Making TV

Social Science Perspectives on Television and the Media

Faire (de) la télévision. L’audiovisuel vu par les sciences sociales

Hacer (la) televisión. El formato audiovisual visto desde las ciencias sociales

Séverine Sofio and Muriel Mille

Translated by Delaina Haslam and Séverine Sofio

Translated from:
Faire (de) la télévision


Electronic reference

Séverine Sofio and Muriel Mille, « Making TV », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 30 March 2020, connection on 01 March 2021. URL :

Supposedly losing ground with the multiplication of screens and new consumer practices for audiovisual productions, television is undergoing major transformations. Nevertheless, it remains a dominant medium. This dossier focuses on the making of television programmes—a subject rarely studied by social science. We propose to analyse, through different perspectives, the workings of audiovisual production in order to question the dynamics of the division of labour, the effects of the multiple constraints (of time, audience, budget, etc.) on the produced content, the mechanisms of the internationalization of the television programme market, and TV writers’ difficulty in gaining recognition.

Réputée en perte de vitesse avec la multiplication des écrans et des nouvelles pratiques de consommation des productions audiovisuelles, la télévision est un média qui, tout en restant dominant, est en pleine mutation. La fabrique de ses programmes, rarement analysée par les sciences sociales, fait l’objet de ce dossier. On se propose d’y étudier, à travers des perspectives à chaque fois différentes, les rouages de la production audiovisuelle pour interroger les ressorts de la division du travail, les effets des contraintes (temporelles, économiques, d’audience, etc.) sur les biens produits, les mécanismes de l’internationalisation des programmes ou encore la difficile reconnaissance du statut des auteur·e·s.

La televisión, supuestamente en declive, cuando se multiplican las pantallas y las nuevas prácticas de consumo de las producciones audiovisuales, se encuentra en plena mutación. Sin embargo, la televisión sigue siendo un medio dominante. El objeto de este número es la construcción de los programas de televisión, una cuestión raramente estudiada en ciencias sociales. Se propone estudiar, desde diferentes perspectivas cada vez, los engranajes de la producción audiovisual para preguntarnos sobre las fuerzas motoras que subyacen a la división del trabajo, los efectos de las constricciones (temporales, económicas, de audiencia, etc.) sobre los bienes producidos, los mecanismos de internacionalización de los programas así como el difícil reconocimiento del estatus de los autores y las autoras.

According to the 2018 Médiamétrie survey, French people especially young French people, are watching less and less television; but they are still watching as many audiovisual programmes, whether they are seen on television or not. This paradox, which puts into perspective the idea that we will see the “end of television” (Lotz 2014; Given 2016), is the same today all over the world (Tay & Turner 2010; Tryon 2015; Chalaby 2016). Thus, although in decline, television viewing remains a huge practice, since new ways of consuming audiovisual products are being added, through the development of streaming platforms, or the use of catch-up television. The main consequence of these new practices is that television is no longer watched only on a dedicated TV set: the audiovisual experience is now available on several types of screen (computer, telephone, tablet, etc.) and is, most often now, delayed rather than live. The consumption of television programmes, all screens and all places combined, thus still amounted to an average of nearly four hours per day in 2018 in France; and, despite the development of new forms of time-shifted viewing, audience peaks are still comparable to those of ten years ago (ibid.).

Fig. 1. In a television studio (Original Title : « Master »)

