, "news." Each represents aspects from the historical world to the viewer. Thus, "sports" is more accurately

"news about sports events"; and "weather" is "news about weather events?' This arbitrary categorization of the news is not limited to television, of course. It can be traced back through radio to the newspaper (e.g., its separate sports section). Though it is not unique to television, it is particularly well suited to television's need for segmentation.

Typically, a local newscast is segmented-interrupted-by four or five commercial breaks. The division of a newscast into news, sports, and weather helps to justify those breaks. It provides a rationale for suspending the program flow at a particular point to begin the flow of commercials. And, since weather and sports are two popular elements of the newscast, their position late in the program may be used to "tease" us into continued viewing.

In many local newscasts, the structure of flow and interruption results in the following segmentation:

• News block

• Commercial break

• News block

• Commercial break

• Weather

• Commercial break

• Sports

• Commercial break

• News block

This structure is typical of many local newscasts: news first, then weather and sports, followed by a final news update (or soft news feature) -all interspersed with commercials. We may see these elements in Table 4.1, an outline of an NBC affiliate's newscast (WV114, channel 13 in Birmingham, Alabama) on a typical fall day. Also included in this table are other newscast components: the opening and closing, station promotional announcements ("promos"), and teasers.



TABLE 1---A Local Newscast 6:00 PM, Friday, September 4, 1992, WVTM (NBC affiliate, Birmingham, Alabama)


15 Opening 120 News Car accident (cheerleaders on a bus)

30 News Murder suspect arrested 60 News Wells Fargo truck attacked 90 News Vice-presidential candidate Al Gore campaigns locally 10 News President George Bush's son, Jeb Bush, campaigns locally 15 Teaser 30 Commercial Marks Fitzgerald furniture 30 Commercial Starving Artist painting sale 10 Commercial Mazer's department store 90 News Background story on child abuse film 60 News Complaint against a hospital 120 News Sewage problem, environmental issue 15 Teaser 30 Promo 30 Commercial Nissan 10 Promo 30 Commercial Food World 30 Commercial Milk 10 Promo 165 Weather 15 Teaser 30 Commercial Marks Fitzgerald furniture 30 Commercial Winn Dixie grocery stores 10 Promo 30 Commercial Alabama Power 30 Commercial Edwards Chevrolet 230 Sports 30 Commercial Marshall Durbin chicken 10 Commercial Midas muffler 30 Commercial Delchamps grocery 10 Promo 30 Commercial Shoe City 30 Commercial ServiStar hardware 50 News Accident, child abuse updates 80 Closing

•Length in seconds.

Credits over high school football footage



Local Newscast Timings


COMPONENT SEC MIN:SEC PERCENTAGE News Stories 630 10:30 38.3 Commercials 410 6:50 24.9 Sports 230 3:50 14.0 Weather 165 2:45 10.0 Opening/Closing 95 1:35 5.8 Promos 70 1:10 4.3 News Teasers 45 0:45 2.7 Totals 1645 27:25 100.0%


Though we have labeled the commercials as interruptions, we could just as easily look at newscasts as a flow of commercials that are interrupted by news blocks. For, in many local newscasts, commercials and promos (which are just commercials for the station itself) occupy nearly as much time as the news proper. In the newscast in Table 1, 9 minutes and 20 seconds were devoted to commercial and promotion time in this half-hour newscast. In comparison, just slightly more time (10 minutes, 30 seconds) was allocated to news - although about 17 minutes were spent on news, sports, and weather combined. (Table 4.2 ranks the time spent on each component of that newscast.) Thus, communicating information about the historical world -the presumable purpose of newscasts-is barely given more time than the advertising of that world's products.

