Television & American Culture – FMMC / AMST 0104, Fall 2019

Professor Jason Mittell (he/him), 208 Axinn Center, 802-443-3435,

Office Hours: Mon 10:00am – 12:00pm / Wed 2:00 – 3:30pm / or by appointment at

Class Meetings: T/Th 3:00 – 4:15, Axinn 109

Screening: Tues 7:30 – 10:25, Dana Auditorium


Television might be the most powerful and important form of communication of the last 70 years, binding together the globe with shared knowledge and experiences, and molding our opinions and outlook on the world. This course explores American life in the last seven decades through an analysis of our still central medium: television. Spanning a history of television from its origins in radio to its future in digital convergence, we will consider television’s role in both reflecting and constituting American society through a variety of approaches. Our topical exploration will consider the economics of the television industry, television’s role within American democracy, the formal attributes of a variety of television genres, television as a site of gender and racial identity formation, television’s role in everyday life, and the medium’s technological and social impacts. We will consider not only why TV is what it is today, but how it might be different. Through the exploration of critical perspectives on television, the course will prepare you for further studies in media criticism as well as enable you to be a more savvy and sophisticated consumer (and potentially producer) of television in your future endeavors.

This course contains a good deal of reading, providing in-depth analysis and critical approaches to television. We will watch a number of television programs and documentaries about television each week in required evening screenings. Assignments will assess your comprehension of the course materials and concepts, and allow you to put your television analysis and creative skills into practice.


Required Texts & Readings:

Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). PN1992.6 M58 2010

Ethan Thompson & Jason Mittell, editors, How to Watch Television (New York: New York University Press, 2013). PN1992.3.U5 H79 2013

Note: It is your responsibility to get access to copies for assigned readings. They are on reserve at the library and easily available at online bookstores. All other required readings are accessible through the course website.

Weekly screenings will be required for this course, taking place Tuesday at 7:30 pm in Dana Auditorium; it is up to each student to make arrangements to screen the required materials at the Davis Library if they cannot attend screening.

Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult the online version of the schedule for the latest information.


How This Course Works:

This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning called specifications grading. (If you’re curious about this approach, see this overview.) Instead of grading each assignment on a measure of “quality,” everything will be assessed as Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory based on whether a student demonstrates the stated learning goals. Assignments will be “bundled” into three tiers that reflect a hierarchy of learning goals for the course. Final grades will be assigned based on which bundles of assignments a student satisfactorily completes—these final grades are not the goal or outcome of the course, but are designed to indicate which learning goals a student demonstrate that they accomplished.

Since this approach will be new to most students, Professor Mittell agrees to take however much time is needed to ensure students understand expectations and practices, and are poised to succeed to their desired level within the system. His goal is to help each student achieve Satisfactory levels of learning on all components of the course that they undertake, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.


Learning Goals:

All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:

  • Describe how American television works as a commercial industry, functions as an aesthetic and communication medium, and both shapes and is shaped by American culture and society
  • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to explain television’s industrial, formal, cultural, and technological facets
  • Communicate their ideas with fluency and clarity

Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Analyze television’s industrial, formal, cultural, and technological facets with original insights and connections between different examples and contexts

Students who achieve the highest level of mastery (with a grade of A) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple facets of television



Most assignments in the course will be assessed as Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory, with the specifications required for Satisfactory articulated on each assignment. In general, Satisfactory should not be viewed as “minimally competent” (as is typical for a C grade at Middlebury), but rather as a mark of having achieved the assignment’s learning goals and specifications (probably more like a B grade in an average Middlebury course). Unsatisfactory does not mean failure, but rather that the assignment does not yet meet the required specifications. Either an assignment meets the goals, or it does not—there is no gradation of assessment except for the final essay. The final essay will include a third gradation: Sophisticated. This marker of excellence will be given to essays that demonstrate higher-level thinking and analysis, tackling the ideas and examples with complexity and nuance.