Image 1000000000000A100000078C793DADADF3A9BB0C.jpg

Source: Flickr. By Ian Kramar

1. Extension of the US Model

The viewing of television on television sets is admittedly losing ground, but there is still significant demand for television programmes—particularly drama, which this new context of distribution and consumption has largely contributed to renewing throughout the Western world over the past ten years in a kind of general emulation around the notion of Quality TV (McCabe & Akass 2007) imported from the United States. Several studies have been devoted to these transformations in different national spaces (see for example Dhoest 2014 for Flemish television, or Krauss 2018 for German television). More generally, the question of the adaptation—sometimes at a forced march—of European television channels to the “American model” in the 1990-2000s was the subject of a vast transnational study (Bondebjerg et al. 2008) which, in an extensive comparative treatment, reviewed the succession of upheavals that television has undergone under the double impact of the digitization of content and the almost total triumph of the economic and organizational model of North American commercial channels, against that of public service television, which until then dominated in Europe (Bondebjerg & Bono 1996; Chaniac & Jezequel 2007; Bourdon 2008; Born 2011). In addition, translated for the first time into French in this issue, Danish sociologist Ib Bondebjerg recently revisited the close links that still exist between a liberalized audiovisual field and the political sphere by studying how the European Union’s support for creative programmes currently plays a very concrete role in this movement by encouraging, with relative success, EU production companies and broadcasters to unite in ambitious transnational co-productions that are better able to compete with American drama, while helping to build a European cultural identity. Thus, this quadruple—aesthetic, technological, economic, and organizational—(r)evolution keeps television under pressure and forces it to be a multiplied medium in full mutation (Chambat-Houillon & Barthes 2019), now called “post-television” (Leverette, Ott, Buckley 2009; Strangelove 2015), “hyper-television” (Scolari 2009), or “techno-television” (Bourdaa 2009). As a renewed medium, television (or, at least, some of its programmes) has now reportedly become legitimate (Caldwell 2005), as evidenced by the popular, critical, and, one could even say, academic success of TV series. However, even when it was at the bottom of the hierarchy of prestige in terms of cultural practices, television, by its unequalled resonance in the social world, very quickly forced all other spaces of cultural production to situate themselves in relation to it, depending on whether or not they accepted its rules (Brigaud-Robert 2011). Either a dominant or a dominated medium, with both distinctive and popular programmes, television remains the only place that offers such visibility that it reaches the majority of a country’s population. Nevertheless, despite its centrality, which has only recently been somewhat reconfigured, the making of audiovisual programmes remains a world with little-known mechanisms (Le Champion & Danard 2014).

Fig. 2. Behind the scenes of “Cooks at Home” on KCTS 9, an educative public television channel in Seattle (USA)

Image 10000000000003E80000029BEDB5F385113DF283.jpg

Source : Flickr. By KCTS 9

2. At the Macro Level: Making TV Globally

Although the State continues to control it with more or less strict regulations, television remains at the heart of an economic rationale that goes far beyond its national frameworks, as a direct result of the globalization of the television programme market. These programmes are indeed the object of an intense circulation, in the form of already existing shows that only need to be dubbed or subtitled before broadcasting on foreign markets (see for example Havens 2000), but also in the form of “concepts” that can be adapted from one national context to another, such as was the case for talk shows and reality TV in the 1990s and 2000s. These programmes, created in the United States, the Netherlands or Great Britain, have been adapted throughout the world and have profoundly transformed the very concept of television—let us recall the shock in 2001 caused by the broadcast of the first reality TV show in France, Loft Story, adapted from the 1999 Dutch show Big Brother. The development of these programs has also had an impact on the television industry itself. For example, reality TV has given rise to a new approach to casting whereby non professional participants must be both exceptional enough to be of interest to the audience, and ordinary enough for the public to relate to their reactions. It is the implementation of these new practices that Laura Grindstaff and Vicki Mayer have studied in a text from their pioneering ethnographic surveys on these grounds. Their text is published for the first time in French in this issue.

Television is therefore also produced in this unique transnational space where programmes are created, negotiated and sold. Two articles in this issue provide an examination of the little-known world of international TV programme markets. In an article (re-edited here with a new introduction and for the first time translated into French) from their pioneering book investigating the globalized television trade (2008), Denise Bielby and C. Lee Harrington analyse the particular discursive universe of places such as Mipcom and Miptv. Here, they demonstrate the importance of reintroducing the study of both the distribution stage and intermediate occupations within the process of making TV. Theoretically groundbreaking, Bielby and Harrington’s book is also of historical interest today, since while the market mechanisms they emphasize are the same, the television they describe is that of the pre-digital age. Taking another angle of analysis by looking at audiovisual fairs and marketplaces, Romain Lecler shows the extent to which these are spaces where commercial negotiation itself is euphemized, to the benefit of relations on a more personal level: Lecler reveals a community of transnational professionals who are certainly specialized in audiovisual goods (Kuipers 2012), but who are in fact typical of the elites of globalization present in all economic sectors.

