From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Movie Poster
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of the romantic comedy film. In this series, I will be tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a smaller-budget Netflix and digital streaming genre.

The romantic comedy is back! At least, that’s what many critics have declared, following the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) and the media buzz around Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018). Apparently, the rom-com had been dead and is now reborn. The reality, however, is more complicated. The supposed death of the rom-com was less a death and more a morphing and rebranding. Since the 1990s, romantic and comedic story elements have been mobilized across a number of different films and categories that critics, industry, and audiences are reluctant to label romantic comedies.

Why this reluctance to notice the changing shape of romantic comedy? For industry, the issue remains, in part, a marketing issue. Calling something a rom-com comes with risks and threatens the product’s ability to attract mixed-gender audiences. For media scholars, the issue is twofold. First, we are still dealing with resistance to investigating (or enjoying) feminized and supposedly middlebrow popular media. Second, and perhaps more important, many scholars are trained to police the boundaries of genre taxonomies. As such, many look for the most normative examples of a genre and overlook the outliers. For the past 15 years, romantic comedy has been appearing in all sorts of places. However, these romantic comedies do not always fit the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy mold that dominated in Hollywood over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.

Recent shifts in the content and distribution patterns for romantic comedy can only be fully understood when we also consider two important factors: One, the rom-com’s historic role in shoring up white middleclass heterosexuals as the default for romance. Two, the technological, industrial, and economic changes that began unfolding in Hollywood over the course of the late-90s and continue to affect Hollywood production and distribution patterns today.

Where did it go? Distribution Patterns and Neo-Traditional Rom-Coms

Over the course of the 80s and 90s, romantic comedies were widely viewed as a reliable bet at the box office. This was due, in part, to their lower production costs. Romantic comedies didn’t earn as much as the major Hollywood blockbusters. However, as “medium budget” films, they also cost significantly less to produce and had solid domestic and international returns. Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999), with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, cost $70 million and earned $309 million worldwide (“Runaway Bride (1999)”). Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) are examples of what Tamar Jeffers McDonald calls the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy (2007). These films overwhelmingly feature white, straight, cis-gender, and middle-class protagonists. They also emphasize “imprecise nostalgia,” tend to intertextually reference past romantic comedies and dramas, and deemphasize sex (McDonald 136).

You've Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride (Marshall, 1999)
You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
(Marshall, 1999)

These market-safe neo-traditional stories served as industry counterprogramming in the 1980s and 90s. These were “films that would appeal to that segment of the audience not usually attracted to the male-oriented ‘tentpole’ films” (Radner 117). Rom-coms in the late 20th century were a useful pallet cleanser, counterprogramming to entice audiences not explicitly hailed by the bigger blockbusters.

However, between 2000 and 2009, there were significant economic shifts in Hollywood and the ownership of major studios.[ (( For more see “New Hollywood, New Millennium” by Thomas Schatz (2009) and Hollywood in the New Millennium by Tino Balio (2013). ))] More emphasis was placed on large-scale media franchises spread out across the various production/entertainment arms of media conglomerates. This left much less room in studio budgets for stand-alone medium-budget “chick flicks.” The films that survived were crafted to appeal to more mixed-gender audiences. For example, a cycle of more bro-friendly, raunchy, kinda romantic-comedy films followed the success of the Farrelly Brother’s There’s Something About Mary (1998). Examples of this cycle include The 40-Year- Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007). These films reflect an effort at rebranding and eschewing the “chick-flick” label more than they do a radical departure in rom-com content.

The “Other” Rom-Coms

A quieter and more significant morphing in the rom-com genre began in the 1980s and 90s. During this period, the romantic comedy was being “remodeled for (and appropriated by) niche audiences defined by ethnicity, sexual orientation or age” (Krutnik 130). Frank Krutnik tracks a series of innovations in the genre, including an increasing number of romantic comedy films focused on African-American characters and same-sex relationships (2002). Many of the films Krutnik identifies were not marketed as romantic comedies. Instead, they tended to be positioned as African-American, Black or urban comedies. Or, they might be labeled queer, art, or independent cinema. (For example, Booty Call [Pollack, 1997] or The Best Man [Lee, 1999] and The Wedding Banquet [Lee, 1993] or Better Than Chocolate [Wheeler, 1999].) Were these films romantic comedies? I say yes. Would everyone in the audience or industry want to call these films rom-coms? I doubt it.

The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)
The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)

In 2013, Tatiana Siegel at The Hollywood Reporter declared that the rom-com was, essentially, dead. And, in terms of the neo-traditional rom-coms that  audiences became accustomed to in the late 20th century, that certainly seems to have been true. However, just because one dominant type of romantic comedy faded from view, that doesn’t mean romantic comedy film actually died. In 2014, Vanity Fair reporter Kate Erbland issued a correction. The rom-com was not dead, it just was “no longer the playground of big studios.” Erbland points out two things: 1) the genre was alive and well in the indie film market and 2) when major studios did make rom-coms they were typically “aimed at black audiences.” Think Like a Man (Story, 2012) and About Last Night (Pink, 2014) are two examples of successful romantic comedies featuring predominantly black casts from the 2010s.

These titles are just a few examples of a less recognized but important strain of romantic comedy films that has been steadily remodeling the romantic comedy format since the 1990s. Romantic comedy films were made in the 2000s and 2010s, but they weren’t always fitting into the neo-traditional rom-com mold. Industry, critics, scholars, and audiences seem to struggle with explicitly labelling these films romantic comedy. I suspect this reluctance to label has a lot to do with what we expect the people in a romantic comedy to look like and the audiences we assume a rom-com will cater to.

In my next column, I’ll talk about two films that have been hailed as marking the “rebirth” of romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ll focus on why these two films were hailed as the return of the rom-com and use these films to trace an ongoing transition in the rom-com’s form and in its distribution patterns.

Image Credits:

  1. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  2. You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999)
  3. The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)


Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. 2013 edition, British Film Institute, 2013.

Krutnik, Frank. “Conforming Passions?: Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, edited by Steve Neale, British Film Institute, 2002, pp. 130–47.

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Wallflower, 2007.

Radner, Hilary. Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture. Routledge, 2011.

“Runaway Bride (1999).” Box Office Mojo, Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Schatz, Thomas. “New Hollywood, New Millenium.” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, Routledge, 2009, pp. 19–46.

The Gamification of Television? Bandersnatch, Video Games, and Human-Machine Interaction
Ryan Stoldt / The University of Iowa

Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity
Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see.

Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to create a choose-your-own-adventure video game, in which “choices come up on the screen and you pick one against the clock.”[ (( Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, directed by David Slade. (London: Netflix, 2018). ))] This fictional video game, also entitled Bandersnatch, serves as a meta-commentary for the format of the television episode, which allows audiences to interact with the episode by choosing between binary options that result in narrative variations. Through this meta-comparison of the episodic format to the narrative world’s video game, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch argues for the gamic nature of interactive television and raises direct opportunities for the episode to be compared to modern video games like Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn (2015), which similarly employs branching choice narratives.

Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn
Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

As the narratives, technology, and personnel involved in the creation of interactive television and video games converge, media scholars need to continue noting formal differences that affect the types of engagement offered to audiences by different delivery technologies. Although tempting to equate interactive television and video games, this column highlights how interactive television functions similarly and differently than video games, ultimately speaking to the different types of engagement each medium offers.

Personnel converging across media: Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters
Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.

Television studies is intricately linked to the active audience theory of media, which states that audiences are not passive media consumers but actively make meaning from media messages through their social contexts. As television becomes more interactive, the theoretical approaches scholars use to make sense of the medium need to expand. Digital media scholar Alexander Galloway argues that interactive media moves beyond active audience theory because the physical actions of the user affect the material of the interactive medium itself.[ (( Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 3. ))] While bodies may respond to media messages in active audience theory, they do not intercede in how narratives progress or how machines input and output information. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and other forms of interactive television ask audiences to bring their body into the narrative by physically engaging with the story by scrolling between choices and pressing buttons. Galloway’s inclusion of both the narrative and the machine in his conception of interactivity provides a useful distinction from other types of physical interactions audiences have with television—such as audiences using their phones to vote in reality television competitions like American Idol (Fox, 2002-2016 and ABC, 2018–) and the physical acts involved in turning on and off technology. From this perspective, interactive television is defined through the relationship between human and machine actions which cooperatively generate a narrative.

