Making the Cut & Amazon: The Perfect Entertainment & E-commerce Collaboration
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College

Heidi Klum kissing Tim Gunn
Making the Cut hosts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn

On March 27th, 2020, Amazon Prime entered the world of fashion reality programming with Making the Cut (Amazon Prime, 2020-present). Making the Cut is the second fashion design competition to debut in 2020 following the January 29th premiere of Netflix’s Next in Fashion (Netflix, 2020-present). Both shows have been compared to the long-standing gold star of fashion shows: Project Runway (Bravo 2004-2008; Lifetime 2009-2017; Bravo 2019-Present), which just wrapped its 18th season in March. In both series, contestants use their design skills to win their big break in the fashion industry. For Next in Fashion participants, Queer Eye’s (Netflix 2018-present) fashion expert Tan France and model/designer Alexa Chung serve as the show’s hosts and mentors. The winner receives $250,000 as well as the opportunity for their collection to be sold via online fashion retailer Net-a-porter.

Making the Cut has two hosts that are familiar to Project Runway fans: Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Klum and Gunn were part of the first 16 seasons of Project Runway but left the show in September 2018 to create a new series for Amazon Prime. According to Klum and Gunn, Making the Cut takes the fashion competition series to the next level. The hosts claim their series is not a “sewing competition,” as compared to Project Runway, where contestants had to design as well as show their apparel. While the contestants are responsible for the designs, they have assistance from seamstresses in Making the Cut

The show’s objective is to find the next global brand. Contestants are not trying to break into the world of fashion; they have their own labels and stores. For example, Ji Won Choi designed a collection for Adidas Originals and Esther Perbandt is an award-winning designer from Germany who has shown multiple times during Berlin’s Fashion Week. Moreover, the winner will receive a $1,000,000 prize to expand their brand and the opportunity to design an exclusive line for Amazon.

Trailer for Making the Cut

Critical reviews of Making the Cut focus on how the series cannot compare to Project Runway. USA Today called it a copycat and that it “can’t make it work like the original,” referring to a popular catchphrase used by Gunn during his Project Runway tenure.[ (( Lawler, Kelly. “Why Amazon and Netflix’s ‘Project Runway’ Copycats Can’t Make It Work like the Original.” USA TODAY, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. ))] Entertainment Weekly described it as a reboot that “plays like Project Runway if its rich aunt died and left the show her millions.”[ (( Baldwin, Kristen. “‘Making the Cut’ Is ‘Project Runway’ with Amazon Money.” EW.Com, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. ))] Yet, what makes Making the Cut different from its competitors is Amazon. Each week contestants design two looks. One is for the world of high fashion while the other is more accessible. Both looks appear on the runway in a weekly fashion show. In each episode, the judges determine a winner and the losing designer goes home. The winning accessible looks appears in the Making the Cut store on Amazon, and each look is priced at $100 or less.

Making the Cut is Amazon’s version of livestream shopping. With livestream shopping retailers interact in real time with customers to sell products. In China, livestream shopping is a billion dollar industry; in 2018, the industry had $4.4 billion in sales.[ (( Chitrakorn, Kati. “H&M’s Millennial Brand Bets on Livestream Shopping.” Vogue Business., Accessed 12 Apr. 2020. ))] Not only does Klum verbally remind contestants (and viewers) several times each week that the winning accessible look will be for sale in the “Making the Cut” store on Amazon, but also the show cuts to images of the online site.

Amazon Prime releases two episodes a week on Friday. As of this writing, six episodes have aired and all of the winning looks have sold out. However, fans can still make purchases in the store. Fans can buy clothing from the judges such as Heidi Klum’s Intimates line, Nicole Ritchie’s House of Harlow, or Joseph Altuzarra’s Altuzarra line. The store also includes a section of “Tim’s Closet Staples,” which include trench coats, blazers, day dresses, go-anywhere tops, little black dresses, and sweat suit alternatives.

Screenshot of Amazon’s Making the Cut online store featuring the first episode’s winning look and designer, Esther Perbandt

The creation of Making the Cut also helps Amazon. Even though the company is the top apparel retailer in the United States, the company has struggled with getting into the high end, luxury fashion. Making the Cut introduces viewers to the world of fashion with looks priced under $100. Moreover, viewers/consumers have a personal connection to the designers as they learn about the designers’ personal stories in each episode. For example, Ji Won Choi shares her struggle with her Korean identity when her family moved from Seoul to Oklahoma when she was 6. Feeling like an outsider, Ji Won rejected her Korean identity and had people call her “Rachel.”  Once she left Oklahoma to attend Parsons Design School of Design in New York, Choi embraced her identity and made it part of her brand.

The Making the Cut store also has a section called “Standout Styles” which contains looks inspired by the show’s judges, Heidi Klum, Nicole Ritchie, Joseph Altuzarra, supermodel Naomi Campbell, fashion influencer and designer Chiara Ferragni, and fashion editor Carine Roitfeld. The clothes range from $47-$995 and include fashion labels such as Marchesa and Halston.

