Quality can be defined as the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something. Ever since I can remember, just as I put on a TV show that I want to watch, my father would walk in and say “India, can we please watch some Quality TV?!”. This phrase of his always had me wondering what Quality TV actually was and how it was categorised. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, authors of Quality TV: Contemporary American Television & Beyond’, provide some insight into this, stating that Quality TV ‘is a descriptive term that identifies the genre ‘Quality Drama’. But let’s explore possible factors that may contribute to the categorisation of a show as a ‘quality’ television program.
We could look at the audience of such ‘quality’ programs to categorise ‘Quality TV’, analysing their interactions with television and their methods of viewing.
HBO is an American cable channel described as one that screens and produces Quality TV. The tagline “It’s not TV, It’s HBO’ is indicative of its qualitative nature, not only due to the programs and their careful construction, but also thanks to its exclusivity as it is subscription only. In 2014, it was said that HBO had an approximate 114 million subscribers/members. This number may seem large, but HBO are still considered to have a small number of subscribers and viewers. As the channel is a subscription and involves monetary costs in exchange for program viewing, HBO are thought to attract what McCabe and Akass describe as the ‘Upscale Demographic’, those who can afford to afford such services. But how can we explain this demographic? These individuals may be of the upper class, meaning they may be more educated and have the ability to follow the complex serial narratives carried through a large number of HBO programs, such as Game of Thrones. Pierre Bordieu in his work on cultural capital explores the notion that there is a ‘powerful relationship between level of education and cultural practice’, discussing the attempt of this upper class to control culture for their own interest, ultimately controlling and impacting the circulation of money in such culture. Not do this demographic inadvertently ‘fund’ such ‘Quality TV’ but they may in fact be responsible for programs being considered as ‘Quality TV’, as they formulate the audience who are competent in following the complex narratives, due to their educated background.
Another factor that may contribute to a show’s ‘quality’ categorisation may be its conventions and aesthetics. Christina Lane, in her essay on The West Wing, identifies a few features of the show that indicate its qualitative nature, such as complex narrative, the pace of the show and its episodes, the ensemble casing and mobile camera work. May these conventions be a method of categorising ‘Quality TV’? Game of Thrones, a show classified as Quality TV has a complex narrative, based on a series of fantasy books written by George R.R. Martin and an ensemble cast which consists of Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington…. um er and other people (excuse me, I instantly got all daydreamy.. ah Jon Snow…).
These conventions that are contributed to the classification of a ‘Quality TV’ show may also be due to the shows budget. Each Game of Thrones episode has a budget of a whopping $6 million, which Mic.com explaines is around 2-3 times the budget of a regular TV show (cable or network). This interrelates with my above example of HBO as a subscription service and Pierre Bordieu’s work- subscribers pay to watch the show, but their money pretty much contributes to the budgets of its productions.
So we can define the word ‘quality’, but whilst it may be difficult to create a set definition for ‘Quality TV’, these programs may be put into this prestigious category based on their critical reception, audience, production methods and conventions, some or a combination of all factors.
I’m not sure that my father uses the term Quality TV with full knowledge of its meaning, but I guess now it’s my job to share with him a few of the contributing factors to the categorisation of such programs.
Bachman, Justin (2014) ‘HBO Finally Reveals Profit Numbers. Take That, Netflix’. Bloomberg. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-02-05/hbo-finally-reveals-profit-numbers-dot-take-that-netflix
Bordieu, Pierre. Referenced in Fiske, J. (2002). Television culture. Routledge.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 170, 466.
Lane, Christina (2003) ‘The White House Culture of Gender and Race in The West Wing: Insights from the Margins’, mentioned in Peter C. Rollins and Jon E.Conner, The West Wing:American Presidency as Television Drama. Syracause University.
McCabe, Janet, & Akass, Kim. (2007). Quality TV Contemporary American Television and Beyond. London: I.B.Tauris.
Sheppard, Elena (2014). ‘Here’s How Much It Costs to Make a ‘Game of Thrones’ Episode’. Mic.com. Available at: http://mic.com/articles/87169/here-s-how-much-it-costs-to-make-a-game-of-thrones-episode