The only letter grade that will be given in the course will be your final grade, and it will reflect the “bundles” of assignments and requirements you have satisfactorily accomplished in the class. That final letter grade is not an assessment of your intelligence, your abilities, or your value as a person—in fact, Professor Mittell never will grade “you” directly, and grading is never a reflection of who you are as a person. Rather, the grade reflects what you demonstrated that you learned in the course: no more, no less.

Built into this system is a good deal of choice as to how much you wish to learn and how hard you want to work to demonstrate and apply that learning. You might choose that passing the course with a C is sufficient for your goals—it is perfectly appropriate and worthy of respect for you to make that choice, especially if it allows you to proactively allocate your time to other endeavors at Middlebury or beyond. If you strive to get an A in the course and maximize your learning, you should know that you are taking on that work and challenge yourself, and should make sure you are in a personal and academic situation to achieve that level of engagement.


C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to four absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 6 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 6 questions (at either Basic or Advanced levels) on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level

B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to three absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 8 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 6 questions on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level, including at least 3 Advanced level questions

A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to two absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Have at least 4 days in class where Professor Mittell notes engaged participation
  • Complete at least 10 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 6 questions on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level, including at least 5 Advanced level questions
  • Complete the original argumentative essay assignment to a Sophisticated level


Modified grades of + and – will be used when a student’s Satisfactory activities fall between the bundles. For instance, a student who met the requirements for the B bundle, as well as completing 5 Advanced questions on the exams would receive a B+, while a student who fell just short of the B bundle requirements would likely receive a B– final grade. Additionally, students who complete all of the A Bundle requirements except for receiving a Satisfactory on the final essay and/or not actively participating for at least 4 days will receive an A– final grade. Grades of D will only be given in rare cases where a student meets most of the C bundle requirements but falls short in one area—typically, a student who does not meet the requirements of the C bundle will fail the course.


Tokens & Flexibility:

Since every element of the course is assessed on an all-or-nothing basis, it might be stressful to strive for Satisfactory given that the stakes for not meeting that threshold may be significant. To ease stress, to allow for flexibility—and most of all, to maximize opportunities for learning—every student starts the course with 3 virtual tokens that can be “exchanged” for some leniency or opportunities for revision. Using a token will allow a student to do one of the following:

  • Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
  • Count an Unsatisfactory or not completed screening response as Satisfactory
  • Revise and resubmit a question on the second or third exam (note that the first exam has a built-in revision option)
  • Submit an exam or essay assignment up to 48 hours late

Professor Mittell will track a student’s tokens throughout the semester. Exchanging them for absences or missed screening responses will happen at the end of the term, while late or revised essays will require spending tokens at the time. If a student uses all initial tokens and needs to use more for revisions, they can be “purchased” at the cost of one gradation of the final letter grade—thus if a student achieves the expectations for the B bundle, but must revise multiple essay multiple times and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course.



Weekly Screening Responses:
Each week, students will watch a selection of television material on Tuesday evening. By Thursdaymorning, students are expected to post a response to Canvas for that week’s screening. The goal of response is to connect at least one program screened to concepts from the course readings. To earn a Satisfactory, each post must do the following:

  • Be submitted on Canvas by Thursday at 8am
  • Consist of at least 300 words
  • Demonstrate that you have watched and read the material
  • Be accurate about the course material
  • Draw explicit connections between ideas raised in the readings to material from the screening
  • Convey something that personally struck you as interesting, compelling, engaging, or otherwise moved you to write about this aspect of the course materials
  • Write in a clear manner – your style can be less formal than typical academic prose, but it should be serious and engaged with ideas
  • Contain no more than 3 errors to Standard Written English

It is recommended that you compose your responses in a word processor and paste the text into Canvas, as web browsers can crash as you are writing. Screening responses cannot be revised or submitted late.


Take-Home Essay Exams:

There will be three take-home essay examinations, all of which are required to be Satisfactorily completed to pass the course. Each exam will be distributed on a Thursday, and due the following Tuesday. Students may consult notes, readings, screenings, and other online material, but cannot consult with other people (besides Professor Mittell) during the writing process. Per Middlebury’s Honor Code, all work submitted is pledged to be your own.