From one perspective, the difference between the news and the commercial is blurry, more so than the difference between the narrative program and the commercial. Recall that both news and commercial, in Nichols's terms, are expository forms. Both present evidence to the viewer that is designed to sup port an argument about the historical world. In this regard, then, commercials could be considered "news" about products and services. Television journalists would dispute this interpretation, asserting that anchors and reporters are not trying to sell the viewer anything. It could be argued, however, that to survive, a newscast must market its interpretation of the historical world as accurate and true. A newscast's vision of the world is sold directly through its promotional spots ("Thirteen News: Alabama's news, from people who care.") and indirectly through the arguments about the world that it expresses in its news reports. In this regard, television news differs from fiction programming, whose structure is narrative rather than expository, and thus does not share this kinship with commercials.

Sports Programs

Sports events differ from the events shown on newscasts that we have discussed so far, even though both originate in the historical world. Sports activities, particularly those at the professional and college levels, are commodities de signed for spectators-even before television enters the equation. People who "witness" a professional football game in person, for instance, have purchased that privilege. They are seated in a stadium designed for spectator comfort and the optimum display of the playing field. The game is organized according to rules that maximize its entertainment value for the spectator. Spectator sports such as U.S. professional football do not occur randomly, for free, in uncomfortable, inconvenient locations, with unsuspecting, disorganized participants-as do most other historical world events (earthquakes, traffic accidents, wars, etc.) that are deemed newsworthy.

Sports programs, thus, are presenting to the viewer a commercial event, a spectacle really, that has already been contrived to please spectators and marketed to attract an audience. This has obvious economic implications for television sports, but it also affects the form of the programs in less obvious ways.

First, economically speaking, the right to broadcast sports events must be purchased from sports leagues and team owners, unlike the right to broadcast the sort of historical world events we have been discussing so far. These rights do not come cheaply. The national TV networks will pay the National Football League $17.6 billion for broadcast rights during 1998-2005 (which is always subject to renegotiation). These expensive contracts mean, plainly enough, that networks and individual stations have a vested interest in promoting-in emphasizing the importance and entertainment value of-the sports events they've purchased.

Moreover, some networks and stations have more than just a passing financial interest in professional sports because many media corporations wholly own sports teams. The Atlanta Braves, for example, is owned by Ted Turner, who also owns numerous media outlets. And XFL football was jointly created by NBC and the World Wrestling Federation.

As you might expect in such a financial climate, journalistic notions of objectivity become a little twisted. Network coverage of sports tries to maintain a distance between the commentators and the teams, but the former still need to emphasize the significance of the event and try to maintain our interest during the game. Local coverage need not even preserve that level of objectivity.

Often the commentators will be employed by the team itself-common practice in professional baseball since radio days. These announcers do not just offer expert commentary; they also boost fan support for the sponsored team. When a commentator such as the Chicago Cubs's Harry Caray exclaims "Holy cow!" at a Cubs' home run, he is supporting the team that pays his salary. It's hard to imagine Dan Rather making a similar remark at a news story.

Television producers and announcers have come to rely on the ratings success of sports events. Professional and college sports associations have come to depend on television money to survive. TV and sports have thus become mutually dependent and have fashioned various financial liaisons. They have formed into what Sut Jhally calls a sports/media complex.1° His point is that spectator sports and the electronic media, especially television, have become so enmeshed that it's becoming impossible to separate the two. Only a small percentage of the viewers of professional football and baseball, for example, actually see games in arenas or stadiums. For the vast majority of sports fans, pro sports are always experienced through television. This has resulted in certain aesthetic adjustments to spectator sports.

The aesthetic structure of television sports is best seen as the blending of television form with the preexisting form of the particular sport. Most sports on television existed long before TV was invented and had already evolved rules to govern a game's fundamentals:

• Time (e.g., four 15-minute quarters in football);

• Space (e.g., the layout of a baseball diamond and players' movements around it); and

• Scoring/competition (i.e., how one wins). These rules/structures presumed, of course, that the sport would be viewed in an arena or stadium.

When television began broadcasting sports events it soon adapted itself to shooting games in their natural settings. Multiple-camera shooting styles- using powerful telephoto lenses-quickly developed to capture a sport's essential action. But this adaptation process was not one-sided. If a sport was to success fully attract a large television audience, it too had to adapt. As a result, all of the major television sports in the United States, especially football, baseball, and basketball, have adjusted their rules to accommodate television's form. In particular, these sports have found ways to adjust to the medium's organization of time and space.

