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Quality Television And A Examination Of The Simpsons Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4691 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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There is a common assumption relating to quality television, which has been known for its common approach and vague forms of interpretation. Quality television, from the 1950s, was generally associated with public television networks, which are government-controlled and funded. With the development of cable network in the 1980s and 1990s, American cable networks, such as HBO have made a variety of television shows that are mostly refer to as quality television, such as, The Wire, Oz, Sex and The City and The Sopranos, etc. It describes a style of television programme that is of a better quality, because of its subject matter, style, or content and:

‘may be perceived as being good for its viewers – morally or educationally edifying – but it may still be experienced as worthy, dull, conventional or pretentious’. (McCabe, Akass, p.21)

Quite a number of television programs are labelled as being of a higher quality, and one has to take into account a number of individual considerations and educated guess. Kristin Thompson’s alleges that quality television programs include:

‘…a quality pedigree, a large ensemble cast, a series memory, creation of a new genre through recombination of older ones, self-consciousness, and pronounced tendencies toward the controversial and the realistic. (Cited in Wilcox, Lavery).

An American non-profit organisation, The Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) also offers its own classification in regard to what quality television is:

‘A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves, and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, and it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought. Characterization is explored. And usually a quality comedy will touch the funny bone and the heart’. (McCabe, Akass. p.41)

A writer puts it this way that: ‘quality is not what is produced, but what it produces’.

The Simpsons, an American animated series was created by Matt Groening and produced by Gracie Films for Twentieth Century Fox and the FOX Broadcasting Network. The show was first aired in December of 1989, becoming the first animated series on prime-time television since the 1960s. The Simpsons was initially created as a series of animated shorts, and then emerging as part of The Tracey Ullman Show around April 1987, and after a three-season run the show was developed into a half-hour prime time show, and premiered as a series on the 17th of December 1989 on the FOX TV Sunday program, gaining the 08:00 p.m. time slot. The series became an early success for FOX TV, and as a result becoming FOX TV’s first series to climb to the Top 30 ratings in a season of 1989-1990. From the time when it first appeared in December 1989, the show has broadcast a total of 454 episodes.

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The Simpsons’ twenty-first season began airing on FOX TV in September 2009, which confirmed The Simpsons as the longest-running American prime-time television series, displacing Gunsmoke for that qualification. A feature length film, The Simpsons Movie, was released in cinemas worldwide on 26th July and 27th July, 2007, and earned around 527dollars. The Simpsons at the outset challenged typical television programming and was the specific most significant program in ascertaining FOX TV as a valid broadcast television network.

The Simpsons has won numerous awards since its first appearance as a series, including 26 Annie Awards, a Peabody Award and 25 Primetime Emmy Awards. The series was named by Time magazine issue of 31st December, 1999 as the best television series of the 20th century’s, and on 14th January, 2000 the Simpson family was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Simpsons has, furthermore, influenced various adult-oriented animated dramas.

The series has turned out to be the first successful animated program in prime time since Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in the 1970s. In the 1980s, animated shows were regarded as suitable just for children. Furthermore, creating animated show was considered too costly to attain the kind of quality acceptable for prime-time television but The Simpsons completely changed this perception. Taking advantage of the Korean animation studios for filming, editing and colouring made the series cheaper. This brought about lower production costs and the success of The Simpsons motivated television networks to examine the prospects of its success, which led to taking chances on various animated series. This development led to a 1990s explosion in new animated prime-time shows, such as Beavies and Butthead, Family Guy, King of the Hill, South Park, The Critic and Futurama. The Simpsons helped in creating an audience for prime-time animation that had been nonexistent for several years. Many different items have been developed over the years based upon this long running series. Video games of various types, collection of wide-ranging consoles, and a game Arcade have also been developed to compliment the series.