Each exam will have two sections, with each section offering two options: a Basic and an Advanced essay prompt. The Basic essay will require students to demonstrate that they understand and can communicate course material in their own words. The Advanced essay will require students to apply course material to an original analysis, requiring higher-level engagement with the material. Students are free to choose which option they choose for each prompt. For an example of this difference, a hypothetical Basic prompt might ask, “How does the television industry use the Nielsen ratings to sell audiences to advertisers?”; the Advanced version might ask, “How effective are the Nielsen ratings measuring viewer behaviors, and how might this system better serve the interests of television viewers?”

In order to pass the course, students must earn a Satisfactory on every exam prompt at least at the Basic level; completing more Advanced prompts will allow students to earn a higher final grade, per the description above, by demonstrating more sophisticated levels of learning. Students may opt to revise and resubmit any answer that receives an Unsatisfactory within one week of receiving their essay back. The first exam automatically allows for revisions without requiring tokens, while the other exams require students to use a token to revise am answer. If a student receives an Unsatisfactory on an Advanced question, they can opt to revise the answer to address either the Advanced or Basic prompt, but cannot “upgrade” a Basic answer to the Advanced prompt; sometimes Professor Mittell will indicate that an Unsatisfactory Advanced answer can count as a Satisfactory Basic answer with no revisions nor tokens needed. One token allows for revisions on a single question, up to two drafts. If an Advanced answer is still unsatisfactory after the first revision, it cannot receive a Satisfactory for the Advanced prompt, and must be downgraded to a Basic answer. More detailed specifications will be included within the exam prompts.

Final Argumentative Essay:

The final paper in the class will be an analytic essay about a television program of your choosing, due on December 13 – note that this assignment is not required to pass the course, but if it is not satisfactorily completed, students cannot earn more than a B+ in the course. The basic prompt is to write an essay that could function as an additional chapter of How to Watch Television. Because the essay is due during the exam period, revisions will not be allowed after the due date; however, students electing to complete this assignment are encouraged to meet with Professor Mittell and submit drafts for feedback in advance. A proposal for the essay will be due October 29. More detailed specifications will be included with the assignment.


Active Attendance:

You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared to engage in discussion and in-class activities. This is not a lecture course, so active participation and engagement is required. Attendance will be taken regularly—being late two times counts as an absence. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material. Professor Mittell will note which students demonstrate particular engagement during each class meeting, as seen through productive and respectful participation in conversations, which fulfills one of the specifications for the A bundle.


Academic Honesty:
All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work except as stipulated by a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed by the Academic Judicial Board. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.


Course Policies:
Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible, and consult the Disability Resource Center for more assistance. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements. If students have situations that warrant a Dean’s Excuse, such confirmation is necessary to avoid receiving an absence or an Unsatisfactory for not meeting specifications listed above.

Watching audiovisual media can be intense, with skilled artists creating emotionally vivid and often disturbing images and sounds. This course assumes that students are able to watch media that is often challenging and disturbing in its representations without need for protection or warning; in fact, engaging with discomfort and challenges is a significant part of a liberal education and an opportunity for discussion and learning. However, there are some instances where a student may have had personal trauma that creates specific triggers for severe emotional distress. If that applies to you, please take responsibility to research the films and television we will be watching ahead of time, and let Professor Mittell know if you think watching a particular screening would create a significant issue for you—we can then work out alternative arrangements.

Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.

Printing & Computer Use Policy:
Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online or pdfs – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings via digital annotation, handwritten notebook, or a word processing file. You should bring assigned readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to be engaging with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, social media, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be held accountable or even asked to leave class in extreme instances. Please do not use phones during course meetings or screenings unless explicitly authorized to be used in a non-disruptive mode.

Conversations and presentations within the space of this class—both in-person and online—are considered private, to be shared only among those of us in the course. Any recording, photographs, and screen-capture of voices, images, and text produced by students and faculty alike cannot be shared without permission of those authors. If you wish to share your own work and ideas beyond the confines of the class, you are encouraged to do so.


Daily Schedule

Note - this schedule is subject to change, so always check the online version.


September 10 – Studying TV?