While Galloway’s conception of interactivity provides a useful analysis of how interactive television theoretically functions differently from past engagements with television, it does not fully provide a way of distinguishing between interactive television and video games. To help accomplish this, Galloway’s typology of four gamic moments further breaks down the interactions between humans and machines. These moments span across two axes: diegetic/non-diegetic, or whether the action is taking place inside the story or outside the narrative world; and human/machine, whether the actions are being generated by the input of the user or the machine. By using this typology to compare Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and a video game built around similar player choices like Until Dawn, these gamic moments help distinguish what each medium offers audiences in terms of engagement.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))]

Galloway’s four moments of gamic action
Galloway’s four moments of gamic action are broken up along two axes.

Galloway’s first gamic moment is the diegetic-operator action.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))] This moment occurs in a video game when the player directly interacts with the world of the story and prompts machinic reactions. Video games have a long history of varied diegetic operator acts, like the ability for players to control how playable characters move, interact with, and see the gamic world. Until Dawn offers players the ability to freely move their characters around the world and engage with the world based on a limited number of preset choices. These actions create branches of machinic reactions that shape which narrative is told in the game. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers operators a similar type of expression through its use of binary choices to trigger which narrative will play next. Although they offer a drastically different number of diegetic operator acts, this gamic moment functions similarly in interactive television and video games.

Operators are not just constrained to actions that take place within the narrative world though. Galloway’s second gamic moment is the non-diegetic operator act, which focuses on operator actions that take place outside of the narrative world but still function as play. These moments are built around operator actions involving information and configuration. Once again, interactive television and video games share basic similarities in this moment, like the pause button and the ability to toggle the usage of captions with audio. Video games typically offer more non-diegetic operator actions through their pause menus than interactive television. Until Dawn offers players a variety of menu options when paused, like the ability to see stats about the relationship levels between characters in game and look at collectible items from the story.

The two previously mentioned moments focus on how the operator acts on the machine. Galloway argues that machines also act on players though. The third gamic moment, non-diegetic machine acts, occurs similarly in video games and interactive television. These moments take place outside of the narrative world but occur within the machine. Lag, crashes, and other machinic errors may occur regardless of medium and function as disabling acts.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 3. ))]

Galloway’s final gamic moment, diegetic machine acts, take place in the narrative world through pure machinic process, meaning the machine acts without input from an operator. This moment encompasses a range of actions common in video games, like the ambient acts of the non-playable characters, the game world, and playable characters that are not receiving operator input as well as cutscenes that continue unaffected by operator actions.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 10. ))] For instance, if a person walks away from Until Dawn without pausing, the character continues to exist in a moving narrative world in a moment of machinic ambience. This type of ambient action does not exist in interactive television because, to date, television streaming technology does not algorithmically generate content. It streams the pre-recorded footage available within the database. While moments of ambience denote one area where interactive television and video games differ, the machinic deployment of cutscenes truly highlights the need to understand interactive television and video games differently.

Cutscenes occur at the intersection of player input and
machinic response. The cutscene itself is a diegetic machine act, but the
trigger is a diegetic operator act. However, the interaction between human and
machine does not need to occur for cutscenes to play in Black Mirror:
. Netflix will automatically play the next scene whether or not
a viewer interacts with a choice. Because of this, current forms of interactive
television can be consumed without interaction between human and machine, where
audiences engage with the program actively instead of interactively.
This denotes a key difference between video games and interactive television
currently—to consume a narrative, video games require interactions between
humans and machines while interactive television provides the option for
interaction without the necessity.

While interactive television and video games share many of Galloway’s gamic moments, the moments they do not fully share, mainly the relationship between diegetic machine and operator acts, highlight the importance of distinguishing how the formal elements of different media can result in different types of audience engagement. Interactive television like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch allows audiences to consume stories either actively or interactively, a choice unavailable in video games. Active audience theory applies to both groups, but the narratives that active and interactive consumers see will likely differ based on their level of engagement. More interactive audiences have a broader range of possible narrative outcomes, which also broadens the number of potential ideological interpretations a text may provide.

Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.
  4. Galloway’s four moments on gamic action are broken up along two axes. (author’s image; adaptation of Galloway’s quadrants of four gamic moments)


Getting in Synch with Music Videos
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los angeles

Gloria Screen Grab from Author
Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.”

On September 8, 2019, The Lumineers’ III[ (( Album: Dualtone Records and Decca Records, 2019. ))] premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Kevin Phillips, the film is comprised of ten music videos—one for each track on the album—and like the album, it tells the dark, multi-generational tale of a family destroyed by addiction. As such, we might call III a visual album, though each of the videos has also been released online in a standalone capacity.[ (( All ten videos are available, along with a trailer for the project, on The Lumineers’ YouTube channel. ))] One of the lead videos released on YouTube, “Gloria” is especially grim. It introduces us to alcoholic mother Gloria Sparks, who loves her baby but wreaks havoc on her family. The sad, elliptical story in this installment of III culminates in a horrible car crash with uncertain repercussions. “Gloria” features the type of loosely sketched, socially conscious narrative that is on trend in current music videos but is by no means new.[ (( Aerosmith’s 1989 video for “Janie’s Got a Gun” would be right at home in the #MeToo era, though its rape-revenge narrative might feel regressive. Recent examples that I’ll return to in a later column are Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” and Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls.” ))] A far cry from the glitz and glam of some pop videos, “Gloria” is both moving and serious (as signaled by a plug for Alcoholics Anonymous in the credits below the video). This kind of seriousness (not to mention film festival premieres) sometimes earns music videos a “cinematic” label, but I would argue that “Gloria” is still a music video at heart, and that its music video qualities are as compelling as its narrative.

What are these qualities, though? Defining music video has proven an elusive task. Recent scholars have often dodged the question, settling on something like Steven Shaviro’s “I know it when I see it.”[ (( Steven Shaviro, Digital Music Videos (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 4. The quotation is a nod to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous non-definition of pornography. ))] Carol Vernallis suggests that the radical expansion of music videos, now no longer tethered to MTV or televisual limitations, means that we can no longer rely on the definition we once had, which was something like “a product of the record company in which images are put to a recorded pop song in order to sell the song.”[ (( Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 208. ))] This definition certainly feels dated to us now, but its emphasis on commerce was always too limiting. Think of Bruce Conner’s experimental films inspired by Ray Charles and Devo,[ (( Conner is often referred to as the grandfather of music videos, and J. Hoberman has elsewhere called his music films “art-world music videos.” ))] or Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos. Can’t we recognize something music video-esque in these non-commercial (or anti-commercial) works? Perhaps we don’t need a definition that delimits music video according to promotional function, medium (film, video, digital), or means of exhibition. Rather than policing the boundaries, can we ask what’s quintessential to this form?

The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drives Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).

If it’s true that we know a music video when we see it (and, importantly, hear it), how do we recognize it? When I ask students in my music video seminars this question, they usually begin by articulating a relationship between music and moving images, and ultimately clarify that music must drive the images in order for us to call this relationship music video.[ (( A big thanks to the students in my music video seminars past, present, and future. They have inspired many of my insights and examples here and elsewhere. Thanks also to Paul N. Reinsch, fellow music video aficionado and generous interlocutor. ))] This doesn’t mean that the images are merely supplemental, though, students point out. Nor does it foreclose the possibility of dialogue, sound effects, silence, or other music.

Giulia Gabrielli suggests that one of the constitutive ways that music and images “get in touch with each other” in music videos is through “synchronization points,” a term she draws from Michel Chion’s extensive work on audiovisual relations.[ (( Giulia Gabrielli, “An Analysis of the Relation between Music and Image: The Contribution of Michel Gondry,” in Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present and Future of the Music Video, ed. Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena (Piscataway, NJ: Transcript, 2010), 96. ))] Synch points provide consonance between musical and visual qualities. They can arise when editing, camera movement, or on screen movement matches a rhythm, or when a lyric is visualized, to give just a couple examples. Gabrielli valorizes the kind of tight synchronization we find in Michel Gondry’s video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” where each of five character types is tightly choreographed to match one musical “voice” (bass, guitar, drums, synthesizers, or vocoder).

Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”

This emphasis on audiovisual synchronization is not new, of course. It features regularly in the long history of artworks loosely labeled visual music. Purists will tell you that visual music is not a sound art—rather, it is visual art that draws upon musical structures, feelings, or languages.[ (( See, for instance, the work of visual music scholar William Moritz. ))] But visual music artists as diverse as Oskar Fischinger and John Whitney have paired their visual compositions with music to form compositions that we might recognize as music videos. There is clear continuity between this work and more recent music videos such as Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi,” Half•alive’s “still feel,” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” These videos, like their visual music predecessors, translate musical qualities into colors, shapes, and movements.

Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s
Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013).

If the tradition of visual music opens various avenues of audio-to-visual translation, though, it also raises questions about how tightly image should be synchronized to music. Fischinger told fellow filmmaker Hans Richter, who was critical of his work, “I never tried to translate sound into visual expressions.”[ (( Quoted in Cindy Keefer, “Optical Expression: Oskar Fischinger, William Moritz and Visual Music: An Edited Guide to the Key Concerns,” in Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, ed. Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: EYE Filmmuseum; Los Angeles: Center for Visual Music, 2012), 165. ))] Rather, Fischinger saw the kind of tight synchronization implied by translation as just one of many resources available to visual music artists. Using the metaphor of a river as the music and a person strolling along that river as the images, he suggests that “The film is in some parts perfectly synchronized with the music, but in other parts it runs free … sometimes we even go a little bit away from the river and later come back to it and love it so much more—because we were away from it.”[ (( Quoted in Keefer, “Optical Expression,” 166. Whitney similarly avoided exact translation of music to image. Bill Alves writes, “Although Whitney wrote of musical harmony being ‘matched’ in the visual domain, he resisted automatically mapping one characteristic to another across media, instead referring to this connection as a ‘complementarity.’” Bill Alves, “Consonance and Dissonance in Visual Music,” Organised Sound 17, no. 02 (August 2012): 116, ))] Audiovisual synchronization in music videos often works this way.

Take “Gloria,” for instance. During significant stretches of the video, the image track attends more closely to the story than the music, and we could easily be watching a short film with musical score. But the video also includes many moments where images reinforce musical elements. The video begins with a ticking sound from a watch, which is quickly echoed on the guitar, and this sound is matched not only by several images of a watch, but by a visual ticking as we cut back and forth between the watch and a bottle cap being unscrewed. From there, long zooming takes of Gloria tilting a bottle to drink correspond with four consecutive bass drum kicks, which usher in the first lyrics. These shots introduce the character and her addiction, but just as importantly, they match the agitated quality of the music. Throughout the video, the images stray some from the river of music, but they always return to translate a lyric (“found you on the floor”) or accentuate a musical element (the collision of drumsticks becomes a bottle glancing off of logs). Synchronization points remind us that both music and image are integral to our experience, and it’s this delicate audiovisual dance that makes “Gloria” a music video.

“Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.

Not all music videos strike this balance, though. Carol Vernallis proposes that in music videos, music and image function like a couple who must constantly negotiate each other’s needs. “We can assume,” she says, “there are issues of dominance and subservience, passivity and aggression.”[ (( Vernallis, Unruly Media, 210. ))] The same might be said of the artistic and industrial forces at play in the making of music videos. What happens, for instance, when a musician’s vision and a director’s vision are not in synch? Can music and image still “get in touch”? In my next column, I’ll turn to the question of how music videos work.

Image Credits:

  1. Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drivers Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).
  3. Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”
  4. Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013). (author’s screen grabs)
  5. “Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.


Cord-Cutting Here, Untethering There: One Social Consequence of Cord-Cutting
Matthew Dewey / University of California, San Diego

Funds from San Diego's cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA
Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.

A strange and overarching metaphor for cord-cutting—the practice of dropping a cable TV subscription in favor of streaming video platforms through an internet only subscription—is the social/medical ritual of cutting the umbilical cord during the process of child-birth that separates the anatomies of the mother and child. Traditionally, the cutting is performed by a parent, or someone who is significantly tied to the child or the mother in some way rather than an anonymous attending doctor or medical staff. However, if we take the child-birth metaphor even farther, we would have to picture broadcast TV and the internet in the throes of digital copulation at some point. This is an awkward way to say that in their convergence, television discourses like choice, diversity, and national identity mix seamlessly with a “new world of the Mind” untethered from the governments of the industrial world (per John Perry Barlow’s 1996 cyberspace manifesto). But whether or not cord-cutting ushers in streaming’s promises, TV is still predominately delivered through wires strewn over or sunk beneath our city streets. This means wires have very material consequences, one of which is that cord-cutting undermines local cable franchise agreements.

To “cut the cord” is a common figurative way to suggest that something or someone gains independence or, in a slightly different light, loses their dependence. The use of parturition as a metaphor for embracing streaming represents the birth of a new consumer freedom and a separation from the umbilical tethers of big corporate media machines that have dominated TV distribution in the twentieth century. Cord-cutting is emboldening the reinvention of television’s commercial practices and interpellating a new consumer, one ready to take the first breaths of its new life in televisual humanity in a new world of streamism.

The metaphor is far more corporeal than the last great transformation of TV— the move from broadcast television to the multichannel environment of cable TV. Cable TV’s metaphors were expansive. The “blue sky” and “wired city” discourses promised choice, diversity and individualism, but also a national communications infrastructure and the shrinking of informational and cultural disparities between rural and urban and between rich and poor.[ (( Parsons, Patrick R. 2008. Blues skies: A history of cable television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Streeter, Thomas. 1997. “Blue skies and strange bedfellows: The discourse of cable television.” In The revolution wasn’t televised: Sixties television and social conflict, edited by Lynn Spigel and Martin Curtin. New York: Routledge. 221-44. ))] These metaphors were more environmental or geographic than carnal ones. The promise of diversity in television consumption came from physically connecting people to wires across vast distances. Cable’s multichannel capabilities may have been a more fragmented viewing experience for audiences in the 1970s who were used to receiving three or four broadcast channels from either California or New York, but cable TV created a far more concrete relationship with one’s local community through the establishment of the local cable franchise agreement. And this is where I start to get to my point.

Industry sponsored sites like Cord Cutters News and business sites like Fast Company tend to treat cord-cutting as a life hack. Their commentary, like most, is attractive in the ways it focuses almost entirely on how much money a household can save by cord-cutting. And those who choose to remain tethered to pay-TV schemes do so because they are duped by ignorance, habit, and laziness.[ (( Newman, Jared. 2019. The 6 dumbest cases against cord-cutting (and why they’re so wrong). Fast Company. Accessed on March 4, 2019. March 4, 2019. ))] Cord Cutters News founder, Luke Bouma, is especially hawkish when it comes to picking apart any arguments that suggest that exclusivity packages that large conglomerates like WarnerMedia and Disney are set to unveil in the next year will eventually become just as expensive as cable TV subscriptions.[ (( Bouma, Luke. 2019. Our rebuttal to the Atlantic’s anti-cord cutting story. Cord Cutters News. Accessed June 12, 2019. June 12, 2019. ))] But rather than delve into whether or not households will save money by cord-cutting, I want to discuss a very material fact that cord-cutting does affect: your city’s cable franchise fee.

Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years
Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.