3. At the Micro Level: Making TV Professionally

Audiovisual goods are economic goods, which are produced, sold and purchased as such, but they are also, of course, symbolic goods, whose market value obeys complex, multiform, and evolving criteria—the most important of these constructed criteria, “audience” (Le Grignou 2003; Meadel 2010), being increasingly difficult to define with the multiplication of screens. Moreover, even television professionals often do not know how their works are received (Gitlin 2000). In the uncertainty of what may please the public, there is no choice but to carry out a work of anticipating its expectations (Champagne 1971). One way of investigating this can then be to understand how this particular constraint is embodied, and to analyse its consequences on the content produced. The evolution of drama (from script proposals to budget management, including shooting conditions) regularly depends, for example, on the evolution of the balance of power between writers, producers, actors, and the public (D’Acci 1994). In this dossier, Muriel Mille, author of a long investigation (Mille 2013) into all the production stages of the daily French soap opera Plus belle la vie, launched in 2004 and still being broadcast, studies how the constraint represented by anticipation of the public’s reactions, weighs on the daily writing of a popular TV show, and more broadly on the perception that writers can have of their audience. While questioning the images that these makers of “mass culture,” who often belong to the privileged fractions of society, have of an audience who is socially distant from them, the article examines the impact of these representations both in the collective writing process and on the content produced.

The public’s expectations must then be taken into account all the more—and all the more so upstream in production—when programmes are expensive to produce. In fact, television can be generally defined as a place of cultural production under constraint. Indeed, constraints are multiple, whether related to lack of time, budgetary restrictions, political pressure, or respect for the economy of reputations (Hesmondhalg & Baker 2008; Buxton 2010; Le Grignou & Neveu 2017). Audiovisual programmes have to take into account major changes in their social and material manufacturing conditions, such as those imposed by certain sets where films and series are shot (Chalvon-Demersay 2012; Rot 2019). The time constraint has become central, particularly for news programmes: the various specialties necessary, for example, for the production of TV news (preparation, reporting, shooting, editing, etc.) are experiencing a permanent emergency (Siracusa 2001); this situation has a direct impact on content, requiring for instance a certain simplification of subjects dealt with in the news (Berthaut 2013). In the dossier, the article by Ivan Chupin and Pierre Mayance addresses this type of difficulty inherent in the production of live content by journalists at the Salon de l’agriculture, an annual and extremely popular Parisian event which, during election campaigns, also becomes an entirely political event. The two authors show, for example, how, in this context, the 24/7 news channels’ increasing weight puts pressure on the conditions of image production, and creates a tension that undermines the professional autonomy of journalists, forcing them to co-construct the media event with politicians and their campaign teams.

Fig. 3. Screenplay

Image 100000000000078000000500FED10D1FE0248F5F.jpg

Source : Pixabay. By olilynch

4. Audiovisual Work and Professional Territories

Audiovisual production involves an extensive division of labour, and thus constitutes a particularly interesting field of analysis for understanding the evolutions and contradictions of work in the production of symbolic goods. In other words, television production is, like cinema (Rot & de Verdalle 2013), a paradigmatic example of collective creation. Indeed, making television requires the daily collaboration of several dozen different trades, each with their own professional culture. This sometimes leads to competition—for example around artistic authority over the work produced, as shown in Victoire Sessego’s article on the production of the iconic British series Doctor Who. From interviews and secondary sources, Sessego finely observes the rivalries directly aroused by the deliberate blurring of the issue of creative engagement and the internal division of labour between the various writers involved in the episodes, each enjoying varying degrees of creative autonomy depending on their seniority on the series, or on their level of recognition outside the series

Overall, audiovisual programme production is more than ever a vast and dynamic employment area, but remains also, in the contemporary economy, subject to significant changes such as the many contradictory injunctions as a corollary of new public management (Born & Prosser 2001), the consequences of capitalist concentration in the media (Bouquillion et al. 2006), the effects of tax reforms (Coles 2010) or of social movements (Henderson 2010). As a both technical and artistic labour market, it is marked by deep uncertainty. For instance, although it has directly benefited from the recent revaluation of the serial format, writing for television remains a highly unstable and risky profession. Anne-Sophie Béliard and Sarah Lécossais show, for example, how some young authors in France have organized into collectives to protect themselves as best they can from this uncertainty, by creating alternative and specific places for training and professional socialization. They have joined forces to obtain better recognition of their status, and improve their position in negotiations with producers and broadcasters, thus taking on part of the role traditionally assigned to cultural intermediaries (Lizé, Naudier, Sofio 2014).

A paragon of the intermediary, in fact, talent agencies have an increasingly strategic role in the development of audiovisual productions. For instance, it is now common for American agencies to be at the origin of films or series, by offering “packages” to the majors and main broadcasters: these packages are fully constituted teams (from technicians to writers, including producers and actors) around turnkey projects that only require financing (Roussel 2017). This practice has recently led the powerful Writers Guild of America to enter into direct conflict with the major talent agencies whose co-production shares in these package-projects tend to be taken at the expense of the writers’ remuneration. On 23 April 2019, therefore, in protest against this system, more than 7,000 WGA authors left their agents.

