Winter 2005, ENG490/590,
Professor Julia Lesage, 357 PLC, Office hours: Wed. 3-6 pm.

COURSE CONCEPT: Most of television is non-fiction, mostly because that is cheaper to produce. Non-fiction TV shows range from serious news and current affairs broadcasts to programs that are purely entertaining. The reason for studying this material is that it lets us look at a wide range of everyday television, and to analyze television in its very ordinariness.

Such a course poses certain difficulties. The first is that everyday television is ephemeral; it’s here and it’s gone. Aside from the daily news, which is archived at Vanderbildt University, the other material does not remain around for close study. That is why many TV scholars make an effort to make sure they record all the programs that they want to study, but that too results in a limited number of recorded shows.

Second, this material’s very ordinariness means that many people, academics included, do not take it seriously. They often have prejudices against it, especially the “tackier” side of non-fiction TV. Furthermore, men and women, adults and youth tend to look at different programs. To test this difference, you can just look at how people use the remote control to see the images that clue them, “This is something I would like, or would not like, to watch.”

The course will not only consider everyday television, but we will also look at its ever increasing ties to Internet sites. Some of these sites are set up by the network or the presenter or a sponsor in conjunction with a specific program; other sites are fan sites, general TV sites, especially that run by E! Television Network. Other sites are critical sites, either from the point of view of ordinary viewers or from a more scholarly point of view. Part of our class experience will consist of exploring and analyzing these sites.

This course will examine many aspects of television. Our method will be to look at this time period’s TV offerings, and related Internet sites, as a slice of time. During that slice of time, we will proceed from watching many examples to making our own theoretical conclusions. Because we will be watching such ephemeral material, work not available for reviewing, daily attendance is very important, as is the students’ thoughtful contributions to a Blackboard Discussion Group and to in-class discussion.

CLASS PROCEDURE: There are no books or course packet for the course. Our work will consist mainly of viewing TV programs or clips, structured class discussion, weekly questions for consideration posted on the web site, and research that students do on an individual basis for their papers. Students should also read the STUDENT MANUAL FOR BLACKBOARD online at

The heart of the course will be having each student concentrate on one show or one kind of show, taping at least three hours of that show/s, looking at related Internet sites, and reading a book related to that show.  They will bring what they learn from that to class discussions, both in the class time and on Blackboard.

In the course of the term, the students will use Blackboard; do their own study of one show, or a comparison of two related shows; study the Internet sites related to their show; write several short papers, lead a class discussion with others on a team; and be able to take an optional final exam to raise their grade. All of this will be explained in greater detail later in the course outline.


This will be adjusted according to student interest.

Week One: Assignment: Begin Blackboard Discussion Group weekly postings.

Jan. 4. Tuesday: Syllabus; analysis of a day of TV program listings

Jan. 6. Thursday: Using Blackboard Discussion Group, view a serious television documentary and discuss the relation between non-fiction and truth claims, especially in relation to the program schedule we looked at on Tuesday.

Week Two: Assignment: Choose show/s you will follow for term. Grade contract, including the show or genre you will follow, 1/13.

Jan. 11. Tuesday: News

Jan. 13. Thursday: News magazines such as 60 Minutes or 20/20; political commentary, such as The O’Reilly Factor.

Week Three:

Jan. 18. Tuesday: Daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer; and interview-chat shows like Oprah or Ellen DeGeneres.

Jan. 20. Thursday: The Law: Court TV; Cops; America’s Most Wanted; judge shows, usually in the afternoon.

Week Four: Assignment: Annotated bibliography on related Internet sites due 1/27.

Jan. 25. Tuesday: Fashion; style; Queer Eye

Jan. 27. Thursday: Becoming a star shows; talent shows.

Week Five:

Feb. 1. Tuesday: Discovery Channel; Learning Channel. History. Biography.

Feb. 3. Thursday: Health and fitness; weight loss; surgery. Science and technology. Animal Channel.

Week Six:

Feb. 8. Tuesday: Youth appeal: MTV non-fiction shows; Wild on …; E! Entertainment Network

Feb. 10. Thursday: “Tacky” shows: The Man Show; Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Model Search; Real Sex; America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Week Seven:

Feb. 15. Tuesday: Home makeover and cooking

Feb. 17. Thursday: Advice: Suze Orman; Dr. Phil; religious shows such as 700 Club

Week Eight: Assignment: Book review due on 2/24.