A cable franchise fee was institutionalized by the FCC in late 1960s and is the money a cable TV operator pays every year for running wires through public space. It is essentially rent for using city property. Franchise fees, which top out at five percent of the cable operators gross receipts from local subscribers, can put millions if not tens of millions of dollars into a city’s general fund. The city can then use these funds to pay for things like roads, schools and firefighters. While the history of the cable franchise is fraught with battles between cities and operators over who sets the terms of the agreement, in the last fifteen years federal policy has allowed states to remove cable franchise authority from municipal control and has narrowed the definition of what qualifies as a franchise fee.[ (( Federal Communications Commission. Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – MB Docket No. 05-311. ))] In particular, California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act only requires cable operators to pay fees on “cable TV services.”[ (( AB 2987. 2006. The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act. Accessed August 2011. from, ))] Simultaneously, corporations like AT&T lobbied state legislatures around the country in an effort to convince lawmakers that they were not a cable company, but a “broadband” company that offered “broadband services.” This recharacterization of services today means that streaming television is not considered a service that cable operators pay rent for—even if streaming TV uses the same wires as cable TV. The point: cord-cutting actually reduces the amount of money your provider pays to the city to make money off you.

This should matter for a very specific reason. The cable franchise agreement and fees have traditionally been one mechanism through which cities have been able to control the development of their telecommunications infrastructures in ways that are accessible and equitable to all residents. For instance, some of the programs the city of San Diego has tried to implement using franchise fees are the creation of “idea labs” built in public libraries in neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Diego. These labs are designed to provide low-income residents and students with access to production technology. Rick Bollinger, Cable Television Administrator at the San Diego Department of Technology, warns that it is these types of programs, as well as public, education, and government access channels that depend on franchise fees, that could be in jeopardy if funds dry up.[ (( Rick Bollinger, Department of Technology, City of San Diego, personal communication, June 2019. ))]

San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA
San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.

And they are drying up. From June 2015 to June 2017, the city of San Diego, California lost just over twelve percent in cable franchise fees, from almost nineteen million dollars to sixteen and a half million dollars.[ (( Garrick, David. 2017. Cities face revenue losses as cord cutting trend shrinks cable franchise fees. San Diego Tribune. Accessed December 19, 2017. December 1, 2017. ))] Across the country in Tennessee, a May 2019 advisory report on the effects of cord-cutting on local revenue advised municipal governments to no longer consider cable franchise fees as revenue for funding government services.[ (( Lippard, Cliff. 2019. Memorandum: Cord-cutting and local revenue—Draft report for review and comment. Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. May 30, 2019. Accessed June 20, 2019. ))] But cord-cutting is simply one element in a broader attack upon local authority of city space by cable/broadband corporations. The loss of municipal jurisdiction, a reduction in services that require franchise fees, and cord-cutting are all contributing to an ever-growing consolidation and deterritorialization of local telecommunications infrastructures. Without such mechanisms like franchise agreements and fees, corporations are increasingly less obligated to respond to the needs, services, and issues of accessibility of individual communities.

In this sense, freedom,
choice, and opposition to large media conglomerates symbolized in the umbilical
cord-cutting metaphor feels less emancipatory or oppositional. Instead, with each cord cut, AT&T, Comcast, or
Spectrum pull farther and farther from any obligation to public good. Though a
cable franchise fee accounts for roughly one to two percent of an average
cities budget, that is still millions of dollars of revenue that large cable
and broadband corporations keep while they continue to pit cable TV and Netflix
against each other and against you. In the end, the natal freedom promised by
cord-cutting might just be Comcast’s.

Image Credits:

  1. Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.
  2. Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.
  3. San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.


Market Commentary: Teaching Capitalism
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University

Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick
Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick.

I get a weekly email from a financial planner that I met once years ago, when I was trying to figure out how to transition from graduate student to salaried faculty member. The fine print indicates that the newsletter, self-described only as “Market Commentary,” is the work of Carson Coaching, a company serving “growth-minded advisors” with resources they can pass off to clients. Out of inertia and perverse curiosity about what the finance industry wants to tell me about the economy, I haven’t unsubscribed.

A clippings service drawing from Barron’s, The Economist, and even Yahoo! Finance, what’s interesting about the letter isn’t the ideological leanings of its reportage, which reflects capitalist orthodoxy in its discussion of bears and bulls, bond markets, trade wars, growth, and charted yields. Nor is it the conclusion of each newsletter, an inspirational “Weekly Focus” quote that susses out paeans to self-reliance from all corners. Instead, what’s interesting about this newsletter is its routine insinuation that individuals (that I) could actually do anything with this information.

Stock data featured in newsletter
This chart appears in every newsletter, explaining specialized terms and stating the legally mandated: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

A particularly banal example of participatory finance’s “extensive popular pedagogy,” the junk mail cluttering my in-box provides readers the “appear[ance of]…a stake in the capitalist financial system.”[ (( Miranda Joseph, ‘Gender, Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, and Pathologies of Personal Finance’, Social Politics 20, no. 2 (2013): 248; Mary Mellor, The Future of Money: From Financial Crisis to Public Resource (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 59. ))] Alongside investment shows and Millennial-friendly savings apps, it offers an “invitation to live by finance”—an increasingly pervasive call to develop the self through market activity and market-based logics of accounting applied to all domains of life.[ (( Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 3. ))]

This process of “financialization” was built on structural changes to policy that broadened possibilities of participation in financial markets. What I want to address here is how these changes, in turn, were made meaningful by a series of mid-century New York Stock Exchange-sponsored films designed to introduce mass shareholdership as an American way of life.

Title cards from NYSE training videos
Screenshots of title cards from NYSE “Own Your Share” films.

Used in concert with the Exchange’s Own Your Share (OYS) campaign (1954-1968), four films formed part of a foundational attempt to bring millions of individual, middle-class investors into the economic and ideological fold of the Exchange.[ (( The Exchange targeted those making over $5,000 in 1955 ($48,000 today). ))] Using the narrow framework of personal finance to limit debates over participation in the economy, these films—seen by millions in theatrical and nontheatrical settings and on TV—joined an extensive Medienverbund of print advertisements, department store displays, radio sponsorship, talks, and television programs.[ (( Janice M. Traflet, A Nation of Small Shareholders: Marketing Wall Street after World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 62-64; Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Archives and Archaeologies: The Place of Non-Fiction Film in Contemporary Media’, in Films that Work, 22. ))] While we should think of them within a longer tradition of institutional advertising and PR, I’m interested in how their institutional utility rests on their teaching claims. Open didacticism not only obfuscated the Exchange’s vested interests, it elevated financial investment—a practice with outcomes decided by a fundamentally unknowable future—to the status of teachable, and therefore masterable, body of knowledge.

Because they claimed to teach something about how to participate in stock markets, NYSE films ran into the problem of risk and the future orientation of investment.[ (( Arjun Appadurai, ‘Afterword: The Dreamwork of Capitalism’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 35, no. 3 (2015): 483. ))] The most useful thing they could teach would be how to reliably profit—that is, information that doesn’t actually exist. While the Exchange used several strategies to manage this difficulty, here I focus on one: the films’ obsessive use of fact to overwhelm viewers with a sense that they’re mastering the important details of the Exchange’s operation—a sleight-of-hand that purports to teach one thing (how to invest successfully) while offering evidence of something else (process and logistics).

This dynamic is most visible in the execution of a stock order, a process treated in all OYS films. Moving step-by-step, the films take pains describing the precise movement of orders, people, and information through the complex architectures of the exchange. See, for example, What Makes Us Tick (8:25-10:15). Representing the Exchange as defined by connectivity, speed, and equal access to trading information, NYSE films fill their runtime with detail: explanations of specialized equipment (trading posts, annunciator board, quotation room, central ticker room, pneumatic tube), trading terms (round lot, odd lot, market order), and roles (specialist, analyst, broker, quotation clerk). Although edifying, this information is irrelevant to the process of making an informed decision as to whether and how to invest in the stock market.

Own Your Share: What Makes Us Tick video.

Exemplifying the process film, this ‘how it’s made’ approach sidesteps difficult questions about risk. It fits with a standard sponsored film strategy of teaching seemingly neutral processes (e.g. farming or menstruation) as a pretense for broad ideological lessons.[ (( J. Emmett Winn, ‘Documenting Racism in an Agricultural Extension Film’, Film & History 38, no. 1 (2008): 35, 40; Michelle H. Martin, ‘Periods, Parody, and Polyphony: Fifty Years of Menstrual Education through Fiction and Film’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1997): 23. ))] Rather than focusing on the political, historical, economic, or future complexities of international finance, films lean on descriptions of the concrete and temporally circumscribed process of order execution as their primary explanatory framework.