The Simpsons centres on a nuclear family which lives in a make-believe town of Springfield. The animated series has cut across lines as it satires the diverse American culture while also influencing a broad range of social issues such as religion, sexuality, politics, advertisements, print media, entertainment industry and even technological advances. While they do not share certain qualities with past television families such as the Bundys, the Cosbys etc, the examination of their personalities somewhat make a distinction. Something familiar with the series is the common subject matter in Springfield, yet time progresses alongside as well. In contrast to real life shows, there appears to be lack of difficulty to keep them at that age yet there is more of modernised technology progressing along with the times. The use of satire and humour that characterised The Simpsons operates on many levels and suggests various interests depending on the age or gender of the audience. Men could relate to Homer Simpson and his continuous daily battles with insufficient money and the job he dislikes, while females could identify with Marge and her efforts in trying to keep the family unit together and working correctly. Some children would love to imitate Bart Simpsons’ naughty behaviour and appreciate Lisa’s academic talent, and also the way they interact with one another as a kind of love-hate combination.

….Homer J Simpson, the head of the family, is a lovable semi- intelligent father with a number of personal hygiene problems; though this description rather says the opposite to the true genius of the man. Beneath this overweight figure lies the heartbeat of a man who always endeavours to help his family, friends, and his boss to a certain level of success, and ultimately ends up with the adoration and love of his children and wife. A very devoted but awkward character, he works as safety inspector at the comically but risky nuclear power plant. This, basically to him is an unimportant job, but one that he neither likes nor dislike, but is resigned to, or perhaps even contented with.

Homer Simpson’s wife, Merge, proves to be an enduring and devoted woman, who runs the family home, caring for her children and husband like classical American housewife and mother, representing a form of decency and respectability. This does not mean that Merge has never worked outside of the home environment; a short period as a police officer gave her some experience of the gloomy side of the shortcomings of Springfield, and teaching at Bart’s and Lisa’s school, Springfield elementary, almost certainly did the same. She serves as a church warden and a franchise holder but always return to her role as wife and mother, which is a welcome relief for the clan as they constantly need her sound judgment and support to keep them out of trouble. In contrast to other family sitcoms, Merge is characterised as more intelligent than her husband, but in accordance with other forbearing programs, she never maintains herself to be even though she is most times right. Merge Simpson’s decent uneasiness is a frequent periodic subject matter, and determining the behaviours of the family members and town’s people through ethical issues is a frequent incident.

The Son, Bartholomew J Simpson is a ten year old troublemaker. Emerging as a type of anti-cultural symbol that he was, he is at school an underachiever much to the annoyance of his teachers and the school’s principal. He never fails to irritate everyone; his parents, sister and teachers with dirty pranks ranging from flushing a cherry bomb down the school’s toilet to painting the lines in the teacher’s parking bay nearer together so the teachers would not be able to get out of their cars. Bart Simpson’s refused to see life the way adults dictate he should, consequently exposing his rebellion and audacity to typical wisdom. He is often ignored, as people see him as a naughty child, and a failure, who is not hindered but is somehow proud of it. He knew that those who assume controls do not always know all the answers. This very often enables him to point out those things others do not see, consequently becoming a means of expressing and ridiculing people’s blindness towards unfairness, prejudice, discrimination and inconsistency in the world. Bart was perhaps unquestionably the favourite when the show began, but Homer is the main leading icon of the show.

Lisa Simpson is a totally different character from Bart. She is the brainpower of the family. Although this is noticeable, her remarkable and exciting personality goes unrewarded. She is, for all practical proposes, a perfect child who frequently reveals thoughtfulness that disagrees with her age. Added to her cleverness, she is a kind, gifted and charming personality, who due to escaping people’s great expectation of her, is able to point out shortcomings in the Springfield’s society; something the adults would not have been able or failed to do. One would have loved to see grownups discover inequalities and injustices in communities, instead of an eight year old girl. This makes the social interpretation of The Simpsons more significant, as this uses the sincerity and openness of Lisa Simpson to point out adult’s refusal and failure to confront deceit and corruption in the society. Despite the fact that Bart and Lisa are two completely different characters, by acting as a kind of collective interpreters, they are well-placed within the usual practice of using children in series like this to prompt those audiences who despises the political structure and the general public’s established interpretation. The speaking roles of these the two children is an indication that they know far more about true life, popular culture and everyday life issues than their parents.

