A Brief and Incomplete Television Glossary
Developed by David Lavery
act break: In commercial television, a usually dramatically justifiable interruption, often offering a minor cliffhanger, of an episode created in the narrative by an advertisement.
activated text: A television program which generates buzz.
adaptation: Transforming a story conceived for another medium (a novel, a play, movie) so that it may be retold in a television series or movie.
allusion: A conscious, meaningful reference to another work of art or indeed to anything outside the television text.
ancillary text: Both secondary (criticism, publicity) and tertiary (discussion and commentary occurring at the fan level) texts.
appointment show: A favorite television program which a viewer schedules to watch, accommodating his or her life in order to keep an "appointment" with it.
arc: A segment of narrative that constitutes an identifiable story element or elements for a character or a series.
auteur theory: The hypothesis, originating in France in the 1950s as the "politique des auteurs" (as formulated by Truffaut and others) that a movie, though a collaboration (Bergman has likened the making of a film to the construction of a medieval cathedral), is given its essential identity by one person: the director. The body of films of a given director--the work of a director like Fellini, for example, or John Ford, and even that of lesser lights as well--say a James Cameron or a Spike Lee--will, according to the auteur theory, exhibit as well the distinctive signature(s) of its auteur and may be profitably studied as such. Only now emerging in consideration of televison.
backstory: Narrative history, revealed retrospectively, of characters and events that have transpired prior to a story's own present tense.
basic cable: Those channels available with a "basic cable" subscription, many of which--AMC, FX, TBS--have begun to offer their own original programming.
beat: In a television episode, an emotional or dramatic mini-climax punctuating the larger story.
boutique television: A new, 1990s concept of television programming in the cable era in which programs are developed for small niche audiences with ideal demographics.
break: The process of plotting out a single episode of a television series, positioning beats, act breaks, etc.
buzz: Cultural talk, at the water cooler and elsewhere, about a television series or other pop culture phenomenon.
cliffhanger: A dramatic, episode-ending or season-ending, event intended to bring viewers back next week/next year and to inspire media buzz between episodes/seasons. The most famous cliffhanger in TV history was, of course, the "Who Shot JR?" ending on Dallas (1981).
closure: In a narrative, the tying up (at the end of an episode, at the end of a season, or at the end of a series) of key narrative strands in such a way as to produce viewer satisfaction.
commodity intertext: Both official and unofficial fiction and non-fiction produced to satisfy the often cultic needs of television fans to know more—much more—and imagine more about their favorite programs.
continuous serial: "The storylines of most 'continuous serials' . . . [are] deliberately left hanging at the end of each episode; nearly all plots initiated in a continuous serial were designed to be infinitely continued and extended. . . . the individual episodes of a continuous serial have much more of a linear feel, leading regular viewers to believe they 'could not miss an episode.' . . . in a continuous serial, narrative change is all" (Dolan).
convergence culture: "The . . . ways the business landscape is changing in response to the growing integration of content and brands across media platforms and the increasingly prominent roles that consumers are playing in shaping the flow of media" (Convergence Culture Consortium).
co-optation: The absorption or expropriation of formerly oppositional ideas or practices into the service of ideological discourse. Godfrey Reggio's 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, for example, was intended as an indictment of the insanity of modern American culture, but its visual style has now become prominent in contemporary advertising.
connotation: The suggestive or associative sense of an expression that extends beyond its literal definition. A second order system of signification which uses the denotation of a sign as its signifier and adds other meanings, other signfiers, often ideological in nature. A picture of Barack Obama denotes the actual person but connotes radically different meanings on the political left or right.
continuity: The ongoing logic and order of a narrative. Since television and movies are routinely shot out of order, making certain that props, sets, costumes, mise-en-scene, action, etc. are consistent and seem to follow naturally out of one another is a major problem for a film director or showrunner.
convention: The customary, "conventional" way of doing something in a work of art.
couch potato: "A person who spends much time sitting or lying down, usually watching television" (Dictionary.com).
credit sequence: That segment of a movie or television episode's beginning in which the credits appear, either as titles overlaying the action or separately, outside the diegesis.