The Bachelor, season 23, episode 9 (2019) – Middfiles

UnREAL, “Return” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


September 12 – Introducing the Television Industry

READINGS: Mittell, Television & American Culture (TVAC), Introduction and Ch. 1

Thompson & Mittell, How to Watch TV (HTWTV), Introduction

LISTEN: This American Life, “Breakout Star” (about The Bachelor episode we watched)



September 17 – Television Industry: Programming

READINGS: Banks, “I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer” HTWTV

Johnson, “Monday Night Football: Brand Identity” HTWTV

Laporte, “How Netflix created a $1 billion arms race for TV writers

Kafka, “CBS and Viacom are merging… but they’re still not big enough to compete with Netflix, Apple, or Disney



I Love Lucy, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952) – PN1992.77.I253 v1 2005D

30 Rock, “Jack-Tor” (2006) – PN1992.77.T55987 v.1 2007D

Veronica Mars, “Pilot” (2004) – PN1992.77 .V465 v. 1 2005D 

UnREAL, “Relapse” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


September 19 – Television Industry: Advertising

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 2

Sandler, “Modern Family: Product Placement” in HTWTV

Nussbaum, “What Tina Fey Would Do for a SoyJoy

Steinberg, “How TV Tuned In More Ad Dollars

Roose, “The Messy, Confusing Future of TV? It’s Here



September 24 – Television Industry: Ratings and Reality

READINGS: Ouellette, “America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor” in HTWTV

Douglas, “Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing” in HTWTV

Catoline, “Editing Trump

Keefe, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success



Faultlines, “The Trump Show” (2017) – Middfiles / online

Paper Tiger Reads Paper Tiger (2007) – HE8700.72 .C2 P175 2007D

UnREAL, “Mother” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


September 26 – Media Regulation and Public Television

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 3

Ouellette, “Reinventing PBS”

Holt, “NYPD Blue: Content Regulation” in HTWTV

Kang et. al., “How a Conservative TV Giant is Ridding Itself of Regulation” 



October 1 – Television News

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 4

Jones, “Fox & Friends: Political Talk” HTWTV

Schudson, “News and Democratic Society”

Dickinson, “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

Poniewozik, “Watching Fox & Friends, Trump Sees a Two-Way Mirror” 

Maza, “You’re Watching Fox News. You Just Don’t Know It



Buying the War (2007) – DS79.76.B85 2007D

The Brainwashing of My Dad (2016) - P95.82.U6 B735 2016D 


October 3 – Television and Electoral Politics

READINGS: Freedman, “Thirty-Second Democracy”

Hamby, “The News is Dying, but Journalism Will Not

Rosen, “Why Trump is Winning and the Press is Losing

Poniewozik, "The Real Donald Trump is a Character on TV"

Exam #1 Assigned



October 8 – Television & Modes of Production

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 5

Butler, “Mad Men: Visual Style” in HTWTV

Exam #1 Due



Hill Street Blues, “Hill Street Station” (1981) – PN1992.77.H455 v.1 2005D

The Wire, “The Target” (2002) – PN1992.77.W53 v.1 2004D

UnREAL, “Wife” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


October 10 – Television Narrative

READINGS: Newman, “From Beats to Arcs”

Lotz, “House: Narrative Complexity” in HTWTV

O’Sullivan, “The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling” in HTWTV



October 15 – Television Genres & Taste Cultures

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 6

De Kosnik, “One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling” in HTWTV

Newman, “Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste” in HTWTV



Father Knows Best, “Betty, Girl Engineer” (1956) – PN1992.77.F38447 v.2 2008D

Bewitched, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” (1964) – PN1992.77.B48 v1 2005D

Parks & Recreation, “Pawnee Zoo” (2009) – PN1992.77 .P3627 v.2 2010D

Transparent, “Kina Hora” (2015) – Middfiles

UnREAL, “Truth” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


October 17 – Television’s Cultural Roles

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 7

Newcomb & Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum”