In addition to the e-commerce element, what makes Making the Cut stand out from the competition is its production. The show’s first episode starts with the contestants meeting Klum and Gunn in New York City. After telling contestants about the competition and prize money, Klum announces that their first show will occur in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower. In Paris, contestants work in an atelier and explore the city for artistic inspiration. The second runway show occurs at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. While the designers are working, Klum and Gunn explore the city. In one episode, they go to the Moulin Rouge. At the end of episode 4, Klum tells contestants to pack their bags because they are going to Tokyo. Once there, contestants explore the city such as the Harajuku District for inspiration for the Japanese Streetwear challenge. Designers bring their artistic visions to life at the Amazon Fashion Tokyo Studio.

Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie looking closely at a dress
Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie

Making the Cut combines entertainment and e-commerce. Other reality shows as well as scripted programs could follow in its footsteps. Viewers have immediate access to products seen onscreen and with Amazon Prime shipping, these looks can be delivered in two days. The contestants, the return of Tim Gunn as fashion mentor, and addition of Naomi Campbell as a judge make the show a much-needed escape. Gunn continues to provide supportive yet constructive criticism via “Tim Talks.” Campbell does not hold back in her role as judge; during one runway show, she tells the other judges that she wouldn’t even put her mother in one particular designer’s accessible outfit. During the haute couture challenge, Campbell tells a designer that she was not impressed with the designs and describes the accessible look as something that she would wear when she goes to the hairdresser. 

While confined in their homes, viewers can buy the winning looks as they enjoy the visual imagery of Paris and Tokyo played out using slick programming and editing. By maintaining the joie de vivre of Project Runway and building upon its credibility with consumer consciousness, the producers of Making the Cut have created a new pattern, which will undoubtedly shape the future of fashion and reality television.

Image Credits:

  1. Making the Cut hosts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn
  2. Trailer for Making the Cut
  3. Screenshot of Amazon’s Making the Cut online store featuring the first episode’s winning look and designer, Esther Perbandt
  4. Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie


Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia

The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.

San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.

Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.

Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]

image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”

Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from


COVID-19: Teaching Solidarity
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University

Black frame with SOLIDARITY written in white text

This column was supposed to be about life insurance. It was meant to be a short introduction to an early-stage project looking at how the life insurance industry used varied media to make life insurance meaningful to prospective dealers and their potential customers over the course of the 20th century. Analyzing my chosen film—a sleepy training film called “Human Life Values” produced by the Institute of Insurance Marketing, c1960s—relied on archival materials held by the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware some 1,700 miles away. Given the nature of the research and questions of expense, I chose to hire an independent researcher to pull the records that interested me. On March 14th, she emailed me to let me know that the Hagley was closed due to COVID-19. As the evidence I hoped to use for my column is no longer available, I see two choices before me. Of course, I could still write about “Human Life Values,” offering a less-developed analysis. This would allow me to finish my series on “teaching” media as a vector of institutional power and governmentality. I think this is important work, and the question of how we quantify life has rarely had more currency than it does in the time of COVID-19.

My other option is to take this opportunity to think differently about my scholarly commitments. While I’ve enjoyed using this column to think about institutional pedagogies, the heart of my research agenda pursues questions about how work becomes meaningful and, in turn, how it structures our lives. My book examines 20th century private industry; the events above have made it impossible to ignore 21st century academia.

As Francis Eanes and Eleni Schirmer point out in a recent Jacobin article, academia was in crisis well before COVID-19 struck. Decades of public defunding have resulted in a wholesale turn to precarious working conditions for faculty, staff, and students as well as ballooning tuition costs and a concomitant student loan crisis. Faculty research is sold by private publishers at exorbitant rates, even to the very institutions that pay those researchers’ salaries. Anemic budgets at major granting institutions like the NIH invite private interests to fund and even at times shape academic research priorities. Athletics programs subsidize the billion-dollar profits of the NCAA almost exclusively at a loss to university budgets while student athletes receive no pay for sometimes life-threatening work.

We might think of this laundry list as a set of “higher
education” problems. We should think of them as labor problems.

Who is “essential”?

The battle over determining what industries and job descriptions count as “essential” has revealed the extent to which our society is built on the backs of low-wage, taxing labor: people in the service sector, retail, logistics, cleaning, and delivery (not to mention childcare, K-12 teaching, nursing and elder care). However, the overdue recognition bestowed by the label “essential” is ultimately cruel—a means of legitimizing life-threatening demands that people report to work whatever their personal risk of infection. It has become yet another way to treat working-class members of our society, many of them women and people of color, as disposable.

In the university, the language of essential is also being
used to describe certain types of research. Fortunately, this is being used to
make sure that participants in human trials are not adversely harmed by
disruption. Moving forward, however, we might reimagine our understanding of
who and what is essential to research, and even what essential research looks
like and does.