See stock order process in The Lady and the Stock Exchange 17:00-20:30.

NYSE films invoke—and constantly repeat—the transactional moment of the stock buy to memorialize the (implied: successful, long-term) union between investor and market. Exchange films avoid prognostication on an unwieldy and unknowable future by substituting a short material action with certain ends (a stock sold and bought) as the driving narrative action.

Although packed with such bits of fact, films like Tick mention, but always defer,
explanation of the right information
needed to succeed in the marketplace. Employing direct address to instruct
viewers to engage with an off-screen authority, this deferral promotes brokers
as educators and confidants, reinforces investment’s predictability, and
attempts to spur viewers into action.

Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter.
Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter.

Not unlike the email wrapper for “Market Commentary,” the films’
positioning of brokers as gatekeepers to ‘the facts’ reinforces finance
workers’ authority, professionalism, and expertise as curators of a parallel
information economy. (As a corollary, of course, any omissions in the films can
be overlooked, since that information ostensibly lies elsewhere.)

Ultimately, the educational frame of these films is the
cornerstone of their intellectual and political project. With immense detail
papering over self-interested silences, the films flatter viewers by initiating
them into a world of specialized knowledge. First and foremost reassuring, they
render complex and unpredictable processes simple while simultaneously
positioning knowledge as the ticket to success. The trappings of educational
address likewise serve a legitimizing function for the apparently disinterested
and knowledgeable finance industry.

A partial and partisan lesson, the consequences of this strategy extend to far-reaching questions concerning the diverse pedagogies wielded by a range of institutions beyond formal schooling systems. How institutions attempt to manage citizens’ and consumers’ orientation to knowledge continues to be a crucially important question for the twenty-first century; the promulgation of self-serving epistemologies founded not on critical thinking but on appealing beliefs and entertaining logics holds ramifications for the organization of public and private life. As private institutions increasingly attempt to pass as public intellectuals and leaders—often at the expense of educators—it’s vital to examine institutions’ attempts to cultivate our relationship to information, argumentation, and knowledge itself. I’ll return to this task in the next installments of this column.

Wise words from Market Commentary from 2/8/16
Wise words from “Market Commentary,” 9/9/19 and 2/8/16, respectively.

Image Credits:

  1. Screenshot from What Makes Us Tick. (author’s screen grab)
  2. This chart appears in every newsletter, explaining specialized terms and stating the legally mandated: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” (author’s screen grab)
  3. Screenshots of title cards from NYSE “Own Your Share” films. (author’s screen grab)
  4. Own Your Share: What Makes Us Tick video.
  5. See stock order process in The Lady and the Stock Exchange, 17:00-20:30.
  6. Screenshot referring readers to experts from the Market Commentary email newsletter. (author’s screen grab)
  7. Wise words from “Market Commentary,” 9/9/19 and 2/8/16, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)


From Catchphrase to Single: Examining Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer”
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College

Megan Thee Stallion kicking leg with tongue out
Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion

Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion is responsible for one of the most popular catchphrases and memes of 2019. The phase started as promotion for Stallion’s third mixtape, Fever (1501 Certified Entertainment/300 Entertainment, 2019), which was released in May 2019. Part of the mixtape’s cover line is the phrase “She’s thee HOT GIRL And she’s bringing THEE HEAT.”

The phrase “hot girl summer” became one of the most popular memes and trends of the summer. By July 2019, Instagram users used the hashtag #hotgirlsummer over 100,000 times.[ (( De Loera, Carlos. “The ‘Hot Girl Summer’ Meme, Explained.” Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2019, ))] Two million users used the hashtag on Twitter.[ (( Ellis, Emma Grey. “Sharing Your #HotGirlSummer? Buy Megan Thee Stallion’s Album.” Wired, July 2019, ))] Companies such as Wendy’s and Maybelline incorporated the phrase into their social media accounts; on Twitter, Wendy’s proclaimed that their lemonade was “The Official Drink of Hot Girl Summer.”[ (( Wendy’s (wendys). “The Official Drink of Hot Girl Summer.” 9 July 2019, 12:07 PM. Tweet. ))]

What does it mean to have a “hot girl summer?” Stallion defines it as:

It’s just basically about women — and men — just being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you, not giving a damn about what nobody got to say about it. You definitely have to be a person that can be the life of the party, and, y’know, just a bad bitch.[ ((The Root. “Megan Thee Stallion Gives Us the ‘Hot Girl Summer’ Starter Kit.” YouTube, 25 June 2019,]

Stallion took hot girl summer to the next level when she turned the phrase into a single. In August, Stallion released the song “Hot Girl Summer” featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign; the music video was released in September.

“Hot Girl Summer” is more than body positivity and female agency. It sends a larger message within the industry. When it comes to female rappers, the traditional discourse has been that only one artist can claim the title of “best female rapper.” When discussing her female peers and rivalry, Stallion states, “None of us rap alike. We might have some of the same content, but none of us are doing it in the same way … this generation of girls, everybody got their own swag … I just really appreciate what everybody brings to the table.”[ (( Harris, Hunter. “Megan Thee Stallion Profile: On ‘Big Ole Freak’ and Her Mom.” Vulture, Apr. 2019, ))]

Stallion demonstrates that she does not have animosity towards her female peers by including them in the video. Rap and R&B artists such as Rico Nasty, Summer Walker, Ari Lennox, DaniLeigh, and Dreezy have cameos. Part of Stallion’s persona is “driving the boat,” in which she takes a bottle of cognac and pours it into the recipient’s mouth. In the video, Stallion drives the boat for her colleagues.

Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty
Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty

Moreover, she has the blessing and approval from the “Queen of Rap,” Nicki Minaj. Minaj is one of the most successful female rappers. Hunter and Cuenca (2017) argue Minaj’s ability to be the video vixen and the rapper in one as well as her alter egos disrupted the dominant ideology of the black male rapper.[ (( Hunter, Margaret, and Alhelí Cuenca. “Nicki Minaj and the Changing Politics of Hip-Hop: Real Blackness, Real Bodies, Real Feminism?” Feminist Formations, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017 Summer 2017, pp. 26–46. ))] Minaj has influenced Stallion. Stallion has alter egos, such as Tina Snow and Hot Girl Meg, who is present in “Hot Girl Summer.”

Stallion is confident and in control of her body. In the video, Stallion dances and looks like a traditional video vixen, emphasizing her décolletage and derrière. The song’s lyrics also demonstrate Stallion’s agency:

I can’t read your mind, gotta say that shit (say that shit)
Should I take your love? Should I take that dick?
Got a whole lot of options ’cause you know a bitch poppin’ (hey)
I’m a hot girl, so you know ain’t shit stoppin’ (hey)

Stallion’s fans have the moniker of “Hotties,” which the artist defines as someone who has self-love and confidence. According to Stallion, Hotties are helpers: “Hotties are supposed to turn other people into Hotties too. If you see someone that’s not quite confident, you gotta be the Hottie to gas up your friend.”[ (( Riedy, Jack. “Megan Thee Stallion Is Taking Rappers To School.”Vibe, Oct. 2018, ))] Hotties helping others occurs in the video. The video opens with comedian Jaimesha Thomas being invited to a party. Thomas laments that she is not having a productive hot girl summer. While in front of a mirror, she tries to embody Stallion’s moves and mannerisms, such as sticking out her tongue. She evens asks, “What would Megan do?” Once Thomas arrives at the party, all of the other Hotties help Thomas transform into a Hottie.

Screen grab from
Instagram personality @thatgirljaycole featured in “Hot Girl Summer” music video

screen grab from
“Hot Girl Summer” music video featuring other Rap and R&B artists

Public reactions to Stallion and “Hot Girl Summer” have been receptive. As of this writing, she has 1.4 million followers on Twitter and 5.9 million on Instagram. Moreover, Stallion has actually trademarked the phrase “hot girl summer.” Stallion uses social media to connect with her fans as well as to discuss topics such as veganism, education, and the environment. Over the summer, she hosted a “Hottie Beach Clean Up” and tweets about ways to improve the environment.