The role of talent agencies and their perception of television drama in France are at the heart of Delphine Naudier’s article in this dossier. For a long time, agents considered television as a secondary market for “their” talents (actors, writers, directors, etc.). Has the current “ennoblement” of TV series made it easier for professionals to circulate between cinema and television? Naudier highlights the persistent segmentation of the audiovisual labour market, with more people going from cinema to television, rather than the other way around. Thus, from the point of view of the artistic job market and career development in these sectors, the legitimation movement of television series must be nuanced, especially since it is experienced in a very different way depending on the resources of the persons concerned.

In this thematic dossier for Biens symboliques/Symbolic Goods, therefore, we have tried to address, from an original angle, a great diversity of questions that television has raised in social science. Because they are based on life stories, interviews, participant observation, discourse analysis, archival research, and statistical and economic data analysis, the articles of the dossier, supplemented by the two texts presented on this same issue in the “Perspectives” section of the review, are ultimately fairly representative of the diversity of investigation methods that must be implemented to capture this object—television—whose simplicity is in appearance alone.

Berthaut Jérôme (2013). La Banlieue du “20 heures.” Ethnographie de la production d’un lieu commun journalistique. Marseille, Agone.

Bielby Denise D. & Harrington C. Lee (2008). Global TV. Exporting television and culture in the world market. New York/London, NYU Press.

Bondebjerg Ib & Bono Francesco (eds.) (1996). Television in Scandinavia. History, Politics, and Aesthetics. Luton, John Libbey Media/University of Luton Press.

Bondebjerg Ib et al. (2008). “American Television: Point of Reference or European Nightmare?.” In Bignell Jonathan & Fickers Andreas (eds.), A European Television History. London, Wiley-Blackwell: 154-183.

Born Georgina (2011). Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC. London, Random House.

Born Georgina & Prosser Tony (2001). “Culture and Consumerism: Citizenship, Public Service Broadcasting and the BBC’s Fair-Trading Obligations.” The Modern Law Review, 64(5): 657-687.

Bouquillion Philippe, Miège Bernard, Morizet Claire (2006). “À propos des mouvements récents (2004-2005) de concentration capitalistique dans les industries culturelles et médiatiques.” Le Temps des médias, 6: 151-164.

Bourdaa Mélanie (2009). L’Interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes États-Unis-France. PhD Diss., Bordeaux, Université Bordeaux 3.

Bourdon Jérôme (2008). “Comment écrire une histoire transnationale des médias? L’exemple de la télévision en Europe.” Le Temps des médias, 11: 164-181.

Brigaud-Robert Nicolas (2011). Les Producteurs de télévision. Socio-économie d’une profession. Saint-Denis, Presses universitaires de Vincennes.

Buxton David (2010). Les Séries télévisées. Forme, idéologie et mode de production. Paris, L’Harmattan.

Caldwell John T. (2005). “Welcome to the Viral Future of Cinema (Television)”, Cinema Journal, 45(1): 90-97.

Chalaby Jean K. (2016). “Television and Globalization: The TV Content Global Value Chain.” Journal of Communication, 66(1).

Chalvon-Demersay Sabine (2012). “La saison des châteaux. Une ethnographie des tournages en
‘décors réels’ pour la télévision.” Réseaux, 172: 175-213.

Chambat-Houillon Marie-France & Barthes Séverine (2019). “Présentation du dossier ‘Mutations de la télévision’.” Télévision, 10: 9-16.

Champagne Patrick (1971). “La télévision et son langage: l’influence des conditions sociales de réception sur le message.” Revue française de sociologie, 12(3): 406-430.

Chaniac Régine & Jezequel Jean-Pierre (2007). “Les Buttes Chaumont: l’âge d’or de la production?.” Quaderni, 65: 65-79.

Coles Amanda (2010). “Unintended Consequences: Examining the Impact of Tax Credit Programmes on Work in the Canadian Independent Film and Television Production Sector.” Cultural Trends, 19(1-2): 109-124.

D’Acci Julie (1994). Defining Women: The Case of Cagney and Lacey. Chapel Hill, North Carolina University Press.

Dhoest Alexander (2014). “It’s Not HBO, It’s TV: The View of Critics and Producers on Flemish ‘Quality TV’.” Critical Studies in Television, 9(1): 1-22.

Gitlin Todd (2000). Inside Prime Time. Berkeley, University of California press.

