…and It Made Zoom! How the Corona Pandemic Enforces New Forms of Television Entertainment.
One of the most important effects of the Covid-19 pandemic from the perspective of media and cultural studies is the exposure and visualization of all processes that show that culture is a result of complex collective, i.e. social processes. On the one hand, this becomes apparent on a large scale when, for example, collective orientation patterns and a common language for this global event first have to be (re)developed. It is not without reason that within the first few weeks of the European lockdown, the search was on incessantly for precursors, causes, consequences and coping strategies for this global, now: pan-demic, event. Not at least also this blog, “Learning from Corona”, is an attempt to give Sars-Cov-2 a profile and a vocabulary that contributes to the historical classification of the pandemic.
But cultural production itself – wherever it has not come to a complete standstill – has also been transformed. This can be seen most clearly in popular culture and especially in the audio-visual media. A distinction must be made here between the formats. While one-off productions, such as film productions, were largely suspended and postponed, both in terms of production and distribution, serial formats, especially those with a daily, weekly and sometimes monthly publication cadence, were often continued under changed circumstances. This is particularly evident in classic entertainment formats such as late night and comedy shows.
For example, a large part of American late night shows have been broadcast from the private rooms of the respective hosts for several months. This applies, for example, to the – in the meantime appropriately renamed – show “Stephen Colbert at Home”, here a clip of the show from 25 June 2020.
But also “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver or Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” and many others have followed this example for quite some time. The same can also be found in the German-speaking world. For example, the German cabaret show “Die Anstalt” was compiled entirely via video streams on 24 March 2020. What is striking here is that, at least in more recent episodes, there has been an attempt at normalization in that the two hosts, Max Uthoff and Claus von Wagner, filmed with a core team but still without an audience in the studio, while guests continued to be connected via Zoom, the video communication platform that became omnipresent during the pandemic.
Not only these highly segmented shows aimed at live audiences, but also narrative formats such as sitcoms sometimes make use of the new audio-visual stylistic device of the Zoom session – such as the courtroom TV series “All Rise” “Parks & Recreation” (which has been revived for a corona special broadcast), or the game development based show “Mythic Quest – Raven’s Banquet” which attracted attention with a quarantine special broadcast (here the trailer for this show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7GqnRzF01s).
What (preliminary) conclusions can be drawn from this forced adaptation of media formats to ‘home recording’?
- On the one hand, the new design using Zoom, Skype or the mobile phone camera (in 16/18/21:9 format) leads to the dissolution of the boundaries between private and public sphere, between actor/actress and character and between private space and film set/studio. Admittedly, there are attempts by the actors/actresses to contain these boundaries, for example when rooms with particularly neutral backgrounds (white walls etc.) are sought. But there are also strategies for integrating these spaces into the filmic narrative. Stephen Colbert changes a bicycle tire in his garage, the megalomaniac game developer star Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney) switches to a work session in the whirlpool in “Mythic Quest”, while his main developer seems to be on the verge of breaking down in her small apartment due to loneliness. The negative aspects of a ‘Zoom culture’, such as “Zoom Fatigue”, can be formulated and depicted particularly well here.
It should be noted here: this form of representation is also staged, i.e. even if the location of the shot is the private rooms of the respective actors/actresses, these are arrangements that have been created according to the specifications of a script. The lonely programmer sits in the dark, while at the same time she is presented with a large, spacious garden by her boss. In this way, the private space dissolves into fiction to a certain extent, but only as far as the real owner of this private space allows.
At the same time, social boundaries are also levelled out at first glance: each conference participant has the same rights in principle, each split screen has the same dimensions (unless the software is set so that the person speaking at the moment automatically appears in close-up). Differences are only newly defined here, often through the technical competence of the respective characters (for example, when older participants cannot instantly handle the new medium).
