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Dossier: Perspectives on Failure

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 64, Fall 2009
p. 76 | 10.1353/vlt.0.0043

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Dossier:
Perspectives on Failure
The Editors

Media history is lined with failures, flops, and false starts across the areas of aesthetics and style, technology, social and political representation, media studies' methods and models, and industry and business. We approached a number of well-known media scholars working in a variety of fields and asked them to discuss a favorite, overlooked, or particularly important instance of failure in one of these five arenas. Their thought-provoking answers complement and extend the concerns raised elsewhere in this issue, covering a range of topics from submarine movies to PowerPoint presentations and from telephonic cats to prepositions. We thank our contributors for their responses and hope that the reader will find this collection as engaging as we do.

The Aesthetics of Failure

To study the aesthetics of American television requires us to examine failure. Not because, as many might assert, television fails as an aesthetic medium. In fact, I would argue that television of the last twenty years is arguably our most robust aesthetic medium. Rather, television creativity itself is immersed in failure, and failure needs to be seen as the default norm, not the exception.

Clearly, this is tied to the raw numbers of television programming. In the commercial American system the vast majority of program ideas never get optioned into a script, and most scripts are never filmed as pilots, and a small fraction of pilots makes it into an aired series. Thus, simply getting a show on the air should be regarded as a success. But the economics of television place the failure threshold much higher, as most series only turn profitable after multiple seasons, making failure a nearly universal condition by the only measures that matter to the television industry.

From a creative perspective, failure is much more muddy. Many programs that have turned a profit via the magical realm of syndication are viewed by critics and creators with scorn-sure, programs like Gilligan's Island, Empty Nest, and Coach could be seen as successes, with long, profitable runs both on- and off-network, but it would be hard to find a serious defense of their aesthetic achievements. Meanwhile, television history is littered with "Brilliant but Cancelled" pilots and abbreviated first seasons, programs whose aesthetic choices fail to find their groove in the commercial system-think Firefly, Frank's Place, and Freaks & Geeks, just from the F file.

But it's a mistake to link innovative aesthetics with commercial failure and industrial success to formulaic retreads. If you ever get a chance to see an unaired pilot, odds are it earned its failure. Likewise, some of the most successful shows in television history were incredibly innovative and adventurous aesthetically, from Dragnet's paradigmatic telefilm style to Seinfeld's narrative architecture, Cheers as a trailblazer for sitcom story arcs to ER's groundbreaking visual style. Instead of bemoaning the failed aesthetics of television, we should look to what both successful and cancelled innovations can teach us and how they help shape the possibilities of the medium.

For my own current project analyzing contemporary American television narrative forms, launched here in Velvet Light Trap 58, I have been forced to think about how narrative innovations stem from both commercial successes and failures-and rethink that very boundary itself. I have kept a running list of programs that might [End Page 76] be categorized as part of the mode of narrative complexity I outline in that article. As of January 2009 I count ninety-seven narratively complex series that made it to television since 1999, which I see as the moment when a few innovations coalesced into a full-fledged trend. Of those, forty-two might be deemed successful, gaining a renewal beyond a single season, with a few still too recent to judge.

A nearly 50 percent success rate is remarkable for commercial television, where failure is much more commonplace. For comparison, thirty new series debuted on network broadcast television in 1997, with only three lasting beyond that season. To be fair, many of the shows on my list aired on basic or premium cable, where competition is thinner and the ratings thresholds are lower. But nonetheless, the commercial success...