Even though summer is over, the hot girl theme continues. Teen Vogue shares with readers how they can have a “Hot Girl Semester.” Currently, Stallion is a student at Texas Southern University. Because of her career, she takes online courses. Using the hashtag #hotgirlsemester, Stallion tweets about finishing her homework before attending her after party.

Stallion won “Power Anthem” at the MTV Video Music Awards in August. At the BET Hip Hop Awards in October, she won “Hot Ticket Performer” and “Best Mixtape” for Fever. She collaborated with Moneybagg Yo on the song “All Dat” and is featured on the Gucci Mane single “Big Booty.” Although she releases her music with 1501 Certified Entertainment/300, she signed a management deal with Roc Nation; this deal will increase her media exposure. For example, after the announcement of the Roc Nation deal, Stallion appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to announce “Hot Girl Fall” with assistance from J-Fal. In the video, Stallion parodies “Hot Girl Summer” by incorporating elements of fall, such as sweaters and drinking pumpkin beers, while including the original intent of the movement in that “Hot Girl Fall” is for everyone.

Hot Girl Fall — The Tonight Show official YouTube page.

Does the “Hot Girl” moniker represent a unique brand forging a new direction for women’s rap, or will it prove to be just a passing fad? In either case, Stallion has certainly proven to be a precipitously influential force in popular culture, who provides an insightful lesson in navigating the fast-changing nature of the music industry.

Image Credits:

  1. Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion
  2. Megan Thee Stallion driving the boat with Rico Nasty
  3. Instagram personality @thatgirljaycole featured in “Hot Girl Summer” music video (author’s screen grab)
  4. “Hot Girl Summer” music video featuring other Rap and R&B artists (author’s screen grab)
  5. Hot Girl FallThe Tonight Show official YouTube page


Syndication 201: Syndication Is Dead. Long Live Syndication.
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia

RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and Jerry Springer from their new talk shows
New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson, and a court show featuring Jerry Springer.

In 2013, the US government revised how it estimates its GDP to account for, in part, the extraordinary profits of syndication for television because of the viability of daily shows and reruns to provide long-term streams of income. Fast forward to 2018, when Nielsen conservatively estimates that Netflix users streamed 52 billion+ minutes of The Office and 32.6 billion+ minutes of Friends (both shows it has recently lost), the equivalent of 25 hours for every Netflix subscriber in the country—a measurement that only includes TV-set viewing, not including other devices.

Stories abound about the incredible lengths rights-seekers will go to to secure ad-supported and subscription streaming (AVOD and SVOD) syndication rights to shows like Seinfeld ($2.8m/episode for five years) because those shows’ large packages of episodes shore up a subscriber base that in turn pay for streamers’ expensive original programming, a strategy borrowed from cable’s playbook which it borrowed from affiliate and independent broadcasters before that. And television’s digital revolution brought with it compression technologies that enabled us to go from 3-4 networks to more than 50. Not 50 cable channels, but 50 different over-the-air networks, leading Derek Kompare to quip that the “golden age of over-the-air reruns is apparently right now.

Logos of a few of today's over-the-air networks, like MeTV
Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today.

Meanwhile, despite falling ratings for most traditional cable and broadcasting (or linear TV) overall, Fall 2019 saw its biggest year for first-run syndies in a decade, with more than 40 shows set to air this season alone. TV’s three highest-paid stars are all from first-run syndication: Judge Judy, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dr. Phil. And in addition to being the reliable sugar daddy of the television business, syndication has been technologically pioneering (e.g., innovating filming for television, international co-productions, and color TV) and culturally pioneering (e.g., a same-sex kiss 18 years before Roseanne, a transgender lead character 37 years before Transparent).

And yet, despite its massive economic, technological, and cultural strides, syndication never found its match in scholarship. Indeed, while the importance of “quality TV” and new primetime programming get to be taken for granted as objects worthy of study, journal reviewers constantly insist I set aside paragraphs to justify why a study of syndication is a legitimate project given, as one recently put it, it’s just a slate of “formulaic … programs with so little to commend them”—television’s lowest common denominator and a practice of yore. I don’t take that personally because, except for the excellent Rerun Nation and helpful asides elsewhere, there’s very little in the field or in our students’ textbooks that discuss syndication beyond a basic 101 of how it functions. Routledge has five published editions of The Television Handbook, for instance, only one of which says anything about syndication (the third), and only in its glossary: “syndication—the sale of programs for regional television broadcasters to transmit within their territory.”

The word “syndication” typically is used as a shorthand for one of three things: 1) to explain a particular form of distribution as “the practice of selling [content] directly to stations without going through a network, programs that each station can air at whatever time and with whatever frequency it desires,” either as originals (first-run syndie talk shows like Oprah, Ricki Lake, game shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, court shows like Judge Judy, or scripted originals like Xena: Warrior Princess) or reruns (second-run syndication); 2) with regard to the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) in the 1970s that divided networks from their media libraries and changed what they could air; and 3) in reference to the 100-episode finish line for network series hoping to “make it to syndication” because that’s where television’s real profits lie.

With this 101 under our belt, this post serves as the first installment in a three-part series to provide researchers and students with an intermediate understanding of syndication today—a Syndication 201—to better consider some of syndication’s economic, technological, and cultural contributions in the story of television.

The Syndication Industry:

Simply put, there are three major players in the syndication business: the owners of a media product up for clearance (or a program available to license); the syndicator who the owners hire/lease their rights to as the “representative” of the media product. The syndicator then prepares the program and its contracts for clearance to; the exhibitor or the TV channel or station that airs the product according to its contract.

An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor
Judge Judy in Chicago from bbrauer on Vimeo.
An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.

There are three types of syndication deals: straight cash (a station pays for a show directly), barter/trade (a show is provided for free in exchange for owners taking most of the advertising profits), and cash-plus-trade (a mixture of both). Let’s look at an example:

Oprah Winfrey is so incredibly wealthy not only because she horizontally integrated (The Oprah Show, O The Oprah Magazine, OWN, Harpo Films, Inc.) but also because syndication made it easier for her to vertically integrate (she served as both its executive and on-air talent and she owned the show, the production company, the production team, and the studio) by cutting out all the typical network middlemen and their profit sharing. King World Productions was Oprah’s syndicator meaning it 1) negotiated individual contracts to air the show on stations in all the television markets (currently 210 as divided by county); and 2) it distributed the product (episodes of the show) to these stations through satellites. In small regional markets, Winfrey provided the show for free in exchange for controlling ad revenue while in larger ones, top network affiliates held constant bidding wars to secure her show. In exchange for its on-the-ground negotiations with hundreds of stations and station groups, King World took a cut from the profits she earned from each individual exhibitor.

Oprah Winfrey Show Ad Campaign
An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show

As its marquee property, Oprah generated 40 percent or more of King World’s operating revenues, and every time Winfrey’s contract with King World was up for renegotiation, she held the future of the show hostage until King World agreed to scale back its cut, eventually leading to an unprecedented salary peak at $315 million in one year. You often can see this kind of negotiation happening in public, as when talk show hosts tease their audiences about potentially ending their shows, like Ellen DeGeneres, who does it all the time and Judge Judy, who has used her negotiations to secure new productions.

Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.

The possibility of this inverted control of power—with the independent production company at the top—is part of what makes the syndicatedness of syndies key to the creative latitude they have for the content they air, which has often, in turn, created ideal conditions for queer and otherwise transgressive content to appear on television. In second-run syndication, meanwhile, the owners and syndicators may hire new creative and production professionals to change the content of shows to make them easier to sell, as when Tom & Jerry animated over its Mammy character, and both Will & Grace and Sex and the City edited out the World Trade Center towers. I will discuss these creative aspects of content and the syndication industry in the next installment.

