Because commercial series are in constant competition with one another, they are forced to engage in a continual reflection on their possibilities for variation. A prominent strategy of competitive self-reflection employs the logic of one-upmanship, or outbidding (Überbietung), i.e. the repeated intensification of successfully established strategies of distinction. If such intra- and interserial contest—or the competition between and within series—does not follow a linear escalatory logic, this has a great deal to do with the ability of popular series to translate intensifications of an often quantitative nature into qualitative effects or, conversely, to use qualitative variation for the purpose of outbidding.
The linkage between competitive intensifications and aesthetic differentiations is particularly prominent in American "Quality TV" series since around 1990. These series proclaim an explicit (meta-serial) awareness of their position in the history of serial narration. Thus, the label "Quality TV" itself performs an act of outbidding in the field of popular seriality, one that points beyond this field and complicates its differentiation from other fields of cultural practice, such as canonized art (compare, for example, the oeuvre-oriented programming policy implied in the notion of "rewatchability").
Our project asks which effects, conceptions, and attributions of serial quality accompany the historical reflexivity of competitive intensifications in contemporary American television. We do not mean to depict all self-recursive innovations as acts of outbidding but will develop a comparative method centered on the schema of quantity / quality. In this manner, a specific mode of serial self-observation becomes describable, one whose historical dynamics has effected ongoing reconfigurations in the relation of commercial popular culture to the field of canonized art.