Maggie Simpson, the final member of the family, is the youngest child who has advanced unsteadily throughout the eight year run of the series. Being very conscious of her environment, she can be seen emulating the course of action surrounding her. As a non talking toddler, she never get into much trouble and She has carried out quite a number of adventures that suggest she is a very smart toddler; once running away from the Springfield day-care centre, using her baby blocks to spell out E MC, driving her father’s car, and writing her name on a board. She also shows some astonishing ability; shooting a dart at a picture of Homer in imitating Itchy and Scratchy and hitting him on the head with a mallet. Notwithstanding her age, she proves to be an amazing sharp shooter, as depicted in Who Shot Mr. Burns?, where she shots Mr. Burns with a handgun that falls into her hands by mistake, and in Papa’s Got a Brand New Badge, she was able to shoot a group of hoodlums in quick flow with a rifle that it seems has been hidden in her room. Maggie is usually upset and annoyed by Homer’s attempts to bond with her, but have on quite a numbers of time step in to save him instead: once from sinking, once from being shot by hoodlums, once from being kidnapped by a tow truck driver.

The writer of ‘Television Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER’, Robert J Thompson, presents some essentials of what quality television program represent, pointing out several reasons to suggest all that quality television stands for. In examining some criterion of what quality television in regards to The Simpsons, the first condition of a quality television program, according to Thompson, is that it is not a regular TV, and as such must break the traditional rules of television and be like nothing ever appearing before it. This became apparent in The Simpsons use of humour in its presentation as it does not make use of recorded laugh track to prompt the viewers to hilarity when it is being humorous; thereby engaging and inviting viewers to individually choose the lines and actions they think are amusing, based on their own individual awareness of popular culture and experiences. This is in sharp contrast to most hilarious shows on television, where the use of laugh track to prompt viewers to laugh is most common.

The series also succeeded in encouraging its viewers’ active consumption. Nothing is ever closely guarded with The Simpsons, as it ridicules talk shows, meaningless advertisements, and biased news stories appearing on their own television; and also revealing the insincerity of the educational system, judicial systems, religious establishment, the medical profession and the political institutions. The series ability to entertain and at the same time revealing several things the audience could not have observed in general, leaves us to claim a status of quality to it.

‘Through its clever use of pastiche, this program has called attention to the flaws and hypocrisies of such sacred institutions as government, organised religion, and the health care systems’. (John, p.63)

Herein lies the beauty of The Simpsons; it’s not afraid to cause upsets if the story demands it. The Simpsons covers scores of sensitive social issues including the corruptions in the legal and political systems, the powerful elites in the society, moral decay in the society, violence, the crumbling educational system, media prejudice and the problems of the elderly. Quite a number of shows may have touched on these themes but none have accommodated, disguised and covered them with sense of humour as The Simpsons.

Another decisive factor of quality TV is that it tends to attract an exclusive audience. Programs that were once proven to be unpopular and rejected with the elites are now accepted by urban, high-class, well-educated and young viewers. In its first two months that the series premiered in 1990, it climbed to top 15 into Nielsen’s ratings, which is a remarkable achievement, when one take into account that the FOX network could just about reach only 80 percent of household at that time. The Simpsons not only ranked among the top 10 among the young, it also, in addition drew a load of grown-ups.

One of several reasons why the series scores so high with the young audience by Newsweek’s Harry Walters is that:

“it shamelessly panders to a kid’s eye view of the world: parents dispenses dopey advice, school is a drag and happiness can be attained by subverting the system”.(Walters,

The show’s appeals to grown-ups is as a result of watching and developing a soft spot for series like The Flintstones, or The Jetsons, which were the last cartoon families to make it on prime-time television. These programs were full of mature satire which only adults could fully understand.

“The show appeals to the kids who like cartoons, to intellectuals who like satire… and to thugs who like troublemaking here” (Hughes).

The series meets the requirements for quality television as it is successful in acquiring remarkable demographics. In explaining the show’s appeal to diverse audience, Groening asserted that they were not writing for kids, but for adults, describing the kind of family entertainment The Simpson offered:

‘I like to think it’s something that’s going to be family entertainment to new sense. It’s going to offer something for every member of the family, depending on whatever level they are going to meet the show. Adults are going to enjoy the witty dialogue and the funny story turns and kids are going to enjoy some of the wild sight gags’ (quoted in Clark)

Even if they were at the initial stages aiming for only the adult audience, the show ends up picking up the children along the way without much effort.

