2 Television

Crystal Camargo

Why study television? For starters, television is everywhere around us. While we tend to think of TV primarily in our living rooms and bedrooms, we also find TV screens in bars, salons, stores, airports, waiting rooms, amongst many other public places. Moreover, we can access TV content virtually anywhere from our smartphones. In other words, TV undeniably enters people’s everyday lives in different spaces and multiple times a day. Today, U.S. adults spend an average of 4.2 hours watching TV each day, with people spending more time watching TV on phones, tablets, and laptops than in front of traditional TV screens (Nielsen Total Audience Report). As of 2021, half of U.S. Latinx adults still use traditional cable and satellite services, with more Latinx people opting for on-demand streaming platforms, like Netflix and Hulu. (Horowitz Research). By thinking of television as something that is everywhere in our culture and on different types of screens, we can start to understand how television continues to shift and change, and with it social and cultural impacts.

When the U.S. television industry began in the 1940s, only four major television networks operated. That was a time when everyone watched the same TV. More than 80 years later, the televisual landscape has drastically changed. We now have more than 50 national TV networks that air for free, hundreds of TV channels options to view with paid cable and satellite services, and nearly 200 on-demand streaming services. With thousands of options available to us from programming worldwide and in different languages, we do not watch the same type of TV shows anymore, simultaneously. Even when we do watch the same programs, such as the ten-most-watched media texts on Netflix, we often view them in different contexts and devices. Our television experiences are diverse and often different from someone else watching the same TV text. For instance, what we find funny in our favorite TV characters might be experienced very differently by someone with a distinct sense of humor, age, or cultural background.

Yet, despite these significant technological changes and ways of watching programming, why are people still fascinated with television? People tune into television to be entertained by sitcoms, telenovelas, soap operas, dramas, sporting events, quiz shows, and a dozen other genres designed for relaxation, enjoyment, pleasure, education, and so much more. In various forms, television entertains, tells stories about us and others, engages and attempts to sell products to the viewer, and constructs fictional and nonfictional worlds. It does so by stirring passion and emotion, all designed to keep us watching for hours. In short, television continues to occupy such a prominent place in so many of our lives.

As a form of mass communication, television is a place where ideas about Latinx people and culture are present.  Fictional and nonfictional forms of TV representation —whether a Latina news anchor on the evening news or a Latino comedian on a sitcom— reinforce or challenge mainstream notions of what it means to be a Latinx person in the United States. Representation matters to people. Portrayals of Latinxs on television not only affect how others see Latinx people, but it affects how Latinx people see themselves. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, Latinx TV representation makes up less than 6% compared to 18.5% of Latinx people that make up the U.S. population (2020 Nielsen Inclusion on TV). Everyday conversations about the lack of Latinx portrayal on television are seen on popular culture sites, newspapers, and social media platforms, like Twitter. People are outraged that the TV industry underrepresents the Latinx communities compared to other racial and ethnic groups, namely white, non-Latinx Americans. Yet, the underrepresentation of Latinx people and culture on television is not a new phenomenon. The struggle for more Latinx TV representation is first traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s during the peak of Chicana/o and Puerto Rican movements. These activists fought for improvements in Latinx representation in both film and TV and the hiring of Latinx talent in various production roles in the media industry (Noriega, 2000).  More than six decades later, the National Hispanic Media Council and other advocacy organizations address the similar lack of employment and portrayal of Latinx people on and behind the television screen that early Chicana/o and Latinx media activists, highlighting the ongoing struggle for Latinx representation on television. (Beltran, 2016).

The ubiquity of television, the intricate ways it is woven into everyday lives, and the complicated relationship with Latinx people and culture can make the study of TV seem challenging to analyze. What follows in this chapter aims to provide you with some ways to think about television critically and begin to account for its unique relationship with Latinx people and representation.  In the next pages, the use of keywords and concepts from the academic study of television will provide expertise and guidance in thinking about three areas about television: production, narrative structure, and aesthetics.

