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CMST 3S03 Television & Society

Academic Year: Winter 2018

Term: Winter

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Prof. Dilyana Mincheva


Office: Togo Salmon Hall 308

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23536

Office Hours: Friday, 10.30 am - 12.00 pm or by appointment. Always check with me by email my availability for each particular Friday during the semester.

Course Objectives:

Description: From roughly 2000-2010, proclamations about the looming “death” of television were everywhere. The common refrain was that technological innovation would inevitably render the medium obsolete. TV was over. Something new and better lay on the horizon, a new age of digital “video” in which amateur content production would dismantle broadcast networks and cable companies alike. Television Studies was to become “Video Studies”. Strangely enough, “Television” didn’t just survive but thrived. We still use the word and we still own the devices. The same publications that proclaimed TV’s looming death now wax poetically about how we are living through a new “golden age” of television. Still, a lot has changed: today we watch what we want to watch, when we want to watch it, on all kinds of different screens and in all manner of spaces. Amateur content producers have indeed affected the way networks and cable companies do business. Piracy is possible on a massive scale. Conversations about TV have shifted from the office ‘water cooler’ to online spaces of robust critique and debate. A great deal of what was predicted from 2000-2010 as the ‘death of TV’ has come to pass. And yet we still call these phenomena and practices “television”.

This course maps such changes by examining the institutional, technical, and aesthetic development of television over the last fifty or so years. Our emphasis will be on the recent transition into what Amanda D. Lotz calls a ‘post-network era’, though we will explore everything from Paul Nipkows’s 1883 experiments with image transmission to binge-watching Netflix in 2018. The goal is to develop a holistic understanding of the medium of television and the social practices around it. How do we watch TV? What effects does it have on socio-cultural conventions? How do we make meaning as audiences? What other kinds of social activity does television engender? How did it become institutionalized into our cultural fabric? Is television a ‘serious’ artform? What are we even referring to when we use to the word ‘television’?

Learning objectives:

  • An understanding of the historical, technological and aesthetic entanglements between television, society and culture, with an emphasis on paradigmatic shifts between ‘Network’, ‘Multi-Channel Transition’ and ‘Post-Network’ eras.
  • An understanding of different approaches to Television Studies.
  • An understanding of how the television industry works, and historically developed by mapping changes in technology, production and distribution models, and aesthetic norms.
  • An ability to read detailed studies of television and discuss their relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • An ability to write about examples of television in a comparative way, drawing on different theoretical and historical approaches to Television Studies.
  • An awareness of the limits of knowledge, both the limitations of different theoretical approaches and the vast amount of television broadcast over the years.


Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

Required books:

Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (edit), How to Watch Television, NYU Press, 2013. 

Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, 2nd edition, NYU Press, 2014.

Reading: Course readings not found in the two required books are available online, either via hyperlinks in the schedule below, or from the Avenue site. Please note that both the schedule and the readings are subject to change, so come to class and check your McMaster account regularly.

Viewing: Students will be expected to view programs from the schedule below on their own time before that week’s lecture. Occasional group screenings may be organized for programs not readily accessible via Netflix or other streaming platforms. Total screening time per week will rarely exceed 1.5 hours.

Season 2 of True Detective (2015) will serve as our central text for the first half of the semester. The series will be the focus of the take-home midterm and an integral part of your group presentations (see below). The eight episodes of the show are available to download via iTunes. Other options for viewing of True Detective will be discussed in class in the first week of classes. Throughout the semester I will refer to multiple examples of TV shows and TV programming in my lectures. Recommended, but not required, is your familiarity with TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, True Detective (season 1), Mad Men, Fringe, The Grey’s Anatomy, Twin Peaks, Friends, Love, Sense8, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, The Killing, Sex and the City, The Get Down, 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale, Black Mirror, Fargo, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, among others.

Method of Assessment:


Participation: You must attend all lectures and seminars and are required to come prepared (i.e., having done the week’s readings). Earning a passing grade will require active participation. If for any reason you are unable to speak in front of the class, please come and talk to me to discuss alternatives.

Précis: You will choose one of the close analyses from Mittell and Thompson’s How To Watch Television and write a short (no more than 800 words) discussion of the piece. What is its argument? How does the author link their analysis of the show to broader cultural issues and/or trends? What methodology does the author use to conduct his or her analysis? What theoretical ideas do they employ to construct the argument? What are the piece’s strengths and weaknesses? The goal is to get you thinking about this kind of writing before you undertake your own close analysis with the take-home midterm. You can choose to write on any of the essays in the book, including those that are required readings. Your précis is due on A2L on February 7.