- Secondly, it can be stated that a changing dispositive also changes the way of telling a story. Whereas, according to Michel Foucault, the dispositif was initially understood as the institutionalized framework (preformed by power relations) within which social communication takes place, it is now used in the context of film studies in particular to describe in a very abstract way the topical and technical arrangement of film production and consumption. Malte Hagener, professor of Media Studies in Marburg, emphasizes that film generally takes up new technical developments and integrates them aesthetically. This is also the case here, especially since the viewer is now accustomed to an“aesthetic of many windows behind and above each other” due to the profound medialization of the working and everyday worlds. Here, the split screen develops from a form of exceptionalism (in action films, conflicting strands of action are positioned against each other and at the same time the compulsion of linear narration is abolished) to a form of unifying homogeneity (all participants in a narrative are simultaneously involved with the same communication technology). The split screen thus becomes a symbol of the profound digital networking of modern societies, as Hans J. Wulff attested for the film Wall Street (1986). The presentation of the narrative in the context of the Zoom aesthetics once again reinforces the reference to the everyday experiences of the audience – here, too, a dissolution of clear boundaries between private space and the public takes place: audience and actors/actresses move closer together, the actions become even more empathetic. This is further intensified by the fact that the camera frames show the performers mainly in a static frontal view – the impression is created that the viewer is directly addressed: the fourth wall is not broken through, but is nevertheless made semipermeable.
At the same time, these “general conditions” are also played with – for example in “Mythic Quest”, when a huge mechanical puzzle game spanning the single screen is performed in the finale of the episode, or the technical problems of such connections are playfully integrated into the narrative. Here, the split screen becomes a technological expression of social distance and identitarian disruption, and at the same time of overcoming them. They are at the same time an expression of separation, but also an attempt to maintain communication. The technical construction of such a film production, as much becomes clear from interviews, is just as complex as in the classical studio. In addition, quarantine and hygiene conditions must be observed here, which means that the recording must be broken down so that the actors/actresses can also master it technically.
In the context of talk shows, there is also the fact that viewers in the local studios are absent. This means that an important part of the choreography of the shows is missing: Camera pans to the audience are missing as well as the applause, laughter and clapping that can be heard in the background. The hosts, whether they are filming from the fuselage in the studio or from their living rooms, seem uprooted,‘displaced’, and at the same time overburdened with the task of entertaining the invisible masses at the receivers without the feedback of the audience. The places themselves also seem to be transformed into “non-places” (Marc Augé): without an audience, (at home) with a neutral background, with only the presenter at the centre, they seem like places without any history, relation or identity, communicatively one-sided, even neglected.
- Finally, in the continuations of pop-cultural media production under pandemic conditions, it becomes clear that this industrial complex is characterized by a strong structural and economic compulsion: Broadcasting slots have to be filled in order to avoid gaps in the flow of daily programming. The cause of this pressure of perpetual production is a capitalist understanding of entertainment and culture, according to which (in the spirit of Niklas Luhmann) media must be talked about in a self-reproducing loop so that they do not lose their social and economic relevance: something that is no longer a topic also generates less income. In contrast to cinema production, where the division of labour and the dependence on large teams has reached a level that makes it impossible to work singly out of quarantine, it seems that such smaller serial formats have still retained a degree of infrastructural adaptability in production that generally allows them to do so.
In general, it seems that the smaller the production effort, the more likely it is that the production of pop culture can be organized from the living room. It’s no coincidence that countless individual artists of pop music and classical music (such as Michael Stipe, Die Ärzte, Das Lumpenpack, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, Igor Levit and Daniel Hope) have discovered the distribution of videos via streaming channels for themselves, whereby here too Zoom aesthetics and a certain DIY attitude are cross-artistic features of this ‘corona culture’.
It remains to be seen whether and what lasting influence the pandemic will have on further developments in the production of pop culture, or whether this kind of narrative will become established and become an integral part of pop cultural repertoires. It is already apparent, however, that storytelling out of quarantine also makes creative – necessity makes inventive, as the saying goes.