SCMS 2020 — Tentpole TV

deadline for submissions: 
August 14, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Cory Barker, Bradley University
contact email: 

The dramatic increase of U.S. original scripted TV productions over the last decade has come to be known as “Peak TV.” As Hollywood mega-corporations intensify their investment in streaming platforms to compete with Netflix, new TV offerings will be more ubiquitous — yet more isolated behind exclusive paywalls — than ever. Enter the industry’s latest buzz-phrase: tentpole TV. 

Borrowed from Hollywood’s abiding blockbuster strategy on the film side, tentpole TV is expensive, sprawling, and calibrated to generate endless memeable content as much as it's intended to reach the mythical “four quadrants” of the audience. In theory, tentpole TV breaks through the clutter of Peak TV and streaming silos and makes the studio’s significant investment worthwhile. The label is attached to recent long-running hits like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or Stranger Things. Yet, the term also commonly appears in trade think-pieces about the future of program development on nascent platforms from Disney, Apple, and WarnerMedia, or in speculation about how HBO moves forward without Thrones, its largest tentpole. 

For those that follow these industry discourses, tentpole TV emerges as a contradictory phenomenon. It’s often framed as a modern artifact oriented toward the streaming environment, but many noted examples come from veteran media companies. Every corporation is desperate to develop their own tentpoles, but Game of Thrones is regularly cited as the “last” one. 

This panel seeks to interrogate the different contexts in which the tentpole TV concept is mobilized. Possible approaches/topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Formal characteristics of supposed tentpole shows, and any commonalities across different programs

  • Tentpole TV in the transnational context

  • Historical perspectives on prior generations of tentpole TV

  • Promotional and publicity campaigns for tentpole shows

  • Distribution strategies surrounding tentpole TV on streaming platforms and/or traditional networks and channels

  • The economics of tentpole TV and transparency related to ratings, streams, etc.

  • Cross-industry analysis between tentpoles in film and in TV

  • Surveys of how tentpole TV discourses intersect with “quality” and prestige TV 

  • Circulation of memes and viral content related to tentpole TV

Please email paper proposals, including a title, 300-word abstract, 3-5 bibliographic sources, and a short bio to Dr. Cory Barker (cabarker@bradley.edu) by Wednesday, August 14. Potential panelists will be informed of decisions by Friday, August 16.