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  • Studying the Study of Television Music and Sound
  • James Deaville (bio)

In an essay dating from 1993, educational computing specialist Ben Shneiderman anticipated the death of television in his discussion of educational resources and strategies in the post-TV era, when the “post-TV media... [of] computers and communications” will facilitate pedagogical innovation.1 He may not have been predicting the death of television per se but rather the evolution of audiovisual media from traditional broadcast TV to what would become known as digital media. Still, Shneiderman merits recognition as an early voice that looked to a future when television would no longer function as it did in his time.

Over the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the concept of “post-TV” that had served to designate the expected outcome of the digital revolution would become increasingly framed as emblematic of the format’s demise. By the mid-2000s media observers would publish their assessments under morose titles like “The Death of Television” and “The End of Television as We Know It.”2 A closer interrogation of these and other stentorian pronouncements from the time nevertheless reveals the anticipation of a transformation in television format and medium rather than content, so that Adam Penenberg’s Slate article “The Death [End Page 400] of Television” opens with the following remark: “The television of the future will provide entertainment on demand.”

Fifteen years later and television persists, even flourishes, albeit in a multitude of formats and platforms that Shneiderman could not have anticipated. Communications scholar Christopher Cox has recently argued in particular for the “persistence of flow,” John Fiske’s formulation of television’s intertextuality, “as it endures along lines of shifting technological, industrial and receptive transformations and through this endurance accommodates alterations to its conceptual parameters while also enlarging its explanatory prowess. In this way, it [i.e., flow] also helps to locate television as a technological and cultural form, even as television increasingly dislocates from television sets and other centralized modes of identifying and comprehending ‘television.’”3 Furthermore, the standardized length and episodic nature of programming remain principal defining features of television, whether a half hour or an hour per installment, whether recurring on a daily or weekly basis over a variable time period, and however one accesses it. In an age of on-demand streaming of television content, even vestiges of commercials remain, albeit inserted at variable junctures in the viewing experience.4

Moreover, ranging from daily news shows to weekly “quality” programs, television in the “second golden age” continues to rely upon music to support narrative, brand television programming, and provide extradiegetic framing. Music still “anchors the image to a particular meaning,” as Kathryn Kalinak observed of film music, and in doing so perseveres as a key element in televisual storytelling.5 In fact, the complex storytelling of current television narrative has called for more nuanced approaches to music and sound, requiring “contemporary television producers and music supervisors [to] craft musical sounds to fit a series,” as Ben Aslinger argues for the soundtrack to Nip/Tuck.6

Thus, the age of complex TV is also a time of innovation in its music and sound, as manifested in the remarkably diverse approaches to the television soundtrack, at least in the narrative genres.7 David Lynch’s brilliant reboot or revival of Twin Peaks (2017) represents just one high point in “today’s crowded ‘peak TV’ environment,” where showrunners are increasingly relying upon music and sound design to give their series a unique appeal.8 As George Garner observes in Music Week, “[as] with Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, for some modern TV shows, music is more than just a soundtrack—it is plot and character.”9 In the much-lauded 1980s throwback series Stranger Things, for example, music supervisor Nora Felder notes how the show’s signature song, the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “furthered the story: it’s a main character. . . . It’s the character you never saw but you knew was there.”10 For the underscore to his Amazon drama series Homecoming, producer Sam Esmail pursued a different direction, deciding to use only older preexisting music for the [End...


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pp. 400-418
Launched on MUSE
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