crossover: When the characters ordinarily appearing on a television series put in an appearance, crossing over to, another television series.
cult tv: Television which attracts and sustains a usually small but rabid audience, the members of which begin to use the show in cultish fashion. According to Reeves: "By the 1990s, there were generally two types of cult television shows. The first type, in the tradition of Star Trek, is comprised of prime-time network programs that failed to generate large ratings numbers, but succeeded in attracting substantial numbers of avid fans. Twin Peaks is the most outstanding recent example of this category. Shows of the second type first appear on cable or in fringe timeslots and are narrowly targeted at a niche audience. Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and MTV's Beavis and Butthead (B&B) exemplify this category of cult programming that was never intended to appeal to mass audience."
cumulative narrative: "Like the traditional series and unlike the traditional 'openended' serial, each installment of a cumulative narrative has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. However, unlike the traditional series and like the traditional serial, one episode's events can greatly affect later episodes. As Newcomb puts it, 'Each week's program is distinct, yet each is grafted onto the body of the series, its characters' pasts'" (Reeves).
denotation: The literal meaning of an expression. The first order of SIGNIFICATION. A photograph of Barack Obama denotes (is) Barack Obama.
diegesis: The fictional world of a narrative--for example, a television series; the "actual" world of the story created by a narrative.
dramedy: A 1970s programming innovation in which comedy and drama are merged.
episodic serial: "[A] hybrid narrative form, combining the dramatically satisfying finitude of the episodic series with the linear narrative development of the continuous serial," presenting "narratives that were limited in length but multi-episodic in form . . ." (Dolan). Tulloch and Alvarez identify a closely related narrative form which they deem the episodic serial. Episodic serials exhibit continuity between episodes but only for a limited and specified number (ix). The subject of their study, Doctor Who, serves as an example, as does another famous British series, The Prisoner. Horace Newcomb uses a different designation for essentially the same narrative manifestation: "cumulative narrative.”
episodic series: In an "episodic series" (e.g., I Love Lucy or Star Trek), an individual storyline almost never stretched beyond the limits of a single episode. To a certain extent, routine viewers of an episodic series watched in the secure knowledge that, whenever something drastic happened to a regular character like Lucy Ricardo or James T. Kirk in the middle of an episode, it would be reversed by the end of the episode and the characters would end up in the same general narrative situation that they began in. . . . The individual episodes of an episodic series tends to have a circular feel to them, always returning back to their given comedic or dramatic 'situation' . . . . in an episodic series, narrative change is minimized . . ." (Dolan). Each episode tells an independent, discrete, stand-alone story that adds little or nothing to the cumulative memory of the show over seasons/years.
fan fiction: Stories written by viewers (and often posted on the web) which make use of a television’s show’s characters in new, sometimes improbable situations. See also slash fan fiction.
fan-scholar. Matt Hills' term (Fan Cultures) for a fan whose interest/enthusiasm for the work he/she obsessively follow exhibits the kind of academic rigor ordinarily expected of an academic scholar. See also scholar-fan.
flashforward: Jumping ahead to events which will happen in the diegesis' future tense.
flashback Jumping backward in time to an event that transpired before the story's current diegesis.
flexi-narrative. The last two decades of television have seen the spread of what Robin Nelson terms a “flexi-narrative,” a “hybrid mix of serial and series forms . . . mixtures of the series and the serial form, involving the closure of one story arc within an episode (like a series) but with other, ongoing story arcs involving the regular characters (like a serial)” (82). The widespread appeal of the flexi-narrative is not difficult to understand, for it “maximises the pleasures of both regular viewers who watch from week to week and get hooked by the serial narratives and the occasional viewers who happen to tune into one episode seeking the satisfaction of narrative closure within that episode” (Nelson 82).
flow: Raymond Williams’ designation for the overall system of television--"the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form" [Wikipedia]. We do not just watch programs, Williams argued; we watch television as a whole.
grazing: See surfing.
homage. A spoof, "send-up" of another work of art, usually done in admiration of the original rather than for purposes of ridicule.