Given Jock (2016). “‘There Will Still Be Television but I Don’t Know What It Will Be Called!’: Narrating the End of Television in Australia and New Zealand.” Media and Communication, 4(3): 109-122.

Havens Timothy (2000). “‘The Biggest Show in the World’: Race and the Global Popularity of The Cosby Show.” Media Culture Society, 22: 371-391.

Henderson Felicia D. (2010). “It’s Your Own Fault: How Post-Strike Hollywood Continues to Punish Writers for Striking.” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture, 8(3): 232-239.

Hesmondhalg David & Baker Sarah (2008). “Creative Work and Emotional Labour in the Television Industry.” Theory, Culture and Society, 25: 97-118.

Krauss Florian (2018). “‘Quality Series’ and their Production Cultures: Transnational Discourses within the German Television Industry.” Series, 4(2): 47-60.

Kuipers Giselinde (2012). “The Cosmopolitan Tribeof Television Buyers. Professional Ethos, Personal Taste and Cosmopolitan Capital in Transnational Cultural Mediation.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, 15(5): 581-603.

Le Champion Rémy & Danard Benoît (2014). Les Programmes audiovisuels. Paris, La Découverte, “Repères.”

Le Grignou Brigitte (2003). Du côté du public : usages et réceptions de la télévision. Paris, Economica.

Le Grignou Brigitte & Neveu Erik (2017). Sociologie de la télévision. Paris, La Découverte, “Repères.”

Leverette Marc, Ott Brian L., Buckley Cara Louise (2009). It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. New York/London, Routledge.

Lizé Wenceslas, Naudier Delphine, Sofio Séverine (2014). Les Stratèges de la notoriété. Intermédiaires et consécration dans les univers artistiques. Paris, Éditions des archives contemporaines.

Lotz Amanda D. (2014). The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York/London, NYU Press.

McCabe Janet & Akass Kim (dir.) (2007). Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond. New York, I. B. Tauris.

Mayer Vicki (2008). “Studying Up and F**cking Up: Ethnographic Interviewing in Production Studies.” Cinema Journal, 47(2): 141-148.

Meadel Cécile (2010). Quantifier le public. Histoire des mesures d’audience de la radio et de la télévision. Paris, Economica.

Mille Muriel (2013). Produire de la fiction à la chaîne: sociologie du travail de fabrication d’un feuilleton télévisé. PhD diss. Paris, EHESS.

Pasquier Dominique (1995). Les Scénaristes et la télévision. Approche sociologique. Paris, Nathan.

Rot Gwenaële (2019). Planter le décor. Une sociologie des tournages. Paris, Les Presses de Sciences Po.

Rot Gwenaële, Verdalle Laure (de) (dir.) (2013). Le Cinéma : travail et organisation. Paris, La Dispute.

Roussel Violaine (2017). Representing Talent. Hollywood Agents and the Making of Movies. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Scolari Carlos A. (2009). “The Grammar of Hypertelevision: an Identikit of Convergence-Age Fiction Television (or, How Television Simulates New Interactive Media).” Journal of Visual Literacy, 28(1): 28-50.

Siracusa Jacques (2001). Le JT, machine à décrire. Sociologie du travail des reporters à la télévision. Bruxelles, De Boeck.

Strangelove Michael (2015). Post-TV: Piracy, Cord-Cutting, and the Future of Television. Toronto/Buffalo/London, University of Toronto Press.

Tay Jinna & Turner Graeme (2010). “Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age.” International Journal of Digital Television, 1(1): 31-50.

Tryon Chuck (2015). “TV Got Better: Netflix’s Original Programming Strategies and Binge Viewing.” Media Industries, 2(2).

Fig. 1. In a television studio (Original Title : « Master »)

Fig. 1. In a television studio (Original Title : « Master »)

Source: Flickr. By Ian Kramar

Fig. 2. Behind the scenes of “Cooks at Home” on KCTS 9, an educative public television channel in Seattle (USA)

Fig. 2. Behind the scenes of “Cooks at Home” on KCTS 9, an educative public television channel in Seattle (USA)

Source : Flickr. By KCTS 9

Fig. 3. Screenplay

Fig. 3. Screenplay

Source : Pixabay. By olilynch

Séverine Sofio

CNRS/Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques de Paris/Cultures et sociétés urbaines (Cresppa-CSU)

By this author

Muriel Mille

Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines/Profession, institution, temporalité (Printemps)

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© Presses Universitaires de Vincennes 2020