Is the celebration of quality television a type of cultural elitism? – Amelia Nicholson

Amelia Nicholson is a film graduate and aspiring screenwriter interested in the rhyme and reason behind storytelling.

BBC Sherlock (2010)

Is the celebration of quality television a type of cultural elitism?

It can, and has been argued that ‘quality television’ represents the upper class equivalent of contemporary excellence in visual entertainment akin to the divide between literary fiction and bestsellers in the literary field. Many theorists argue that quality television is more highly regarded than other televised formats, and that the reasons for this are coded in the production of these shows i.e. they receive more funding per season, use particular technologies, and typically have a demographic which consists of the educated upper middle and upper elite classes.

In this essay, I will examine the relationship between ‘quality television’ and cultural elitism. Elitism can derive from the production companies who are tasked with producing these shows as well as the broadcasters who are responsible for their distribution, both of which, having been socialised under the contemporary patriarchal-capitalist system, seek to implement its ideologies on a cultural level in order to establish the status quo, however arguably latent their intent is.

In current debates, quality television and the ‘average’ television show are placed in a dichotomy. This opposition is justified on the basis of intent, positing that quality television is produced for the betterment of the quality and scope of television as a whole, whereas the average television show is more ambivalent in its intent. This can be examined in terms of the content of the shows, that is, the narrative themes and storylines and their relation to current events. It has been argued that quality television aims to uphold the original ‘Reithian’ ideals of the BBC and that therefore, these shows are produced with the intention of educating the general public. However, the other side of the debate suggests that these ‘better quality’ shows are only produced for a specific demographic, for example an upper middle-class audience who are presumed to be more educated than the ‘masses’, i.e. the working class. These are the ideas that I will be grappling with throughout the course of this essay.

There is a stark difference in the reasoning behind the creation of quality television as a format in Britain and in America. British television itself came about under the creation of the government-commissioned BBC (British Broadcasting Company) for the production and distribution of Public Service Broadcast programmes. This was led by then-director-general John Reith who saw the main purpose of public broadcasting as being to educate the masses. His goals for the BBC have been summarised by Gill Branston as,

‘PSB [Public Service Broadcast] depends on ‘unity of control’ or what Reith later called ‘the brute force of monopoly’; it should not be used for entertainment purposes alone; it should lead rather than pander to public taste; it has an educative role; it can help create an enlightened and informed democracy; it has the capacity for ‘making the nation as one man’, often through the broadcast of national ceremonies’ (Branston, 1998, p.57).

Arguably, the education it aimed to promote was biased in favour of promoting contemporary state ideology and enforcing the homogeneity of dominant societal ideologies. This raised debate about whether creators should actively interfere in the ideological standpoint of their works of fiction, although this is presumably inevitable on a passive level. Branston alludes to this in her essay about Public Service Broadcasts, ‘[i]deas of public service in this case are clearly bound up in the service of residual ideologies of imperial power’ (Branston, 1998, p.56). Charlotte Higgins also touches on this in her article about the origins of the BBC, ‘[t]he BBC took its place as an expression of, and a power in, new ideas about nationhood, modernity and democracy’ (Higgins, 2014). This gives television, as a medium, the power to potentially shape the general public’s perception of matters of varying importance, the outcome of which can be difficult to ascertain.

Quality television as a format in particular is usually a means to uphold elite ideals within the household, such as large class divides and a focus on vast material wealth and imperial power. I argue that this is illustrated in the current cultural fascination with the Tudor period with shows such as The Tudors (2007 – 2010), and more recently BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2015), updating the format for a modern day audience with the use of lavish high definition cameras, set design, and the casting of highly acclaimed actors. It can be argued that this approach is in itself a form of cultural elitism as it gives a modern audience something to aspire to and to covet, by presenting the wealth of the now defunct monarchy and the sexual and political intrigue of the court as glossy, sexy, and idyllic. It glamorizes the period and its values, excluding the accounts of marginalised members of Tudor society living in less than aspirational conditions.

Literary adapted period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice (most notably adapted for television in 1995 and in film in 2005) are seen as a staple of British culture and the pinnacle of quality television. Charlotte Brundson draws attention to the upholding of period dramas as ‘good’ or ‘better’ television in terms of quality by choosing to use Brideshead Revisited (1981), and The Jewel in the Crown (1984) as examples of literary adaptations that promote a certain depiction of English heritage. This is important because the ‘heritage industry’ itself promotes widespread cultural elitism in the way that Britain as a whole (rather than fragmentally) is presented to the world. Brundson highlights four ways in which heritage drama is created. Firstly she emphasises the significance of prestigious literature as a source text for these shows, borrowing from the literary canon which itself promotes elitism in literature. She then discusses the use of acclaimed British actors  (who usually come from a theatrical background). They also must have the funding to produce high production value sets and costume design, and lastly the heritage export. Brundson offers us an explanation here,

‘As many commentators have pointed out, these series produced a certain image of England and Englishness (with little reference to the rest of Britain), in which national identity is expressed through class and imperial identity. The widespread acceptance of Brideshead and Jewel as signifying quality thus condenses several sets of power relations’ (Brunsdon, 1997).

