Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 1: Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood.

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A few years back, you wrote about “the myth of televisual ubiquity”, this notion that despite the sense that television is abundant and easily available worldwide now, there are still barriers, restrictions, and friction when it comes to global access to television. The “tyranny of distance” still applies thanks to national borders, licensing deals, and the assumptions made by content providers about what kinds of show people want to watch.

What does that look like in 2021?

The British television scholar John Ellis talked about TV’s three eras: scarcity, availability, and plenty. Originally broadcasts were ephemeral and channels were few. Then came an era when diversified TV networks, cable, satellite, pay-per-view, VHS and time-shifting made televisual content more available. 

Since the mid-90s we’ve come into a time of plenty. Five years ago, John Landgraf at the US pay channel FX was talking about “Peak TV”, an overload in the amount of programming that was now available. There’s so much being produced that you can’t even know about it all, let alone see it all. And that’s just the American context! Although increasingly that context is accessible around the world.

The sense that there’s a time difference between when shows hit, say, the US, and other parts of the world has definitely decreased in recent years. There isn’t that lag of weeks and months between the premiere of a show in the American market and its arrival in, say, New Zealand. The industry has recognised they need to get in while the audience are having the discussion online.

This is even more true for big streaming providers like Netflix, who have made the move to get global rights for content. That doesn’t mean that everything is always available. The catalogue they present is manageable, one might even say shallow: they’re not offering you a selection which has too much to it. 

It’s not about the long tail, offering niche or marginal items to a wider audience. Instead, they give the feeling of abundance: “whatever mood you are in, we have something that you want to watch” – even if they don’t have the precise thing you actually want to watch. If you search for a film that’s not on Netflix, they will recommend you a handful of other films which they consider similar based on genre, or cast, or whatever. 

“We don’t have to have everything, as long as we’ve got something that will keep you watching,” seems to be their model.

The tyranny of distance also continues to manifest in the sense that although more and more of us around the world have access to North American content, at roughly the same time that it becomes available in North America, the amount of content from Europe, from South-East Asia, from South America, and elsewhere, is not being shared to the same extent. You’ll get a few marquee series, and if you want to watch some Spanish or Dutch or German language content on Netflix, there will be something for you to watch — but the flow is still pretty monodirectional. 

That is obscured by the way that streaming services and terrestrial channels present and share their content; you don’t realise that there’s this huge amount of televisual programming which is not ubiquitous in the same sense, in this era when you supposedly can “watch anything that you want to watch”.

When the DC Universe streaming platform, which has just shut down, was launched in 2018, they were manufacturing this scarcity, bringing back films and shows from the archive for time-limited “exclusive viewing windows”. But there’s real scarcity as well: a friend in the Philippines recommended a Korean drama to me, and it turned out the only way I could get it in the UK was via a bootleg DVD.

So much stuff is available online if you know where and how to look for it. I’m fascinated by how people access content outside of the approved mechanisms. I think those are the spaces which come closest to fulfilling that notion of televisual ubiquity. 

The caveat is that still the vast majority of that bootleg content is the dominant, American, prestige television. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, American, Anglophone, masculine-oriented shows are easy to find; the same’s true for mainstream comedy shows like Friends, The Office, Big Bang Theory; even the big-budget, well-reviewed Scandi noirs or Spanish shows like Money Heist won’t take you too much trouble. 

But if you move geographically away from those centres of power, or move away from content that is coded masculine, that is tailored to a default white audience, the harder it is to find what you’re looking for in this world of supposed ubiquity.

Does “televisual ubiquity” actually serve us, if it’s just reinforcing the same power dynamics, the same identities? Where are the opportunities to share televisual content which speaks out against the status quo?

When there is so much television, viewers rely on someone showing and telling them what is available, what is worth their time. People are ever less likely to watch something they haven’t chosen to watch; even though the previous era of broadcast television and channel-surfing was more restricted, it was also more open to serendipitous browsing in some ways.