Let's take professional football as an example. During the 1970s, pro football turned into a major force on U.S. television. As of 2000, the NFL Super Bowl programs accounted for 10 of the 20 highest-rated programs in the entire history of the medium. The immense popularity of pro football on television is obviously due to many different factors, but what concerns us here is how football and television accommodate each other structurally.

The Organization of Time. The rhythms of football are inherently well suited to televisual flow and interruption. The lull after each play while the teams huddle provides the opportunity for television to insert itself, "interrupt" the game, and present slow-motion "instant replays," accompanied by commentary. Football's many time-outs provide convenient stoppages in action for television to cut to commercials. These time-outs were not frequent or long enough for television's needs, however, and the NFL accommodated TV by adding "television time-outs:' Charged to neither team, they may be called by officials during the first and third quarters if there has been 9 minutes of play without interruption." In addition, all time-outs have been lengthened to ensure enough time for commercials. Other sports, such as soccer, suffer because their constant play minimizes the opportunity for replays and commercial breaks.

There are other ways that football time has been manipulated to serve the needs of television. The starting time of games depends nowadays on where they will fit into the television schedule. The most radical shifting of game time was when games were moved from the weekend to Monday evening solely for the benefit of ABC's prime-time schedule (with Monday Night Football [1970-]). The introduction of sudden-death overtime to the NFL (1974) was also a concession to television time, providing a quicker ending to drawn-out games (as with the tiebreaker in professional tennis). Time is a commodity on television; it's what is sold to advertisers. A sport must adjust to the restrictions of television time if it is to flourish on the medium.

This manipulation of time is modulated by the announcers. Most television sports use two types of announcers: color and play-by-play.

Color announcers such as John Madden and Terry Bradshaw are often former athletes and/or coaches, with firsthand expertise. Their analysis serves both expository and narrative functions.

First, in the expository mode, they are arguing for a specific interpretation of the action. A basketball team, it might be suggested, is losing a game because its passing has broken down. Announcers back up their arguments with evidence for their specific interpretation: replays, statistics, electronic "chalkboards" that allow them to draw Xs and Os right on images of the players. Statistics are an interesting aspect of sports in this regard. They legitimize a particular event as part of the history of sport by comparing or contrasting a current game with games past, and they provide seemingly objective evidence of the game's significance, or lack thereof. Every year there seems to be more and more types of statistics to absorb. They can be commonplace-for example, football's rushing yardage-or more and more specialized-for example, the number of games in a row that a batter has gotten a hit in the baseball games after the regular season has ended.

Color announcers add quasi-narrative elements to a game, helping to convert athletes-who are social actors-into characters that television can better utilize. Announcers dispense details about the athletes that serve to "characterize" them, to turn them into recognizable sports character types; stereotypes, really. For example, baseball's Nolan Ryan (a record-setter for longevity) was characterized as the crafty, battle-scarred veteran at the end of his career. His experience was counterposed against more agile but inexperienced rookies-another familiar character type. Sometimes it seems as if each sport on television has only six or seven character types into which each athlete is fit. The game thus becomes, in one sense, a narrative of stock characters constructed by, among other things, the comments of the color announcer.

Play-by-play announcers function similarly to news anchors. They serve as the program's apparent authority figure and guiding force-even though a producer or director back in the satellite truck is really in control. Play-by-play announcers narrate the events of the game, prompt the comments of the color announcers, and reiterate (over and over and over) the score and the play-by-play passage of time. Compared to color announcers, play-by-play announcers are slightly distanced from the athletes. Color announcers were athletes and as such possess special experiential knowledge, born of their locker room camaraderie.

They are in essence part of the sport that is being covered (often their past exploits will be referred to). In contrast, play-by-play announcers are seldom former players or coaches. Instead, they are usually professional broadcasters such as Chris Berman, Mary Albert, or Brent Musberger. Since they are not actually part of the athletes' world, they may operate as an intermediary between that world and ours. Like the news anchor, they place historical reality into context for the viewer and regulate reality's flow so that it matches the flow of television.

