Dissertation – Part 3

British Consumers and the American Dream: A Study of American Media Production and British Consumption Trends Post 9/11.

Literature Review

The key text as regards this research – ‘The Hidden Power of the American Dream: Why Europe’s Shaken Confidence in the United States Threatens the Future of US Influence’ by Dr Giovanna Dell’Orto – maps similarities in Europe’s wavering support for America across two specific points in its history: two instances that share an abandonment of the principles outlined in the constitution. The first instance was during the 1898 war against Spain: America flirts with the prospect of becoming a colonising superpower, having successfully invaded Cuba and the Philippines in its quest to ‘liberate’ them and spread Western democracy. The second instance spans across the ‘War on Terror’: America invaded Iraq post 9/11 with the defence of Western freedom and democracy as its pretext. A palpable mistrust towards America’s intentions and state of public opinion, and fear of rebuke and consequent loss of dignity, stretches Europe’s allegiance towards its trans-Atlantic neighbour significantly during both these periods. Through the analysis of newspapers and official communications of each time period, Dell’Orto establishes that there is one underlying factor that keeps Europe from completely severing ties: an extraordinarily unshakeable belief in the all-too-powerful American dream. America’s power is then bestowed upon it through Europe’s belief in this ideological concept that holds God, freedom, democracy, the right to work, to earn, and to bear arms at its core. In condemning the September 11th attacks, Dell’Orto quotes key phrases from Italian journalist De Benedetti and German journalist Andrian Kreye, and in so doing, establishes a series of tropes that characterise the American dream:

“…freedom at all costs…multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious…the constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness”, (2008: p.86).

A strong and unwavering belief in this concept is also why, Dell’Orto argues, Europeans continuously buy into Americana, even when America acts in disaccord to European expectations, or when trust in America as the curator of the American dream is at an all time low, and even at the risk of neglecting their own heritage and culture in favour of Americanisation.

The attention afforded to the American dream in American popular culture is therefore an important consideration. In ‘The American Dream: A Cultural History’, Lawrence R. Samuel shares his insight into how American values are represented within their own mainstream cultural products. By charting how these representations change with the mood of the nation, he thus provides a means to gauge how American television production and its consumption reflect on the state of the American dream. In chapter six ‘American Idol’, Samuel defines the period Dell’Orto – and subsequently this study – is primarily concerned with. He makes reference to the shift in public opinion regarding the state of social affairs in the early part of 21st century America, when he turns to writer and journalist Bob Herbert.

The Iraq War had been a key turning point in the nation’s history, Herbert felt, a clear sign that our once lofty ideals had sunk like a rock in recent years”, (Samuel, 2012: p.174).

Establishing an understanding of how this period is depicted in American media is one important objective of this study. Samuel describes how a prevalent rise in analytical writings that focus on this reality as portrayed in popular media, is fundamentally in itself, an indicator as to the state of the American dream. Samuel turns to one such author, David R. Simon, who on this occasion critiques the television series ‘The Sopranos’…

No other television show had gone to the dark side of the Dream like The Sopranos, he suggested, the series palpably illustrating what could and did go down when ambition lost its moral footing”, (2012: p.182).

Depictions of this nature in particular, are key to any study regarding the appropriation of the American dream through popular culture.

In terms of analysing any such television production, there are therefore, sufficient academic materials to draw from. However, one unlikely publication is ‘Counterterrorism and Cybersecurity: Total Information Awareness’. Newton Lee draws attention to President Obama’s appreciation for the popular television series ‘Homeland’. At the centre of the production lies a political and counterterrorist narrative that is realistic, that ran parallel to the events that followed 9/11, and as a consequence of tackling such delicate subject matter, was often considered as controversial as was American intervention in Iraq. It is precisely how this fictional representation and real world government operations in counterterrorism come to interact with each other that is of interest – a point that he emphasises by quoting Oscar Wilde.

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”, (Wilde, 1889).

Lee identifies how the blurring of these boundaries can have a significant and critical bearing on the interpretation of creative media, thus revealing a new perspective on reality.