Take-Home Midterm: You will be asked to conduct a close analysis of an episode from our shared ‘core text’. I will distribute an assignment sheet with more detail in class. Having completed the précis, you will have a solid grasp of the kind of analysis and writing I am looking for. Feel free to read through examples from the How to Watch Television book not covered in class. Remember to develop a clear argument about how the episode and/or particular scenes work, and what about it is interesting or remarkable, i.e. why should the reader care about this episode and/or series? Your take-home exam is due on A2L on February 28.

Presentation + Reflection: After television emerged in the 1970s as a ‘viable’ object of cultural analysis, a number of different models were developed to study, among other topics, its history, content, industry, fans, styles, genres, and major figures. There are far more approaches worthy of study than weeks available in this course. As a result, we will divide and conquer. In small groups (4-5 people), you will research and present to the class a summary and critical discussion of one major approach to studying television. I have (arbitrarily) identified eight: Technology, Auteur Theory, Production Studies, Audience Studies, Feminist perspectives, Screen Theory, the Frankfurt School, and the Birmingham School. Some of these we will touch on in class, others we will not. I will point you toward a one or two key texts, but your group should expect to consult a few external sources to help develop a snapshot of the historical context, key thinkers, contributions, and debates of your given approach. You should also offer a brief discussion of how you might analyze our central course text using the tools of your approach. The goal is for you to guide us toward an understanding of the importance of your approach and the way it relates to the course. The week following, each student will submit a very short (1-2 page) reflection on the presentation that discusses how you think it went. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation? What would you change? What was it like working in a group? Etc. The presentations should be no longer than 15 minutes. The format of the presentations is open to students’ choice. Presentations groups will be assigned in the first two weeks of classes. Presentations start in the fourth week of classes and run throughout the semester in the seminar portion of the class (Friday). 

Final Project: for your final project in the class you have two options to choose from. One is writing a research-based final paper on television program of your choice. The other option is creative and it requires you to write a pitch to a television channel (could be TV on demand, cable or broadcast television) for a television show that you’d like to write and direct. In both cases you need to take into consideration things such as the media channel, the audiences, the industry, the dissemination networks, actors and genre. Read below the specific instructions for this type of assignment. Your final project is due on A2L on April 6.

Final Research Paper: You will write 3000-3,500-word essay on a television program of your choosing. This can be any program other than our shared course text (True Detective, season 2, 2015). The paper is due in the final week of classes.

Guidelines for the final paper:

It should be written in a style that incorporates industrial and economic analysis (such as found in Amanda Lotz’s chapter 7 case studies in The Television Will Be Revolutionized) AND ALSO close textual analysis of the kind pursued in Mittell and Thompson’s How To Watch Television. The overarching question you should keep in mind is: how does your chosen show’s success or failure relate to the stability or instability of economic (e.g. production and financing), industrial (e.g. network structure, labour conditions), critical (e.g. audience engagement), or technological (e.g. distribution models and platforms) conditions during the period of its broadcast? And how do its stylistic or narrative traits reflect (or reject) dominant conventions? The goal is to explore a television program as a socio-cultural form—a text that can tell us something about the circumstances in which it was produced and received. It is therefore very important that you incorporate both textual close analysis and considerations about technology, industry, historical context, and/or social activity.

Creative pitch: 3000-3500-word proposal for a TV program that you plan to offer to a particular TV channel. Make sure you name the channel and take into consideration all our discussions around post-network when you create your pitch.

Guidelines for the creative pitch:

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a screenwriter who wants to make a break-through on TV with a story in a genre of your choice. In the creative pitch that you develop here your purpose is to convince the prospective producer of your TV series (Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBC, HBO, etc.) that the show you’ve written is financially, aesthetically and narratively appropriate for their channel. Your pitch is no longer than 3000-3,500 words and it provides information on such things as: the topic and genre of your screenplay, including the main story arcs of the characters (central and secondary) broken by episodes. The number and duration of your episodes as well as screening locations, cast and salaries, duration of filming, postproduction period, audiences, fandoms and advertising campaigns. Make sure to explain how industry and technological practices influence your narrative and creative choice. Remember that a successful creative pitch requires ideas for original and imaginative programming rooted in the spheres of material production and labour. Your pitch needs to engage both the creative and the production side of television.

