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Family Guy: An Animated Portrait of Our Time

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The following essay aims to examine the current American animation show Family Guy and other shows alike [i.e. The Cleveland Show (spinoff), re-formulated adaptations like American Dad, and/or other relevant animated programs like Bob's Burgers, The Simpsons, and South Park] in the light of three of the essays studied in class - Stuart Hall's Encoding and Decoding, John Ellis' Television Production, and Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture.

Family Guy, the American television series created by Seth MacFarlane for Fox Broadcasting Company is one of today's most popular shows amongst young adults/adult viewers, currently ranking number 11 in the Nielson Polls and counting 4.3 million viewers in its audience. It is one of Fox's current top rated shows, now running in its ninth season, but its success was not always the case. In fact, Fox once cancelled the show after three season's due to poor viewership, or terrible scheduling - depending on who you ask - having been pitted against such popular shows as Frasier, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Survivor, and Friends. (This situation would later be referenced in the DVD release of Stewie Griffin: the Untold Story.) Fox frequently moved the show around different days and time slots with little or no notice and, consequently, the show's ratings suffered. Fox tried to sell the rights to reruns of the show to other networks, but without the numbers to prove a show's viewer-drawing potential, it was a hard task to find buyers. Cartoon Network's executives had the presence of mind to pick up the rights and incorporate the show into its Adult Swim programming. It was a success, becoming the block's top-rated program, dominating late night viewing against cable and even broadcast shows; at the same time the first two seasons of the show were made available for purchase on DVD, the show became a cult hit, selling 400,000 copies in one month and rising to over 2 million copies, becoming the best selling television DVD in 2003 and second highest television DVD ever. Sky-rocketing sales and top-ranking numbers as reruns made Fox give the show a second life; and it has been running strong ever since.

Family Guy's concept was conceived by MacFarlane after developing two animated films, The Life of Larry and Larry & Steve - these two characters would later evolve into those we now know as Peter and Brian Griffin. But the idea of the animated family has its roots in earlier shows like The Flintstones, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill. Like The Simpsons who first appeared as animated movies in Fox's Tracy Ullman Show; Family Guy was to have its origins as animated shorts for the sketch show MADtv, but the plans were altered for lack of budgetary means to make any kind of animation. Fortunately, this plan led to the meeting of cast member/creator Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borestein who now voices Lois Griffin and at the time of the show's creations was working on MADtv. Television is a business, and it is revenue driven based on advertising. The logic of safety principle dictates that most shows are developed based on proven-formulas, Family Guy thus owes a debt of gratitude to the Simpsons and King of the Hill; while shows that followed -which complete Fox's Sunday night's "Animation Domination" line-up in turn owe a debt of gratitude to the proven success of Family Guy.

Stuart Hall's essay Encoding and Decoding, can be applied to this logic of safety in terms of his concept "Frameworks of Knowledge", or the ways in which the producers conceptualize what they make. Seth MacFarlen and the Fox executives that gave the green light for Family Guy's pilot to be made were aware of successful animation and sitcom formats of the past. Thus were able to draw inspiration from them in producing the new show. They were able to say, "it is like The Simpsons meet All in the Family" and know exactly what was meant.

The four stage theory of communication can be layed-out in terms of the show: Production - The normal writing process of Family Guy generally starts with 14 writers that take turns to write the different scripts, when the scripts are finished it is turned in to the rest of the writers for them to read. These scripts generally include cutaway gags. If there are not enough cutaway sequences, writers are sent to create them each with different versions then they are pitched and what MacFarlane and the rest of the staff writers deem funny is included in the episode. Circulation - in the form of meaningful discourse, the show itself. Through televisual discourse, meaning is decoded by the audience during consumption. Through this decoding process, the 'new' version of meaning may be consistent with the 'original' one, or be oppositional to it; however, in most circumstances, it is always a result of negotiation. Reproduction can take several forms, DVD/Hulu/Netflix; new seasons and the creation of other shows that are consistent with the message this show communicates - i.e. Cleveland Show, American Dad, or Bob's Burgers. Once again, its important to reiterate that the people that decode the message are also the one's that make the show; and in this age of participatory culture, the audience can exert its influence over the shows and lead them in a certain direction.

What makes this show so popular? Is it its portrayal of a dysfunctional American family that allows us to laugh at our cultural-selves from a relative distance? Is it that the show bases much of its humor in parodying American pop culture? Is it the consequence-free "happy violence", the suggestiveness in its dialogue, the constant pushing of our current society's moral-panic buttons, or is it the random trips down memory lane that allude to popular culture of the past, which allows of viewer's to "get it" because the writers tell their stories with great care in speaking in visual language? Perhaps is the show's honesty and occasional poignancy is what appeals most to the viewership's collective intelligence.

Collective Intelligence is a term which Henry Jenkins discusses at length in his essay Convergence Culture. Jenkins writes that none of us know everything, each of us knows something; we therefore pool our resources and skills in a collective intelligence. The show's choice of references thus must be diverse enough to appeal to a mass audience, obscure and specific enough to please those that appreciate the discovery of a gag and familiar enough to keep the attention of its core audience amidst the constant deluge of life's distractions and informational bombardments. The show's writers must carefully navigate through frameworks of knowledge while remaining consistent and retaining the



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