Feb. 22. Tuesday: Sports: Super Bowl; other kinds of sports shows than single football or basketball games

Feb. 24. Thursday: Dare: Couples Fear Factor. Competition: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jeopardy

Week Nine: Graduate students turn in research paper on 3/2.

March 1. Tuesday: Dating: Bachelor; Bachelorette. Family life looked at: Supernanny; Nanny 911

March 3. Thursday: Become a financial success: Apprentice3—Street Smarts; Rebel Billionaire

Week Ten: Assignment: Undergraduates turn in final research paper on last day of class, 3/10.

March 8. Tuesday: Mark Burnett primetime shows: Survivor Palau; The Contender.

March 10. Thursday: Tonight shows: Jay Leno; Conan O’Brian; Jimmy Kimmel.

Exam Week: Optional final exam, Tuesday 3/15, 1-3:00 pm, 214 McKenzie. The optional final exam will be for students who feel they need to boost their grade. Final exam format: A list of essay questions will be passed out at the time of the exam. The students will write on two of them. Students can bring their notes from the entire term to refer to. This exam will be challenging and relatively difficult, and students will have to do well on it.  The most students can raise their grade is one letter grade. Each student will negotiate with me individually about what missing work such an exam can make up for, but it will not make up for a missing term paper or book report.

PICKING A SHOW OR CHANNEL TO FOLLOW: Each student is to tape six hours of non-fiction television in one of the following ways:

---Tape six hours of the same program across different days. You will then analyze that program in depth, including the advertisements that accompany it and the Internet sites related to it.

---Tape three hours of one program and three of another.  Both programs should be similar in genre or type.  Your study will be a comparison and contrast of the two programs.  Here are some possibilities: three hours of local news and three hours of national news, preferably from the same channel every evening; two different daytime talk shows, such as Montel and Jerry Springer; two different reality competitions, such as Survivor and The Amazing Race; two different romance competitions, especially The Bachelor and The Bachelorette; two different kinds of athletic competitions; two different news magazine shows, such as Dateline NBC and 60 minutes; two different game shows.

---Pick a channel that is mostly non-fiction and tape six hours of non-fiction programming off it over a period of two days. Analyze the channel and these specific shows.  Here are some appropriate channel. The various Discovery channels, the Learning channel, Animal Planet, CNN, E!, Food TV, HGTV, Travel channel, ESPN channels, History channel, MSNBC, CNBC, shopping channels, religious channels, Style channel.

In all these cases, it is important to discuss the advertising, too.  And in all these cases, you will want to study the Internet sites related to your program.

THE BOOKLIST:  On Blackboard is a long list of books on television found at the UO Knight Library or at Summit, the Northwest consortium of libraries that lend out books to UO staff and students.  I did not find one that would fit the wide range of things covered in class, but you are sure to find one that fits your topic.  Choose a book or two to try to get them now, since you may have to recall it or put a hold on the book you want.  We have a great collection of TV books available here. If you want to read a book and do your book report on a book not on the list, be sure to get my permission.


Contract grading means that you will know from the start what is required for a C, B, or A.  You will have to decide early on what grade you are going for and sign a contract with me.  Those contracting for a B or A will sign up to do a team presentation to lead one day of class discussion (or if there is just one person that day, or the day’s team is small, you will present the class along with me).

Here in summary form is what the contract consists of:

For a C grade:

Contribute to the Blackboard Discussion Group with one substantive entry and one thoughtful response to another student’s entry once a week.

Write a five-page paper on the show you are following.

Write a three-page annotated bibliography of the best web sites related to your show. 

Pick one book from the booklist that is related to your topic, and write a five-page analytic evaluation of it, along with a summary of its argument.

For a B grade:

Contribute to the Blackboard Discussion Group with two substantive entries and two thoughtful responses each week.

Help teach a class along with a “team” for that day or along with me; hand in a two-page report on what you did to prepare for this session and what you learned from it.

Write a seven-page paper on your show or set of shows that you are following.

Write a three-page annotated bibliography of the best web sites related to your show.

Read one book from the list and write a five-page book report evaluating its usefulness for your topic.

The ways this work is different from that done for a C grade is the addition of a class presentation and accompanying summary paper, a greater length term project, and more Blackboard entries each week.

For an A grade:

Do all the work for a B grade plus two more changes to the requirements.

Read two books from the list and discuss them both in a comparison and contrast mode in a seven-page book report. 

Write a ten-page term paper on the show or shows you are following. 

The difference between this amount of work and that for a B grade is that you are reading two books instead of one and writing longer papers.

What the optional final exam can do to raise a grade must be negotiated between the individual student and me individually. I can tell you that it will be a challenging and comprehensive exam. No one can miss doing their term paper or book report.


