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2— Saturday Morning Television: Endless Consumption and Transmedia Intertextuality in Muppets, Raisins, and the Lasagna Zone
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previous hit Transmedia next hit Intertextuality and the Child

The most casual glance at Saturday morning American network television yields many examples of previous hit transmedia next hit intertextuality among television, movies, and toys. Even in the early days of radio and television, the purchase of a sponsor's product or a program-related premium (like the Captain Midnight decoder offered in 1942, or the Captain Video board game and Cisco Kid writing tablet offered in 1950) was frequently used to rate a show's popularity, but by the 1980s this intertextuality and its commodification had been greatly elaborated and intensified. The most extreme case was the so-called program-length commercial, half an hour of TV cartoons specifically designed to sell a new line of toys (increased sales of which sometimes brought profitable kickbacks to the stations that aired them).[2] Such shows were made possible by the deregulation of American broad-casting in the 1980s and, more specifically, the elimination by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) of its ban against product-based programs in 1984. In 1987, however, the courts ordered the FCC to investigate this phenomenon, an inquiry that the Children's Television Act of 1990 (passed


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on October 18, 1990) required be concluded by March 1991 (that is, within 180 days after the act became law).[3]

The TV spinoff from a successful movie (and vice versa) is a more generally accepted form of tie-in, perhaps because the profit motive is less blatant, even though spinoffs frequently involve ancillary toys and crossovers into commercials. Recent examples can be found on all three major networks: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Dink, the Little Dinosaur" (from The Land Before Time ) on CBS, "The Karate Kid" on NBC, and "Beetlejuice," "Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters," and "The Wizard of Oz" on ABC. Although such intertextuality is not restricted to children's programming but pervades all of commercial television (as John Fiske and Mimi White have demonstrated most convincingly),[4] I believe that it probably has the greatest impact on young children. Even when young viewers do not recognize many of the specific allusions, they still gain an entrance into a system of reading narrative—that is, a means of structuring characters, genres, voices, and visual conventions into paradigms, as well as models for interpreting and generating new combinations. As Althusser has argued, while most subjects (both youngsters and adults) remain unaware of the ideological implications of their own schemata or the degree to which they have been shaped by their culture, this very lack of awareness helps to naturalize those cognitive categories, making it more difficult for the subject to see beyond them.[5]

Applebee claims that with each new story we assimilate we must accordingly alter, or accommodate, the schemata, genre, or category to which we assign it, an act that necessarily changes our "representations of experience." He argues that "we build the world through our accumulated record of experience, our systems of implications of previous activity" and that the "adequacy of these representations is a


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crucial factor in determining our ability to function in that world," that is, "to understand and to some extent control what happens to us."[6]

While this cognitive process continues to operate in adults, early childhood is when the basic categories for the "construction of reality" and their organization into "hierarchic systems" are established. Piaget claims that the first major shift into an operational mode of thought occurs around age seven, and Applebee applies this perception specifically to the child's understanding of narrative.

As children become aware of their responses to a story, they begin to classify them into categories with clearly marked attributes. It is these categories which seem to be evaluated, rather than the specific details of the story itself. . . . The selection of attributes sometimes seems "analytic," focusing on parts of a work such as its "rhyme" or "rhythm," but these are used to define a class (of "works that have rhyme" . . .) rather than as a means of exploring the structure of a particular work. Other attributes which children select tend to be situational; content is treated literally rather than as embodying a point or message of a wider generality. Stories are enjoyed because they are about "cowboys" or "families" or "trains," not because they are about "how families work" or "problems of good and evil."[7]

Yet as Dore has shown in his analysis of Emily's presleep monologues in Narratives from the Crib , even in the speech acts of a two-year-old one can find the assimilation and development of "not only the components of grammar (phonology, syntax, and semantics) but also the process of genre (of thematic construction, of stylistic rendering, of discursive processes)."[8] Dore claims that using "the notion of speech genre as the largest manageable unit of linguistic functioning" will help us discover the "deep functions" of language.


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Although he acknowledges that "genre performance is less fixed, less stable, and less computational than grammar," he states that it is more clearly socially determined and so more clearly reveals how children are "acquired" by language. "Our field needs at least a more deeply interactionist view of language development. . . . We need a theory of what happens between speakers and, especially, a theory of the interaction between how the child acquires language cognitively and how a society acquires the child functionally."[9]

This explanation is precisely what Dore hopes to achieve with his theory of speech genres and what I hope to achieve with the following analysis of genre and intertextuality in children's television programming. I believe that the extensive emphasis on genre and intertextuality in Saturday morning television helps to facilitate cognitive development, yet at the same time it associates this developmental progress with consumerism (a connection that the child retains in later life), thereby enabling our consumerist culture "to acquire the child functionally." As Susan Willis observes:

Children learn and want to be consumers at an ever earlier age. . . . Today, two- and three-year-olds request toys regularly. They know exactly what they want and the brand names as well. . . . It does not matter whether the child actually buys the toy or merely voices desire: "I want that!" In advanced consumer society, . . . we consume with our eyes, taking in commodities every time we push a grocery cart up and down the aisles in a supermarket, or watch TV, or drive down a logo-studded highway.[10]

As we saw in chapter 1, my son Victor's first recognition of Bill Cosby on a billboard already marked him as a two-year-old consumer; he has remained eager to buy Jell-O or any other product promoted by this familiar paternal celebrity, no matter whether Cosby appears in commercials, in his


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"picture page" reading promos, in his own popular TV series, or in movies like Ghost Dad . Thus within patriarchal consumer culture, Cosby extends the "dialogues with the father," which Victor interactively reenvoices both at home and in the marketplace. The pervasive intertextuality in children's television also enables the shows to address viewers of different generations and to retain spectators as they mature, by offering new meanings and new cognitive pleasures, especially in reruns. This dynamic is seen explicitly on Nickelodeon, the so-called "children's network," particularly in their ads for syndicated "classics" like "Lassie," "Mister Ed," "Green Acres," and "Bewitched."

The dynamic is especially strong in the revival of "Looney Tunes," where intertextual allusions from Warner Brothers cartoons made in the thirties, forties, and fifties are recontextualized in the ever-expanding commercial intertextuality of the 1980s and 1990s. Writing about the original Warner Brothers cartoons, Martin Rubin has argued that "this tendency toward explicit intertextuality reached its most intense and overt form" in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which was "a transitional period for the WB cartoon—between the Fleischeresque amorphousness and secondhand Disneyisms of the early '30s . . . and the fully developed personality animation of the mid-'40s and after." Thus he claims that intertextuality helped to create distinctive "stars"—"the contemporary, streetwise personae of the WB characters," in contrast to the "eternal, mythologized comic archetypes" of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Rubin acknowledges that most of the "topical references to popular songs, sayings, movies, plays, radio shows, books, magazines, celebrities, political figures, advertising slogans, etc." are no longer recognizable to spectators today, a fact that makes the cartoons more easily appropriable to the new consumerist context.[11] This appropriation has generated numerous new


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products bearing the image of Road Runner, Coyote, and Bugs Bunny, which are designed to compete in toy stores and video shops with similar ware featuring not only Disney's Mickey and Donald, but also more contemporary stars like Muppet Babies, Roger Rabbit, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A similar case of cultural reinscription is found in "PeeWee's Playhouse," where the intertextual meanings of inset Fleischer cartoons from the 1930s are transformed by their new postmodernist context, blurring historical distinctions or at least making them seem insignificant.

This commodified multigenerational structure calls into question the rigid boundaries that John Fiske draws between intertextuality and direct allusions:

The theory of intertextuality proposes that any one text is necessarily read in relationship to others and that a range of textual knowledges is brought to bear upon it. These relationships do not take the form of specific allusions from one text to another and there is no need for readers to be familiar with specific or the same texts to read intertextually. Intertextuality exists rather in the space between texts.[12]

While I agree that the recognition of specific allusions is not an essential condition for all intertextual relations, to exclude it (as Fiske suggests) is unfortunate, for that would prevent us from seeing how intertextuality can function as a form of commodity formation. Within particular social and economic contexts, the recognition of specific allusions makes certain intertextual relations pay off—especially at the point of purchase.

Saturday morning television also undermines the distinction Fiske makes between horizontal forms of intertextuality (among primary texts) organized around genre or character,


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on the one hand, and vertical intertextuality "between a primary text, such as a television program or series, and other texts of a different type that refer explicitly to it" (such as publicity, station ID's, journalistic articles, and criticism), on the other.[13] The conflation of these various forms of intertextuality into a single commercial system erases the boundaries between primary and secondary texts, enabling primary texts (such as television series and video games) to function as promotional material for other primary texts (such as movies and toys), and vice versa. It was precisely this kind of conflation that made possible the program-length commercial. Thus, the problem of decommodifying children's television cannot be addressed simply by limiting the amount of commercial time that broadcasters can sell or by demanding a crackdown on the program-length commercial—two of the regulations introduced by the Children's Television Act of 1990. Although well intentioned, these measures are merely "Band-Aid" solutions. As long as children's programming is firmly embedded in the larger intertextual structures of American commercial television, it will reproduce consumerist subjects. To supplement these legal measures, perhaps what is needed is an educational program in elementary and secondary schools on how to read media images interactively, a program that enables children to understand how meaning is constructed and encourages them to question and negotiate those readings that are privileged by the text and its corporate sponsors.


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