When I inventory those my own research relies on, the list
is long: librarians, archivists, mentors, freelance researchers, graduate
students, peer reviewers, journal editors, and the central office staff of
several institutions. While I (like many) tried to use my book’s acknowledgements
to signal the profound debt my work owes to these people, I’m embarrassed to
admit that I’ve only recently understood the many I left out. The same
“essential” employees who enable our basic survival also enable our work: mail
carriers provide access to scholarly monographs (whether through ILL or private
purchase) while facilities personnel ensure clean and healthy work

This recognition is not, in and of itself, enough. Nor is
gratitude. Maybe I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, but I’m tired of being thanked by
bosses, trade magazine articles, and form letters sent by textbook presses and
private learning management software companies. As I write in Television at Work, precarity and
worsening working conditions are often accompanied by superficial praise and
efforts to boost morale without changing material conditions.

Meme depicting the uselessness of meaningless gestures from employers who refuse to give actual help to their struggling employees
Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…

Gratitude is literally useless. We can do nothing with it. Worse, it puts the receiver in a position to say “you’re welcome,” an implicit confirmation that things are ok and that any service given is freely rendered rather than coerced. We don’t need gratitude. What we need is solidarity.

If we think on a solidarity model, we can begin to truly
reimagine what work looks like and how to make good on our ethical commitments
to each other—from our immediate colleagues to the staff who sustain
universities’ daily operation. Writing from within cultural studies, this
mutual recognition and fight for justice is ultimately the point. However, I’ve
been thinking too much about what the end product—the book, the article—can
accomplish and too little about how the research process itself should be
designed to meet these ends.

An example. The recent push towards “slow scholarship” speaks to academics’ recognition that the acceleration of work demands is unmanageable and unnecessary, feeding neoliberal emphases on market competition and easily quantifiable productivity. These concerns over employers’ control of employees’ time is not new. It is one of the chief emphases of the labor movement, expressed in the fight for the 8-hour day and its attendant slogan: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.” This makes it an ideal locus of collective action.

Today, 40 hours is largely inaccessible, no matter where you get your check. For white collar workers (including faculty and graduate students), email and other connectivity technologies stretch the workday into the evening and weekends (a strategy, as I note in my book, pursued by employers with videotape some 40 years ago). Others (including many adjuncts) find themselves cobbling together two or more part-time jobs due to employers’ desires to avoid the cost of providing legally-mandated benefits for full-time employees. Not that 40 hours is the acme of work arrangements (we might ask whether it is reasonable to relinquish half of our waking time to an employer), however working hours is a potential rallying point across industries and job titles. Recognizing that everyone’s time is equally valuable—no matter how capitalist systems of pay suggest the opposite—is a means to securing more humane working conditions for all.

Human life values redefined

Solidarity enables us to recognize our shared
positionality as wage laborers (whatever white/blue/pink collar distinctions
attempt to divide us) as well as the debt we owe those who help make the world
we inhabit (mail carriers, facilities workers, childcare and eldercare workers,
not to mention student athletes, science R&D researchers, and the many others
invoked above). Solidarity would ask us to respond to the crises before us
(both COVID-19 and the pre-existing troubles in academia) by committing to
aiding all of those who are essential
to our research (which turns out to be, well, everyone)—both in its basic undertaking
and, for those of us who claim cultural studies as home, in its political

While the latter part of this equation will be as diverse
as researcher interest allows, the former demands collective action along a
number of avenues, for example:

  • The fight for a living wage, both for TAs and contingent faculty, as well as the many others this crisis has declared ‘essential’ to our leisure and work worlds.
  • Disarticulating healthcare from employment. We are human beings who exist outside of work, and work should not define our access to health.
  • Refusing to acquire research materials from companies like Amazon that disregard worker health and safety.
  • Lowering productivity expectations as part of the fight to reclaim personal time. The path to this in the academy is especially murky. One of the locations of this acceleration is in graduate school where faculty, myself included, coach students to perform at an early assistant prof level out of (what at least feels like) compassion and a desire to see them succeed on a tight market. Working against increased productivity demands would require rethinking the organization of graduate education on a system level.
  • Returning to the matter of time, fighting for paid medical and parental leave, as well as paid vacation—again, for all workers.
  • Working across job titles, across institutions, and with students to ensure that the response to the budgetary crises exacerbated by COVID-19 equitably balances everyone’s livelihoods (with emphasis on the term’s invocation of work, health, and survival). There is no way forward that doesn’t start with restoring public funding for education to pre-austerity levels. The false scarcity established by current tax codes and the consumer model of education are twin poisons that rely on dividing theses groups to stave off structural change.

I completed my graduate education at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and now teach at Colorado State. Both universities are land
grants, a public commitment invoked most eloquently by the Wisconsin Idea: “the
boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Reconsidering
our debt to our communities demands a better understanding of how labor—paid
and unpaid—unites us. Many of the things that cultural studies and television
studies are devoted to—understanding identity, power, culture; pushing for
inclusion, for pleasure, for information, for justice—cannot be realized if we
don’t also pursue working class

Nothing I’ve written here is particularly original. It won’t
count toward my research profile. And maybe we don’t need more COVID reflection
pieces. But, as any student of ideology knows, repetition naturalizes. Workers
of the world, unite.  