Quality television is also defined to challenge genre categorisation by creating a new one, and The Simpsons is to an extent, a combination of animated cartoon and domestic sitcom, though the series is often labelled first and primarily as a sitcom. This can be seen through the show’s use of drama, action, mystery, adventure, musicals, romance, regularly all within the same half-hour, which make the program to challenge genre classification in its combination of varieties of productions. An advertising executive was quoted as saying that: ‘it’s absolutely all that it is – a sitcom comedy that happens to be animated’, and in spite of this, the program takes various styles of television, combines them together to produce one of the most innovative and entertaining series on air. There is an accepted assumption that: “

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‘The Simpson enjoys the double distinction of being perhaps the most important animated program ever to air on American television as well as the one of the most important sitcoms. These two aspects of the program reinforced each other: The success of The Simpsons as a sitcom as help it to gain new audiences that would not previously have been interested in an animated program, while the show’s animated status has helped it to break new ground and go where no sitcom had gone before’. (Booker, P.48)

The program denotes the domestic family sitcom tradition and is often associated with the other side of the Cosbys, the Andersons, the Nelsons, the Bradys and all other sitcoms family from the dawn of television, suggesting the series to be another typical family sitcom, even as animation, with the usual individual problems to encounter and resolve each week. Matt Goering was quoted, saying: “at an early age I was affected by Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet. The Simpsons is my skewed reaction to those shows”. In stating the significance of these earlier sources, he is suggesting the series not using the genre s standard, as all the basics of its live action of the series is geared towards the family models. Unlike traditional sitcoms with a limited number of casts and settings, the series animated structure gives the writer, producer and animators the choice to open the style from within instead of applying the typical usual settings. Jason Mittell suggests that:

‘assumptions about animation and family sitcoms situate the program within hierarchies and power relations impacting the show’s reception and the ensuing controversies that emerged. But it would be a mistake to regard this generic framework as fixed or static. Just as the show is positioned within clusters of already extant generic discourses, The Simpsons and its long-term cultural life have worked to reconstitute and change the very generic notions that were partially formative of its initial cultural understanding. The success of the show with adults, partially overcoming the stigmas of animations “childish” audience have somewhat eroded these notions…’ (Mittel, p.194)

The Simpsons position within the genre of television and animation is also a point to consider, as there is a kind of difference between animation and cartoon is significant. While animation indicates a technical practice and visual method, cartoon involves a children audience and is mainly associated with children, is full of comical content with uncertain cultural meaning, and is often associated to the 1960s Saturday morning cartoons programs. In response to the success of The Simpson, Charles Solomon suggests that:

We tend to forget that what we thinks as the great cartoons – the Warner Bros cartoons of the 1940s and ’50s, the Disney cartoons of the ’30 – were made for general audience and could appeal to the most sophisticated member of the audience as well as the least. During the 1960s and 1970s, animation became stereotyped as a children’s medium because of Saturday morning, which was a distortion. There’s always been a big audience for animation, and this is one of the first projects that’s been sophisticated enough in its approach to once again appeal to adults as well as children. (Shahid, USA Today)

The series has climbed to the rank that is usually reserved for live-action programs to challenge the long-established programs that put all live-actions over anything that is animated. The rise of the cartoon network as a twenty – four hour broadcasting channel of animated programs, airing the dreadfully same animated shows that were once labelled as Saturday morning programming for children”, suggests the vital role of network’s practices in deciding a genre’s audience, which have allowed various animated series that has followed The Simpson to gained success.

Another powerful influence of The Simpson is enhanced through its brilliant blend of comical, visual and vocal elements. Television allows us to take a critical look at the thought-provoking and tough situation of human experiences through the employment of spoken word, audio and dramatic visual element, and the blending of these essentials helps in creating a memorably practical rendering of familiar human situations. By animating The Simpsons, the writer made the effort of reaching a high positive measure of practicality, while at the same time yet entertaining, and as a result creating interesting and motivating stories for his audience.