One of the most obvious is the content of TV shows themselves, such as the aesthetics and styles used in a TV text or the representations of race and gender we see on the screen. Another popular approach is the examination of industrial practices and structures that produced such TV texts. For example, one might consider the role of the show’s writer-producer or the costs of acquiring the rights to a remake/reboot TV series, such as in the case of the Latinx-led One Day at a Time (Netflix, 2017-2019; Pop 2020) and Charmed (CW, 2018 -). Television audiences, specifically how viewers react and relate to TV texts, are yet another TV analysis form. In this line of work, one might consider if and how Latinx queer people relate to Latinx queer representation in Love, Victor (Hulu, 2020 -), or Vida (Starz, 2018-2019). Lastly, we might also consider the broader cultural and societal impact of television itself. TV addresses and comments on ongoing political and societal debates, such as, for example, family separation and deportation. We can see this political rhetoric in fictional and non-fictional TV series that premiered in 2020, such as the remake of Party of Five (Freeform, 2020) that was centered on everyday struggles of family separation or the documentary series Deportation Nation that examines the bureaucracy of U.S. immigration enforcement. (Netflix, 2020). You should keep in mind that these four ways of analyzing TV do not in any way do justice to the complexities of these or describe other TV approaches.


TV Production: Showrunner

Every television show has a creative voice that guides the series from the inception of each episode idea to the finished product we watch. The TV industry tends to call this person a showrunner. A showrunner is a person who has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a TV program. This person or persons are responsible for overseeing all areas of writing and production on a television series, ensuring that each episode is delivered on time and on a budget for the production studio that produces the show and the network or platform that airs it. The word showrunner is often used synonymously with writer-producer or creator of a TV series, but these three terms are different. A writer-producer is a person who helps write and produce a TV show. For example, the showrunner is always (or nearly always a writer-producer) of the show; however, a writer-producer is not always a showrunner. Furthermore, each show has multiple executive producers, helping with writing, producing, post-production, and managerial roles. Still, they are not necessarily involved with every aspect in the way that a showrunner is. The showrunner is evolved with all managerial and creative aspects of a show. A TV show creator is a person or persons who developed the idea for the series but may or may not be the show’s creator. The creator is often an executive producer and maybe a writer-producer. The creator may also be the showrunner.

Are you confused yet? If so, that is okay. These are complex industrial terms.  Showrunner, writer-producer, and creator can be the same person or be completely different people. For example, One Day at a Time (ODAAT) — is a sitcom about a Cuban American single-mother raising a teenage daughter and a middle-school son with her Cuban émigré mother in Los Angeles— is a great example of these similar and yet different TV industrial positions. It is also a sitcom based on the 1975 series of the same name created by Norman Lear. In the contemporary version of ODAAT that reimagines the original series with a Cuban family instead of a white American family, Normal Lear is an executive producer and original creator, but he is not a showrunner. Instead, Gloria Calderón-Kellett and Mike Royce are the showrunners who oversee the sitcom’s creative authority and management responsibility on each workday. Calderón-Kellett and Royce are also writer-producers of the sitcom remake. Lear is still involved with the series, but he is not involved with everyday aspects of the financial, creative, and collaborative nature of running the TV show. He might be involved with specific aspects of the series but does not need to deal with the budget and production hassles that Calderón-Kellett and Royce do.

Overall, showrunners have become central figures in the evolution of television as a medium. Combining managerial and creative roles, a showrunner functions as television auteurs/directors in complex and rapidly evolving ways, illustrating what it takes to create, write, and run a scripted TV series in today’s televisual landscape (Bennett, 2014).  For starters, they shape the artistic content and style of TV series. Both Calderón-Kellett and Royce shaped the Latinx, queer, and veteran focus of ODAAT, addinga new direction that the original 1975 did not focus on. Showrunners learn to operate all business aspects of the television industry, even in extreme circumstances. After Netflix canceled ODAAT, Calderón-Kellett and Royce worked around their Netflix contract that prevented  them from airing the series on a broadcast network and instead  found a new home on another on-demand streaming service instead.

Lastly, the work of showrunners become a platform for discussing larger socio-cultural issues — such as gender, race and representation, and politics – both in and through television. Calderón-Kellett and Royce have received appraisals for their dedication to diversity in front of and behind the camera. In the second season of ODAAT, 50% of writing staff were female and 50% were people of color, higher than the national average, where women made 44% of all TV writers while people of color made only 35% (WAG). Furthermore, Calderón-Kellett and Royce lead a team of writers and actors to shed light on LGBTQ issues, immigration and deportation issues, and veteran issues on television. For example, Elena (played by Isabella Gomez) is the first Latina character to come out as queer on a sitcom. Calderón-Kellett and Royce indirectly made Latinx representation in television history.