Image Credits:

  1. Solidarity (author’s graphic)
  2. Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…

The Future of the Ratings Panel
Jennifer Hessler / Bucknell University

At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.

A defining feature of the Nielsen ratings has always been that they derive from a statistically sampled panel of real viewers. In his 1966 promotional speech titled “If Not the People…Who?” A.C. Nielsen Jr. described audience measurement as akin to a democratic election, the ratings constituting “the voice of the people” and a “mirror of public taste.”[ (( Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., “If Not the People…Who?” An Address to the Oklahoma City Advertising Club. A.C Nielsen Company. Chicago, 1966. (Edgar Kobak papers, Library of Congress) ))] Eileen Meehan argues that in its early days Nielsen strategically employed this rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for free market economic prosperity, while also absolving itself of any responsibility for the ratings’ negative affect on program quality.[ (( Eileen Meehan analyzes this speech to demonstrate how Nielsen drew on Cold War rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for economic prosperity; the implication being that to critique the ratings methodology or their results was unpatriotic. Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 16. ))] Even though media scholars have debunked the idea that television ratings are an accurate reflection of public taste,[ (( Scholars like Eileen Meehan, Robert McChesney, Ien Ang, and Todd Gitlin have debunked this idea that TV ratings are a mirrored reflection of public taste by pointing out that, on the one hand, audiences are choosing among a relative narrow selection of commercially motivated choices in the first place, and on the other hand, sampling practices tend to over-represent some viewing groups and underrepresent others. Eileen Meehan, Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Robert W. McChesney, “The Market Uber Alles,” The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 175-209; Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (London: Routledge, 1991); Todd Gitlin, “By the Numbers,” Inside Prime Time (London: University of California Press,1983), 41-48. ))] the ratings’ reliance on a viewer panel has still shaped their epistemological value: one the one hand, making them (somewhat problematically) dependent on panelists’ cooperation, and on the other hand, accruing them the credential of direct “audience intelligence.”

BC cover new world of audience measurement
A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.

As the age of big data reimagines audience analytics, the ratings panel is at the center of industry debates about how to define audience intelligence. Nielsen itself is turning toward new forms of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to create and interpret viewing data. Essentially machine learning and AI endeavor to “objectify” audience data while also supposedly “individualizing” it at large scales. For proponents, these mechanisms beg the question: if machines can supposedly replicate human decision-making processes, is the direct input of real viewers necessary for the production of “audience intelligence”? But on the other hand, Nielsen also argues that their ratings being derived from a panel of real viewers has advantages over their competitors’ data sets. In the disarray that currently characterizes the digital data market, Nielsen says that their viewer panel gives them the ability to bind and re-embody data, resulting in a more accurate capture of real media engagement.

ComScore HQ
ComScore Headquarters

The ratings panel has been at the
center of the methodological rivalry between Nielsen and one of its main competitors,
comScore. ComScore was founded in 1999 by Gian Fulgoni and Magid Abraham,
formerly of Information Resources Inc. (IRI), an integrated big data and
predictive analytics firm. In 2002 comScore partnered with Media Metrix, which
utilized a PC meter to measure internet traffic, somewhat similar to the method
used by Net Ratings (acquired by Nielsen in 2007). And in September 2015, comScore
acquired Rentrak, a company that specialized in box office data and in
aggregating television audience data from set-top boxes and Digital Video
Recorders. With the merger, comScore became an industry leader in digital
audience metrics.

Being born of the digital age, everything from comScore’s tracking technologies to their panel recruitment practices are created for an online environment. ComScore places beacons and trackable tags throughout the online content they monitor. When internet users/viewers visit the tagged websites, the beacons store a tracking cookie in the user’s computer memory. Meanwhile, comScore also has a panel of around two million people, who they recruit through a combination of randomized digital dialing and volunteer surveys. Panelists agree to run comScore’s background monitoring software package on their devices, which tracks everything they do online. ComScore then compares the data it collects on total web traffic to the tracking data from its panel to decipher more specific demographic information. In an interview with Digiday, former CEO Bryan Wiener stated, “We believe in panels. The biggest difference between us and [Nielsen] is we believe that we’re data-first and the panel is used to inform the data set versus the panel being at the crux and using the data at the outskirts.” Rather than being the source of its data (like it is for Nielsen), comScore’s panel serves a secondary referential function.

While often thought of as Nielsen’s more digitally competent brother, comScore has its own shortcomings. Privacy advocacy groups criticize the firm’s practice of storing tracking cookies in the computers of users who have not agreed to be a part of their panel, many of which are likely incognizant of their involvement. ComScore’s panel is also criticized for not being demographically representative, and the obscurity around its sampling means it’s difficult to know how fairly the firm is measuring underrepresented populations. And lastly, comScore’s metrics emphasize viewing that occurs through the internet or connected devices; the only audience data they collect for broadcasting comes from set-top-boxes, which makes it unrepresentative of the linear audience as a whole.