iconography: Patterns, continuous over time, of visual imagery or symbols, of recurrent objects and figures, representative of a particular institution, system, genre. A given religion, for example, has its own iconography, but so too does, say, a Western film.
interpretive community: The idea, pioneered by Stanley Fish, that "[s]imilar readings are produced . . . because similarly located readers learn a similar set of reading strategies and interpretive codes which they bring to bear upon the texts they encounter" [Radway].
intertextual: The tendency--typical of postmodernism--of texts not merely to allude to other texts but to depend upon the similarities, differences, and contrasts between texts in order to establish their own signification. "Intertextuality should not be, but frequently is, used to refer to the intentional allusion (overt or covert) to, citation or quotation of previous texts in literary texts" [The Literary Encyclopedia].
jumping the shark: The "defining moment" when a television program "has reached its peak" and begins to go downhill. Named after a moment in Happy Days when its most memorable character (The Fonz) takes part in a shark jumping contest. See the Jump the Shark website: http://www.jumptheshark.com.
least objectionable programming (LOP): The old school notion that a television program capable of retaining a viewer’s apathetic attention; one not likely to be surfed away from.
lifeys. Neal Gabler's term (in Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality) for those entertainments (the Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, the impeachment trial of President Clinton, etc.) "written in the medium of life, projected on the screen of life, and exhibited in the multiplexes of the traditional media"; "the new blockbusters that preoccupy the traditional media and dominate the national conversation for weeks, sometimes months or even years at a time" (5).
Mary Sue: in fan fiction, a character who represents the identity of the author inserted into the story line of a series. "Superstar," a Season Four episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a perfect example.
megagenre: A large, all encompassing, umbrella genre, having little or no distinct subject matter or style or iconography or formulae. The megagenres of television, for example, might be thought of as drama, comedy, animation, reality television.
mindscreen. Bruce Kawin's term for that cinematic narrative technique in which an individual's thought-world become visible on screen. In My Left Foot, for example, Christy Brown's nurse reads his autobiography, and as she reads, the events of the book are enacted.
miniseries: A miniseries is a narrative drama designed to be broadcast in a limited number of episodes. If the distinction is maintained between "series" (describing a group of self-contained episodes) and "serial" (a group of interconnected episodes), the term "miniseries" is an acknowledged misnomer, for the majority of broadcast material presented in the genre is in fact produced in serial form. There are, of course, exceptions. Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), for example, consisted of five narratively independent, but interlocking, episodes which culminate in a final resolution. The miniseries may also be seen as an extended telefilm divided into episodes" (Encyclopedia of Television). See episodic serial.
mise en scéne: All those aspects of a visual narrative that pertain to arrangement of images in a frame.
mobisode: "[A] term first coined by Daniel Tibbets then trademarked by his employer, Fox Broadcasting Company, for a broadcast television episode specially made for viewing on a mobile telephone screen and usually of short duration (from one to three minutes)" (Wikipedia). A new factor in multi-platform storytelling.
montage: The often rapid juxtaposition of images, cutting from one to another to create an effect. Eisenstein believed it to be the essence of film art.
multi-platform (or cross-platform): Originally a designation for software capable of running on different operating systems, now refers as well to media forms appearing on multiple media. Lost, for example, is incarnated not just on television but in books, videogames, board games, websites, internet-based "alternative reality games," cell phones, music CDs, and DVDs.
must-see TV: Phrase created by NBC to describe/market its 1990s Thursday night lineup, which included Seinfeld and ER.
mythology: For Barthes, investigation into the acquired connotative meanings of cultural signs in order to divest them of their acquired, taken-for-granted meanings. For example, television, though an object of wonder at the beginning of its history, is now a commonplace; its significance now so caught up in the culture's semiotic system that it is difficult to describe or explain. A mythology of TV would seek to decode it, to make its connotations again fresh and visible.
narrattee: The specified or unspecified person to whom a narrator is supposedly speaking. May include "the live studio audience" before which a television show was filmed, the perfect listener (the host of a talk show, the anchorman/woman to whom reporters tell their tale), or the "laugh track" which represents the audience's idealized response.
narrative redundancy: The tendency, common to serial narratives like soap operas, to repeat/review previous kernel events in the story.
narrative special effect: Jason Mittell's term for an original form of storytelling--Lost's surprise introduction of flash forwards, for example, or its final season "flash sideways"--intended to provoke buzz and generate fan involvement.