Breakdown of assignments:

Participation: 10 per cent

Précis: 10 per cent

Take-home midterm: 20 per cent

Presentation + Reflection: 30 per cent

Final project: 30 per cent


Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Late submission policy: Late assignments for this class will be accepted without penalty within 5 days from the official deadline. After the passing of the five-day gratis period, I am not going to accept late assignments.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Week 1, January 5



Amanda D. Lotz, The Persistence of Television, in: Flow, online

Course business; discussion of assignment of groups for the in-class presentations

Week 2, January 10 and 12

Theory: TV as a cultural form

Required readings:

Amanda Lotz, Chapter 1: “Understanding Television in the Beginning of the Post-Network Era”, in: Television Will be Revolutionised, pp. 21-52.

Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, “Introduction: An Owner’s Manual for Television”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 1-13.


True Detective, season 2, episode 1

Week 3, January 17 and 19

Methods: how to watch, analyze and write about TV

Required readings:

Jeremy Butler, Chapter 4: “Mad Men: Visual Style”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 38-47.

Jonathan Gray, Chapter 10: “The Amazing Race: Global Othering”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 94-103.

Noel Murray, Chapter 21: “M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 195-204.


True Detective, season 2, episode 2

Week 4, January 24 and 26


Required readings:

Bambi L. Haggins, Chapter 1: “Homicide: Realism”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 13-22.

Amanda D. Lotz, Chapter 2: “House: Narrative Complexity” in: How to Watch Television, pp. 22-30.

Christine Becker, Chapter 3: “Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 30-38.


True Detective, season 2, episodes 3 & 4

Week 5, January 31 and February 2


Required reading:

Christopher Anderson, Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television, also available on Avenue.


True Detective, season 2, episodes 5 & 6

Week 6, February 7 and 9

Industry and labour

Required reading:

Amanda Lotz, Chapter 4: “Revolutionizing Distribution: Breaking Open the Network Bottleneck”, in: The Television Will Be Revolutionized, pp. 131-165.


Laurie Ouellette, Chapter 18: “America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberalism”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 168-177.


True Detective, season 2, episodes 7 & 8

Your précis is due this week on A2L.

Week 7, February 14 and 16

Television and cinema: genre reflections

Required reading:

Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, in: Film Quarterly, vol. 13, number 4, available on Avenue.

Recommended reading:

Troy Bordun, “Sex is Metaphysical: Catherine Breillat’s Pornographic Films”, in: Cine-Excess,

* Dr. Troy Bordun is visiting us in class this week to talk about realism and genre in cinema and television. The recommended article above is an excerpt from his book on extreme cinema.

Week 8. February 21 and 23

Reading Break. No classes this week.

Week 9. February 28 and March 2

Non-narrative TV

Required readings:

Victoria Johnson, Chapter 28: “Monday Night Football: Brand-identity”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 262-271.

Brett Mills, Invisible Television, in: Critical Studies in Television, 5/1, 2010, 14pp.


30 minutes of ‘real’ news (e.g. The National)

30 minutes of ‘fake’ news (e.g. The Daily Shaw)

Week 10, March 7 and 9

Technology and history

Required readings:

Amanda Lotz, “Television Outside the Box”, in: The Television Will Be Revolutionized, pp. 53-76 only


Friedrich Kittler, “Television”, in: Optical Media, Polity, 2002, pp. 207-225.

Week 11, March 14 and 16

Fan culture

Required readings:

Mareike Jenner, Is This TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and Binge-watching, in: New Media & Society, 2014, pp. 1-17, also available on Avenue.

Susane Scott, Chapter 34: “Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content”, in: How to Watch Television, pp. 320-330.

Week 12, March 21 and 23

Case studies 1

Required reading:

Amanda Lotz, Chapter 7: “Television Storytelling Possibilities at the Beginning of the Post-Network Era: Five Cases” in: The Television Will Be Revolutionized, pp. 233-262.

Week 13, March 28 and 30

Case studies 2: Some helpful remarks on the final projects

In-class viewing and discussion: two episodes of the sitcom Friends.

Week 14, April 4 and 6

Still watching television? Conclusions.

Required reading:

Amanda Lotz, “Conclusion: Still Watching Television”, in: The Television Will Be Revolutionized

Your final projects are due this week on A2L.

Other Course Information:

Classroom Etiquette: During class you are required to switch off and put away all cell phones, electronic organizers, and all other communication devices in order to minimize distractions and foster an environment of mutual respect. Laptops may be used to take notes; however, if it becomes apparent to the instructor that your laptop is distracting other students you will be asked to leave the seminar. No form of discrimination or harassment will be tolerated in the classroom. Every member of the McMaster University Community has a right to equal treatment with respect to the receipt of education services and related services and facilities without discrimination or harassment on the basis of the following grounds: race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability, gender and identity. For more information visit the Office of Human Rights & Equity Services Website: