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MDST Analysis Paper
In this essay, I analyze fundamental concepts of media as portrayed by the show 30 Rock. This critically-acclaimed NBC comedy started in 2006, starring head writer and creator Tina Fey, fresh off SNL, along with a motley crew including Alec Baldwin, Tracy Jordan, Jane Krakowski, and others. In the show, Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, head writer of NBC sketch-comedy “The Girlie Show (TGS) with Tracy Jordan.” We follow her struggles with fellow TGS writers, actors, and boss, Jack Donaghy, who is the VP of NBC and Microwave Programming for General Electric. 30 Rock, with now more than 100 episodes watched by an average 5,383,000 viewers per show (May, Bite.ca), has been nominated for 79 awards, of which it has won 29.
What sets the show apart is its satirical presentation of many media concepts (and problems) we see in reality. One can even say that by mocking such concepts, 30 Rock tells its story in an “oppositional code,” as Stuart Hall would say. Its ability to take our preconceived notions of media practices and flip them around certainly makes it ripe for analysis – but more on this later. For now, we will examine how concepts such as semiotics, ideology, identity, and media and ownership are represented within the show.
Let us start with semiotics, or the study of meaning in media. Semiotics incorporates codes, signs, and the articulation of those signs within a certain medium, which we, the audience, are supposed to “decode,” or understand. For example, the code, or system of meaning, of nightly news might be “sophistication, intelligence, knowledge, controversy, and entertainment.” Therefore, the signs we see, or the physical representations of the code, might include a handsome reporter, expensive suits, glasses, dramatic music, flashy titles, and serious demeanors. From the articulation, or connection, of all these signs, we are supposed to decode the message that the news agencies want us to decode, known as the hegemonic-code (Hall, Encoding/Decoding, 47) – basically, that the news should be taken seriously, but should also grab your attention lest you stray to another program and not see the advertisements. 30 Rock is replete with signs based on the show’s own code of “entertainment, intertextuality, comedy, opposition, and mockery.” For example, the soundtrack to 30 Rock feels up-beat, jazzy, loud, big-band-like, and frankly, a little stupid (what with the “bah-bahs” of a choir). Via articulation to visual signs, like the characters or the setting, the music allows us to perceive the gaudy ridiculousness surrounding the story. Another example of this is 30 Rock’s faux-program, “TGS with Tracy Jordan.” It is loosely based on SNL sketches, meant to be flamboyant, hilarious, and controversial. Knowing this code for TGS, we can predict that the signs – namely, the actors, writers, setting, and producers – will be surrounded by mischief and comedy. Indeed, even the actual poster-sign of TGS is big, colorful, and completely dominated by the name Tracy Jordan (meant to garner popularity from his stardom). And as it turns out, that is exactly how the show operates. In both of these examples, the creators encoded the show and its characters to feel bizarrely lovable, and our decoding of that same message places us under the hegemonic or preferred meaning – what the creators wanted us to decode.
On the other hand, 30 Rock’s internal storyline is almost entirely oppositionally-encoded to present day media and politics. By this, I mean that the writing refuses to follow the typical rituals and guidelines of media; it does not know the meaning of “politically correct.” (Notice, however, that although the show is oppositionally-encoded, the audience’s positive decoding of that message still places the viewers under the hegemonic position.) Some ripe examples of this include Jack’s perpetual referring to the President as “Comrade Obama,” or Kenneth the Page’s belief that he is in fact Muslim. But perhaps the best exemplar is the entire episode “Cooter,” where Jack briefly works for a department under the Bush Administration that cannot afford pens. In addition, it is housed under a leaky roof that the top official insists “isn’t leaking – he looked into it.” (30 Rock, “Cooter” Season 2, Episode 15). This type of encoding is more prominent these days, especially with sitcoms and sketches, but no other show mocks these controversial issues quite like 30 Rock. Even the Daily Show has been criticized for not having enough coverage of emerging topics (like femininity, for example, as feminist pop-culture site Jezebel argued) (Carmon, Jezebel.com). This encoding is largely responsible for 30 Rock’s ideal audience of 18-49 (Downey, Media Life Magazine) and for its prime position on the Thursday night comedy line-up (Gilbert, Critics’ Corner), which advertisers are most interested in.
Next, 30 Rock incorporates copious amounts of intertextuality, or the connection of multiple texts within one medium. The writing inserts it in so subtly and frequently, that for many, 30 Rock is one of the coldest mediums out there. By this, I mean that the viewer must continuously participate, or truly think about and digest what he just heard, in order to understand it (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 22). Examples of this include the character Dr. Spaceman (pronounced spa-cheh-men) running to a patient to the tune of intense classical music (a reference to “Amadeus”), appearances of other NBC shows’ characters (such as Matt Lauer, Brian Williams, and, previously, Conan O’Brien), and a countless number of one-liners referencing other media, governments, and texts. In order to actually understand what the characters just said, outside knowledge must be brought in, therefore necessitating participation and making it a “cold” medium. One of the most prominent consequences of this is 30 Rock’s limited “competence” level – the audience’s capacity to decode the messages. The show’s oppositional encoding is so abnormal (and we are so used to the status quo of hegemonic encoding) that many times we misunderstand or completely ignore what the characters just said. Indeed, half of the time I have no idea what the characters reference. For this reason, 30 Rock has done particularly well with viewers who make above 100,000 a year (Hibbard, The Hollywood Reporter) – an indication of higher education and more knowledge about media and politics. With their backgrounds, these “elites” can actually decode the intertextuality efficiently (this therefore places much of the communication from 30 Rock to its viewers under the cultural model, for the audience needs common cultural ground to decipher the messages). Another effect is the show’s atrocious translatability, or its ability to be understood by other cultures. Without a solid comprehension of American media and politics, half of the show would go amiss. For example, when aired in Germany for the first time, less than 5000 people watched it, giving it a rating of 0.0 (Clark, ScreenCrave.com)! Nevertheless, 30 Rock’s appeal among American viewers has proved great enough to keep the show alive.
Now, we will briefly talk about ideology and identities within 30 Rock. Ideology is a particular way of thinking and seeing the world (MediaMaking, 193). Each set of characters in the show has its own ideology. The writers (including Liz Lemon), for example, feel that they are underappreciated and overworked. They see the world as slightly cruel and demanding. On the other hand, the actors (including Jenna Maroney and Tracy Jordan) see the entire world as a stage on which they must perform – they are deluded, egotistical, and quite ignorant of those around them. And then there are the executives, like Jack Donaghy, who see everything as business. In fact, one episode explores each character’s ideology by literally looking through his or her eyes: Tracy, for example, sees everyone as another Tracy; Kenneth the page sees everyone as a Muppet; and Jack sees everything with a price tag, including people. Yet despite having unique, individual ideologies, all the characters do share one common ideology: entertainment. As Neil Postman said, our entire way of interacting now revolves around entertaining the significant other (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 87), and 30 Rock certainly acknowledges this. Jack, for example, is always trying to look his best for no particular reason; Jenna breaks out in song during conversations or uncomfortable elevator rides, and Liz always talks like she writes: a lead-up followed by a punch line. By following these parameters, the characters interpellate themselves into their own ideological images. In laymen’s terms, interpellation is the process by which you become part of an ideology (MDST Lecture, 10/6). So, for instance, when Jenna gains weight between seasons of TGS, she tries to lose it via the Japanese Porn Star Diet to regain the image of a skinny, beautiful actress, which is how her “actress” ideology tells her she needs to look. And Jack, the suave VP, always acts like he has too much money to care because that is what the “executive” ideology entails. In essence, by personifying the images of their respective ideologies, the characters are interpellated.
Furthermore, 30 Rock is full of stereotypes. As Walter Lippmann said, a stereotype is a “picture in our heads” of other people or the identity of other groups of people (MediaMaking, 235). These days, media stereotype various groups of people. African Americans, for example, have been stereotyped as criminal because you only see African Americans arrested on the news. And Muslims have been stereotyped as terrorists because the press connected them to 9/11. 30 Rock uses stereotyping to great extent in its writing. One episode, for instance, revolves around Liz’s belief that Tracy cannot read – everyone of course assumes it is because he is black. Another episode stereotypes Bostonians with their irascible loyalty to sports and tendency to say “wicked hahrd” a lot. Of course, all of these are meant to mock the stereotypes we see in reality, but they still shed light on how quick-to-judge people, especially audiences, can be, and how media need to revisit the images they create to ensure their validity. (This mocking would be an example of 30 Rock’s oppositional-encoding).
Finally, we will analyze media and ownership, which the show capitalizes on very effectively. Today, media see an unprecedented amount of concentration and conglomeration. Concentration is the owning of a single medium by very few corporations (MDST Lecture, 9/20). Computers, for example, are concentrated since Microsoft and Apple are the only viable producers. Conglomeration, on the other hand, entails few corporations owning various types of media (MDST Lecture, 9/20). Time Warner, for instance, has a conglomeration since it owns music, print, sports, film, and TV media. Due to these processes, media have now become market driven (Press and Williams, New Media Environment, Chapter 2) and ravaged by hypercommercialism (McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, 38). For instance, a significant portion of the media’s revenue now relies on paid advertisements that air during programs. In fact, so influential are these advertisers that they can determine the content of a show, when it airs, and even if it continues. This occurs because we, the audience, are a commodity to be bought and sold by the media to the advertisers. Think for a second why you only see medicine ads during the Nightly News – because the audience is mostly older people! Of course, 30 Rock takes on both concentration/conglomeration and hypercommercialism in its usual sardonic fashion.
