Saturday 20th January 2018,

Contemporary Television Syllabus

Contemporary Television Syllabus

How do you teach television today? There are a lot of ways. Here’s my attempt.

This week I’ll start teaching “Contemporary Television” to introduce students to the complexities and contradictions of an industry that has changed rapidly over the last 30 years — and continues to do so.

There so much television, and so much written on television, it is nearly impossible to devise of comprehensive course. “Contemporary Television” is focused on primetime, narrative programming on-air and on-the-web (where most viewing is primetime).

Below is my syllabus, with parts like academic and grading policies taken out.

I chose Amanda Lotz’s The Television Will Be Revolutionized as the main text, with Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture supplementing. There were other good options, including Jason Mittell’s Television and American Culture and Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz’s Television Studies. I like Lotz because she has among the clearest and coherent theories for how to analyze television today — “phenomenal television” — and the book succinctly contrasts network- and post-network era practices from production, distribution to reception.

A note on “black week”: You’ll notice the second week features all black television. This was, of course, deliberate. I wanted to show students how programming changed from the 1980s, 1990s through the 2000s. There were a lot of ways to do this, but black television is an underappreciated actor in the story of television’s change. Not only did The Cosby Show revive the network sitcom, but it epitomized the growth of niche marketing, spawning of wave of black-targeted shows across broadcast channels. The subsequent demise of those programs demonstrates the pitfalls of television’s deregulation in 1990s, which crippled the L.A.’s black production community but also allowed for shows like Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks, evidence of the creative range of programs on cable. Also, I hope talking about race is good way to break the ice and let students know that understanding TV today is hard. There’s nothing harder than talking about race.

Let me know what you think!

Contemporary Television


Television is dead; television is in a golden age. Can both statements be true? This course focuses on how the art and business of primetime television changed after the introduction of “new media,” from cable to the Internet. Readings will explore production, storytelling, identity and distribution of TV and web entertainment. Students will watch, analyze and have the option to pitch or produce television.

The goal of this course is to give students a deeper understanding of the complexity and ever-changing nature of a media business. Television is arguably the country’s most powerful medium, foundational to American culture and history in the post-WWII era. At first tightly regulated and controlled, television has fragmented, its networks folded into conglomerations and its programs spread across dozens of channels. Throughout the semester students are encouraged to question how changes in television production, regulation and distribution affects programming, culture and politics at large.

Required Texts:

Lotz, Amanda. 2007. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.


Paper: 8-15 pages

Research an aspect of contemporary television, including a program (scripted, talk, reality after 1980), company or network and make an argument for its relationship to television as an art, culture and/or business using its production, distribution, narrative, audience and/or financing to make your argument. You must bring in secondary material as necessary to prove your thesis.


–Assess the critical discourse around a particular program.

–Analyze a season of a television show, explore what its themes, characters or style say about an aspect of television or the broader culture.

–Analyze a network’s programming decisions and how it reflects shifts in the art and business of television.

–Make a case for why a network (ex. CollegeHumor, HBO) should be shuttered.

–Explain how a particular production company (ex. Bad Hat Harry, Broadway Video) reflects (or does not reflect) the changing television landscape.

–Argue for why a particular showrunner, writer and/or executive challenges us to think about television in a new way.

–Explore a fan community around a show, network or franchise and explain how/why the community relates the show and broader culture.

–Persuade industry leaders to accept the unionization of reality TV workers.


Pitch: 8-15 pages

Develop a pitch for an original contemporary television and/or web program or network (1980–present).

Your pitch must take into account the different areas explored in the course: production, representation, narrative, distribution, financing, audience and technology. Each aspect must be addressed in your pitch, equally or not:

Production — How will you make your show?

Narrative — How will you tell your story? What other stories is it like?

Representation — Who is your show about?

Audience — Who will watch your show? Who won’t watch your show?

Distribution — Where will we see your show? Who will market it and why?

Financing — How will you pay for your show?

Technology — How will audiences access your show?

The goal is to come up with a show that could be successful in the marketplace you choose. You are strongly encouraged to bring in secondary material to make your case.

You can work pairs (perhaps more if you’re producing something) but please meet me in advance of the mid-term proposal to get approval.

Regular reading suggestions for this course:

Periodicals (pick 2-4):

New York (Vulture), Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Antenna, Flow, AV Club, TV by the Numbers, Shadow and Act, AfterElton, AfterEllen, New Media Rockstars, Tubefilter

Social media (pick 2-4):

Twitter @: n4tvm,* jmittell, mattzollerseitz (New York), emilynussbaum (New Yorker), alyssarosenberg (Think Progress), kristenwarner, memles, tvoti (AV Club), willapaskin (Salon), marcgraser (Variety), awallenstein (Variety), _mesk





Course overview: Syllabus

Introductory Lecture: How has television changed?



— The Cosby Show, “Hillman,” (3:25, 1987) (Hulu+)

A Different World, “Radio Free Hillman,” (2:10, 1989) (YouTube: I, II, III)

— Chappelle’s Show, (1:4, 2003) (Netflix)

In class (clips): In Living Color (clips on Hulu) or Martin (1:6, “Forever Sheneneh”)


— Lotz, “Understanding Television at Beginning of the Post-Network Era”

— Herman Gray, “The Transformation of the Television Industry and the Social Production of Blackness,” Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness

— Todd VanDerWerff, “A Different World was the last black sitcom to be a hit—but why?,” AV Club,,90788

Optional Readings:

— Gray, “The Politics of Representation in Network Television,” and “It’s A Different World Where You Come From”

— Ethan Thompson, “Key and Peele: Identity, Shockingly Translated,” Antenna,

Guiding questions:

— Give an example of phenomenal television today.

— How has television changed over the years?

— How should we analyze television today?