Absences: Students who are absent for a screening can make it up by viewing an alternate TV program which I assign, and then handing in a one page response. This make-up work can be submitted no more than a week after the absence. Students should phone or email me in advance if they know they have to be absent. More than two days absences without a serious excuse will affect a student's grade. More than four unexcused absences will result in a student’s failure.

Late work: If you hand in your work late without permission from me, that will adversely affect your grade. There will be no incompletes.

Written form: All written work turned in must be correct in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Special needs: Any students who have special needs should see me outside of class to discuss them.

No one can take this class and leave early or come late, even if that is due to another overlapping class or due to work schedules. If you know you will have this problem, drop the course now.

GRADUATE STUDENTS: You will do an annotated bibliography of Internet sites and a book review of four books related to your topic, drawn from the list of readings, due the same days as the undergrads. You will do a twenty page research paper, with the first draft due the ninth week of class.  You will then each have a meeting with me about how to revise the paper, and will turn in the revised essay the day of the exam.

TEAM PRESENTATIONS: One team presents the class discussion each day, from the second week on. If just one or two students sign up for a day, I will lead the discussion after they finish and we will collaborate beforehand about what should be screened. The team should prepare about 30-40 minutes of video clips, or they can show all or part of one show.  This will be at the beginning of class. The team members will each speak and give a specific presentation. At the end of class, each member will hand in a written summary of what s/he said. The individual grade will be based on effectiveness in presentation and in leading discussion, and on the written statement handed in (1-2 typed pages per person).

In the classroom presentation, key issues or questions should be raised for class discussion, and a handout of resources from the Internet or library passed out. An individual response to the program shown should be prepared by one or more of the team members and read to the class as a discussion starter. Also, one or two team member should address the larger issue that is the topic for the week, indicate briefly how other TV programs deal with that material, and bring specific questions to initiate discussion or ideas for the class to consider. One of the team members may have read an article or book on the topic and can summarize some of those ideas for the class. The team may want to pass out a list of television shows related to the week's topic that they recommend classmates see on their own.

To illustrate Internet sites, we may be able to download these to project directly in class.  I will try to get a Media Center technician to help us with this if a team wants to do that during their presentation.

I will be available, especially by email or in office hours or after class to help team members prepare their collective and individual presentations. I can also tape a show or two off TV for them if I know these needs well enough in advance. If a team needs my help, they should come to me in advance of the class period itself. We can all work together so that the teams make the best possible presentation. Note: the DVD/CD player in the classroom is old. If the students make a DVD or CD, they should bring in a portable computer that they know will show their DVD or CD to present it in projection format. They have to let me know if they are going to do this, so we can practice.

The team grade for the presentation will be based on how effective the team is in getting the class to consider the main structuring aspects of that kind of show, the main issues that the show raises, and some of the larger considerations related to the week's topic.

During the discussion, I will explain difficult points, if necessary, or summarize some debates that have occurred in television criticism around these topics or shows. If it seems useful, I will write out notes to distribute on Blackboard as a follow up.



Each week, you are required to make a Discussion Board posting.

Here is how it goes: I will post one or two discussion Threads, related to the week’s topics. The team making a presentation about the program or clips we saw and other related programs will also post several Threads that you can reply to. You will post at least one "substantive" Reply to one of those Threads. Or you can start a new and thoughtful Thread of your own for others to reply to. It is best if you put in the Subject Line, the kind of show or genre, such as News, Survivor, Judge Shows, etc.

You will expected to post a Reply that is “substantial,” which I shall explain. And it must be posted in the week in which it was assigned, before the next Monday that we have class. Late postings will not be accepted.

See subsection below on Grading Postings for how I estimate the quality of the postings and decide what is "substantial" and what is "trivial." You may comment as often as you like to other students or me in Discussion Board. But you must make at least one "substantial" posting for the weeks in which Discussion Board is an assignment. Students who want an A or B make more postings than  those going for a C.

In general, it is important not to write too long, but to offer more information than a mere opinion. Five or six sentences makes a good length paragraph; to write a whole computer screen means you running long; two whole computer screens seems almost too long to expect a Discussion Board reader to pay attention to. The readers want to read what the others wrote and then get in on the action themselves.


First, read the Blackboard online Student Manual about the Discussion Board, and learn how to create Threads and Replies.

You will mainly add your posts as Replies to my Thread or to the team's Threads. You may want to bring in outside information, such as other TV shows for comparison. You may want to refer to web pages or other readings that illustrate or set up a contrast with the topic of this Thread.

