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New Shows, New Paratexts, 1: Online Quizzes and Polls

September 5th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

I really need to blog more often. What better excuse than the imminent start of a new television season, complete with lots of yummy paratexts to analyze and criticize?

So, without further ado, let me start by discussing the websites for the new network shows.

Overall, they’re a pretty boring lot. You have the standard elements – cast information, character profiles, “sneak peaks” and “exclusive” video that actually seems to be everywhere online, and encouragements to “Friend us now on Facebook!” (when, sorry, Last Man Standing, I don’t want to be your friend) or to follow some or other cast member on Twitter. Most of the sites look like they were put together at speed, too, with little interest in doing anything other than saying, “Hi, look, there’s a show. Wanna watch?” So, overall there’s not too much to discuss.

Terra Nova proves the only true exception, and I’ll get to that in a future post. But in the meantime, I’ve been fascinated by the quizzes and polls that a few lone sites have (The Secret Circle, Playboy Club, Whitney, Prime Suspect, and Up All Night) in addition to the other elements. The quizzes and polls interest me, since they’re subtle ways of suggesting what the show is all about, disciplining our understanding and (since they’re quizzes) “knowledge” about the shows before they hit the air. What do they say?

Sub-dividing, Secret Circle has a “Which Type of Witch Are You?” quiz, in which your answers determine which character you’re most like; Playboy Club and Up All Night have quizzes with actual correct or incorrect answers; and Whitney and Prime Suspect have polls on favorite past shows and characters. Let’s take each in turn.

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What Kind of Witch Are “You”? Secret Circle

Secret Circle’s quiz makes it absolutely clear what kinds of issues the show will cover, and who should or should not be watching. It makes it clear, first, that the intended audience is female and straight, or at least someone adopting that viewing position. While some of the questions use gender neutral language (asking about your “significant other” and “their” issues), all of a sudden, you’re then hit with “Your friend’s boyfriend has a crush on you, what do you do?” with the first possible answer being to “Tell your friend and convince her to dump him” (emphasis added). The once gender-neutral responder is now assumed to be female and straight.

As the above question suggests, moreover, many of the questions concern themselves with one’s dating life and with managing friendships. Indeed, there’s an interesting irony that a quiz about what kind of witch you are includes only one question that might seem witch-ish (“My favorite insect is …” alludes, to me at least, to possible familiars), as instead it redefines a witch’s life, and witch types as being determined by how one responds to a partner’s infidelity (where turning him into a newt isn’t offered as a possibility), deals with the new girl in town, gets home from a party when one’s ride has disappeared (no, broomsticking it isn’t an option), and interacts with one’s friends.

On one hand, this prepares the audience for the show. If you thought Secret Circle would really be about cauldrons and such, you’re given a quick wake up call that at its heart it will be about dating, being a good friend, and whether you’re being totally rude to your peers. On the other hand, though, the questions therefore subtly start the process of redefining what a witch is. After all, the quiz doesn’t ask what kind of witch you would be – it asks what kind of witch you are. When juxtaposed to the poster campaign’s tag line of “What’s your power?”, powers are redefined as social, and relationship-based, not about changing the weather or so forth. “You” (as the young straight female or presumed young straight female wannabe) are already presumed to be a witch – both a statement about your own powers as young woman, and a welcoming in to the secret circle of playing witch on which the show is about to embark.

And one more thing about you – apparently, “you” are white. All of the witches who you might be are white. Me, I’m a white woman called Diana. I have a strong moral compass. Glad we got that sorted out.

Finally, I have to note with amusement that one of the questions seems there wholly for audience research purposes:

Now that we’ve all agreed it’s D, let’s move on …

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“No, Honey, I Watch it for the History. Honestly”: Playboy Club

Both Playboy Club and Up All Night, by comparison, offer quizzes at their sites with actual correct and incorrect answers. About 15 questions are fired your way, with extra points awarded for speedy answers, and since you’re also not told the correct answer, you’re left needing to take the quiz over and over again if you want to know the answers.

Playboy Club’s quiz is all about the history of Playboy, asking questions such as what Hugh Hefner wanted to call his personal jet (The Big Bunny, for those of you playing at home), when the magazine started (1953), where the first Playboy Club outside of America was (The Philippines), and what animal Hef had wanted to use as mascot at first (a stag).

Its purpose seems to be to frame Playboy Club as Historical (yes, there is a capital H there), while also building up the mythology of Playboy as corporation. I imagine that anyone playing this quiz will have never written a quiz on Playboy before, but that’s sort of the point – there’s something of an act of defiance against Playboy’s detractors here, to turn Playboy into a legitimate, interesting entity worthy of questions, and about which one should know some trivia. This would seem to be one of the hurdles the show faces as a whole – Playboy on network TV? Tsk, tsk, tsk. But the quiz plays its part – small and probably quite inconsequential though it might be – to render Playboy an object of interest. Judgment is neither passed on the company nor called for by the quiz, which instead models a position of curious engagement. If generations of men have excused their interest in the magazine by insisting that it has “great interviews,” the quiz here tries to give a little veneer of intellectual, historical interest to a show that is otherwise selling itself with bunny tails and curvy blondes.

Meanwhile, since all the questions are about history, and none about the seemingly fictional world in which the show is set, we’re encouraged to elide the two, and to see the show as entirely historical, and as interested in documenting a part of American history and culture. It stakes a firm claim of realism.

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“Starring the Straight Star of Arrested Development”: Up All Night

Up All Night uses the same question engine and style (versus the next two NBC shows, which both use another engine), but here to test the player’s knowledge about three of the central cast members, Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph. Up All Night goes all-in on making its cast its selling point. Questions test our knowledge of their comedy chops. Tellingly, Arrested Development features in two questions, while the soon-cancelled Running Wilde is conspicuously absent. We’re also invited to see Rudolph as multi-talented, with questions about her famous musician mother, and her own musical abilities. These are three pretty special people, the quiz tells us.