Netflix adultery: Watching ahead of a partner (thus being unfaithful) an item--typically an episode of a television series--in a Netflix streaming cue.
netlet: Any of the newer, smaller networks (UPN, the WB, now the CW) which do not yet offer a full schedule of daily programs.
niche audience: A carefully targeted demographic with narrow interests likely to be attracted to a particular kind of programming and easily targeted by advertisers.
nighttime soap: Melodramas like Dallas (1978-1991) and Dynasty (1981-1989) which attempted to translate the previously daytime-only genre of the soap opera into primetime.
non-synchronous sound: Sound that does not have a visible source in the film's diegesis.
one-er: A long, unbroken take of a scene involving a movie camera but no cutting, which shows the unfolding action without interruption.
pastiche: Describes a work of art made up almost entirely of assembled bits and pieces from other works. According to Frederic Jamieson, the characteristic form of expression in postmodernism.
pay-off: A satisfying return at a later point in the story, offering some sort of closure, to a narrative crux/conundrum introduced earlier.
pilot: "[A] sample episode of a television show, [which] acts as a model for new programming which may be chosen by networks for the following fall's schedule" (Encyclopedia of Television).
podcast: "[A] series of digital-media files . . . distributed over the Internet using syndication feeds for playback on portable media players and computers" (Wikipedia). Many television shows inspire their own official (Ron Moore's podcast commentaries for each episode of Battlestar Galactica for example) or unofficial/fan-produced podcasts.
postmodernism: A cultural style or sensibility, a response to and evolution from modernism, which exhibits--indeed embraces--disunity, superficiality, self-referential, intertextuality, parody, pastiche, recombination, irony, indifference, discontinuity, disrespect, alienation, meaninglessness.
previously on: A recollective montage, ordinarily preceding the teaser and the credit sequence, of moments from already aired episodes of a television series relevant to the episode to follow, intended to get viewers caught up on the narrative so far.
prime-time: The major, evening television viewing hours, ordinarily 8-11 p.m., ET or 7-10 p.m., CT.
producer's medium: Characterization of television in the 1970s and 80s, a period in which powerful producers like Steven Bochco were seen as the individuals primarily responsible for the creation of television.
producerly: John Fiske's designation (Television Culture) for a text which "does not produce a singular reading subject but one that is involved in the process of representation rather than a victim of it," treating its "readers" "as members of a semiotic democracy, already equipped with the discursive competencies to make meanings and motivated by pleasure to want to participate in the process" (95-96).
production values: The quality (or lack thereof) of the visuals, sound, special effects, etc. of a movie or television show--all those things that are dependent on technology, expertise, and money.
quality television: A new concept in 1970s programming, often credited to Grant Tinker and MTM Enterprises, that held that intelligent, well written, sophisticated programs, not LOP, would be most likely to retain viewers.
RCD: A remote control device, any gadget used to control a television set (or other electronic device) at a distance.
readerly: Roland Barthes’ designation for a "text" requiring the active participation of the reader in the “production” of uncertain meaning.
reality television/reality programming: any program which makes use of real people as performers in (usually) contrived situations or scenarios.
recombinant programming: Todd Gitlin's term (Inside Primetime) for the production of a television program by genre-splicing together other, existing forms.
remote control device: See RCD.
scholar-fan. Matt Hills' term (Fan Cultures) for an academic whose interest/enthusiam for the shows he/she investigates exhibit certain fannish behaviors. See also fan-scholar.
season: A single "year" of a television show or series, ordinarily stretching, in the US, from September to May. In the UK and elsewhere abroad, known as "series."
self-referentiality: The tendency of a work of art to become self-conscious, to call attention to itself--its conventions, structure, signification--as part of its own discourse.