TV Style: Narrative Structure and Aesthetics 

Like cinema, television is a story machine where you too can analyze visual and audio elements, such as mise-en-scène and editing, as described in the previous chapter on film. There are stylistic elements and narrative similarities between the television and film. In film and media studies, we refer to these differences as media specificity. Film, television, and digital media allow for different forms of storytelling that are particular to the stylistic and narrative properties of that medium. For example, a feature film can present a situation/circumstance, a disruption of that situation, and then a resolution of that disruption, all within a two-hour frame. While a film can belong to a trilogy or franchise, it, for the most part, must present an ending or conclusion of some sort to the conflict/situation developed throughout the film. On the other hand, due to its unique properties and types of programming, an entertainment TV series does not have to obey those rules or restrictions of a film. A 24-episode season, for example, allows for a different type of storytelling, one where the character development, conflicts, and resolutions can slowly develop over several episodes or even seasons. This section will discuss key narrative forms and TV aesthetics specific to television itself, illustrating how these television forms are crucial to our understanding of television content.

Serial and episodic are two types of narrative forms that contribute to the storytelling on television. Serial television is when a show’s story unfolds over multiple episodes, seasons, or even during the duration of an entire length of series. Serials are a descendant of radio soaps and have been a staple of TV storytelling for over six decades. A television series may reveal “parts” of plot, conflict, or character developments in each new episode. Sometimes this occurs weekly or daily in a soap opera or telenovela, depending on the genre’s format. TV serials disclose further essential information while relying on heavy repetition, allowing viewers to remember information from the previous episodes while making sense of the new clues and information they are receiving.

Latinx-centered shows like East Los High (2013-2017), Jane the Virgin (2014-2019), Love, Victor (2020-), On My Block (2019-2021), and Ugly Betty (2006-2010) are all examples of TV serials. In the case of Jane the Virgin — a U.S. remake of a Venezuelan telenovela about Jane, a devoted Catholic and virgin who gets artificially inseminated— the series relies on a narrator to help provide seriality. This off-screen, ominous narrator recaps essential details from the previous episode, providing  heavy repetition while narrating new information through the series’ beloved characters, conflict, and resolutions. Most TV series do not rely on narrators as does Jane the Virgin and instead provide seriality differently. For example, Love, Victor is a coming-of-age story about a half Puerto Rican and half Colombian American teen struggling with sexual orientation. Due to the premise of the series, Love, Victor explores different aspects of Victor’s gay identity, from questioning his identity to coming out first to his best friend and later to his parents all in the first season. In this example, seriality is provided by the coming-of-age/out genre.

Episodic television is when a TV show’s plot, conflict, and resolution unfolds in a single episode in a three-act structure. Episodic is the opposite of seriality. The TV show will reveal all the necessary information to understand the situation or conflict at hand and solve it all in one episode. Unlike TV anthologies, such as Black Mirror (Netflix, 2011-2019), whose situation, conflict, and resolution also happen in one episode but have different characters, episodic series showcase the same set of primary characters in the duration of the series. We commonly see this narrative form in a situation comedy known as a sitcom. A sitcom is a distinctive TV genre primarily defined by its structure and the central role of comedy. Furthermore, each episode is built around a particular situation or problem, often centered on a family or close groups of friends. Historically speaking, sitcoms were the first TV fictional genre to discuss family, gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, work and social class, politics, and ideologies of all kinds. Due to their episodic form, centrality in comedy, historical focus on families, they can introduce a wide range of opinions through various characters on issues that were once taboo.

The sitcom occupies an important place in the construction of Latinidad in popular culture, as the sitcom was one of the first TV genres to include Latinx representation in the 1950s. Television scholars have examined significant moments in the history of Latinx representation in sitcoms, such as the role of Chicano/a activism in Chico and the Man (NBC, 1974-1978) (Noriega, 2000) or the influence of Cuban television in the first bilingual sitcom, ¿Qué Pasa, USA? (PBS, 1977-1980) (Rivero, 2013). Latinx comedians, such as Paul Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, George Lopez, Cristela Alonzo, and Gabriel Iglesias, have transitioned from stand-up comedy over to TV through sitcoms, often starring in them.