For these reasons, quality television as a format is presumptive of the kind of audience it will generate. This stems from past views about the superiority of particular forms of art and literature to others that may be more popular. Therefore, those in power aim to make the more ‘quality’ texts more universal (Pierre Bourdieu referred to this as ‘cultural capital’). Matthew Arnold, a cultural critic in the late 1800s was a notable writer who put forward these views of cultural elitism, favouring an oligarchical method of distributing cultural texts.

Critic Janet McCabe explains how a ‘quality audience’ is cultivated and why they are the ideal viewers for quality television,

‘British broadcasting policy documentation has always had an ideal television viewer in mind when putting forward its beliefs about quality television. The 1968 Pilkington Report for example identified a reactive and uncritical television audience in need of protection (Pilkington, 1962)’ (McCabe, 2005, p.209).

The Pilkington Report consisted of a committee meeting between 1960 and 1962, in order to decipher the future of British television broadcasts, this was a way to maintain the quality of what the channels at the time were broadcasting. McCabe explains this further as she says,

‘Quality television in this context is associated with a cultural paternalism, about those high-minded and socially advantaged individuals (for example the educated middle-class elite) able to make appropriate programming on behalf of those who could not (for example the working-class mass)’ (McCabe, 2005, p.209).

This demonstrates that there is a type of cultural elitism at work when broadcasting companies like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 look to produce new ‘quality’ television shows. They aim very much towards a middle-class audience, seeking to use high production values and occasionally period settings, which are high in cultural capital, to cultivate such an audience. The underlying result of this cultural elitism is the ownership and control of the media by the ruling class, who then have the power to decide which messages are presented to a larger audience, including those which normalise the ideology of the state. By catering to the middle-class elite with the ‘quality television’ shows that are held in higher esteem than others, they present the idea that the ruling class ideology is the most prestigious, desirable, and ‘correct’.

Jim Collins has written about the use of television (and media as a whole) as a form of ideological state apparatus and the formation and maintenance of culture through an interpretation of meanings. In his essay ‘Television and Postmodernism’ (1992) he discusses the theories of Allan Bloom and Jean Baudrillard in relation to mass media, summarising these ideas as follows,

‘The former [Bloom] has claimed that television has brought about the ruination of true learning and morality. The latter [Baudrillard] has claimed that contemporary culture is television culture – endless simulations in which reality simply disappears’ (Collins, 1992, p.249).

This alludes to the homogenous nature of ‘quality’ television being accepted as a true and realistic representation of western culture. Collins continues by saying,

‘In Bloom’s view, the culprit is not television alone, but the more general democratization of culture, which threatens the elite values that once formed the basis of real learning: the acquisition of Truth’ (Collins, 1992, p.249).

This calls into question whether John Reith’s objective for the BBC, in terms of educational function, was to show a ‘true’ representation of culture, or whether he intended it to be biased in favour of promoting ruling class ideologies. It is presumptive to argue that the commissioners of the BBC wanted the corporation to be democratic rather than oligarchical; it a huge organisation controlled by few people in comparison to its scale.

The BBC is lauded for its production of perceivably ‘quality’ shows, illustrating how these programmes are received by a large audience and, as a result, their cultural status; critically acclaimed and above the calibre of ‘normal’ shows. This suggests that these shows hold the status of ‘culturally elite’, without the content being necessarily more accurate or representative of British culture as a whole.

As previously mentioned, it is easy to identify the conventions of these ‘quality’ shows, as Charlotte Brundson established the formula used to generate them. I return to this formula for quality television, taking for example, BBC’s Lark Rise to Candleford (2008-2011), ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015) and Mr Selfridge (2013-2016), and Channel 4’s The Mill (2013-2014). What all these shows have in common is a period setting, high production values and lavish costuming. They also are based on the ‘true past’ of Britain (apart from Downton Abbey which is completely fictional), although they depict a certain stereotypical image of such. Apart from The Mill, these shows tend to lean towards depicting the lives of the wealthy elite, this contributes to the media presenting contributing to to the repeated representation of one homogenous view of Britain’s past.