Nielsen promo
Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.

On the other hand, Nielsen’s ratings, remnant of the broadcast era, use the live broadcast as the base of their viewing metric before adding on digital viewing, and they rely more centrally on a panel of real viewers. Nielsen argues that this “tried and true” method allows them to more productively ground the disarray of digital data, to connect the gaps that code and algorithms leave in understanding viewers’ engagement with media. In an interview, former Nielsen Senior VP Jessica Hogue explained, “As Nielsen continues to move into cross-platform measurement, working with a greater abundance of data, the panel will become increasingly important. Large sets of household data make the panel an invaluable tool for personification.”[ (( Jessica Hogue, Nielsen Senior Vice President of Digital Client Sales and Services, Personal interview with the author, 27 April 2018. ))] The term “personification” alludes to a unique epistemological value in the subjectivity of the viewer panel. Nielsen’s former Executive VP Megan Clarken elaborates on this when she says that set-top boxes and web-trackers are, to a certain degree, dumb devices that represent the machine’s footprint, not necessarily the viewer’s engagement. She says, “Until a [set-top box or smart TV] can identify itself and give you a data set that identifies its relationship to everybody in the home,” it will not provide the same value as a ratings panel.[ (( Jon Lafayette, “7 Things You Need to Know About Nielsen’s New Tool,” Broadcasting & Cable, 16 March 2018. ))]

Nielsen continually emphasizes the advantages of panel-based measurement over big-data sets for understanding demographic differences. In a study focusing on Fox’s Empire (2015-), Nielsen found that while Empire ranked 16th in viewership using data from Nielsen’s nationally representative panel, in which “there’s a focus on race and ethnicity as well as making sure that we’re representing across the geography,” when using return path data or the big data sets from the same period (December 2018), Empire moved down to 38th in viewership. Nielsen’s Senior VP, Kelly Abcarian further explains that 75% of Empire’s audience is multicultural, and those audiences drive the show’s ratings. She argues, “If you’re not ensuring that the representation is there, it can drastically change the on-screen talent, it can change the programming lineup, and it can change the way advertisers think about that content.”[ (( Discussed (at 29:00) in “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, ))] While one must be weary of the bias of Nielsen’s own study, it nonetheless demonstrates the stakes of how the industry conceptualizes audience intelligence for the future of diverse representation.[ (( Michael LaSardo, Vice President of Katz Television’s Station Solutions, offers an in-depth explanation of how Nielsen and comScore account for viewer demographics in local markets. Nielsen’s ability to supplement census-level data with demographic information provided by their viewing panels enables them to account for the demographics of individuals, opposed to comScore’s practice of placing whole households into single demographics groups. “Spot the Differences: Nielsen and Comscore,” Katz Media Group, 6 January 2020, ))]

At the Coalition for Innovative Media Management’s 5th Annual Cross-platform Media Measurement & Data Summit, the final day’s discussion ended on the topic of the ratings panel, with comScore Chief Product Officer, Manish Bhatia, and Nielsen’s Abcarian each summarizing their firm’s stance. ComScore’s Bhatia argued, “As good as a panel is, there is a limit to how finely you can slice that panel… There’s only so much juice you can take out of a lemon.” And Abcarian countered: “While comScore’s tunnel vision is scale, Nielsen’s focus is also on quality.”[ (( “Summary of 2.7.19 CIMM Cross-Platform Video Measurement & Data Summit,” Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, 9 April 2016. ))]

The vastly different logics underpinning Nielsen’s and comScore’s methods is perhaps why so many media companies have found value in subscribing to both firms during this period of digital transition. Currently, the companies are each working to address their metrics’ limitations. As reporter Tim Peterson characterizes it, “Both companies are racing to establish strengths in each other’s domain. ComScore is pressed to provide the in-depth person-based measurement that Nielsen’s panels provide, while Nielsen must aggregate more data to augment its panels and provide more minute measurement at the device level.”[ (( Tim Peterson, “Comscore and Nielsen are Racing to become the One True Cross-platform Measurement Provider,” Digiday 2 January 2019, ))] As the two companies work from different directions, toward cross-platform measurement, it is likely that they will collide in the middle, and it will be left to the industry to decide which audience metric suits their needs. But beyond industry utility, how the digital television market comes to conceptualize the scientific notion of audience intelligence will have lasting implications for the future of audience surveillance, demographic representation, and television programming.

Image Credits:

  1. At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.
  2. A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.
  3. ComScore Headquarters
  4. Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.


A/B Storytelling: Interactive Television, Audience Labor, and the Audience Commodity
Ryan Stoldt / University of Iowa

Puss in Book Cover Art for Netflix
Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale is Netflix’s first interactive television program.