A documented conversation between creator and screenwriter for American television series ‘House of Cards’, Beau Willimon; documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; historian and scriptwriter Geoffrey Ward; and political reporter for the ‘New York Times’ Amy Chozick; brings emphasis to the broad possibilities of interpretation through this blurring of boundaries. Willimon highlights certain parallels between his leading character and real world American leadership, many of which could be interpreted as having been born out of a questionable morality. Burns corroborates that an unswerving resolve to acquire real power, and a legacy of unethical dealings in pursuit of a supposed greater good, characterises President Francis J. Underwood in the same light as former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With Underwood directly addressing audiences in the first person, viewers engage and become as complicit in this fictional ruthlessness and manipulation as they are in real world politics when they exercise their democratic responsibilities. Such personal investment could be detrimental to questions of trust and leadership in that a generalised sentimentalism, cast indiscriminately across fact and fiction, married with a real-world political situation that often leaves much to be desired, is conducive to the transference of negativity from one realm to the other. As much as the programme is a fictional representation of the United States presidency, through this audience interaction, it could lead to conjecture.

Inversely, real world concepts can similarly be projected onto fictional entertainment, and this is precisely what the television series ‘Prison Break’ accomplishes. The storyline revolves around Michael Schofield: a law abiding citizen who is left with little choice but to turn to crime in a bid to save his brother – who was himself convicted of a crime he did not commit – from death-row. In essence, they have both been let down by a judicial establishment turned into a system of oppression. A sharp focus on the dualism that exists between law and anarchy, good and bad, and even between angels and demons, provides strong undercurrents to the narrative. This is further reinforced by the tattoos that Michael has all over his body. Aside from the fact that this duality is directly represented by illustrations of angelic and demonic figures, it is also indirectly represented by the dual purpose that the tattoos themselves serve – the obvious lower class art historically associated with prison inmates, and the fact that it hides the information required to accomplish their quest and defeat bureaucracy.

This duality is not by coincidence, as is divulged by the tattoo artist in the short featurette ‘Prison Break – Behind the Ink’. Tom Burg conveys that the tattoo – replete with analogical imagery depicting this duality between good and bad – lies at the heart of the storyline precisely because Michael has to sacrifice all that is good, in his quest to overcome a threat that is ultimately imposed on his brother by the powers that represent law and order.

Such undercurrents and negative depictions seem to be commonplace in American television productions of the time, and the television series ‘The Wire’ is no exception. In ‘The Wire and America’s Dark Corners: Critical Essays’, editors Arin Keeble and Ivan Stacy compile essays that discuss The Wire in the context of the period during which it was produced (2002 – 2008). The programme itself explores social and political themes similar to the ones already referenced, but this time centred on the illegal narcotics trade that emerges in Baltimore due to widespread unemployment, bureaucracy, and corruption. The Wire is particularly noted for its exceptionally realistic portrayal and critique of a crumbling American society, overshadowed by international politics and foreign policy, regardless of the consequences on daily urban life.

“…the effects of this period of American history, as it changed the courses of individual lives, sometimes in small ways and sometimes calamitously, were and are still being played out across the U.S. It is these effects that The Wire depicts”, (Keeble, Stacy, 2015: p.3).

This publication is key to this research as an academic source of established theoretical commentary, derived from a fictional piece rooted in a particular time of interest. Contributors to this collection formulate analogical theories – equally drawing from factual, historical, and mythological perspectives – on what is portrayed throughout the series as ‘The Game’. The world of television entertainment then carries this seemingly legitimate depiction to its audiences, thus disseminating – and therefore normalising – the state of an American society that lies in stark contrast with the concept that has come to be understood as the American dream.