Which is what happened to you, personally, as a young Kiwi watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You stumbled onto it by chance, and owing to the tyranny of distance, your experience was as much about reading Buffy as watching it.

Buffy first came to New Zealand TV about six months after it started in the US, mid-to-late 1997. New Zealand was just in the process of launching its fourth television channel, TV4, which was commercial and youth-oriented. 

People had to tune their set into the new channel, so for two weeks before the launch, TV4 played a rolling feed of trailers for the shows they had: Beavis and Butthead, Buffy, teen cultish stuff. I must have seen that set of trailers hundreds of times, rolling round and around.

There’d already been a movie of Buffy, which I hadn’t seen – but I’d read the novelization, because that was the kind of dude that I was! I got it out from the library. I hadn’t grown up watching much television and around 1997 was when I started to escape pressure from parents about what I should and shouldn’t watch, and started to see that this was an interesting place to explore.

Even though I had watched very little television growing up, I went to the library each week, and got out 23 books, which was the maximum: a mix of stuff that my Mum would consider far too juvenile, like Asterix, but also YA, and genre, and Margaret Atwood, and Alistair Maclean. And the library was a place where, even if you didn’t find much diversity of sexuality depicted, you did start to see a depiction of relationships and sexuality that had been absent elsewhere. 

The library became my introduction to a number of films: I had a Return of the Jedi novelisation, illustrated with film stills, which I knew intimately – yet I didn’t see the film until I was in my 20s. I devoured books about the Bond films, with photo spreads on each movie, and ended up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of that series, even though I’d never seen one. There were novelizations of all kinds of movies: even Strictly Ballroom had one!

I had an understanding, from all this reading, including the Buffy novelisation, of the world in which Buffy lived, and now the circumstances were right for me to be drawn in. By the fifth episode, I was recording the show on VHS and keeping it; I suddenly hit the point where I wasn’t taping over the old episodes with the new ones. You did that with films, for sure, keeping copies of movies you really wanted to rewatch, but doing that with a TV show was something completely new to me.

In part, that was because Buffy was a show which felt like it grew every week, with characters that developed; they didn’t reset the status quo at the end of each episode, taking viewers back to the start ready for next time. It was also the kind of show, the way it was written, where rewatching paid off in picking up on jokes and lines that you might have missed first time round. 

But also you have to remember this was an era of scarcity for television: we didn’t get much in the way of reruns, NZ television wasn’t 24-hour, and the odds were that you weren’t going to get to watch a TV episode more than once.

By the second season of Buffy, I was recording and keeping every single episode, trying to pause and unpause at the ad breaks to save space and fit just one more show onto each tape. Eventually, the seasons were released commercially on VHS, but that was unusual at the time – I think I even had to buy my copies in from the UK – so having a personal collection was important if you wanted to be able to revisit the show.

Even then, I quite often missed the first episodes of new seasons, because I missed the ads telling you that the show was returning. It was hard to get a complete collection.

It was strangely similar to my experiences in the library: waiting for that weekly visit, or waiting to see whether another reader had checked out the next instalment of a series you were reading, was like waiting for a new episode of a show. Rewatching episodes was like checking out a library book you’d gotten before — I was definitely a re-reader, as well as a reader. 

And this continued once you’d become a Buffy devotee. You were reading fan transcripts of episodes before they had ever made it to New Zealand.

The internet became a place for me to explore culturally: finding places where people had transcribed all the lyrics of songs by the Cranberries, helping me as a young Kiwi to decode Dolores O’Riordan’s accent! I’d be looking up card lists for Magic: The Gathering and the like.

In New Zealand at the time, you didn’t have much idea of when a show was going to come back, what night it was going to be on; if you weren’t watching lots of TV and picking up on the trailers screened by the broadcaster, you might not have a sense of when a show was coming back, or when the episode you’d just watched would turn out to be the season finale. TV had a rhythm: the understanding that shows ran from September to May, and then took a break over the summer, but there wasn’t that American level of coverage of seasons, that sense of how programmes were playing out over time.