The Organization of Space. The space of any sport is strictly de lineated on its playing field or court. In sports such as football, basketball, and hockey, this space is premised on notions of territory, where one team invades the other's turf and attains a goal of some sort. Television has had to find ways to represent this territorial dispute clearly and dynamically. To facilitate this, stadiums and arenas that have been built since the advent of television have made provisions for television cameras and announcers: announcers' booths, special camera platforms at particular vantage points, and the like.

The playing field or court itself is not often changed for television presentation.12 But there have been television-accommodating rule changes that affect the players' appearance and their movement around these fields or courts.

Names on football uniforms, a recent addition to the NFL, do not make much impact on viewers in the stands. But they are significant in television coverage- making it easier for announcers to identify individual athletes as part of the process of turning them into character types. The NBA's rules permitting three point shots and outlawing zone defenses (which forces teams to play man-to man) alter the way that the space of basketball is utilized. Man-to-man defense speeds the pace of the game (as does the 24-second clock)" and highlights the confrontations between individual players, making it easier for TV to trans form the game's team conflict into a conflict between individuals. For example, NBA games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls during the 1980s were often described largely in terms of a battle between individual stars Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Viewing from a distance in arenas and stadiums emphasizes team play, downplaying the importance of the individual. Television coverage in contrast reduces sports to the conflict among individuals. Those individuals highlighted by television are not necessarily the ones who are athletically superior. As Jimmie Reeves has noted, "... personality, character, and color are as interesting to [television] audiences and as crucial to media stardom as run-of-the-mill competitive superiority."' Television needs distinctive individuals, not just athletically capable ones. In the 1992 Olympics, for example, U.S. volleyball player Bob Samuelson became a major television figure not so much because of his athletic ability, but because he had overcome a childhood illness (which left him bald) and because of his feisty arguments with officials. When one such argument cost the team a game, every member of the U.S. volleyball squad shaved their heads in a show of sup port for Samuelson's actions. This group shearing brought the team even more television attention, and their distinctive appearance became as significant as their playing ability. Similarly, Anna Kournikova was a Russian tennis player of modest skills, but television (and other media, too) assigned her the role of glamorous ingenue. Consequently, in the 2000 Wimbledon tournament she received considerable TV coverage even though she had never won a major tournament.

The Organization of the Scoring/Competition. In football's sudden-death overtime and tennis's tiebreaker we can see instances in which the structure of a sports' scoring has been modified to suit television's structure. In more general terms, a sports' scoring, the structure of its competition, suits television best when it echoes the conflicts of narrative (individual protagonist vs. individual antagonist) and poses enigmas as television narratives do. The most important sports enigma is, naturally, who will win? If a game becomes so lopsided that the outcome is obvious, then the game runs the risk of television death -either from our switching channels or the network turning to a concurrent, more suspenseful game. Sports pro grams must maintain that quasi-narrative enigma if they are to succeed on television.

The conclusion of each game determines the winner for that day. But, like the soap opera, the closure is incomplete. Most professional sports on U.S. television are predicated on a season that leads to a championship: for example, the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the NBA finals. The weekly games resolve the question of athletic superiority for a particular day, but they leave open the larger question of who will triumph over the course of the season.

This season-long conflict is a significant part of what draws us back each week.

It also contributes to the high ratings that championships such as the Super Bowl earn as they bring to a climax months of conflict. (The lack of a definite season and a final championship may contribute to the comparatively modest draw of sports such as tennis.) Thus TV sports shares a fundamental structural principle with other TV series: Each individual program offers a small amount of closure within the ongoing TV schedule. Full closure would mean the death of the series. Sports championships provide that closure, and effectively kill off the sport for that specific year-only to be regenerated the following year.

