Web Television: Medium, Genre or Both?

The line between medium and genre is not a clear-cut one for many reasons. For one, the words are often used interchangeably, not just in every day vernacular, but by scholars. According to the classicists, poetry is a genre of literature, further divided into sub-genres by style of poetry. No mention of medium is made in the classics, of course—they had no word for it. The closest we come is a suggestion that imitations may differ from one another “in different things” (Guillory, 323). In attempting to explain what is meant by this, Guillory tells us that Aristotle  elucidates his concept of “in different things” as a list: “‘colors and figures’ (painting), ‘harmony and rhythm’ (song), rhythm of movement (dance), and, finally, the telling of stories in metrical or nonmetrical speech (poetry)” (Guillory, 323). Based upon the list, it is the translators of these passages that give us “medium” or “media” as a substitute for “in different things.” This only serves to further confuse the issue—for by “telling of stories in metrical or nonmetrical speech,” we are back to the understanding that such a statement includes various forms of literature: the novel, the drama, a poem, a motivational speech, a political campaign speech (as the latter do often use story as a form of rhetoric).

At the same time, many people refer to poetry as a medium: Celeste Langan and Maureen McLane refer to the “medium of romantic poetry” in their discussion of the place of the word in new media studies in The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry. In Teaching Poetry in the Primary and Secondary Schools, published by the Yale-New Haven Teaching Institute, Susan Santovasi claims that Poetry is “the medium of choice for political unrest.” But shouldn’t the medium be the pen on ink, or digital delivery of electronic text? Without a consensus of definition, it is difficult to define any piece of art via the ideas of genre and medium, and very few attempt to strictly define what it is they mean by each term. By Bacon’s interchanging of “means” and “medium,” we arrive at a nebulous concept that perhaps the means of communication—the technical way in which we put things out of our head and into the world—is the medium (Guillory, 328-329), but that does not fully suffice to answer the question, because poetry is, after all, one means of communicating ideas. I could, just as easily, choose a different means—narrative, music, painting—to communicate my idea, and some of these are a style of communication which involve the same technical means of communication as poetry (pen to paper, oral generation, computer text) while, yet still, being a very different “means” of communication in form.

If our understanding of Locke holds that words themselves—however displayed, in whatever technical form—are the medium of thought, and Wilkins can make a claim that writing is the medium of speech, then we have a strong theoretical difference about where the location of the medium—or the mediation—of something occurs (Guillory, 338). If we cannot make a clear distinction, given our current use of the terminology even within media studies, wherein we can come to an unarguable determination that poetry is either medium or genre—how much more confounding is the application of these terms to new media? Guillory turns to the idea of medium and mediation, with the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary offering as one definition of mediation “the medium of transmission; the instrumentality.” From this definition, in many ways, we get the concept of remediation: the transposition of expressive or communicative contents from one medium to the other (Guillory, 324). These definitions do seem to privilege “medium” as the technology of expression instead of a means of expression, and this is supported by Bolter and Grusin in their theory of remediation, “although each medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium…this process insists on the real, effective presence of media in our culture” (19). The technological aspect of a medium is further supported by the concise definitions differentiating genre and medium which are offered by S. Scott Graham and Brandon Whalen in their article, “Mode, Medium and Genre: A Case Study of Decisions in New-Media Design.” The definition of genre they work with is that offered by Miller in “Genre as Social Action:” “typified rhetorical actions based in recurring situations.” For Graham and Whalen, medium seems to be simply understood as the technical means of expression, but remediation encompasses the formation of new genres from “ancestral” genres (Graham and Whalen, 69). Since remediation is generally defined as the translation from one medium to another, the use of it to encompass the informing of new genres (like web television, the implication goes) by ancestral genres (broadcast television) returns to cast doubt upon the entire situation.

Further complicating the issue is the idea of genre used in the non-academic sense—that genre encompasses romance, horror, fantasy, comedy, tragedy—these are genres within some medium of expression in lay parlance (and often the parlance of authors). Is a novel a medium, or is the printing of words on paper the medium? Or do media and genre interrelate at some core point as yet undefined, at least in a satisfactory manner?

