Saturday, May 16, 2009


They happen so reliably that most of the time, we don't even notice them. In every sitcom, and most other TV programs, practically every scene is preceded by an establishing shot: A brief, five second image of the location in which the scene takes place, preceding the scene itself.

In film, or if the events take place in an unfamiliar location, that might be excusable. How are we going to know that our hero is in Paris if we don't see a shot of the Eiffel Tower? We're only human. But in most TV sitcoms, the action only ever takes place in half a dozen locations, all of them rigged up in a studio. If we can't recognize Jerry Seinfeld's apartment immediately, there's nothing NBC can do. Stock footage of an ordinary apartment building seems unlikely to help.

Of course, the aggregate time lost to establishing shots in the course of a 22-minute television show is small, almost certainly less than half a minute. Still, that's enough time to air a brief commercial or tell another joke. Are we supposed to believe that a static, repetitious, inane establishing shot is the best possible use of the public airwaves?

The only obvious justification is that an episode aired without establishing shots might have a "bald" quality, disorienting not because the omitted scenes are really helpful, but because, like eyebrows, we only notice them when they're gone. People are easily conditioned to accept the aesthetic necessity of something that, considered more fully, has no merit at all. The networks can feel free to indulge the prejudices of the TV-watching public when nothing is at stake, but valuable ad time is being lost to these establishing shots. And if there was ever a reason for iconoclasm -- or anything else -- on network TV, it's money.


Blogger kaylen said...

i am making a comeback. and this time i mean it. "srsly".

3:09 PM  

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