Game Shows Game shows, like sports programs, are based on competition, on winning a contest. But from there they mostly part ways. College and professional sports, though heavily dependent on TV money, do still have an existence outside of television. They preserve a presence in historical reality. Game shows do not. Furthermore, most televised sports existed before television came into being, and thus evolved their structure before being telecast. Television has had to adapt to their structure more than they have had to adapt to TV. Game shows, even though they draw on previous gaming traditions, do not possess this pre-television history. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, for instance, did not exist before it appeared on TV. It was designed for television (first in the U.K. and then in the U.S.) and could not survive without it.

In sum, the game show does not re-present a preexisting historical reality to us. It does not originate in the historical world. Rather, it originates in television.

It constructs a television reality and brings social actors, representatives from the historical world, into it. The television world clearly interacts with the historical one here, rather than constructing an argument about it (as in the expository mode) or observing it from a distance. The announcer on The Price Is Right urges contestants to "Come on down!" And as they do, they travel from the historical world of the audience/viewers to the television world of the stage (Fig. 4). Once on stage, their movement and speech are shaped by the rules of the game, which of course are administered by Bob Barker, a typical game show host. It is indicative of the game show's control over social actors that they must come to a television sound stage, the space of a television reality, rather than television going into historical reality to interact with social actors.

The host is comparable in function to the news anchor and the sports play by-play announcer. All three are authorized by TV to place some order on the chaos of historical reality. In this regard, the host is a much more powerful figure than either the anchor or the sports announcer. For hosts can totally and directly control the behavior of social actors (stand here, answer this question, leave the stage), while anchors and sports announcers can only interpret and partially shape (through interviewing techniques, editing, etc.) that behavior in the historical world. The hosts, moreover, know all of the answers to the questions they pose-whether it's the price of a toaster oven or the 14th president of the U.S. Even the most skillful news interviewer is not as all-knowing.

To use an odd-sounding adjective, it may be said that game shows are very televisual. Though they bring together components from reality with those of television, it is clear which is the dominant force.

Game shows borrow elements from other aspects of television to create their basic structure. As in television fiction, game shows rely on a narrative-like enigma to provide the engine that drives the show forward. "Who will win this game?" is the central question, which obviously links game shows with sports programs. Even though the game show is something of a hybrid genre, drawing on narrative and sports conventions, it is important to seek the ways that it is unique, to distinguish its form from other television programs. This should become evident as we consider its address, textual organization (of time and space), and competition.

Semi-direct Address. There are parts of any game show where the host speaks and looks directly at us. Like a news anchor or sports play-by play announcer, the game show host welcomes us at the start of the show, guides us in and out of commercial breaks, and bids us farewell at the end.

The address of the game show becomes more complicated than that of the news program, however. During most of the game show, the host does not speak directly to us, but instead directly addresses the contestants-as when Alex Trebek poses an "answer" to contestants on Jeopardy! (1964-75,1978-79, 1984). At this point, the game show's address resembles that of narrative, where we are generally unacknowledged, rather than news or sports. In game shows, host and contestants speak to one another without noticing us; in narrative programs, characters do the same thing. But contestants and narrative characters do not bear the same relationship to the viewer. Game show contestants are drawn from the ranks of TV viewers. They are social actors. Characters are not.

This crucial distinction changes the address of the game show. In a somewhat schizophrenic manner, we are invited to see ourselves as contestants, but at the same time we are also invited to compete with the contestants. The connection between contestants and viewers is particularly evident when contestants are stumped by a question in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. At that point they may poll the audience or call a friend for help. Additional social actors (the audience members, the friend) are drawn into the game and encouraged to try to answer the question-just as, implicitly, the viewer at home is. The alliance between spectators and participants is here affirmed. We not only root for the contestants, we also directly assist them and the host's questions are addressed toward us as much as toward the contestants.

However, the majority of game shows do not permit this collaboration between contestants and other social actors. Instead, most programs present the questions to the contestants and the television viewer in a timed fashion that encourages us to try to beat the contestant to the answer. While contestants are positioned as identification figures for the viewers, they are also presented as our antagonists, competitors for prizes. The address of game shows is thus direct (the host's greeting of the viewer), indirect (the host's conversation with the contestants), and a blurry mixture of the two (the host's posing questions to the contestants to which we may also respond).