It is fully possible that both the technical media and the medium of expression are both correct, and what we need is a clarification in discussion as to which way we are using the term. Likewise—technical media can have genres, and media of expression may, as well. Poetry then can be both a medium of expression—with its genres falling into lyric, narrative, epic and so on— and a sub-genre of the genre literature of the technical medium of print—which could then be remediated into digital text or back into oral expression at a recitation or reading, using the medium of a poet or performer’s body. It is, perhaps, not a facet of someone being “wrong,” per se as a clashing of definition in the history of discussion of the communicative arts and the newer discipline of media studies.

Operating from this theory, web television is both a medium and a genre. For purposes of this paper, I will start with the genre analysis first.

Web Series as Genre

Web series are web television series made up of “short, scripted episodic and experimental videos for the Internet” (Peirce, 317). They are delivered as audiovisual content, accessed on the Internet, and for this purpose, they can be seen as a genre of online video. In “New Stages, New Narrative Forms: The Web 20.0 and Audiovisual Language.” Romero and Centellas define genre as “any distinct category that presents its own identity and format” and consider web series to be a genre of the Internet itself. The Internet is the communication medium, online video (or audiovisual content) is a genre of the communication taking place via the medium (as opposed to say, digital text), and web series are a sub-genre—a narrative expression akin to online shorts, flash fiction and interactive comics (Romero and Centellas).

The Internet can be seen as the overarching medium—it is the technical innovation which mediates the expressive content. It is also arguable that online video—or digital video—is its own medium. While Romero and Centellas do not argue this, many others have done so, and it stands to reason. In fact is probably more difficult to argue that digital video is anything other than a medium, though they do seem to attempt the argument. Bolster and Grusin, however, seem to see the Internet more as a tool for displaying other media: graphics, text, video, images (6). In their view, media are representing something—a sign in the semiotic sense—and the Internet is a delivery system for those media. The video, the image, the text—this represents something: the situation in the video, the thing seen in the image, the thought expressed in the text. The medium is that which mediates what is represented.

In either argument, or paradigm, the web series is positioned as a genre of the communication medium. As blogs do, it serves Miller’s definition of genre as social action, the same way we may consider genres of broadcast television shows doing—a sitcom is different than a crime drama and both vary greatly from a reality show, but all are delivered by the medium of broadcast television. (Of course, crime dramas and sitcoms fall within either the medium of fictional narrative or the genre of fictional television shows, but that becomes a circular argument much in the way of medium, genre and sub-genre of poetry).

Online video comes in very different forms and serves very different social purposes—music videos released online by a band to promote one of their songs or add value to it by the creation and release of a video; personal videos posted on YouTube to share family moments; personal videos posted online containing commentary (further divided by the sort of commentary being provided: social, political, entertainment reviews, etc); movie trailers to promote films; online shorts as creative expression or career promotion. Web series fall nearest the last, similar to online shorts in the way that movies and television shows are similar. They differ from the genre of online shorts, as fictional television shows do from movies, by their episodic nature. Where online shorts stand alone, web series are defined by their episodic nature. You cannot, in general, enter into a series on a random episode and expect to understand the larger narrative without at least some textual research into the premise and previous events of the show (Peirce, 321).

Web series serve as genre as social action via the social action of entertainment, and often the formulation of community through the interactivity which builds up around the platforms and series. They are genre in Romero and Centellas’ definition of distinct category with its own identity and format. Their structure (format) is fairly standard, across various sub-genres (in the mainstream sense of romance, mystery, etc): web series are generally between 2 and 10 minutes long; they are usually presented weekly in a seasonal format (though that “season” may be shorter or longer than a broadcast season—usually shorter); are aimed at target, niche audiences; they involve some sort of interactivity beyond the video content—forums, comment sections, textual support in the form of episode guides and character descriptions. In summation, they all are made up both of Bolter and Grusin’s transparent immediacy (“two-and-three dimensional images projected onto traditional computer, film or television screens” (23)) and hypermediacy (“a visual style that privileges fragmentation, indeterminacy and heterogeneity and emphasizes process or performance rather than the finished art object” (31)). The episodes themselves are presented in a mostly-linear narrative watched within a frame (transparent immediacy), but are part of a larger stream—one window open within many, the ability to jump around from episode to episode, blog articles, forums—which all intertwines (hypermediacy) (Peirce, 322). Given this similarity of format and their identity (the purpose: entertainment), it is clear that at least on one level, web series can be analyzed as a genre of another medium (Romero and Cantellas).