McCabe paraphrases Brundson’s interpretation of this particular kind of show saying, ‘Charlotte Brundson identifies literary source, the best of British acting, high production values and a nostalgic sense of British heritage as defining these series as ‘uncontroversial signifiers of quality’ (Brundson 1990) 85-6)(McCabe, 2005, p.209). This suggests that the homogenised narratives that are broadcast are not necessarily higher in quality compared to other shows but are simply more palatable to the target demographic.

In America, the conventions of quality television are noticeably less focused on literary adaptations, giving more attention to serial dramas that are perceived to be well written. However, many similarities remain between British and American quality television. For example, both share an emphasis on high production value and sophisticated visual styles i.e. through artistic direction, high profile critically acclaimed cast, detailed costuming, etc. Johnson highlights that this kind of television show is generated to bring in an audience of the ‘urban, 18-49, liberal, professional and culturally educated’ (Johnson, 2005, p.58). This demographic alludes to the cultural elitism behind the production of this kind of television show as it is presented as more sophisticated and intellectually stimulating than its fellow broadcasted counterparts.

As Feuer quotes Robert J. Thompson in her essay about the show Thirtysomething (1987-1991) in relation to quality television as a genre, she highlights the homogenous conventions of quality television.

‘All the innovative elements that came to define ‘quality TV’, even in its unpredictability, have become more and more predictable. By 1992, you could recognize a ‘quality show’ long before you could tell if it was any good. Quality television came to refer to shows with a particular set of characteristics that we normally associate with ‘good’, ‘artsy’ and ‘classy’ (Thompson, 1996:16)’ (Feuer, 2005, p.28).

This shows that the formulaic basis of this kind of show is not committed to the matter of improving ‘quality’, but rather to attract a certain demographic. As with British quality television, this is a college educated middle-class to elite-class audience.

However, the relationship between American quality television and advertising in its earlier years shows a stark difference in its creation as a genre to British quality television. It could be argued that this emphasises the ‘Americentrism’ of public broadcast services in the US, who are less concerned with the educational values of their shows. Instead TV becomes as a platform for state ideologies i.e. advertising is used to make consumerism seem cultural and positive rather than exploitative. Johnson explains the need for a specific classed demographic as she says, ‘Economic profitability no longer resided purely in the total number of viewers, but also depended on the type of viewer watching’ (Johnson, 2005, p.58). This suggests that production companies created these shows to attract the demographic that would give them sufficient cultural capital and status as well one with enough disposable income to contribute to the consumerism encouraged by the advertisements.

Johnson also writes about the now defunct production company MTM Enterprises which was at its most successful in the 1970s and 1980s, and how it produced shows like the influential ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (1970-1977), Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), and St Elsewhere (1982-1988).  Johnson quotes Feuer’s explanation of how these shows are fundamental examples of quality television. Feuer says,

‘In interpreting an MTM programme as a quality programme, the quality audience is permitted to enjoy a form of television which is seen as more literate, more stylistically complex, and more psychologically ‘deep’ than ordinary TV fare (Feuer et al. 1984:56)’ (Johnson, 2005, p.58).

Thus it becomes evident that quality television is more concerned with being seen as something exclusively for the cultural elite and not with bettering television as a form itself. If the quality of television as a whole was at stake, production companies would not necessarily aim these shows at a specific ‘elite’ demographic, but try to reach as wide an audience as possible. The element of advertising only makes it much more obligatory to pull in a certain ‘eligible’ demographic in order for the advertising companies to make a profit.

It is fair to say that American television as a whole was not devised as a way to generate money for advertisers, but developed towards commercialisation over the years. The television corporation, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), is a non-profit organisation for American television, founded in 1969 as a result of Public Broadcasting Act (1967). The intentions of the corporation are very similar to that of the BBC and have been summarised as,

‘PBS provides its member stations with programming in cultural, educational, and scientific areas, in children’s fare, and in news and public affairs but does not itself produce programs; the programs are produced by the member stations, independent producers, and other program producers worldwide’ (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014).

Parallels can be drawn between these aims and the ideals that John Reith, wanted public service broadcasting to represent and produce. However,  PBS has now become a commercial broadcasting service rather than a public broadcasting service, and shows advertisements (which is where the ‘quality’ aspect applies). This shows that there is a lucrative appeal for broadcasting companies to lean towards producing more shows of the ‘quality television’ structure.