During any such analytical research, the legitimation of televisual texts is important in establishing their realism and relevance. Newman and Levine’s ‘Legitimising Television’ is instrumental in this respect since; it identifies how television production has generally improved insofar as delivering a message that holds important sociocultural and sociopolitical significance; it establishes how programmes now strive for cultural relevance within what has become the site for struggles of class and gender; and it illustrates how they are conducive to generating wide ranging opinions and active discussion on matters of interest in a real world public sphere. According to the authors, televisual programme making has reclaimed an element of respect that it had momentarily lost, and elevated many aspects of its transmissions above and beyond the classification of mass culture. In bringing focus to a new version of America as depicted on the once infamous ‘boob-tube’, the authors quote journalist Neal Gabler. About this new television, he states that

It speaks of our doubts and our debits, to our anxieties and apprehensions. It tells us that we are not necessarily good and  that neither is our world. It tells us that not everything can be made right in the end. It is a journey into the American heart of darkness”, (Gabler, 2010).

Aside from legitimising television as the art form that it should be, the notion of convergence is called to attention – one that is important in identifying how ‘users’ of the medium have developed through technological determination, resulting in their promotion to this new, more sophisticated classification. This is particularly relevant since the underlying themes identified in modern television productions require considerable effort in decoding on the part of the audience. Therefore, that an audience is capable of doing so, in itself, might ascribe value to the quantitative elements of this study.

Insofar as these quantitative elements: secondary research materials in the form of statistics can contribute to establishing whether American cultural products are in fact, blindly consumed on this side of the Atlantic, irrespective of any slump in solidarity with the US since the 9/11 attacks. As Dell’Orto suggests, this point in time marks the beginning of the latest decline in the American dream. Even though America’s image in the foreign press was predominantly negative during the 1960s and 70s due to the Vietnam War, it was the invasion of Iraq that she identifies as a critical development. The data required to identify viewing trends and patterns insofar as the consumption of American television production within the United Kingdom, is readily available through the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) website – which is owned collectively by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Statistical Overview            

The first fact that can be established by use of the BARB figures is what the most popular genre of television production actually is. As already stated, an alternative line of inquiry to Dell’Orto’s study of factual texts is being sought. This would then require that it encompasses a more creative form of media, as is fictional storytelling. When considering the variety of genres, it might then appear fortuitous that drama consistently appears to be one of the most revered in recent times. It is however, not coincidental, but more relevant to the process of legitimisation. Newman and Levine argue that this era was ushered in – amongst other developments – through an improved form of storytelling and dramatisation that “marks a major upgrade in the status of the TV experience, one newly articulated to technological progress, intelligence, and masculinity”, (2012: p.133). It is this intellectualised television and its ‘users’ that might ascribe credibility to the case study that follows.

The information required to this aim is presented by BARB as a monthly top-thirty list of programmes for each channel (as from the 15th of each month). From this information, one can compile an overview for 2015 based on the episode of each programme that holds the largest audience. The figures obtained for live and catch-up audiences combined (appendix A) show that in 2015, entertainment was rated the most popular genre overall. Furthermore, the figures in the BARB website show that entertainment ranked in first place for seven months of the year – unsurprisingly, considering the popularity of reality shows that allow direct audience participation. Notwithstanding, drama came in a very closely contested second place. The program that received the highest viewership overall (over fifteen million viewers) was ‘The Great British Bake-off’: an entertainment programme broadcast on Wednesday 07 October 2015. The number of entertainment programmes that feature in the top thirty for this viewing category represents 43% of the total, only three percentage points ahead of drama. These figures can be summarised as follows…

  • 13 out of the top 30 programmes – 43% – were entertainment,
  • 12 out of the top 30 programmes – 40% – were drama,
  • 2 out of the top 30 programmes – 7% – were sport programmes,
  • 2 out of the top 30 programmes – 7% – were sitcoms,
  • 1 out of the top 30 programmes – 3% – was a magazine programme.

The second table (appendix B) breaks this information down further to highlight the thirty most popular programmes as per its live viewership alone. These figures bring focus to the fierce competition in popularity between the entertainment and drama genres. The table shows that an entertainment programme – again, ‘The Great British Bake-off’ broadcast on Wednesday 07 October 2015 to almost ten million live viewers – still enjoyed the largest audience for any single episode. This, despite the fact that drama enjoyed a 57% overwhelming majority of programmes featuring in the top thirty, as per the following summary…

  • 17 out of the top 30 programmes – 57% – were drama,
  • 9 out of the top 30 programmes – 30% – were entertainment,
  • 3 out of the top 30 programmes – 10% – were sitcoms,
  • 1 out of the top 30 programmes – 3% – was a children’s programme.