The Organization of Time and Space. Unlike sports and news, which must adapt historical world time and space to the demands of television, game shows create their own from scratch. Game shows are specially designed to suit television's structures of time and space.

The time of a game show divides the contest into increasingly intense segments-thereby managing the flow and interruption of television time. On Jeopardy!, for instance, the competition is split roughly into regular jeopardy, double jeopardy, and final jeopardy. Each segment is separated by commercial breaks. The competition escalates until the climactic final moment, when the outcome is decided. Time is strictly regimented. Game shows, unlike sports pro grams, never run overtime. The space of a game show is determined by its set, which is wholly designed for television and has no historical world counterpart.

It exists completely within television's rarefied realm. The implications of this style of set design are discussed later (see section 5). Competition. The main thing separating game shows from sports pro grams is the form of their competition. In sports it takes the form of physical prowess; in game shows it is different types of knowledge. Certainly, professional sports require a knowledge of the game and the ability to implement successful strategies, but these qualities would mean little if the players were not athletically superior. Game shows involve little physical ability. Instead, they rely on their contestants' knowledge of the world and human nature.

According to John Fiske, the knowledge tested in game shows may be grouped by type:

• Factual knowledge

1. "Academic" knowledge

- Mastermind

- The $64,000 Question

- Sale of the Century

- Jeopardy!

2. "Everyday" knowledge

- The Price Is Right

- Wheel of Fortune

• Human knowledge

1. Knowledge of people in general

- Family Feud

- Play Your Cards Right

2. Knowledge of specific individual

- The Newlywed Game

- Mr. and Mrs.

- Perfect Match

As Fiske proposes with his "factual knowledge" category, the type of knowledge that is most prized on game shows is a warehousing of facts, of individual bits of information. Even "intelligent" game shows such as Jeopardy! and The $64,000 Question do not require contestants to synthesize, analyze, interpret, or otherwise process information. What is required instead is a lightning-fast retrieval of data. These data may be obscure "academic" information taught in school, such as this Jeopardy! answer: "The first of these Roman waterways was the Aqua Appia, built about 312 B.C. by Appius Claudius." (The question was, "What is an aqueduct?") Or they may be more common, everyday data learned through interaction with other humans in social situations. Familiar phrases (e.g., "Don't put your foot in your mouth," as on Wheel of Fortune [1975-]) and the prices of household appliances (as on The Price Is Right) are part of our everyday knowledge about the world.

Fiske's "human knowledge" category pertains to less clear areas of human behavior. As Fiske comments, "This is a knowledge that resides in the human or social rather than in the factual. It has no absolute right and wrong answers and thus cannot be possessed or guarded by an elite [as teachers guard academic knowledge]. It depends instead upon the ability to understand or 'see into' people, either in general or as specific individuals."17 In Family Feud (1976-85, 1988-95,1999-), for example, contestants (grouped by families) answer questions hoping to match their responses with those of a surveyed audience. The family that best approximates the survey results-in other words, the contestants with the greatest knowledge of the average, the norm-are the winners.

Other programs in the human knowledge category include ones that demand detailed knowledge of one person: a spouse or a lover or even just a date. On The Newlywed Game (1966-74,1977-80,1984-89,1996-) husbands and wives compete through their knowledge of each other. In Studs (1991-93), The Dating Game (1965-73,1986-88,1997-) and other programs related to dating and romance, the contestants display their knowledge of each other's emotional sexual experiences.

The competition on many game shows is not entirely based on knowledge.

Much of the contestant's success in programs such as Wheel of Fortune depends on luck or good fortune-the spin of the wheel. The element of chance is fore grounded in game shows. It serves to further complicate the show's progression.

Each spin of the wheel raises new enigmas. Chance also serves as a leveling agent. All contestants are equal when they grab the wheel. Consequently, the most knowledgeable contestant is not necessarily the one who will march straight to victory. Basically, devices that bring chance into the game show function to delay the game's outcome and to keep it from becoming too obvious. As in sports and narrative programs, the conclusion must be kept in doubt as long as possible. Otherwise, the program ends prematurely.