Quality television has dual benefits for its producers, monetary-wise, and for its perceived audience. Catherine Johnson, explaining the benefits of quality television for its ideal audience, quotes Jane Feuer saying, ‘the quality audience gets to separate itself from the mass audience and can watch TV without guilt, and without realising the double-edged discourse they are getting is also ordinary TV (Feuer et al. 1984:56)’ (Johnson, 2005). The perceived benefits are that the target audience think that the shows they are watching not only cater to them personally, but also make them privy to cultural elitism. As Feuer points out, this is not the case. The quality television shows may have been produced with high production values and a star-studded, critically acclaimed cast, but narrative-wise they are no better in quality.

In more recent years, quality television has not just been aimed demographically at the ‘culturally elite’, although it may be marketed that way. Now networks aim to cultivate as large an audience as possible. This means that they are producing more shows with diverging themes and conventions (genre hybridity), but also incorporating high quality visuals to indicate the ‘quality’ nature of the show itself (for example, AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present) which blends the genre conventions of horror films, science fiction, and melodrama). Johnson comments on the obsequiousness of television corporations in her essay saying, ‘[i]n attempting to attract the ‘quality’ audience while not alienating other network viewers, ‘quality’ television is precisely concerned with appealing to divergent desires’ (Johnson, 2005, p.59). This makes it clear that the priority of the producers is not to create something higher in quality but rather to attract as large an audience as possible whilst appearing to uphold a ‘quality’ standard.

In conclusion, all the evidence points towards quality television being a form of cultural elitism. The reasons for this are rooted in the foundations of public service broadcasting as a form of mass media, from John Reith’s culturally homogenous ideals for the BBC, to modern day quality television shows such as BBC’s (updated) Doctor Who (2005-present) and Sherlock (2010-present) that depict one glorified idyllic picture of Britain and British culture. The quality aspects of these shows consist of high production values, luxury special effects, a star-studded well-renowned cast; and in the case of Sherlock an esteemed literary source as a base text. Furthermore, an ‘ideal audience’ is cultivated for these shows forming a particular and narrow demographic, i.e. presumably middle-class and higher-educated. This, in turn, makes the quality television show culturally elitist because of its presumed demographic. This presumed, yet highly coveted, demographic belies the cultural elitism of the quality television show.

In actuality, the shows that are produced are of no higher quality than other television shows with lower production value, in terms of subject matter. They are produced with the same aims as most television shows, to draw in as large an audience as possible, for advertisement and funding reasons, and ultimately to make a profit. This means that the quality TV shows that are produced in our postmodern moment feature various manifestations of genre hybridity in order to appeal to as many people as possible, while high production values draw in the ‘elite’ who hold things such as detailed costumes, period dramas and/or literary adaptations in higher esteem. These shows are marketed as if they are only for the culturally elite however their intention is to cultivate as wide an audience as possible. Production companies assume that the average person wants to be seen as cultured’, ‘educated’ and ‘informed’ and by playing into these desires they make their profit.



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Doctor Who: Series 2, Volume 5 (2006) Directed by Euros Lyn and Graeme Harper. Written by Matthew Graham and Russell T Davies. First Broadcast 2006 [DVD]. United Kingdom: 2entertain Video.

Downton Abbey: Complete Series One (2010) Directed by Ben Bolt, Brian Kelly, and Brian Percival. Written by Julian Fellowes, Shelagh Stephenson, and Tina Pepler. First broadcast 2010 [DVD]. United Kingdom: Universal Pictures UK.

Lark Rise To Candleford: The Complete First Series (2008) Directed by Charles Palmer, John Greening, and Marc Jobst. Written by Bill Gallagher, Carolyn Bonnyman, Gaby Chiappe, and Paul Rutman. First broadcast 2008 [DVD]. United Kingdom: 2entertain Video.

Mr Selfridge–Series 1 (2013) Directed by Anthony Byrne et al. Written by Andrew Davies, Kate Brooke, and Kate O’Riordan. First broadcast 2013 [DVD]. United Kingdom: Universal Pictures UK.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) Directed by Simon Langton. Written by Andrew Davies. First broadcast 1995 [DVD]. United Kingdom: 2entertain Video.

Sherlock – Series 1 (2010) Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Mark Gatiss, and Steven Moffat. First broadcast 2010 [DVD]. United Kingdom: 2entertain Video.

The Mill – Series 1 (2013) Directed by James Hawes. Written by John Fay. First broadcast 2013 [DVD]. United Kingdom: Acorn Media

The Walking Dead – Season 1 (2011) Directed by Frank Darabont et al. Written by Frank Darabont et al. First broadcast 2010 [DVD]. United Kingdom: Entertainment One.

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