— How do changes in production and distribution affect programming?



All in the Family, “Cousin Maude’s Visit,” (2:12, 1971) (DVD)

Louie, “Double date/Mom,” (1:7, 2010) “Eddie,” (2:9, 2011) (Netflix)

Broad City, (1:15-19, 2010) (YouTube)


— Lotz, “Making Television: Changes in the Practices of Creating Television”

— James Poniewozik, “Louis CK’s DIY TV,” Time,,8816,2078110,00.html

Optional readings:

— John Caldwell, “Industrial Auteur Theory (Above the Line/Creative),” Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television

— Gary Levin, “Testing the bonds of best ‘Friends,’” USA Today

Guiding questions:

— How has production changed over the years?

— How do working conditions affect storytelling possibilities?

— Do lower production costs change television narratives?

Guest speakers:

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, creators, Broad City



Law & Order, “Divorce,” (8:16, 1997) (Netflix)

The Good Wife, “Red Team/Blue Team,” (4:14, 2013) (DVD)

Got 2B Real, “The Uninvited,” (2:2, 2012) (YouTube); “Rights, Wrongs and Receipts,” (2:3, 2012) (YouTube, optional)


— Lotz, “Revolutionizing Distribution: Breaking Open the Network Bottleneck”

— Jenkins, “Introduction: ‘Worship at the Altar of Convergence’: A New Paradigm for Understanding Media Change”

— Donna Bowman, et. al, “Law & Order: Slave to formula, or crackling entertainment?,” AV Club,84891

Optional readings:

— Aymar Jean Christian, “Netflix’s Arrested Development Will Not Change TV. Web TV Already Did,”

Guiding questions:

— How do you consume television?

— How does distribution affect programming?

— How does distribution affect consumption?



Maude, “Maude’s Dilemma,” (1:9-10, 1972) (DVD)

Girls, “Vagina Panic,” (1:2, 2012) (HBO Go)

F to 7th (season one, 2013),

Optional: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (1:1-4, 2011),; The Outs, “State of the Union” and “Whiskey Dick” (2012)


— Susan Douglas, “Fantasies of Power,” Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done

— Alfred Martin, “It’s (Not) In His Kiss: Gay Kisses, Narrative Strategies, and Camera Angles in Post-Network Television Comedy,” Flow,

Optional readings:

— Melanie Kohnen, “’You Want Me To Be Anderson Cooper’: Negotiating Queer Visibility on Husbands,” Antenna:

— Janani Subramanian, “A Bitter Pill: Nurse Jackie and a Discourse of Discontent,” Flow,

Guiding questions:

— How has representation changed through the multichannel transition?

— What are the possibilities and challenges of representation in the post-network era?

Guest Speakers:

Ingrid Jungermann and Jason Klorfein, F to 7th



RuPaul’s Drag Race, “RuPaul Roast,” (5:7, 2013) (

Breaking Bad, “Box Cutter,” (4:1, 2011) (Netflix)

In class: Video Game High School (YouTube)


— Lotz, “Advertising After the Network Era: The New Economics of Television”

— Ted Magder, “Television 2.0: the Business of American Television in Transition,” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture

— Rocket Jump, “The Cost of a Webseries,”

Optional readings:

— Chad Raphael, “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV,” in Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture

— Alyxandra Vesey, “An Absolut Drag,” Antenna,

— Edward Wyatt, “TV Contestants: Tired, Tipsy, and Pushed to Brink,” New York Times,

— Amy Chozik and Bill Carter, “A Rough and Bawdy Ad Magnet,”New York Times,

— Organize Reality TV:

Guiding questions:

— How does financing affect programming and vice versa?

— How has digital distribution changed financing and does that matter? Why?



Arrested Development, “SOBs,” (3:9, 2006) (Netflix)

Scandal, “Truth or Consequences,” (2:12, 2013) (Hulu+)

Robot Chicken (Amazon)


— Lotz, “Television Storytelling Possibilities at the Beginning of the Post-Network Era: Five Cases”

— Aymar Jean Christian, “On Cable, Long-Live the Anti-Hero,” Televisual,

— Michael Kackman, “Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity,” Flow,

Guiding questions:

— How have changes to the production of television influenced its stories?

— In what ways is post-network television different from network TV?



The Honeymooners, “The $99,000 Answer,” (1:18, 1956)

lonelygirl15, (1:1-5, 2006) (YouTube)

Very Mary Kate, (CollegeHumor)

The Voice (Hulu)


— Lotz, “Recounting the Audience: Integrating New Measurement Techniques and Technologies”

— Henry Jenkins, “Why Media Spreads,” Spreadable Media: creating value and meaning in a networked culture

— Jason Mittell, “An Arresting Development,” Flow,

Optional readings:

— Jason Mittell, “Exchanges of Value,” Flow,

— Streeter Seidell, “I Waste People’s Time Online. How? Don’t Ask Me,” New York Times,

Guiding questions:

— How have audiences and their measurement changed during the multichannel transition?

— What are the consequences of these changes?

— What do differing standards of measurement enable?

— What problems does it bring up?



24, “12:00 AM Midnight – 1:00 AM” (1:1, 2001) (Netflix)

Web Therapy, Episode 1 (1:1, 2011) (YouTube)


— Lotz, “Television Outside the Box: The Technological Revolution of Television”

Optional readings:

— Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling”

Guiding questions:

— How do technological innovations and introductions change storytelling, distribution and production?

— Should we incorporate fan activity into our assumptions of the audience?

— How can we? What are the impediments?



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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.


  1. Sam Ford May 1, 2013 at 3:58 am

    Hi A.J…Thanks for including our book on your syllabus!

  2. Aymar Jean Christian May 1, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Of course! And actually in the final version I moved it to a required reading in week 8. I’ve updated it here.