As a scholar of television’s promotional discourse, whose relationship with film is limited to that of a consumer, I have followed the Watching the Trailer project with admiring interest, but also a question: how might we account for the television trailer as distinct from the film trailer? Recent developments in the trailing of television content have raised a range of textual, industrial and even ethical questions. Trailers for big budget or ‘event’ television now routinely borrow stylistic tropes from movie trailers (for a randomly selected example see here), sometimes to the extent of playfully undercutting generic expectations. Indeed, cinema-goers increasingly find TV shows being advertised before the feature film alongside the usual upcoming cinematic releases. Just in the UK, we’ve had trailers for TV dramas disguised as spots for consumer products, unseasonably premature teasers (almost to rival Star Wars VII, as discussed in a previous WtT blog post), as well as more and more innovative transmedia tie-ins.
Here, though, I want to focus specifically on ‘trailers’ for the televisual experience itself. As my scare quotes indicate, whether or not the term fits here is open to debate, but I suggest that that debate is a complex one given the dense linking and overlapping of content, brands and technologies that such ‘trailers’ produce. Of course, the technology, channels and broadcasters that deliver content have all occasionally been the subject of promotion throughout TV’s history. But the intense competition in the UK between television service providers like Sky and Freeview, not to mention new web-based rivals like Netflix, has made selling the televisual experience a central and ubiquitous part of the contemporary industry’s make-up. This has given rise to a new kind of promotional text that ‘trails’ television – not simply as content, but as a technological object and a consumer experience.
Over the last couple of years, actor Idris Elba has appeared as the promotional face of Sky, Britain’s leading pay-TV provider. He has featured in several on-air adverts that focus on Sky’s On Demand service. They continue in a long-standing style for Sky adverts, casting a television celebrity as the projected viewer, who is found in a pristine white space (in the video below it’s a library, in others it’s an art gallery or a stylish, minimialist living room), framing the Sky service as a rarefied, individualised and vaguely futuristic experience.
Like many other trailers for service providers, this spot perfectly encapsulates James Bennett’s characterisation of television’s shift to digital as dominated by a ‘discourse of choice’. A whole physical library (actually Stuttgart City Library) is seemingly contained within Sky’s set-top box. But can it be called a ‘trailer’ when there is no specific upcoming content being shown on screen? Another way of approaching this question is by thinking about the very complicated relationship that TV viewing now has with temporality. The ‘temporal subordination’ that the WtT team observe in previous accounts of film trailers (that is, the assumption that the trailer comes first, then the film itself) becomes problematic in a slightly different sense when we consider the unmooring of television content from the fixed schedule. None of the content that Elba namedrops is ‘coming soon’, or even particularly current. In fact, the idea that the content being trailed may have already been seen by others is used as a central selling point of the service (comparable to the ‘audience reaction’ featured in some film trailers).
However, the name dropping of several shows in Elba’s speech and the knowing nod to his own appearance in The Wire, as well as the prominent placement of certain DVD box sets, makes clear how the future-oriented promise of viewing content remains inseparable from the sale of Sky’s pay-TV subscriptions. Of course, on a basic level this expresses a re-elaboration of the old TV industry adage that people watch programmes, not channels (or, indeed, services or technologies). More complex forms of intertextual layering emerge, though, where we find flagship shows being trailed more overtly, and in the process being made to stand for the brand of a particular platform or service.
Take the advert for Netflix below, which appeared on British television in 2014. Here again a well-known television personality demonstrates the viewing experience offered by the platform. However, here he is actually transported onto the sets of some of Netflix’s most successful dramas. We might call this a kind of spoof or mash-up trailer, playing on Gervais’s trademark awkwardness as the Brit failing to ‘make it’ in the various narrative worlds (before finally being seen in his own sitcom Derek, for which Netflix has the second-run rights).
If, as the WtT team report, a common complaint with film trailers is that they mis-represent the film in question, it is interesting that it is precisely this tendency for discrepancy that provides the joke from which Lumley’s sketches derive their promotional effect. While most (official) film trailers at least claim to provide a taste of ‘the real thing’, ‘trailers’ for the digital televisual experience produce texts that are more taxonomically ambiguous, presenting a multi-purpose – and often ironic – mode of address. As television functions more explicitly than ever as a service as much as a textual form, analysing how that service is promoted to the consumer presents valuable questions – only some of which I’ve briefly raised here – about the relationship between content and technology.
Sam Ward has recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the place of imported drama in the promotional discourse surrounding digital television. He has also worked as a Lecturer at the University of Roehampton.