When Buffy came along, the Internet was my guide to these questions: what had been made, what was aired, what was coming; and where I could reliably find information about these shows again. Fansites were hooked together in web rings, a collection of websites on a linked theme. 

You’d go to these sites for downloadable wallpapers, images, and audio files – one or two-second fragments of audio, which really suited the pithy, snarky style of those early Buffy seasons. For at least a year, my computer’s warning ding was Cordelia saying, “Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?”

One of these sites was someone who went by the name of Alexander, who transcribed episodes. Somewhere around the midpoint of Buffy season 2, I was reading episodes that hadn’t shown in NZ yet. I’m not sure I even grasped the timeline of when I was going to catch up to what I was reading on air.

The thing is, I was already primed to enjoy television in this written format. Reading fantasy series in the library had been quite a filmic experience for me: I got the sort of pleasures people get from those kind of films by reading the novelizations, devouring this vast amount of words.

I would go back to transcripts after episodes had aired, too. Those online texts made the show something I could continue to engage with, saved as an HTML file. They weren’t being formatted like a “proper” TV script, it was more like reading a playscript, which as a youthful theatre nerd I was totally happy to engage with. In fact, I was much more likely to re-read an episode than rewatch it.

Despite being such a reader, you felt the draw of TV and movies as well. That calling that led to you becoming a television studies researcher.

While all this was happening, I had become aware that there was a canon of film. I’d gone to the movies with my cousin now and then to see whatever the big kids’ movie was, but hadn’t had a sense of this whole world and tradition of cinema which was out there.

Movie magazines like Empire and Hotdog showed me what was out there, whole areas and echelons of films which I’d totally missed. It became my mission to track down all the movies on lists like “the top 50 indie films you probably haven’t seen”, which led me to movies like Performance and Blow Up and A Clockwork Orange as well as classics like Casablanca and All About Eve and contemporary stuff. 

For me it was about understanding that there were a series of cultural touchstones that had been beyond my horizon. I hadn’t even seen Fame or Footloose growing up, and other people knew these films, these stories, like the back of their hand. I had one or two movies like that – The Breakfast Club comes to mind – but it was like finding everyone else had been to this place you’d barely visited, and that alongside Breakfast Club there would be Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles: whole genres and families of film. Recording so much off the television, immersing myself in this culture, was about connecting to these things I felt I had missed; things which I felt gave me some kind of cultural capital.

I’m reminded of Leos Carax’s line about cinema being a foreign country. What was that like for you, given your family didn’t visit that country very often?

My first year of university, I was looking for a part-time job and a friend convinced me we should apply to be attendants at the local multiplex. He asked me to go along for moral support as much as anything, but he didn’t get the job, and I did. I’d been to the cinema maybe a dozen times in my life!

Suddenly I’m seeing everything that’s screening at this place, one of the larger multiplexes in Auckland. I went from someone who vaguely knew of Forrest Gump or Philadelphia from a poster or a trailer, to a man who had seen everything screening that month. Beyond the blockbusters, I was seeing all these other movies that were coming out, that didn’t get such hype: teen films, cheap comedies, weird action movies with a two-week run. 

Around this time, I saw Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and it flicked a switch in my mind. I was getting really interested in what people were able to do with film beyond the usual Oscar bait, Braveheart and Apollo 13.

And Clerks has people talking about other parts of pop culture; it’s enormously literate in that regard.

This was complemented by the movies we watched on the language courses at university: I was studying French, Italian, and Russian, so periodically we’d watch films in those languages. These were entirely different to Hollywood popcorn fare.

I’d already had one taste of that, studying Russian in high school: our teacher had taken us to see I Wanted To See Angels at the local film festival. I probably only took in about one word in three, but it was one of the more disturbing films I have ever seen in my life: a bleak, nihilistic vision of Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which ends in brutal violence without redemption. I was fifteen; I’d never seen anything like that! So I’d already begun to recognise that Ace Ventura: Pet Detective wasn’t the only game in town.

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Join us next time for the second part of this conversation with Mark Stewart.

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