Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Revisiting the Osbournes: The Hybrid Reality-Sitcom

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Revisiting the Osbournes: The Hybrid Reality-Sitcom

Article excerpt

THE OSBOURNES WAS ONE OF THE SURPRISE HITS of the 2001-2002 television season. As the highest-rated program on cable television and the most successful series in MWs twentyone year history, The Osbournes not only boosted the music channel's ratings, but also quickly became a national cultural phenomenon. The program's success was replicated when it moved to Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The first season consisted often "documentary" episodes, each loosely structured as a situation comedy, based on the lives of the rock star Ozzy Osbourne, his wife Sharon, and Jack and Kelly, two oftheirthree teenage children. Soon after the show's premiere in the US, the Osbournes were appearing on talk shows, gracing the covers of popular magazines, and becoming the subject of numerous articles in newspapers and magazines. The requisite websites, Osbournes merchandise, book deals, and a soundtrack from the show soon appeared.

In the months that followed, the Osbournes continued to extend their reach into popular culture. The aging Ozzy Osbourne, the "Prince of Darkness," was not only invited to the White House for the Press Correspondents Association dinner, but he played for Queen Elizabeth Il at her Golden Jubilee. His daughter Kelly launched a music career, Sharon began hosting her own television daytime talk show in the fall of 2003, and a feature film biography of Ozzy is in production. Almost overnight, the Osbournes became mainstream cultural icons.1

The Osbournes allows us to examine not only the emergence of a highly marketable cultural product, but also the way issues of genre come into play in the production and reception of media texts. It exemplifies what John Corner refers to as the "post-documentary" culture of television (257). The program is a self-proclaimed generic hybrid, multiply coded as reality television, situation comedy, and parody. The Osbournes was first labeled a "reality-sitcom" by MW, a term quickly adopted and circulated by the popular press. The mixture of "factual" footage of the private lives of the Osbourne family, framed by the fictional format of the situation comedy, reflects the increasingly prevalent hybridization of genres that characterizes contemporary television. Most importantly, The Osbournes provides a case study of the role of genre in cultural meaning-making practices. It illustrates how generic innovations are introduced into culture and helps us to better understand the relationship between television and modern life.

This essay will also address several questions specific to The Osbournes. What is a reality-sitcom? How do multiple audiences make sense of it? How does it work in relation to the sitcom and to reality television? How does parody come into play with regard to its production and reception? The work of genre theorists Steve Neale, Rick Altman, and John Corner offers a starting point for addressing these questions.

Rather than static, primarily descriptive categories, genres are multi-discursive practices whose meanings are constantly under negotiation. Steve Neale writes that "genres are not to be seen as forms of textual codifications, but as systems of orientations, expectations, and conventions that circulate between industry, text, and audience" (55). Television genres are sites of negotiation whose meanings are constituted in the interactions between producers, texts, and viewers. Genres not only help viewers decide whether or not to attend to a program, they also help viewers determine how to "read" it. John Corner describes the generic system of television as "a changing and increasingly hybridized set of practices, forms, and functions, one in which both cultural and commodity value lie most often in the right blend of the familiar and the new, of fulfilled expectation and shock" (255). When generic conventions, and thus viewers' expectations, are simultaneously confirmed and disrupted, meanings potentially become destabilized and open to re-negotiation. …

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