When considering Newman and Levine’s aforementioned theories on the viewer as a technologically competent ‘user’ of the post-television era, it is the third table that holds the most significant figures. In this regard, the viewing figures for catch-up TV alone cement the fact that televisual drama is a worthy subject for further analysis. The figures illustrated in the BARB website show that in all but one month, drama was the most popular genre whereas entertainment ranked very poorly. November was the exception for the year, when educational programming – not entertainment – relegated drama to second place by just over one percent. Entertainment’s highest ranking in the catch-up TV figures lies in fifth place for five of the months, sixth place in six of the months, and a lowly seventh place for the remaining month. Furthermore, the figures compiled for the top thirty catch-up programmes of the year (appendix C) break with the trend so far in that drama – namely an episode of ‘Sherlock’ that was originally broadcast on Friday 1st January 2016, and subsequently enjoyed over five million additional views via the BBC iPlayer – tops the viewing figures for any one single episode. The total figures for catch-up viewing alone are summarised as follows…

  • 19 out of the top 30 programmes – 63% – were drama,
  • 8 out of the top 30 programmes – 27% – were entertainment,
  • 2 out of the top 30 programmes – 7% – were children’s programmes,
  • 1 out of the top 30 programmes – 3% – was a sitcom.

The second fact that can be established – one that proves by far more conclusive than the popularity of drama over entertainment – is the overall proportion of imported American television productions over locally produced programmes. This result is so clearly delineated that for this element of the statistical overview, it is best to let the numbers speak for themselves.

  • The top thirty programmes as per live and catch-up viewing figures combined were all produced in the UK.
  • 98% of the top thirty programmes as per live viewership alone were produced in the UK. A single programme was the product of an international collaboration, attributing the remaining 2% to France.
  • 97% of the top thirty programmes as per catch-up viewership alone were produced in the UK. Only two programmes were the product of international collaborations, therefore attributing a further 1.5% to France, and the remaining 1.5% to the US.

Overall, only one production partly originated from the US. The sci-fi drama ‘Humans’, broadcast on Sunday 14 June 2015 on Channel 4, ranked 23rd in the top thirty episodes viewed on catch-up. It was co-produced by Channel 4 and Kudos Film and Television (UK), in association with AMC Networks (US). All the statistics point towards the BBC as the broadcaster that consistently enjoyed the most viewers. It is then important to note that in February 2010, The Guardian reported on a barrage of cuts that were to be implemented across the BBC. Under the guise of a new focus on quality over quantity, the BBC’s then Director General Mark Thompson was being “pushed to slash the budget for imported shows such as Mad Men and Heroes by a third”, (Tran, 2010). Judging by the overall percentage of popular programmes imported during 2015, it would be a fair to conclude that as reported, the suggested cuts were in fact implemented at the BBC.

At this point, one must acknowledge the absence of viewing figures for subscription based VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. These organisations are notorious for their overzealousness in protecting viewing data, and have therefore proved a source of frustration for many researchers. However, whilst viewing figures for specific programmes are currently unobtainable, subscription figures and overall viewing times have been reported on, and could therefore shed some light on the matter. BARB reports that 14.1% of UK households subscribe to Netflix (Sampson, 2015: p.26), and a total 25% of homes subscribe to at least one such distributor (ibid: p.27). Furthermore, television marketing website Thinkbox recently reported that the total video consumption via subscription VOD services could be as low as 3% of the UK total (Thinkbox, 2015). Considering the extremity of the results obtained through the BARB figures – insofar as American imports – the low level of viewer representation afforded through such services might then be deemed negligible for the purposes of this research.

Christian Gadd.

Semester 6 (January – May 2016) : Final Major Project.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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