Television Style – book review, by Andrew Tibbs

“STYLE matters. Television relies on style… to set moods, hail viewers… shape information.”

So says author, Jeremy Butler, but is it really all that important in the modern digital age with TV and film audiences declining as many switch their viewing habits to the online world?

Arguing that, within television, style has been the most understudied aspect of the medium, Butler sets out to rectify this by examining the meanings behind TV’s stylistic conventions, demonstrating their use in a number of key American dramas.

Butler argues that style is important to create the look and feel of a production and the ability that it has to give an added sense of realism, which he demonstrates through his case studies.

Film and style have been symbiotic since the cameras first started rolling, but Butler argues that this is less true of television, although he does consult a wide number of texts in his book, giving the opposite impression. Clearly an academic, he opens with an extensive and in-depth grounding of style in film and how this can be applied to television, covering the descriptive, analytic, evaluative and historical stylistics.

In other words, style is the atmosphere and feelings created by the production, going beyond the immediate writing, acting and direction, so it covers the camera angles, colours, lighting, sounds, and so on, to give the viewer a sense of depth that cannot be created solely by a script.

Of course, a basic understanding of these is essential if sense is to be made of the rest of the book and contextualised by using examples from a number of popular, and primarily American, shows. The book is an American publication, so examples and some stylistic elements are more relevant to US audiences, but there occasional British references, and, as a whole, the text can be applied to UK TV.

The second chapter plots the development and crossover in style from film to television, with the prime example being Miami Vice which was one of the first network shows to bring an element of the cinema into the television programme medium, in particular elements of the classic, ‘film noir’.

It’s interesting, although Butler does tend to rely on using other texts to justify his arguments.

He goes onto to look at the persuasive power of style, giving a more in depth and interesting set of arguments which can be applied not just to dramatic material, but to TV advertising.

With the UK government looking set to allow product placement, Butler’s analysis of the relationship between style and persuasion could soon be seen over here. It’s only by the final chapter that Butler tackles ‘style in an age of media convergence’ where he attempts to look at how the merging of different mediums will affect television style, focussing on the use of cinema, TV and digital media conventions in popular drama, using ER as the prime example.

Butler then goes on to discuss the web presence of ER. These days what they’ve done is hardly unique – create a website and some related visual materials – but Butler questions whether the style of the TV programme can translate to web content. While it’s an interesting question, when you’ve got a production crew and budget the size of ER’s, then there’s a good chance that it will appear stylistically similar on the web to the TV series.

There’s no analysis of the role that brand managers play as it’s their job specifically to make sure that everything to do with a programme, whether on TV, the web or in print, all fits together under the one logo. It would have been far more interesting if Butler had examined a TV series with a web spin-off such as Doctor Who did in 2006 with the ‘Tardisodes’ – web and mobile content that expanded on that week’s story, using material and story unique to the Tardisode – or perhaps something similar to the current EastEnders internet spin-off, E20.

While Television Style is an interesting and academic analysis of stylistic conventions in recent American drama, it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than an academic audience. I suspect that most producers, writers and directors are aware of many of the conventions that Butler discusses, purely because television has become so aware of itself, as well as cinematic traditions.

The same could be said for production designers and brand managers whose sole job is to design and set the style for programming across the board, who will no doubt already have a grounding in the stylistic conventions. Media students who are starting to analyse ‘mise-en-scene’, will no doubt find Butler a good grounding in the medium, but will no doubt find analysis of more recent dramas equally as useful.

Primarily an academic text, the book feels out of date. Occasional references to shows are fine, but a whole chapter devoted to a show like ER, which ended a year before the book’s publication, doesn’t do it any favours.

At the same time, it virtually ignores modern viewing habits, and certainly those likely to be shared by its intended student readership. There’s no mention or serious discussion of the role of web dramas, the effects of demands for cheaper productions, and no mention of viewing habits (such as the iPlayer, iTunes or P2P sharing).

There’s no attempt to look at how these ultra-low budget productions compete with those produced by studios; instead, Butler chooses to discuss single camera versus multi camera shooting techniques meaning that a whole generation of YouTube productions are left out.

The book would have benefited if the author had not only analysed stylistic ‘marker stones’ such as Miami Vice and ER, but had also taken the time to interview, first hand, the creators of such shows to see whether the styling was deliberate, or a by thought.

All in all, Television Style feels very much like a book which was started a decade ago and only completed last year, but in doing so the author has very much been left behind by advances in technology which are rapidly changing viewing habits.

Television Style, by Jeremy G. Butler, is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN: 978 0 415 96512 5. Price: $34.95.

Andrew Tibbs is an Edinburgh-based freelance writer.