Interestingly, too, the quiz asks us if we know Arnett’s famous spouse (Amy Poehler) and how many children they have together (2). Presumably, these questions are designed to help set up his authenticity as father of a newborn in the show. I do find myself wondering, though, if they’re also there in part to counter a more recent role of his (which is not asked about), as the gay executive Devon Banks in (NBC’s own!) 30 Rock, and in general to counter his rather camp style as a comedian, to give him straight credentials in time for a role as father.

A final thought on this one: why doesn’t Nick Cannon rank as worthy of even a single question in the quiz? Insert your own answer here.

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“Wow: All the Best Shows Ever Are from NBC and the US!”: Prime Suspect and Whitney

The final type of quiz is actually a poll. Prime Suspect has one of these, asking viewers about their favorite “Leading Ladies of the Law,” while Whitney offers two, one that posits the comeback of the sitcom, then asking readers about their favorite sitcom, the other that asks about favorite television couples.

All three polls attempt a not so subtle move of muscling in on the category in question. After all, why would Whitney ask what your favorite television couple is if it honestly believed you’d show no interest in the couple that stars in this show? In this respect, they’re all pretty forward in pretending that Whitney is already “a classic sitcom” with a fantastic small screen couple, and that Prime Suspect has already provided us with one of television’s “leading ladies of the law.”

On that last note, I’m personally ired by the choices on offer, and those not on offer. Because, you know, I’m actually quite keen to agree with the poll that Prime Suspect has indeed offered us one of the very best female detectives (can I not use the lingo of “ladies of the law,” please?). That is, the British version did. Amusingly, though, Jane Tennyson is nowhere to be seen in the list of possible picks! Is it any wonder that some of our students just don’t get how and when to cite things when cases like this work as their models?

That leads to a larger issue, though, of what selections are offered. First, let’s switch over to the Whitney polls, where the desire to fly the network flag is obvious. All of the options for both questions are NBC shows, leading to what to many television fans would seem the blasphemy of listing, for instance, Just Shoot Me! and Third Rock from the Sun as possible classic sitcoms, while leaving The Simpsons, Roseanne, All in the Family, and I Love Lucy off the list. And yet the preamble for this particular poll – “The sitcom is making a comeback!” – tells us what’s going on here: namely, that NBC is insisting that it is the top location for truly fantastic, “classic” sitcoms, and that it’s “back” with another one.

There’s an amusing tension between the two Whitney polls, at the same time, however. See, many of the suggested favorite couples are from recent or contemporary NBC shows, including The Office, Chuck, Community, 30 Rock (more on that later), Friday Night Lights, Parks and Recreation, and Parenthood. Yet its slate of current sitcoms is wholly absent from the suggested list of “classics.” Especially when the sitcom poll announces that the sitcom is making a comeback, this poses the question of where NBC posits its current shows. Do they not rank highly enough? Perhaps Whitney is a different style of sitcom (“classic”), to be distinguished from 30 Rock and co., and hence we’re being warned of the fact … yet then why are those other shows invoked so readily in the other poll? A little bit of muddiness in the marketing message here, methinks.

Trying to gauge intended audience by the picks on offer works slightly differently with the Prime Suspect poll, which offers Cagney and Lacey, Kono Kalakaua (from Hawaii Five-O), Shakima Greegs (The Wire), Julie Barnes (The Mod Squad), Stacy Sheridan (TJ Hooker), Tina Russo (Hill Street Blues), Olivia Benson (Law and Order: SVU), Anita Van Buren (Law and Order), and Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson (Police Woman). First, I’d note that NBC is willing to acknowledge non-NBC greats here (all hail Kima Greggs!). But it’s also quite an interesting group, mixed in time period and (to a small degree) ethnicity in a way that contrasts quite loudly with Whitney’s all-white, mostly contemporary favorite TV couples. The assumed viewer here seems to be a fair bit older than Whitney’s (s/he knows Police Woman and The Mod Squad, not just Saved by the Bell and Facts of Life), and there’s an explicit pitch to the “quality drama” viewer through references to The Wire and Hill Street Blues. As with Secret Circle, then, the quiz works overtime to summon a specific audience.

To get back to my earlier ire, though, note that all three polls restrict the choices to American shows. Jane Tennyson may be missing, but so is any other acknowledgment of a TV world outside the US, even when an appeal to high cultural quality drama viewers is being made, and even when some options have traveled the Atlantic anyways (if Jim and Pam from the US Office make the cut, why don’t Tim and Dawn from the UK original? How about Basil and Sybil Fawlty?). This is yet more evidence of the American television industry just simply not getting what it means to be international or to address anything but an American audience (or to imagine its American audience as anything but painfully unaware of the rest of the world).

And if our analysis of the Secret Circle quizzes began by noting the gendering and heteronormativity there, it’s still here and going strong. Leading “ladies”? Really? And how telling that all of the “favorite couples” are opposite-gender pairings. Will from Will and Grace makes the list … yet not with any of his gay partners, as he’s disciplined into being straight for the purposes of the list (though, to be fair, that’s kind of the vibe the show went for). And the only slightly non-straight couple on the list – Jenna and her cross-dressing boyfriend Paul from 30 Rock – are tucked away neatly in the very last available spot.

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Conclusion

The great thing with writing a blog entry instead of an essay is that it doesn’t need a stirring, brilliant conclusion. So I don’t have one here. But I hope to have shown how these most banal of extras — quizzes and polls — do quite a lot of work to hail a specific audience, and to assign preferable race, gender, and sexuality to them.

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