In reality, NBC Studios is owned by General Electric. The show, however, claims that NBC is in fact owned by Sheinhardt Wig Company, a subsidiary of GE. And to further ridicule media ownership, 30 Rock puts NBC in charge of AHP Chanagi Party Meats Company, based in North Korea. This fact embodies the principle of vertical integration, which is the control of the entire production and distribution process (MediaMaking, 124). Vertical integration confines the selling of any product to one company, erasing dependence on other companies for producing, marketing, and distributing, thus ensuring that all the profits stay localized. Many believe that this poses threats to competition, for that single company can determine everything about the commodity. We see this in an episode where Tracy invents a “meat machine” that GE will fund, NBC will market, and AHP Chanagi Party Meats will produce. In essence, the product will stay localized in GE’s domain. Moreover, media ownership has led to horizontal integration, which is the control of markets across media (MediaMaking, 125). Again, 30 Rock mocks this with product integration, or the use of media to sell products. Product integration is a huge factor in horizontal integration, for it allows the production company to use its media outlet to sell whatever commodity it is producing. For example, in one episode, Jack wanted TGS to integrate GE’s “direct current drilling motors for off-shore or land-based projects.” Liz, ethically repulsed (which in turn solidifies her identity as the non-conformer), refuses. The crew then proceeds to revel in the delightful taste and low calories of Snapple. While 30 Rock jokes about it, product integration is in every form of media.
In addition, the depth of ownership also means that whoever is in charge can control the information flow. We see this in reality many times – Disney, for instance, fired its ABC reporter for covering sweat shops of Nike, which advertised on ESPN, a subsidiary of Disney. This has become a growing fear in the world today, yet no end to the corporate information monopoly is in sight. As for the promotion of a corporation’s own products within its media outlet, some may find this ethically wrong, like Liz, but others have argued that living in a branded world is just a reflection of reality. As a consumer society, our entire lives are covered with brands. Therefore, would a film or show without Nike shoes, George Forman Grills, or Xbox 360s seem real? No, for media are extensions of man (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8), and man himself is immersed in brands.
30 Rock also highlights media’s increasing dependence on paid advertisers for revenue. As stated above, you the audience are a commodity to be bought and sold. (Though do not forget that you are also a consumer, which is why product companies try to reach you through TV ads – they want you to buy their products.) As a commodity, media outlets need to rationalize you, or groom you towards the product, to increase the advertiser’s potential market. Therefore, they change the program’s content and time to ensure that the audience is ripe for whatever is being sold. To not do so would lose advertisers and thus revenue. So, in a way, all forms of entertainment are partially dictated by whichever type of audience the advertiser is trying to reach. 30 Rock acknowledges such market-driven media frequently. (For example, when TGS lost one of its prime advertisers, Liz had to scramble to find a new one lest the show be canceled. Luckily for her, Tracy bought ad time with his own company that dismantled bank signs – they were doing well enough to easily afford it.) This fact just emphasizes how much of what you see is not in fact created out of pure ingenuity or originality. As McChesney said, producers like what it predictable so as to not scare off potential advertisers – there is no room for risk anymore. Why do you think there are so many hospital and crime dramas? Because that is what people like! It is arguable that this stagnates the media landscape; luckily, 30 Rock, with its oppositional-encoding, stirs it up a bit.
Finally, 30 Rock poses an interesting question when it comes to who owns what: who actually “creates” the show? Is it the writer, the director, the producers, or the actors? Tina Fey is credited with “creating” the show, but she does not write all the episodes. So who is it? This is now an issue for all forms of entertainment; so many companies and individuals work on a film or show that to say one person completely owns it would be incorrect (MDST Lecture, 9/13). For example, one episode features Jenna gaining popularity after a “one-liner” in her sketch. Like the egotistical actress she is, she takes credit…but Liz was the one who wrote the line. Who then should be accredited? For without each other, none of them would have gained fame. Questions like these shed light on how convoluted media ownership has now become.
In conclusion, 30 Rock has churned out some of the most controversial topics in media and portrayed them in a fashion we are not used to. The writers have managed to poke fun at the entire spectrum of media, including semiotics, ideology and identity, and, of course, media and ownership. While these issues are subject to constant analysis by impartial scholars, it is refreshing to see a medium critique its own existence, and in such a hilarious way. If only all forms of media did this, and more seriously, perhaps then the new media environment would not look as ethically and socially bleak.
Carmon, Irin. "The Daily Show's Woman Problem." Jezebel. N.p., 23 June 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.
Clark, Krystal. "30 Rock Bombs in Ratings." ScreenCrave. uCrave, 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.
Downey, Kevin (2007-03-05). "In their TV tastes, the rich are different". Media Life Magazine. http://www.medialifemagazine.com/artman/publish/article_10573.asp. Retrieved 2011-21-11.
Gilbert, Matthew. "30 Rock." Critic's Corner. Boston.com, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.
Grossberg, Lawrence, Ellen Wartella, D. C. Whitney, and J. M. Wise. Media Making: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publication, 2006.
Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding." Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1973)
Hibberd, James (2008-05-23). "For the networks, season didn\'t rate; Chart: Show ratings by demo". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on 2008-05-31. http://web.archive.org/web/20080531130038/http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/television/news/e3i6e06ab8971554c64624b9b5f980db683?pn=4. Retrieved 2011-21-11.
May, Geoff. "Top Rated TV Comedies of 2010-11." Bite.ca. N.p., 1 June 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.
McChesney, Robert. Rich Media, Poor Democracy. N.p.: The New Press, 1999. 15-77. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
MDST 2000 Lectures
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Williams, Bruce A., and Andrea L. Press. The New Media Environment An Introduction. N.p.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
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