Web Series as Medium

However, the argument can still be made that web series are a medium, specifically in the fact that web series are a remediation of broadcast television series, and they are more than just online video, but a different medium of communication all together. “What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media” (Bolter and Grusin, 15). Web series refashion broadcast television series. They take the medium of communication—fictional narrative in audiovisual format—and change that medium in their own way.

The structural elements which make up a web series discussed above (their dueling transparent immediacy and hypermediacy) also make them a multi-medium phenomenon, something that rises above genre, when considered as a medium of communication. They rarely consist of simply the online video, but are made up of a surrounding community. Fans can interact with each other and sometimes with the characters themselves. Very rarely do web series retranslate to broadcast television successfully (though some broadcast television series have created successful web series based on their broadcast series that fall outside the arc of the main story—Heroes and Battlestar Galactica come to mind). The translation of expressive content, however, does not go both ways. The few web series that have made the transition to broadcast series have had to be reworked.

Sanctuary originally aired as eight 15-minute webisodes. When it was bought as a broadcast series, they did not just air these webisodes, but basically create a new series based upon them and incorporating their plot elements. The very interactivity and lower budgets used by web series make them unlikely to attract audiences in a broadcast setting, without further remediation of the content. For instance, NBC attempted to air Quarterlife as it had appeared on the web, without any alteration, and it was the worst in-season performance in its time slot in 17 years (Peirce, 315). In considering the reasons for this, Peirce concludes that the hypermediacy effects were unable to transition properly, that without the extra information provided by the other online content, audiences were less able to make sense of the program. In addition, on a technical aspect, the low-quality filming (documentary style or via web-cam) and odd camera angles were likely off-putting to audiences in a more traditional format (Peirce, 322-323).

In arguing for web series as a medium of communication, in the same way poetry is, the totality of the series—including its hypermediacy attributes and communal, collaborative environment—must be considered. Undoubtedly, web series have remediated television broadcast series, taking the concept of episodic, fictionalized narrative and expanding it to involve interactivity and multi-media and multi-mode aspects. While broadcast television series have attempted to integrate some of these features (twitter hashtags for shows—aired in the corner of the screen—to get fans talking through a platform, message boards, online games), much of that interactivity has been spurred by the success of web series and are an attempt to do what Bolder and Grusin insist old media must do—refashion themselves to meet the challenges raised by new media.

Thus, the new medium of communication known as the web series is made up of multiple technical media, of which its parts may be considered various genres of the technical media of which they are made up (i.e. fan forums as a genre of online textual communication or message boards). The two concepts are interdependent upon one another in discussing both media and communications theories, and “new media” seems to be a term that can equally apply to both the technical new media and the new media of communications opened up by the new technology. A single technology (the Internet or online video) offers various mediums of communication through its various genres. Expressive content is mediated—and remediated—through the technology, but also the way in which that new technology is used. The concepts are more fluid than concrete, and it may be that either new terminology is needed or greater clarity when discussing the issues raised by them. Most interesting are the avenues of expression and dialogues about them, whether through technological media or the communication forms which grow from them, and how they all work in concert to support the content and further new innovation to continue the expression.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Graham, S. Scott and Brandon Whalen. “Mode, Medium, and Genre: A Case Study of Decisions in New-Media Design.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 22.65 (2008): 65-91. Print.

Guillory, John. “Genesis of the Media Concept.” Critical Inquiry. 36.2 (2010): 321-362. Print.

Langan, Celeste and Maureen N. McLane. “The medium of Romantic poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry. Eds. James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane. Cambridge University Press, 2008. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. Web. 06 December 2011.

Peirce, L. Meghan. “Remediation Theory: Analyzing What Made Quarterlife Successful as an Online Series and Not a Television Series.” Television New Media. 12.4 (2011): 314-325. Online.

Romero, Nuria Lloret and Fernando Canet Centellas. “New Stages, New Narrative Forms: The Web 20.0 and Audiovisual Language.” Hipertext.Net. Issue 6., 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <http://www.upf.edu/hipertextnet/en/numero-6/lenguaje-audiovisual.html>

Santovasi, Susan. “Poetry: The Medium of Choice for Political Unrest.” Teaching Poetry in the Primary and Secondary Schools. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Volume 3. 2003. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <http://yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2003/3/03.03.08.x.html>