Despite the enormous of the series, The Simpsons is not without its own troubles as there have been several complaints against the program by significant number of viewers. Some of these complaints includes: an ad for The Simpsons showing a setting where a homosexual had encounter with an alien, army recruits with a sign saying: “Welcome Suicidal Teenagers”, Homer Simpson’s equation of Christians with porn movie stars, Cain and Abel were depicted to be slaying each other with knives, etc. Although The Simpsons scores on important lessons such as human values, criticisms of society and the calls for reflection, all of which have enlarged its fan base over the years, but there are some agencies who suggest that this should not conceal the fact that the series is not suitable for children features violent scenes, some sexually evocative images and languages, instances or behaviours. They argued against some explicit contents contained in the series that are considered inappropriate for children including: the occurrences with which Bart puts off his pants to expose his behind, in defiance of authority. The endorsement of cigarettes in a children program as Patty and Selma, Marge’s sisters, are chain-smokers. Sideshow Bob, Selma’s ex-husband, attempts to kill her; leaving the gas on in order to set the house on fire once she lights her cigarette. Patty, her sister, revealed herself as a lesbian in season 16. Tommy and Daly, the cartoon watched by Lisa and Bart, is thought to be extremely violent. Cleto and Brandine, the ill-bred couples living on the border of Springfield, have no less than 15 children, none of whom attends school, while it is also apparent that they, as well as being married to each other, are family relatives, suggesting incest. The Simpsons furthermore exhibits alcohol abuse and drunkenness, which could be seen as the depiction of alcohol consumption in children’s programs. In one episode, after getting drunk, Homer and Ned Flanders marry strippers in Las Vegas even though they are both already married; suggesting the idea of extramarital affairs and polygamy.

In a Time Magazine Poll of 2005, 53 percent of people asked said they think there should be stricter controls on broadcast-channel shows depicting sex and violence. While 68 percent believe the entertainment industry has lost touch with viewers’ moral standards, 66 percent said there is too much violence TV, and 58 percent said too much cursing and50 percent said there is too much sexual content on TV. 49 percent says regulation should be extended to cover basic cable. According to a BBC poll of more than 1,000 people, 86 percent of the people think the government should regulate sexually explicit television and magazine images aimed at children. With the strongest support of 92 percent coming from 55- to 64-year-olds, an unexpected 78 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe tougher limits are needed to prevent adolescent sex. (Telegraph.co.uk, 9/7/04 stats)

Generally, even the best television programs have a tendency to decline after a period of time, and there seems to be no case in point for what happened to the FOX network’s long-running series. The show, was for the greater part of the 1990s, known to posses hilarious, satirical play and clever writing, with season three to eight featuring the best material ever produced, but the last ten seasons deteriorated into a distasteful, ordinary series that is totally different from the classic program it once was. Alberti commented that:

‘almost from the beginning fans have anxiously and in some cases fatalistically charted evidence of the program’s artistic “decline”, especially as new writer are introduced to the shows, fears that increased with Matt Groening’s involvement with Futurama’. (Alberti, p.30)

With Groening throwing all his exclusive attention to Futuruma, old writers and producers leaving to take on other assignments, another FOX cartoon series, Family Guy, had an adverse effect on The Simpsons, as the writers adopted Peter Griffin’s outrageous personality that resulted in a brand-new, but much less adorable Homer Simpson. Another factor for its decline could be attributed to the extreme usage of celebrity guest voiceovers, which was never a strong selling point for the show. That these stars are playing themselves with too much disinterest and with less involvement of satire actually became awkward.

Television comedy, before the arrival of the series, had past its best. A classic sitcom family is usually associated with the higher middle-class family, with well brought-up children and intellectual parents, like Growing Pains, The Cosby Show and Family Ties. The feature that has made The Simpsons so popular lies in its portrayal of the American family convincingly. Quality television, according to Thompson, inclined towards realism, and The Simpsons is perhaps one of the best examples television audiences have of a realistic family sitcom. Though animated, the portrayal is much more like that of real families; allowing the audience to experience the surprise of self-identification. People can identify with the wittiness that the creators acquire out of a normal family life; stressing and spreading interesting statements about the individual and the society at large.


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