At the Popular Media Cultures Symposium in London in 2012 Stacey Abbott presented a paper entitled “I want to do bad things to you”, in which Abbott presented a case for considering the role of credit sequences on television. In part, this excellent presentation stuck with me because of the ways in which the credit sequence can be considered theoretically but I found myself thinking about the parallel implications for the study of the trailer. This blog post is a tentative attempt to put forward some thoughts on the connections between the trailer and the TV credit sequence, while not wishing to step on any toes. Abbott’s paper is due out in a forthcoming edited collection, details of which can be found here. Any quotes that appear here in this blog are from the presented version of the paper in 2012.
While TV credit sequences and trailers are two different elements of two different industries, they can both be considered in Gerard Genette’s terminology: a paratext, a framing devices that are not always considered the primary object of attention but that form a network of elements that combine to inform and shape the interpretation of the text. It must be noted however, that a much broader discussion as to the usefulness and implications of paratexts and paratextuality on contemporary digital media, but this would detract from the purpose of this blog post.
So let’s get some context here: credit sequences can be seen as a disruptive element symbolising the start of a new show on TV alerting viewers to the start or end of a programme. Alternately credit sequences can be seen as cohesive element within a wider schedule of events, say a group of programmes that are viewed together (either on the same channel in succession, or through switching channels as one programme ends to catch the start of anther). This understanding broadly echoes that which Nick Couldry suggests in his book Inside Culture: that in contemporary media ‘the text’ (whatever it may be) should be considered from the perspective of the audience rather than separate entities or elements.
Considering the TV show in isolation from the context of programming, which it needs to be acknowledged is an idealised form for the purposes of discussion, it becomes apparent through Abbott’s work that TV credit sequences function in a similar manner to that of the trailer. Consider that for many the credit sequence may alert viewers to the start of a wanted (or unwanted) programme much in the same manner that film trailers posit a film as desirable to one audience demographic while keeping other audience demographic groups away. The industrial purpose here may differ however; word of mouth and negative reception function differently across the two media form and it may be worth exploring the reception of both empirically, in the future. Moving away from the issue of positioning within a programming schedule to one of audience engagement, Abbott draws attention to the variable and changing nature of the credit sequence that may change series to series providing context to the nature of the series at large: as Abbott notes, the credit sequences use of images from the show or sequenced images created specifically to ‘evoke the content of the series’. In echoing the elements of the series the credits function in a similar manner to trailers; framing visually an idea of a narrative. Just as within the trailer, within the credit sequence we can see a whole host of production information providing an orientation to the various contributors involved such as;
when recurring characters are elevated to the position of regular cast by being included in the opening credits (Amber Benson in Buffy, Andy Hallet in Angel) or the special guest star credits in Dexter inform us of who the villain of the season will be: John Lithgow, Edward James Olmos etc. (Abbott 2012)
In addition to the visual depiction then, written information may be present often the creators; guest writers and directors, as well as regular favoured or hated production personnel in longer credit sequences. All of this information serves to shape the manner of engagement with the series itself and functions in a similar manner to that of the film trailer – albeit in a different context. Yet such series information may change briefly for that which Abbott calls ‘event episodes’. Such episodes may differ significantly from the narrative of the show: such as the musical episode of Buffy entitled Once More with Feeling.
credits involve a transaction between the audience and the creators, as the audience is tasked with reading the imagery to know where they are within the various timelines. (Abbott 2012)
This to me, echoes the earliest understanding of the trailer in which Mary Beth Haralovich and Kathy Root Klaprat suggest that the trailer, through taking elements of a film in a different order; frames and posit questions that only watching the film can answer. The initial jarring effect of seeing a change to serial’s introduction, suggests that questions are raised for viewers. Haralovich & Klaprat’s conclusion however, is based on knowing the narrative of the film at the point of viewing the film’s trailer, and thus only works for retrospective viewing of the film trailer in relation to the film itself. For the case of TV shows though, where some narrative familiarity exists from prior shows, this break from serial normality in the case of event episodes, may well posit questions that only viewing the episode (or rest of the series) can answer. So while Haralovich & Klaprat’s contribution to film trailer studies has been critiqued for this reliance on a known narrative, this work readily applies to credit sequences in which audiences are familiar with narrative elements and it would appear at this initial stage, to be linked with the kind of discontinuous editing that exemplifies many contemporary film trailers.
Finally, when we can watch a TV show’s credit sequence as separate from or connected to the show itself, through the various means of viewer agency afford to us, and we can watch movies with or without the trailer, again through viewing agency, what we are left with is production and narrative framing of a second (often assumed to be ontologically dominant) text – the show or the film. Understanding both the credit sequence, and the trailer in this manner then broadens the boundaries of the trailer and blurs the distinctions between the two forms.
These are just some initial thoughts and of course feedback, thoughts, agreement, and disagreement is strongly encouraged.