sequential series: Once the continuous serial broke free from its daytime prison, migrating to prime-time first in the form of night-time soaps lik e Dallas, the sequential series was born: television schedules were quickly populated by shows “that, had they been made a decade earlier, would almost certainly have been constructed in almost purely episodic terms,” series which “could very often not be shown in an order other than their original one, since events in one episode clearly led to events in another” (Dolan).
serial: "[A]ny narrative with an open-ended story" (Dolan). Existing contemporaneously with the episodic series, ghettoized, however, in the very different mediacosmos of daytime television, continuous serials told stories that “were by contrast, deliberately left hanging at the end of each episode; nearly all plots initiated in a continuous serial were designed to be infinitely continued and extended” (33). Linear, as opposed to the episodic series’ inherent circularity, the continuous serial makes narrative change its raison d’etre.
showrunner: The mastermind, answerable both to the controlling network or production company and to the production team, from directors of photography to writers and directors, in charge of the overall daily management of a television series.
sitcom: A television-specific form of comedy in which the main characters (often members of an ensemble cast) become involved in a "situation" or situations from which they will be extricated by the end of the episode.
slash fan fiction: Fan fiction which links together, usually in sexual situations, pairs of characters who are not so involved in the diegesis. In slash fan fiction, Mulder and Skinner might become lovers, or Spock and Kirk.
spec script: A script, customarily for a different show, submitted as part of an application to become a member of the writing staff for a television show.
spin-off: "The spin-off is a television programming strategy that constructs new programs around characters appearing in programs already being broadcast. In some cases the new venue is created for a familiar, regular character in the existing series (e. g. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. from The Andy Griffith Show). In others, the existing series merely serves as an introduction to and promotion for, a completely new program (Mork & Mindy, from Happy Days)" (Encyclopedia of Television).
spoiler: Information, avidly sought by some fans, available in advance of airing, about narrative developments in an ongoing story.
spoiler whore: A fan who actively seeks out and/or propagates spoilers.
spreadable: Media dispersed widely on a variety of formal and informal platforms.
sticky: Old-model media aggregating in centralized locations (like networks).
super-narrator: The voice, usually, speaking for the network and outside any particular program, whose voice-over gives us directions about "staying tuned."
surfing: Using an RCD to move back and forth across the cable spectrum looking for something of interest. Sometimes called grazing.
syncronous sound: Sound which seems to have a source in the images on screen and in the film's diegesis.
syndication: "[T]he practice of selling rights to the presentation of television programs, especially to more than one customer such as a television station, a cable channel, or a programming service such as a national broadcasting system" (Encyclopedia of Television).
tabloid television: Any exploitative program, usually in the form of a talk show, dealing with sensational subject matter.
target audience: The demographic group a network/channel and its marketers presume will show up for a certain series or show.
tease/teaser: The opening segment of a television episode, customarily coming after the previously on and before the credit sequence, offering an introduction to/setup for the story to follow.
telephilia: A love for television.
television culture: Culture (high and low) created and sustained by television’s circulatory system.
two shot: A shot capable of capturing two individuals talking at least from the waist up.
voice-over: When the voice of one of the characters speaks over the narrative on the sound-track, helping to tell the story. Dexter, for example, uses frequent voice-over, as does Desperate Housewives.
water cooler show: A program which is likely to be talked about in public, generating buzz, after its airing.
webisode: "[A]n episode of a television show that airs initially as an Internet download or stream as opposed to first airing on broadcast or cable television" (Wikipedia). A new factor in multi-platform storytelling.
WGA: "The Writer's Guild Of America (WGA) founded in 1912 is the official trade union and collective bargaining unit for writers in the film and television industries and actively monitors working conditions for writers" (Encyclopedia of Television).
writerly: Roland Barthes’ designation for a traditional "text" with conventional, seemingly fixed meanings.
writers room: The inner sanctum where the writing staff of a television series collaboratively creates episodes, arcs, and seasons.
zap: To skip past segments (usually commercials) of a recorded television program.
zip: To move rapidly through a recorded television program.