Foregrounding Context Through Paratexts

 CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1 (3) Fall 2013
 Charlotte Howell
 University of Texas at Austin

The naturalized primacy of the text has a firm grip on many students’ relation to media, but I have found using paratexts in the media history classroom to be an excellent counterbalance and modeling tool for seeing film and television texts as historical artifacts.  Students easily understand Jonathan Gray’s argument in Show Sold Separately, “Hype…creates meaning,” and that meaning is clearly historically and industrially situated [1].

The most useful paratexts for teaching students new to media history are overt, intentional, and fleeting, affixed to a particular moment. Promos for channels or programs, trailers, advertisements, and the like instantly read as belonging to a particular historical moment and often convey the state of the industry and the idea of the audience at that time. Thus, they foreground the nexus of negotiation media history courses ask of our students: the fraught interactions among audience, industry, regulation, memory, and content.

For film history courses, promotional material can also shake the assumption of high art students may attach to canonical films. In my film history classes, I will show three trailers for films fitting into a certain Classical Hollywood genre and ask my class to use the trailers and their knowledge of the genre from reading or experience to try and identify the key generic element. For example, for Westerns, I show this trailer for The Searchers in conversation with the trailer for the Western parody, Blazing Saddles. Both emphasize the importance and grandness of the frontier setting as well as the focus on frontier wildness and civilization in tension. When I focus on the science fiction genre in the 1950s as an exploration of contemporary fears and anxieties through genre displacement, I use the trailers for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman to illuminate the range of anxieties—from Communism and conformity to female sexuality and power–and the B-movie budgets and “low” character of science fiction at that time.  The trailers serve as genre shorthand, helping the students identify to whom the film was aimed, for what purpose or reach, and how it was marketed in its initial release. These trailers focus my students on the non-narrative genre characteristics that allow them to understand genre as a negotiation of contextually situated expectations between audience and industry.  When I instead showed clips from the films alone to illustrate genre, it took more guidance to get them to understand the web of the genre’s paratext and its historicity.

In broadcasting history classes, paratexts can help reiterate the various layers of commercialization in the history of American broadcasting. This becomes ever more important as the rise of “Quality television” discourses is becoming one of the primary ways our students relate to television.  When Breaking Bad, The Newsroom, and The Walking Dead are the shows that the students watch and want to discuss, it can occasionally be difficult to get them to take “lower quality” programs and genres as seriously or to examine the industrial and commercial drives behind the “art” of the “quality” shows. Thus, having students examine press releases touting ratings, news articles that discuss the advertising rates for these shows, and synergistic linkages with other programs within the corporate family lays the groundwork for discussing how this era of “Quality television” is shaped by its industrial and historical context and how it is shaped by the long history of broadcasting. These paratexts are evidence of the construction of the stories that the industry wishes to tell about itself, and as such foreground the role of the commercial broadcasting industry even in what many students consider “art.”

This theme of discursive analysis and the self-reflection and –mythologizing of the television industry is even more clearly illustrated by using promotional paratexts for the creation of new networks. Promotional videos for the WB, UPN, and Fox from the 1980s and 1990s are great examples of these stories that the industry tells about itself. Students instantly understand the youth audience, the homogeneity, and the desired brand identity of the WB following its “The Night Is Young” promo.  The story UPN chose to tell through this promotion is an industrial one, of “edginess” and partnership with a high-class film studio, yet the brand identity that UPN became known by owed more to its African-American audience than its studio parentage. Thus, promos can illustrate the unstable nature of branding and the adaptation of a network to find an audience in its nascent stages. Channel promos give a sense of the stories the industry tells itself and the audience about television while foregrounding the fundamental instability of those stories. This helps the students to understand some of the key historiographical tenets: what we think of media’s past (and its present) is founded on many levels of discourse and construction.

In my classes, I often have my students create or include paratexts in creative activities, for broadcasting often focusing on sponsorship as a key “filter through which we must pass on our way to ‘the text itself’” [2].

These activities can help students understand that commercials, product integration, and attempts to appeal to specific demographics are among the ways in which the commercial element of broadcasting media reinforce both the industrial history of radio and television and the significance of the commodity audience in the creation of programming.  More importantly, integrating such sponsor-heavy paratexts with the students’ own creative thinking about programming reinforces that the commercial nature of broadcasting and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Commercialism is not necessarily base and “quality” (in its various historical inflections) needs economic support to occur. Below are some examples of my in-class activities that include paratexts as part of my students’ thinking. I have provided links to some of the handouts I use and assess comprehension through in-class discussion and dialogue in small groups first then as a whole.

  1. To reinforce my history of radio and television students’ understanding of the golden age of radio, I have them build a day-to-night network schedule, including sponsorship, and how it appears in one program per hour. The sponsors and strategies must align with actual historical practices.
  2. When those students work in a group to “pitch” a modern equivalent of the 1950s suburban sitcom, I make sure they include products that would be advertised during the show, the audience such an advertisement would target, what channel it would appear on, and when it would air.
  3. When teaching the birth of the netlets, I have them build their own network and imagine the various paratexts (commercials, bumpers, intertextual references) that would construct the brand and its appeal to their chosen desired audience.
  4. In an internet scavenger hunt for the convergence era, I ask them to find an example of a twitter conversation that influenced the text of a television show.

These paratextual assignments allow me to assess whether or not the students are integrating the interrelation of audience, text, industry, and context into their critical thinking about broadcast history.

The understanding and articulation of the negotiation of imagined audience, actual audience, and industry relationship to both through programming is one of the most important learning outcomes of my class. In explaining why they generated for this assignment a particular sponsor, brand, or mode of advertising for a particular text and how such sponsorship would be presented and to whom it is intended, they must acknowledge that texts are always seeking to address a certain audience, and that that audience is constructed by socio-cultural and industrial history. Paratexts not only challenge the centrality of texts, they also foreground their context and usefulness as artifacts in ways that indicate historical learning as media history students recognize, articulate, or replicate them.


[1] Gray, Show Sold Separately, (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 3.

[2] Ibib, 17.

Charlotte Howell is a Ph.D. student in the department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published “Value in Brokenness: Fractured Subjectivities in Contemporary American Telefantasy” in Networking Knowledge and “The Gospel of the Winchesters (And Their Fans): Neoreligious Fan Practices and Narrative in Supernatural” in Kinephanos. Charlotte has worked for FlowTV and InMediaRes, was a co-coordinator of the Flow Conference 2010, and is the graduate assistant for Media Industries, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal launching in 2014.


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