In summary, the game show is a non-narrative program supremely suited to the demands of television. Its rhythms are televisual rhythms. Its space is televisual space. And its form of address is uniquely designed to captivate the television viewer. It is a genre that interacts with the historical world, but does so on its own terms.


This section has sought to make sense out of television's perplexing and contradictory relationship to reality. To this end we have incorporated the terms historical world (or historical reality) and social actor to describe that reality more accurately. Non-narrative television, in this terminology, draws on the actions of social actors in the historical world. It depicts those actions through four principal modes of representation: expository (argumentation), interactive (interaction between the historical world and that of television), observational (TV watching historical reality and minimizing its intrusive effect), and reflexive (emphasizing self-reference and intertextuality). To see these modes in action, we considered three types of non-narrative material: newscasts, sports programs, and game shows. As we have dealt with each, we have considered four aspects:

1. The realm of historical reality it depicts: Since TV cannot present everything, it must select certain aspects of historical reality and neglect others.

Which technological, economic, and aesthetic reasons explain why one incident is chosen and another is not?

2. The implied relationship between the television world and the historical world: Do they appear to interact? Do the TV producers appear to influence the social actors? Does the television world affect the historical world?

3. The implied relationship between the text and the viewer: Is the viewer addressed directly or through a representative in the text?

4. The textual organization (or logic): What principles dictate how the information will be presented? For example, is it organized according to the principles of argumentation? Our consideration of non-narrative genres is necessarily incomplete. A comprehensive study would need to be another full book, at least. However, the preceding discussion does lay the groundwork for analyzing non-narrative television.


The most comprehensive attempt to theorize non-narrative television, and the book that has guided our analysis here, is Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). This approach to documentary is also pursued in Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981) and Julianne Burton, "Toward a History of Social Documentary in Latin America," in The Social Documentary in Latin America, ed.

by Julianne Burton (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990). The standard historical/critical study of the documentary is Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), which places the television documentary in the context of film documentaries made for theatrical distribution. The impact and structure of the ground breaking "reality television" program, An American Family, is discussed in de tail in Jeffrey K. Ruoff, Family Programming: The Televisual Life of An American Family (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Nichols extends his commentary on television in Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Con temporary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) -discussing the permeable boundary between narrative and non-narrative TV and the implications of reality television programs such as Cops. The impact of feminism on documentary is assayed in the anthology, Feminism and Documentary, ed.

Diane Waldman and Janet Walker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). The television newscast is often studied separately from the fully developed documentary. Short summaries of the evolution and the structure of television news can be found in Raymond Carroll, "Television News," in TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide, ed. Brian G. Rose (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Stuart Kaminsky, American Television Genres (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1985). The Radio-Television News Directors Association's "Code of Ethics and Standards"( has itself evolved over the decades.

Television news is presumed by many to be a major purveyor o ideology. Not surprisingly, several authors analyze the ideological function of the news: Charlotte Brunsdon and David Morley, Everyday Television "Nationwide" (London: British Film Institute, 1978); William Gibson, "Net work News: Elements of a Theory," Social Text 3 (Fall 1980): 88-111; Andrew Goodwin, "TV News: Striking the Right Balance," in Understanding Television, eds. Andrew Goodwin and Garry Whannel (New York: Routledge, 1990);

Patricia Holland, "When a Woman Reads the News," in Boxed In: Women and Television, eds. Helen Baehr and Gillian Dyer (New York: Pandora, 1987); Margaret Morse, "The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition," in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approach to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1986); Gaye Tuchman, "Representation and the News Narrative: The Web o Facticity," in American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, ed. Donald Lazere (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Interviews and talk on television are obviously not limited to newscasts and news magazines. The daytime talk show ("chat show," in the U.K.) has developed its own interview format, which is discussed at length in Wayne Munson, A Talk: The Tallcshow in Media Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1993). The significance of television sports is the topic of several essays in Lawrence A. Wenner, ed., Media, Sports, and Society (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989).