Interactive television programs like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix, 2018), Bear Gryll’s You Vs. Wild (Netflix, 2019), and Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale (Netflix, 2017) let audiences partially choose how they would like stories to unfold. These interactions empower audiences by making each individual a fully active participant in the storytelling process of television. Yet, as interactive television lets audiences pursue the stories and cultural interests that appeal to them, the interactivity also provides data to platforms about how audiences engage with stories. This essay argues that interactive television programming expands on concerns about exploited audience labor in television through their interactions with stories.

Political economy of communications scholar Dallas Smythe argued that television audiences serve as commodities that can be sold by television networks to advertisers.[ (( Smythe, D. W. (1981). On the audience commodity and its work. Media and cultural studies: Keyworks, 230, 256. ))] Smythe believed the primary value of television programming for the industry was that programming served as a “free lunch” to make audiences available to advertisers. The audiences’ labor of watching shows served the financial interests of the corporations. Services like Netflix, who are investing heavily in interactive television, do not sell to advertisers though, which raises questions about if and how audience labor is exploited by subscription-based services.

I’ve previously argued that data formed through audiences’ consumption of film and television content on internet-distributed film and television services still exploits audience labor.[ ((Stoldt, R. (Forthcoming). Just One More Episode: Binge-Watching Poetics and Big Data in Non-Linear Television Portals.))] Because audiences actively engage in making choices through interactive television, these interactive programs offer additional data to platforms beyond the data gathered with audiences’ viewing of traditional television programming.

Interactive television programs algorithmically distribute content based on a computational system that offers two story options for audiences to choose between. Each audience choice opens up new choices for the audience member to make as the narrative unfolds. From the platforms’ perspective, these technological and narrative choices match many of the data-gathering goals of marketing and computing’s A/B testing.

A/B testing compares performance rates of two competing messages within and across audience segments. In both marketing and computing, A/B testing shows two messages to a small segment of an audience population before the better performing message is sent to the full audience population. Because interactive television offers two choices to audiences repeatedly throughout a program, the format offers a useful tool for the creation of data on audience preference and difference. While the interactive shows do not become actualized with a definite ending determined by the more popular choice, like how most A/B testing concludes, this data in audiences’ tastes provides value both internally and externally to the platforms. To date, the former has been the focus of services like Netflix because their economic model is based around subscriptions instead of advertisements.

Data can be used internally by internet-distributed video platforms as information that can offer insights into future decisions about programming. Through this formulation of the value of data, the value of the audience commodity shifts from Smythe’s externally focused commodity to be sold to advertisers to an internally focused commodity used as informational capital for future decisions. This data offers insight into what types of stories to tell, how to tell them, and who is interested in which programs to platforms.

House of Cards poster for final season
House of Cards was one of Netflix’s first original productions, and The New York Times reported that the show was created based on data.

In 2013, New York Times columnist David Carr reported that Netflix created their show House of Cards (2013-2018) specifically to be a hit by looking at where data overlapped between genre, director, and actor.[ (( Carr, D. (2013). Giving viewers what they want. The New York Times. Retrieved from ))] By using data on David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and the British version of House of Cards, Netflix claimed to create their most watched show at the time. Television studies scholar Tim Havens has usefully noted that these categories of data are not new to internet-distributed television platforms despite being discursively promoted as new.[ (( Havens, T. (2014). Media programming in an era of big data. Media Industries Journal, 1(2). ))] Data on the popularity of directors, actors, and genres have long been accessible to media industries. However, the continued use of data based on audience consumption to make programming decisions remains exploitative of audience labor, and internet-distributed television platforms continue to use this data in ways the industry long has. Interactive television offers direct ways to see what genres of stories audiences might be more interested in.

Other popular writings have suggested new ways of using audience data. Writer, director, and producer Cary Fukunaga provided further insight into how internet-distributed television services use audience data in an interview for GQ.[ (( Baron, Z. (2018). Cary Fukunaga doesn’t mind taking notes from Netflix’s algorithm. GQ. Retrieved from ))] While Fukunaga was creating Maniac (2018), Netflix provided data to him about how audiences prefer to see stories unfold. Fukunaga said, “Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things. …So they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day. So the question is do we want to make a creative decision at the risk of losing people” (Italics original). This article suggests that Fukunaga used Netflix’s data to change how his story would be told in order to better engage audiences. This type of narrative change through engagement with data is ripe for the A/B storytelling logic of interactive television. Interactive television provides data about what types of stories are more interesting to audiences than other types of stories. This narrative function goes further down that data about genre that can be gleamed broadly by what types of programs are popular or what type of story people choose in interactive programming.

The A/B logic also usefully denotes differences between different audiences’ tastes. I’ve previously written about how cultural difference affects audiences’ choices in interactive television according to Netflix, noting how British audiences were more likely to choose a storyline based around tea. Because Netflix publicly recognized that different cultures select stories differently on Twitter, they indicated that they gather data about difference in cultural tastes surrounding stories. This data can easily be used to program shows, narratives, or culturally specific moments that might appeal to specific audiences globally.