Image Credits:

  1. New syndies premiering this fall included talk shows for RuPaul, Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson and a court show featuring Jerry Springer. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  2. Just a few of the more than 50 over-the-air networks in existence today. (author’s composite of screen grabs)
  3. An example of an ad made by a Judge Judy exhibitor (a CBS O&O) for its local airing of the show in Chicago.
  4. An example of a syndication ad campaign by King World for The Oprah Winfrey Show. (author scan: Broadcasting & Cable, May 1, 1989)
  5. Oprah Winfrey appears on Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated daytime talk show.

To Each Their Own Ad: Nielsen and the Addressable Future of Linear TV
Jennifer hessler / Bucknell university

Nielsen at #AWNewYork 2019
Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.

Few companies have emblematized the perplexed ontology of television’s internet-convergence as well as Nielsen has. Throughout the last two decades, Nielsen’s corporate identity has occupied a disjunctive space between broadcasting’s legacy and the aggregative, big data logics of the digital landscape. All in all, throughout the past decade—partly due to the uncertain future of television itself—Nielsen’s identity has been decidedly incohesive. But following David Kenny’s recent promotion to CEO, and after undergoing months of strategic review, Nielsen hit the convention circuit this past spring with a new corporate mission—to be the industry’s “single source of media truth”—that foregrounds their move to entirely cloud-based software; their innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning; and perhaps most centrally, a more cohesive vision for how these innovations will converge with their legacy broadcast roots through a number of specific initiatives. A top priority is the initiative to incorporate addressable advertising into linear broadcasting, ultimately moving toward 100% addressability across all connected-TV. In simple terms, addressability is the ability to air different ads in the same ad spot to different viewers/households, targeted uniquely to each viewers’ identities and consumer habits (or, rather, to what their stored data indicates about their identities and habits).

Addressability has been the hot topic at industry conventions like CES, Consumer Marketing, and Ad Week this year. Since early trials in 2003, addressable advertising has been steadily incorporated into OTT services and streaming platforms. Currently ~40% of the ad-supported television landscape is addressable. A very small portion of this already occurs on linear TV through, for example, Direct TV set-top boxes. What’s new, is the initiative to scale this—to unlock “the whole 16 minutes,” as Nielsen’s Kelly Abcarian puts it.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))]

Multiple factors contribute to the push to “unlock” the addressability of linear TV. First, despite ever-dwindling ratings, broadcast television still has the largest audience reach. The American public watches around 36 billion hours of television a month, and 70% of it is linear and ad supported. In addition to currently bringing in the most ad revenue, linear has latent potential for growth. According to Tracey Scheppach, C.E.O. of Matter More Media, May’s upfronts actually left money on the table from advertisers who were wanting to place more dollars but simply couldn’t because there wasn’t enough (impressions) to sell.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))] Addressability will enable broadcasters to splice their (already comparatively large) audience pie into infinitely more sellable units, resulting in a larger quantity of impressions up for sale.

Coupled with the motive, is the method. In the last four years, internet-enabled smart TV ownership has risen from 16% to 47% penetration and continues to grow.[ (( “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, ))] Throughout the past several years, Nielsen has pursued a number of strategic acquisitions—including Qterics, a smart-TV software and privacy management platform; Gracenote, an automated content recognition system; and Sorenson Media, which provides technologies for executing addressability—to build a system that takes advantage of smart TV’s census-level data collection and two-way information-sharing mechanisms to make addressability a reality.

Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.

While integrating
addressability into linear TV is ultimately an expansion of what is already
happening on OTT and streaming platforms, this move reconfigures many of the
ontological features of what we currently call “broadcasting.” More
particularly, the turn to addressability will uproot Nielsen’s current ratings
currency, change the way audiences are valuated, and further disintegrate the
remnants of broadcasting’s status as a shared cultural forum.

Nielsen’s commercial ratings, which have been
the industry’s primary currency for selling ad spots since 2007, combine the viewership
of an “average commercial minute” in a live broadcast with viewing data from three
days and seven days of its DVR playback to create C3 and C7 ratings,
respectively. Commercial ratings have enabled advertisers to micro-target their
ad loads based on minute-by-minute audience trends. But commercial ratings, as
they function now, are not suitable for an addressable environment because they
require all iterations (and playbacks) of a broadcast to carry an identical
commercial load. With the goal to bring their addressability system to the
market next year, Nielsen has a year to figure out how to reconcile C3/C7 with
addressability or derive a new ratings currency, the latter of which promises
to be a monumental task. Alternatively, with the “real time” machine learning
analytics available through internet-connected TVs, the move to addressability
could eventually mean the end of what’s left of a shared ratings currency for
the purpose of selling ads.

The incorporation of addressable ads into linear TV will also alter which demo groups or audience behaviors are considered most valuable (monetizable). For one, audiences that are “addressable”—audiences who own smart TVs, compared to unconnected TVs—will likely become exponentially more “valuable.” While smart TV ownership is rapidly increasing, owners of smart TVs still tend to be higher income and more educated as a whole, with 46% possessing a bachelor’s degree and 15% being in the top-10 percent socio-economic group.[ (( “Profiling the American Smart TV Owner,” Kantar Media, December 11, 2017, ))] Addressability could make relatively privileged early adopters of smart TVs particularly valuable audiences, motivating a shift in television content to appeal to these demos.

Among viewers who do have connected-TVs, addressability will further silo audiences into increasingly prescribed demographic categories.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press,1998); Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012). ))] The industry rhetoric around addressability spins this in a positive way, as an “opportunity for personalization.” Pointing to the fact that the spending power across Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans is poised to increase .7 trillion dollars by 2023, Nielsen’s CEO Kenny (who recently adopted the title of Chief Diversity Officer) claims that addressability can more efficiently respond to the “new multicultural viewer.”[ (( Sheryl Estrada, “Nielsen CEO David Kenny Explains His Decision to Take on the Role of Chief Diversity Officer,” Diversity Inc; “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, ))] But Nielsen’s recent diversity initiatives are also a move to preempt the significant challenges machine learning poses to diversity and cultural representation. Through ad targeting, audience demo categories will be prescribed more stringently through data determined not only by our TV viewing, but also potentially our internet browsing history, consumer purchases, political affiliations, and credit history. Moreover, because these audience valuations will be increasingly based on census level data, shared proprietarily, and scaled through machine learning, our ability to critique how demos are constituted as well as the biases that inform how they’re addressed will be diminished.

Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.

Lastly, addressability further fragments broadcasting’s ever-dwindling status as a shared cultural forum by ensuring that we increasingly only receive ads that are geared toward topics we’re already interested in, brands that cater to our social identities, messages we already agree with. Abcarian and Scheppach argue that addressability gives creatives the tools to respond to the unique, complex ways that demo groups want to be spoken to. They point to Under Amour’s “I Will, What I Want” and Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ads as examples of the progressive opportunities of “relevant” targeting. But while these ads speak effectively to young women in search of inspiring feminist role models, in an addressable environment these ads miss the opportunity to expose these ideals to (or challenge the mindsets of) other viewers. As algorithmic distributed media increasingly silos us into “gated communities” and “filter bubbles”—further entrenching us each within the perspectives we already hold while polarizing alternative viewpoints—the deleterious effects of this on social progress are already apparent.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press, 1998); Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin Books, 2012) ))] The unique connection that broadcasting still garners with audiences, addressing us in the comfort of our living rooms, makes the further disintegration of the cultural forum all the more impactful.

Ultimately, these machine learning initiatives
mark a substantial divergence for Nielsen from their historical role as
currency. Nielsen is now also providing the mechanisms for media distributors
to execute (in real-time) against the audience data
they produce. Just as Nielsen’s disjunctive identity thus far in the new
millennium has emblematized the transitional ontology of television, their rebranding in this way forecasts how the conflation
of machine learning and creative decision making will shape television’s future.

Image Credits:

  1. Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.
  2. Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.
  3. Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.