Steven Barnett, Games and Sets: The Changing Face of Sport on Television (London: British Film Institute, 1990) offers a mostly historical consideration of TV sports, focusing primarily on the U.K. Analyses of how television rep resents sports include John Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology (Austin University of Texas Press, 1984); Margaret Morse, "Sport on Television: Replay and Display," in Regarding Television: Critical Approaches, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1983); Geoffrey Nowell Smith, "Television -Football-The World," Screen 19, no. 4 (Winter 1978-79) 45-59; and Jimmie L. Reeves, "TV's World of Sports: Presenting and Playing the Game," in Television Studies: Textual Analysis, eds. Gary Burns and Rober J. Thompson (New York: Praeger, 1989). Critical analyses of game shows are not nearly as numerous as those of documentary/news and sports. There have, however, been a few attempts to deal with these issues. The game show of the 1950s is the subject of William Boddy "The Seven Dwarfs and the Money Grubbers," in Logics of Television: Essay in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Michael Skovmand uses four different international versions of Wheel of Fortune to investigate how the game show functions as a "cultural practice" -"Barbarous TV International: Syndicated Wheels of Fortune," in Television: The Critical View, ed. Horace Newcomb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). John Fiske's short section on game shows, "Quizzical Pleasures," in Television Culture is alluded to in section 4. Morris B. Holbrook takes issue with Fiske's approach and provides his own interpretation of The Price is Right in Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise: The Price is Right" (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993).


1 Considering that American High was canceled by Fox after only four airings, it appears that they did not find the drama they wanted. The program was subsequently picked up by PBS. Dan Snierson, "Taking the High Road," Entertainment Weekly 553 ( August 4,2000): 43.

2 Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 105-198.

3 John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987), 283.

4 Dennis K. Mumby and Carole Spitzack, "Ideology and Television News: A Metaphoric Analysis of Political Stories," in Television Criticism: Approaches and Applications, eds. Leah R. Vande Berg, Lawrence A. Wenner (New York: Longman, 1991), 316.

5 Nichols, 42.

6 These modes draw on the "documentary modes of representation" developed in the work of Bill Nichols and Julianne Burton. See Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981); Julianne Burton, "Toward a History of Social Documentary in Latin America," in The Social Documentary in Latin America, ed. Julianne Burton (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990), 3 - 6; and Bill Nichols, Representing Reality.

7 Mike Budd, Steve Craig, and Clay Steinman, Consuming Environments: Television and Commercial Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 126.

8 The premiere dates for these two programs are for their original versions. The Oprah Winfrey Show began as a regional program (in Chicago) in 1984 and was nation ally syndicated in 1986. Nightline started out as The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage in 1979 and assumed its present format and name on 24 March 1980.

9 These categories derive from ones developed by Nichols, but they modify his concepts. Nichols, Representing Reality, 51-54.

10 Sut Jhally, "Cultural Studies and the Sports/Media Complex," in Media, Sports, and Society, ed. Lawrence A. Wenner (Newbury, CA: Sage, 1989), 77.

11 The television time-out was instituted on a trial basis in 1955 and adopted permanently in 1958. Steven Barnett, Games and Sets: The Changing Face of Sport on Television (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 122.

12 There have been exceptions to this. In 1969, for instance, the pitching mound in professional baseball was lowered in order to make it tougher for pitchers to strike out batters. The goal was fewer defensive battles, which are not visually interesting. Barnett, 124.

13. A team must make a shot at the basket within 24 seconds of receiving the ball.This rule was instituted in 1954.

14 As noted by Margaret Morse. Margaret Morse, "Sport on Television: Replay and Display," in Regarding Television: Critical Approaches-An Anthology, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1983), 47-48.

15 Jimmie L. Reeves, "TV's World of Sports: Presenting and Playing the Game," in Television Studies: Textual Analysis, eds. Gary Burns and Robert J. Thompson (New York: Praeger, 1989), 214.

16 Fiske, Television Culture, 269.

17 Fiske, 268.

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