Finally, interactive television directly provides platforms with data that could be used externally to appeal to advertisers. Although this has rarely been the case to date, analysts have questioned whether product placement offers a way to expand revenue sources for streaming services without compromising their resolve to not have traditional advertisements.[ (( Graham, M. (2019). Netflix partnerships could become more attractive to marketers in a down economy, analysts predict. CNBC. Retrieved from ))] Regardless, the data gathered through interactive television is ripe for external use.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch's interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch‘s interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch begins with users having the choice between two different breakfast cereals: Sugar Puffs and Frosties.  The next choice allows audiences to choose to listen to music by either The Thompson Twins or Now 2. While these choices do not matter for the story’s narrative, but instead teach viewers the rules of the interactions, the choices do matter for streaming services’ potential relationship to advertisers. These choices inform platforms about audiences’ interests in some commodities over others, which is the background of large amounts of marketing and sponsorship research. Sponsorship research often asks current customers about their interests to inform clients what types of advertising and sponsorship deals they should be pursuing. Through this data, services could easily approach advertisers and pitch future product placement deals based on the data of audiences’ indicated preferences.

Regardless of whether data is used internally or externally by internet-distributed television services, the audience commodity remains valuable for these services. While the labor of audiences remains largely the same, the production of data for a primarily internal usage serves a different but still valuable purpose to the television industry. Interactive television is not only a formative change in the way audience tell stories but in the way industries gather data.

Image Credits:

  1. Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale is Netflix’s first interactive television program.
  2. House of Cards was one of Netflix’s first original productions, and The New York Times reported that the show was created based on data.
  3. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch‘s interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.


Synchronizing Song and (Diegetic) Sound in Music Videos
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los Angeles

Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down enables computer audio in the group’s recent Zoom-inspired music video, “Phenom.”

What happens to music videos during a global pandemic? Some have taken to music video parodies and remixes to express their COVID-19 lockdown triumphs and tribulations. Others have taken the virus as inspiration for new music. Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, known for his comedic raps, brings both levity and a serious public service message to his “Coronavirus” music video. Still others have found creative workarounds. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s recent music video for “Phenom” took to Zoom (like so many of us) after their video shoot was cancelled. These videos are products of a remarkable time, and they certainly provide us some much needed entertainment. The Gmac Cash and Thao videos appeal to us not only through their timely content, though—they also use diegetic sound to get our attention. While the term “music video” implies the centrality of the song, diegetic sound is a typical, though understudied, component of music videos.

In my first Flow column, I suggested that the audio-visual synchronization that characterizes music videos extends beyond the presumed function of videos as advertisements for popular songs. Here, I will return to that assertion from a different angle. If music videos are expected to sell a song, then the song is what we should hear, right? While his own analyses often refuse this simplistic reading, music video scholar Mathias Bonde Korsgaard initially suggests that one of the defining qualities of a music video is that “no incisions are made in the song’s structure—the song’s length determines the video’s length.”[ (( Mathias Bonde Korsgaard, Music Video After MTV: Audiovisual Studies, New Media, and Popular Music (New York, Routledge, 2017), 26. ))] This implies that song and soundtrack are one-and-the-same, and that the song must not be altered nor non-song diegetic sounds added that might extend or interrupt the soundtrack provided by the song. In practice, though, this is almost never the case.

Music video scholars have long noted outliers that move beyond song-as-soundtrack. To take a classic example, Michael Jackson and John Landis’s Thriller (1983) incorporates multiple musical cues and diegetic sound effects, and it also rearranges the album version of the song to better center both Jackson’s dancing ability and the video’s narrative.[ (( I have previously argued that Thriller’s sound design plays a key role in claims for its consideration as a short film (rather than a music video), though I think it functions as both. In keeping with Landis’s and Jackson’s framing of the project as film, I have italicized it here. See my “The Long and the Short of Music Video,” The Projector: A Journal on Film, Media, and Culture 16, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 19–35, ))] The 6-minute album version of “Thriller” incorporates some sound effects, but the 14-minute Thriller video is much more sonically complex. Relatively few music videos rework the original song and sound design as extensively as Thriller. But by treating Thriller as an outlier, we risk suggesting that most music videos simply import a pop song as soundtrack. Nearly all music videos use a song (or sometimes multiple songs) as a starting point, true, but they frequently add to and/or alter the song(s) in their sound design.

While Thriller (1983) incorporates non-song score and diegetic sound effects, it’s neither the first music video to broaden the music video soundtrack nor particularly unique in this regard.