Because there is so much non-fiction television, and its content is always shifting, give a brief summary of what you saw and want to analyze. People strongly disagree about what is worth watching, but if your first impulse is to dismiss some program a classmate describes, take a more anthropological or “audience research” stance. This is a rare opportunity for you and others to explore the range of daily television and to observe a variety of responses to it.

Feel free to reply to classmates' comments, but try to stay on the level of intellectual response and avoid emotionally shaded language or accusative tone. If you think an earlier posting was wrong, you may want to start with: "I disagree with xxx, and here are the reasons why....." Of course, in many instances, you may both agree and disagree in part with what someone said, and you can express that, reasoning out why you differ. When the question is about taste--like or dislike in TV viewing--then the person who declares a media preference is not "wrong"; they have just stated a preference and explained what satisfaction that television program provides them.

Sometimes you will find it useful to take the discussion to a higher level of generality, beyond individual taste. For example, you can discuss demographics and marketing, such as how MTV non-fiction shows are geared toward young people, often young men, and many “home” shows are geared toward women. Clearly television marketing takes into consideration age, class, gender, geographical region, etc., so we should be able to take these into consideration, too. WE WANT TO CONSIDER THE ADVERTISING THAT ACCOMPANIES ANY SHOW WE STUDY. TV executives carefully consider audience traits or demographics. This is an important reason for us learning how to discuss issues of racism and sexism in the media without putting anyone down for their tastes or individual viewing habits.

In using the Discussion Board, you do not just have to reply to my posted Thread. You can also start your own new Threads to ask questions that occur to you about the course material, expand on topics covered in class, or expand on thoughts related to the class material prompted by other shows, web pages, or other readings germane to any topics covered in the course.

You can glance at what is to come in the syllabus and note some idea or useful information on a topic related to television that we might not cover in class till a later date. Start a new Thread for this kind of thinking, too.

If you just want to post some new information related to media work not relevant to course content, I will put in a Thread called "Hot Tips: Do you have information about the arts that you want fellow students to know about?" Post your non-intellectual, information-only, material here as "Replies." This kind of posting could include information about a TV show that you would recommend (tell why) or a web site you find worthwhile, either in terms of TV information or aesthetically, on its own terms (always list what someone can expect to see or hear on a web site). Postings here do not count toward your grade.


            Here is what I consider to be a "substantial" message:

1. Real Comment: an observation or line of reasoning that uses thoughtful material from reading, class discussion, or TV examples, in concrete detail. It tries to provide concrete evidence to back up the point.

2. Real Question: one that shows student has done the reading but is still unsure about something. It may be a response to the Thread that acknowledges the line of the reasoning expressed in that Thread, but the author of the Reply then explains how she or he wants future Replies to take up the subject from another tack.

            Here is what I consider to be "trivial" messages:

1. Mere Question: A question asked on just a point of fact or on something I know has been presented in class.

2. Simple Comment: Parroting what is in the book or lecture. Saying something like, "I agree," with a comment that adds no new intellectual content to the discussion. Also, you should avoid the kind of comment that there is this really neat reference on the Internet. However it is very good to bring in a reference a web site if you make it clear what that kind of information can add to our thinking about the issue at hand.

3. Unsupported Reply: Someone answers a question, but the Reply contains only speculation and deduction, and it does not contain any detailed references to TV, or other sources.

4. Gee Whiz: Expression of amazement or surprise, or mere put-downs: Examples: "How could anyone like Emeril!" "Wrestling is all fake." "Football is just a guy thing."

5. Off-topic: Messages that the Blackboard site appears to be down, that there is some related show on TV, etc.

The purpose for having a Discussion Board is to establish an intellectual community. In particular, reading and tactfully commenting on each others' responses will let us examine relations between taste (viewers' likes, dislikes) and aesthetics (principles of TV visual and audio construction). We want to learn how to analyze our rather automatic but firmly clung to media preferences. One of the ways of doing this is to learn to listen to others speak about their media preferences.

On the other hand, one of the goals of media studies is to expand the range of what we pay attention to in the media, and to learn to appreciate more things, even if only some aspect of them. For example, I have a critique of consumer culture, but I have learned to appreciate the narrative construction and the formal visual style of many television advertisements. Learning to examine well-loved habits critically will not interfere with enjoyment but enhance it. I am not saying that you are going to learn to love genres that you now avoid (e.g., political commentary shows, quiz shows, 700 Club, home improvement shows) but you will learn more about how they function.