Hendershot, “Parks & Recreation: The Cultural Forum” in HTWTV

Fall Break – no class or screening October 22

WATCH OVER BREAK: Color Adjustment (1991) – PN1992.8.A34 C54 2004D 


October 24 – Representing Racial Identity

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 8

Alsultany, “24: Challenging Stereotypes” in HTWTV

Monk-Payton, “Blackness and Televisual Reparations”

Gates, “Empire: Fashioning Blackness”



October 29 – Television and Gender

READINGS: Douglas, Enlightened Sexism excerpts: "Fantasies of Power" and "Reality Bites"
Zimdars, "Having it Both Ways: Two and a Half MenEntourage, and Post-Feminist Masculinity"

Proposal for Final Essay due 



All in the Family, “Sammy’s Visit” (1972) – PN1992.77 .A589 v. 2 2003D

Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love is All Around” (1970) – PN1992.77 .M285 v. 1 2002D
Grey’s Anatomy, “White Wedding” (2011) – PN1992.77 .G74 v.7 2011D
Orange is the New Black, "Lesbian Request Denied" (2014) - PN1992.77 .O73 v.1 2014D


October 31 – Gender Representation and Intersectionality

READINGS: Levine, “Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism” in HTWTV

Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy

Kearney, "Orange is the New Black: Intersectional Analysis"

Exam #2 Assigned 



November 5 – Television, Gender & Sexuality

READINGS: Becker, “Gay-Themed Television”

Becker, “Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives” in HTWTV

Martin, “Queer Business of Casting Gay Characters on U.S. Television”

Exam #2 Due


SCREENING: United We Fan (2018) - reserve

UnREAL, “Fly” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


November 7 – Television Viewers: Effects or Influences?

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 9

Morgan & Shanahan, “Television and the Cultivation of Authoritarianism”


UnREAL, “Savior” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D



November 12 – Television Fan Cultures

READINGS: Scott, “Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content” in HTWTV

Jenkins, “The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics” in HTWTV


SCREENING:  Pokémon, “Pokémon, I Choose You!” (1998) – PN1997.I143 A1 1998D

Generation Like (2014) – HF5415.127 .G46473 2014D 

UnREAL, “Two” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


November 14 – Children’s Television and Media Education

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 10

Mittell, “Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television” HTWTV

Anderson, “Watching Children Watch Television: Blue’s Clues


LECTURE:  November 14, 4:30pm, Axinn 232

Dr. Racquel Gates, “Double Negative: Taste, Politics, and Form in Black Popular Culture”



November 19 – – Television as Technology

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 11

Spigel, “Installing the Television Set”

Johnson, "Defining Online TV"


SCREENING:  Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog (2008) – M1500.W46 D7 2008D

High Maintenance, episodes TBD – Middfiles

Burning Love (2012), episodes TBD – PN1992.77 .B878 v.1 2013D

UnREAL, “Princess” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


November 21 – Television in the Digital Convergence Era

READINGS: Stein, “Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technology” in HTWTV

Christian, “High Maintenance & The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl: Indie TV”

Ellis, “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)”

Reply All, “Louder” (listen to podcast)


November 26 – The Streaming Model

Poniewozik, “Orange is the New Black Taught Us What Netflix Was For

Weiner, “The Great Race to Rule Streaming TV

McNutt, “Gilmore Girls: TV Revivals”

Exam #3 Assigned



November 26 / 28: Thanksgiving break, no screening or Thursday class



December 3 – Globalization and American Television

READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Conclusion

Amaya, “Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences” in HTWTV

Gray, “The Amazing Race: Global Othering” in HTWTV 

Imre, “The Eurovision Song Contest: Queer Nationalism”

Exam #3 Due 



Bala Loca, “Too Late for the Late” – MiddFiles

Jane the Virgin, “Chapter 1” (2014) – PN1992.77 .J3675 v.1 2015D

UnREAL, “Future” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


December 5 – In Conclusion

READINGS: Miranda Hardy, “Bala Loca: Producing Representations” 

Max, “Confessional

Goode, "How Lifetime Became One the Best Places in Hollywood for Women"



FINAL ESSAY: Must be submitted via Canvas by December 13 at 12pm