Sound design that extends beyond the commodity version of the song often serves a music video’s narrative, which may or may not extend from the song’s lyrics. For instance, while the lyrics of Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” (titled after the American suicide prevention hotline) already suggest the narrative progression of a teen protagonist from suicidal thoughts—“I just want to die today”—to hope—“I don’t even want to die today”—the video extends and deepens this narrative, in part by adding additional sound elements and rearranging the song. In “1-800,” Director Andy Hines bookends the opening and closing of the song, itself stretched well beyond its original 4 minutes, with the cooing sounds of a baby and a man singing a lullaby. In the first scene, a father (Don Cheadle) comforts his baby son. Over the course of the music video, his son (Coy Stewart), now a teenager, struggles with his sexuality and almost commits suicide, in part because of his father’s rejection. The last scene sees father and son reconciled, and we hear the adult son singing to his own child. The cooing and lullaby sounds are integral to the video’s narrative structure as the main character’s near-tragic story comes full circle.[ (( For a more extensive analysis of this video, see my “Listen Again: Music Video’s Cinematic Soundscapes,” in The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening, ed. Carlo Cenciarelli (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). ))] These additional sounds deepen our engagement with the video’s diegetic world beyond the basic narrative of the song’s lyrics.

In Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” director Andy Hines extends and rearranges several elements of the original song as well as incorporating additional diegetic sound to tell the story of a troubled teen.

Throughout “1-800,” Hines finds transitional moments in the song (i.e. between verse and chorus) where musical elements can be extended, reworked, or muted to make space for narrative expansion. We see and hear a similar, though perhaps less seamless example of this in Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” music video, where at a natural break in the original song a little before 3:00, the song becomes muted for the dramatic climax of the video, where the two girls consummate their attraction in a kiss and one of the girls fights the other’s abusive boyfriend. In this case, while the lyrics of the song suggest an attraction between female friends, and perhaps even a boyfriend who’s in the way, the video elaborates on this narrative, and the additional dialogue and diegetic sound during the muted segment of the song provide space for this extension.[ (( While we might assume that an artist would not want the integrity of their song disturbed by the type of sound design I describe here, Hines was encouraged by Logic to develop the video for “1-800” in the way he did, and Kiyoko is listed as co-director on “Girls Like Girls.” For more on working relationships between musicians and directors, see my previous Flow column. ))]

Diegetic sound need not be focused on narrative development, though. It can also be musicalized so that it augments both the story world and the song. Unlike “1-800” or “Girls Like Girls,” Lil Nas X’s “Panini” includes only the faintest whiff of narrative. Nonetheless, the futuristic world of the video is vivid, both visually and aurally. Throughout the video, diegetic sounds like Lil Nas X’s rocket boots landing on an airplane wing and the crackle of a hologram screen add sonic punctuation to the song. As in Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video (released 30 years prior), diegetic sound also conveys the embodied experience of dance, in this case rendering the robot dancers more “real,” as we hear the sounds of their bodies in motion.

In Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (1989) and Lil Nas X’s “Panini” (2019) musicalized diegetic sounds render bodies in motion more real.

In all of the videos I’ve discussed thus far, the diegetic sounds are quite noticeable. But sound design can play a more subtle role in integrating song and story in music videos. Take the example of “Phenom.” Like “Panini,” “Phenom” is not explicitly a narrative music video. It does have a narrative frame, though: Thao is at her computer, connecting with friends via Zoom. We not only see her screen at the beginning of the video, but we also hear her click on “new meeting” and then “join with computer audio.” These quotidian sounds might seem unremarkable, but they do a couple things for us as listeners. First, they give us a moment to take in the video’s context, and to recognize the visual Zoom interface. Second, these clicks give the song, once it starts, a sense of intimacy. In listening to the song, we seem to be listening to the track along with Thao on her computer. She’s sharing her sound with us as well as with her friends. This is important since, as Thao told The Verge, “At first we didn’t know if we would even release the song [during the Coronavirus pandemic] because it’s about people unifying.”[ (( Qtd. in Dani Deahl, “How Thao & The Get Down Stay Down Made a Music Video on Zoom” The Verge, April 8, 2020. ))] The sense of connection so central to the song is signaled not only lyrically or through the cleverly choreographed Zoom dance routine, but also through the simple clicks through which Thao shares her audio with us.

The clicking we hear at the beginning of “Phenom” prepares us for the Zoom spectacular that ensues and lends the video a sense of intimacy.

The use of additional—non-song—sound in “Phenom” is not as obviously about story-telling as are some of the other examples I’ve discussed, and yet the clicking we hear can clearly be considered diegetic sound. It is part of the video’s simple story world, in which friends get together on Zoom to commune and create art. This sound is subtle, but effective. In a time where so much is changing by the minute, I find this simple gesture—to music video conventions as well as our shared story of isolation and connection—comforting.

Image Credits:

  1. Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down enables computer audio in the group’s recent Zoom-inspired music video, “Phenom.” (author’s screengrab)
  2. While Thriller (1983) incorporates non-song score and diegetic sound effects, it’s neither the first music video to broaden the music video soundtrack nor particularly unique in this regard. (author’s screengrab)
  3. In Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” director Andy Hines extends and rearranges several elements of the original song as well as incorporating additional diegetic sound to tell the story of a troubled teen. (author’s screengrab)
  4. In Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (1989) and Lil Nas X’s “Panini” (2019) musicalized diegetic sounds render bodies in motion more real. (author’s screengrab)