OVER*Flow: What’s in a Frame? Paratexts, Performance, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Justin Rawlins / University of tulsa

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as unemployed clown/aspiring comedian-turned-murderer in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has been widely lauded as an awards season frontrunner and has just become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite its polarized reception, the film’s champions and detractors both frequently agree that Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s most notable—in some cases, its only redeeming—feature.[ (( Some critics at the Venice Film Festival began applauding it before the credits rolled. Other critics have labeled it a plotless amalgamation of GIFs “stuffed with phony philosophy,” conveying “a rare, numbing emptiness.” Zacharek, Stephanie. “Joke Wants to Be a Movie About the Emptiness of Our Culture. Instead, It’s a Prime Example of It.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Time, 31 August 2019, Accessed 21 October 2019; Brody, Richard. “’Joker’ is a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. New Yorker, 3 October 2019, Accessed 21 October 2019.))] This shared sensibility among otherwise divergent readings points to a latent understanding of screen performance that is mobilized, but not interrogated, in the language used to describe his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker. What can we glean from such consensus? What can it tell us about Phoenix’s acting, and about our understanding of screen performance writ large? By way of an answer, I offer potential lessons we can glean from probing cultural productions related to—but outside of—the film. In these texts, I suggest, we can see Phoenix’s turn in Joker framed to both emphasize his substantial weight loss and conflate it with great acting. Consciously or unconsciously, I follow, these same discourses entangle Phoenix’s received performance with long-entrenched popular cultural understandings of “Method” acting connecting his perceived work in Joker to his other screen labor, to other Jokers, and to the exclusive club of “Method” practitioners.

Despite concerns about audiences’ premature reactions to Joker, the fact is that audience experiences of motion pictures have long been preceded and thus framed by texts emanating from studios, critics, viewers, and other constituencies. These “paratexts”[ ((Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York University Press, 2010, 25.))]—texts that prepare us for other texts—constitute crucial parts of the interpretive landscape within which we make sense of cinema. By approaching Phoenix’s performance through the paratexts that shape popular reception, we become attuned to the various ways audiences are primed to ascribe disproportionate value to physical transformation as a barometer for exceptional acting. Examining a range of paratexts that include the film’s two trailers and its many reviews, an overwhelming emphasis on Phoenix’s emaciated body comes into focus, as does its correlation with prevailing understandings of so-called “Method” acting.

Joker lifts his arms as he dances
Fig. 1. Gun in hand, Arthur lifts his arms as his dances in Joker’s teaser trailer. Like many other moments in Joker’s two trailers and the film itself, the camera lingers on Fleck’s exposed torso and showcases the “strange concavities” made possible by Joaquin Phoenix’s reported 52 pound weight loss. This, and other language about the actor’s “transformation” for the part, have been fixtures in the paratexts orbiting the film.

Joker’s April 3, 2019 teaser trailer—likely audiences’ first exposure to Joker footage—insists on such focus early and often. Ten seconds in, the camera follows the hunched lead, Arthur Fleck, whose slight frame, loose-fitting clothing, and sluggish gait intimate the character’s diminished physical, mental, and social state. Two shots of the topless Phoenix soon follow, revealing his gauntness. The effect is heightened when, for the third time in forty seconds, Arthur’s exposed torso appears. Fleck’s voiceover, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” accompanies the camera’s slow, foreboding approach toward Phoenix’s bare back. Bones push the skin to its breaking point as Arthur strains to stretch his leather clown shoes, producing a sound of twisting flesh that could just as easily be emanating from the man’s body. A later image of him dancing with arms stretched over his head (Fig. 1) again accentuates his skeletal physique, while glimpses of action (primarily running) juxtapose his earlier sluggishness with a flailing freneticism that—though fully clothed—nevertheless showcases the awkward angularity of Fleck’s frame.

Joker's shirtlessness showcases bodily transformation
Fig. 2. Arthur’s shirtlessness continues in the film’s final trailer to showcase Phoenix’s skeletal transformation for the role, a recurring aesthetic of Joker and key facet of Phoenix’s paratextual performance.

The film’s August 28, 2019 final trailer sustains this emphasis, rehashing the shoe-stretching scene from a different angle while retaining its fixation on Phoenix’s wrenching and the audible sound of groaning flesh. Arthur stares into the kitchen sink as his protruding ribs catch the grim fluorescent light (Fig. 2). Soon after, his angular, sunken face reacts to the perceived treachery of late-night host Murray Franklin. Later still, another shirtless Fleck looks up from a hunched position, arms spread wide as if to call further attention to his wasted physique (Fig. 3). As with the first trailer, the final trailer (released on the verge of the film’s triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival) paired the stark visualizations of Phoenix’s physical transformation with action shots that, even though clothed, further emphasized the centrality of his skeletal state to the character’s motion and psychology.

Joker looks up from unnatural pose in final trailer
Fig. 3. In Joker’s final (second) trailer, Fleck/Phoenix looks up from a pose reminiscent of other similarly unnatural postures that figured prominently in the film and its paratexts. Paratexts suggested that these frequent moments underscored the extremity of both the character’s interiority and the actor’s performance style.

From select screenings in Venice and Toronto to its wide release, critical discourse surrounding Joker has devoted outsized attention to Phoenix’s weight loss, connected it to Fleck’s trauma and mental illness, and suggested it is indicative of the actor’s extraordinary performance style. Allusions to sacrifice, transformation, immersion, mutation, embodiment, commitment, and other superlatives even underwrite otherwise negative assessments of Joker, with Phoenix described as “a virtuosic actor destroying his body” to hold together a film with otherwise fatal shortcomings.[ (( Walsh, Kate. “Controversy aside, ‘Joker’ is all setup, no punchline.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Chicago Tribune, 2 October 2019, Accessed 21 October 2019; Coyle, Jake. “Funny how? In ‘Joker’ a villain turns ‘70s anti-hero.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Associated Press, 2 October 2019, Accessed 21 October 2019; Burr, Ty. “’Joker’: The dark villain rises.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Boston Globe, 2 October 2019. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] Such consistently exceptionalizing discourse has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to widespread speculation about Phoenix’s award-worthiness distilled in the declaration that “you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”[ (( Hammond, Pete. “Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Deadline, 31 August 2019, Accessed 21 October 2019.))]

Approaching Joker paratextually allows us to not only draw out these themes but also situate them within a broader constellation of discourses outside of the film itself. In the case of Joaquin Phoenix and Joker, the above-mentioned superlatives about his acting exist alongside other paratexts painting him as enigmatic, difficult, and idiosyncratic. Mercurial behavior, an on-set meltdown, and the sense of overall intensity surrounding the performer and his ascribed acting style collectively link Phoenix’s specific turn as Fleck/Joker to the actor’s earlier performances and his overall star image, as well as those of others explicitly and implicitly identified as “Method” practitioners. References to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto are expected given the character they all portrayed: the Clown Prince of Crime. These comparisons are also particularly loaded with popularly-received notions of “Method” acting. Ledger’s hyper-intensive absorption in his version of the character, which prompted rampant speculation that Method acting may have killed him, bears resemblance to Phoenix’s comparatively muted ferocity, while Leto’s transformation has become the subject of popular derision, an example of Method acting’s supposed excesses and self-importance that have been lampooned for decades.

Paratextually speaking, the “Method” acting attributed (explicitly and implicitly) to Phoenix, Leto, Ledger, and others is not inherent in the film performances themselves but instead emerges out of the interpretive landscapes that surround motion pictures and help us make sense of them. Over the course of decades, such circumstances have given rise to a prevailing understanding of “Method” acting adjacent to—but in other ways very different from—the actual techniques and philosophies of Method and Modern performance.[ (( Baron, Cynthia. Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.))] This Method-adjacent discourse—what I call Methodness—entangles Joaquin Phoenix’s sacrificial weight loss and his intensity, absorption, and inscrutability with the long-entrenched popular reception of Method acting that selectively confers award-worthy prestige. This provokes many additional questions concerning (among other things) how paratexts animate inclusive and exclusive hierarchies of performance, how they inform our priorities in historicizing performance, and what we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate when we continue to traffic in such shared language.

Image Credits:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit
  2. Figure 1 (author’s screen grab)
  3. Figure 2 (author’s screen grab)
  4. Figure 3 (author’s screen grab)