Serial and episodic television allows for two distinct types of storytelling to occur on television. For example, serialization rewards loyal viewers who tune into each episode as these series tend to reveal little bits and pieces of the plot and situation over various episodes. On the other hand, episodic provides everything from laying out the main story and conflict to solution in a tight episode due to narrative structure. As a result, viewers are not enticed in the same way as seriality as they are in episodic television. For example, one could miss an episode from a sitcom or procedural crime show, such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, 1999 -), and not miss any crucial information since each episode introduces the plot, situation, and resolution. Whereas if one skipped or missed the following episode from a serial TV show, they might miss out on tidbits to help them further understand the plot or a particular character’s persona. We see elements of seriality in episodic television and vice versa. These narrative forms are not fixed or static categories as the evolution of television is changing how stories are being told. For example, One Day at a Time, a sitcom, serializes Elena’s coming-out story arch over the first season instead of having one special episode that focused on her queer identity.

Aesthetics, such as the use of a close-up to a beloved character’s silly face, continues to the pleasure and emotional engagement of television. The use of visual and sonic aesthetics on television can be thematic or a stylistic choice influenced by a TV genre. For example, sitcoms tend to use a three-camera studio set up and can be filmed in front of a large audience (Dalton and Linder, 2005). Three-camera setup, also known as multiple-camera setup, is a method of TV production commonly used in sports events, news, soap operas, talk and games shows, and most sitcoms. It involves using three simultaneously recording cameras instead of one, taking footage from various angles, and maximizing filming time, which is essential when recording shows with a live audience like talk and game shows.

A multi-camera show, such as a sitcom, is often accompanied by a live audience or laugh track. The origins of live audiences on television stems from the desire of creating a theatre-like, communal feeling from the comfort of someone’s couch. A laugh track, pre-recorded soundtrack that contains the laughter of an audience. In some productions, a live audience might be used while others might opt for an artificial laughter. In both cases, a live audience or a laugh track allows the performance we see to be swayed by those reactions we see or hear on screen. The loudness or duration of a laugh indirectly cues how funny a joke or situation is, which scholars have argued can construct biases around race, gender, and sexality. For example, Alfred Martin found that Black-cast sitcoms use more laugh tracks with Black gay characters than Black straight male ones (Martin, 2021). Sitcoms can edit, manipulate, add, and subtract or reconstitute laughter based on the producers’ aim or goal in a scene or episode. In the case of a live audience, cue cards are used to encourage the live audience to laugh at particular times. Whereas the laugh track is introduced in the post production of a show.

By introducing the importance of a showrunner during pre-production and TV narrative form and aesthetics, we can explore how individuals are behind the screen and how television form contributes to the limited presence of Latinx representation of television. As you continue to learn more about Latinx representation in media, I hope you consider how a series showrunner or aesthetic, such as the laugh track, can potentially influence what you see on the screen.

Crystal Camargo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the Northwestern University. Her research explores Latinx representation at the intersections of television studies, language ideologies, and critical race and ethnic studies in U.S. English- and Spanish-language television. She has been published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Flow, and SCMS +. She received her B.A. in International Studies, Spanish Language & Literature, and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Denver and M.A. in Screen Cultures from Northwestern.

Works Cited


Beltrán, Mary. “Latina/os on TV!: A Proud (and Ongoing) Struggle Over Representation and Authorship.” In The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Popular Culture, pp. 39-49. Routledge, 2016.

Bennett, Tara. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show. Titan Books (US, CA), 2014.

Dalton, Mary M., and Laura R. Linder, eds. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed. SUNY Press, 2005.

Horowitz Research, “The Latinx Millennial Love Affair with Netflix.” Horowitz Research, 2019. https://www.horowitzresearch.com/press/the-latinx-millennial-love-affair-with-netflix-new-horowitz-research/

Martin Jr, Alfred L. The Generic Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom. Indiana University Press, 2021.

Nielsen, “The Nielsen Total Audience Report: August 2020.” Nielsen, 2020. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2020/the-nielsen-total-audience-report-august-2020/

Nielsen, “Being Seen on Screen: Diverse Representation and Inclusion on TV.” Nielsen, 2020. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2020/being-seen-on-screen-diverse-representation-and-inclusion-on-tv/

Noriega, Chon A. Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema. U of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Rivero, Yeidy M. “Interpreting Cubanness, Americanness, and the Sitcom.” Global Television Formats: Understanding Television Across Borders (2013): 90.

United States Census Bureau, “US Census Quick Facts,” census.gov, 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI725219



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