Introduction to The Writers’ Strike Issue

Welcome to this special issue of FlowTV focusing on the recent three-month WGA strike over the payment of residuals to film and television writers. In keeping with Flow’s mission to “discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media at the speed that media moves,” we bring you four pieces with predominantly personal perspectives on the strike. While most folks followed the strike from the remove of fandom, many of us in media studies were closely connected to or personally involved in the strike, bridging the divide between our theoretical standpoints and praxis.

To provide a range of experiences during the strike, this issue includes essays from academics, media professionals, and industry practitioners alike. Many of our writers consider the unique intersection of the Internet and the strike, which had an undeniable impact on how the writers were received and understood by the traditional media and their fan bases alike. Dante Atkins, the communications professional behind the United Hollywood blog, explains how this vital information-dissemination tool came into being. Jennie and Dan Chamberlain have collaborated on a piece about Jennie’s work as a striking writer and contract captain in her Los Angeles neighborhood. Erin Giannini brings a perspective from abroad about the potential for the strike to illuminate new ideas about convergence and the impact of fan activity. Shelley Jenkins offers insight on how her undergraduate students at Cal-State Fullerton handled the issue of crossing the picket line in order to complete their internships necessary to graduate.

Admittedly, these pieces reflect an overwhelmingly pro-WGA standpoint. However, as Atkins points out, this perspective was shared by 77% of those aware of the strike. Furthermore, as our writers demonstrate, supporting the WGA was not a simple or one-sided position, particularly as negotiations stalled and work-stoppage continued for three months. Overall, it is the personal perspective brought by our contributors that makes this issue a noteworthy early contribution to scholarly material on the WGA strike. The staff at FlowTV hopes you will enjoy it and engage with these perspectives in the comment section.

Internships, Idealism, and the WGA Strike
Shelley Jenkins / Cal-State Fullerton

Crossing the Line? Internships, Idealism, and the WGA Strike

The picket line at Walt Disney Studios

The picket line at Walt Disney studios

There are certain perks to teaching film and television in the greater Los Angeles area. Professional industry guest speakers are abundant, and field trips to studios and networks are easily negotiated. It is quite easy to stay current with the industry when the industry is your backyard. I dare say that there are even more perks to being a student of film and television in southern California, although many students who have grown up here don’t know how lucky they have it.

Students around here don’t seem to realize that living at home with Mom and Dad while interning at Sony Pictures or Dreamworks isn’t the norm for the vast majority of college students in the nation. Students in the greater Los Angeles area are constantly bombarded by local news coverage of the industry they hope to one day enter and, quite often, the news concerns poor business dealings, mismanagement, layoffs and pending or current strikes. As a college student in the Midwest, I didn’t have a chance to become jaded about “the business” of writing before I ever got the chance to develop my passion or hone my craft. My students however can’t turn on the local news or read a local paper without seeing their professional futures flash before their eyes. The latest WGA strike affected these students in a way most other television and film students in the nation can’t understand.

In the Radio-Television-Film program at Cal State University, Fullerton–where I am a member of the faculty–seniors must complete a capstone internship course before graduating. The past two semesters I watched graduating seniors struggle with the very personal impact of the Writers’ Strike on their education. In my classes I often discuss the importance of unions, especially in our industry. Unlike any other industry in the world, there are many people who would be willing to “work” in film and television for free, just for the chance to say they work in film and television. The unions protect those who work in this industry from being “taken advantage of.” Our RTVF Department also has the benefit of having at least three WGA members on its faculty at any given time. So when the WGA officially went on strike in November 2007, many of our students already understood the issues at hand and supported the efforts of the WGA, at least intellectually. However, they soon found that supporting something intellectually and dealing with it in actuality are two completely different propositions. Many of our students found they had to now cross WGA picket lines to get to their internships. This was the first time many of them have ever even encountered a picket line, not to mention the decision whether or not to cross one.

The Picket line at FOX Studios

The line at FOX Studios, which some of Jenkins’ students encountered first-hand

Now, to put things in perspective, many CSUF alumni walked the picket lines as actual members of the WGA and many alumni crossed the picket lines in other production capacities during the strike. Many more alumni lost their jobs during the strike as productions came to a halt and many shows didn’t come back. Many students lost their internship opportunities altogether as production companies and studios decided there wouldn’t be enough work for them. These students didn’t graduate “on time.” All of this may suggest that the decision whether or not to cross a picket line is a no-brainer for a graduating senior. On the contrary, many students found it a very difficult choice, one that brought about a soul-searching anxiety that involved an exploration of ideals, professionalism, work ethic, and loyalty. This exploration brought about a very interesting dialogue through our department’s listserv.

One of our writing students was interested in organizing a field trip of sorts to walk the picket lines with guild members. The show of support was to be orchestrated through the WGA strike leader for the location being considered. The student sent out an email in order to both create and gauge interest. The email started quite the heated debate between students–both current and former–working in various capacities in the industry. Some students wanted to walk the line to show their support as many of the other California institutions were doing. Some innocently said it would be a great chance to network with writers, which was quickly jumped on by others as the worst thing to say under the circumstances.

Striking Writers at FOX Studios

Striking writers lie down on Pico Boulevard in front of FOX Studios

During the fall, one of my students completed his internship at FOX Studios in Century City. He was working with FOX Sports. His show didn’t actually have any writers on staff; however, the studio was located right by the main entrance off of Pico Blvd. Every Monday through Friday he would pull into the lot with roughly 100 writers picketing. He couldn’t help but feel that the writers were somewhat upset that he constantly crossed the line for several months. Another student of mine was also working at FOX Sports. She only saw a few picketers at a time because she started her day normally after most of the picketers had left, but she recalls that the one time she was there during the day, “It was insane and I was really nervous when I saw it all on the news.” Other students mentioned wanting to wave at former instructors on the line as they were driving through, only to quickly realize their picket line faux pas and attempt to avoid eye contact altogether. One of the founding members of our department, who is no longer teaching, is a script doctor and WGA member. He was pictured in the LA Times holding a picket sign and was quoted in Variety regarding the strike. A student who had studied with, and respected, this particular instructor very much would actually try to avoid being seen by him by ducking down behind the wheel while driving onto the lot. He desperately wanted to just say “hi” to him, but felt that he was violating a code of honor instilled in him by this same instructor. I know of one student who was outright asked to scab during this time. Although he had crossed the picket line to get to work, this line was a line he knew he absolutely should not cross.


News coverage from NBC on the then-ongoing strike

So, what does all this mean? Well, honestly, I think it means that we’ve taught our students well. Comedy writer Bill Masters said something that I wish I could claim as my own, “I didn’t mind striking; I was good at it.” Working and non-working writers walked the picket line together. Whether they crossed the line or not, our students understood why the writers were out there. They knew why it caused production to stop. They learned how things work in “the business” that is television. Without the unions and the guilds, many of us would never rise beyond “internships” to legitimate positions that help pay our mortgages, our children’s education costs, and our health and car insurance.

Whether or not someone chooses to support one side of an argument over another should be based on the facts as presented by both sides. My colleagues and I presented our students with the facts surrounding the WGA strike. Armed with the facts, the vast majority of our students agreed writers were getting a raw deal and deserved better. Students perhaps understood the issues even better than those of us “old schoolers” who still watch network television shows as they are scheduled to air. The issue for me as an educator isn’t whether film and television students marched side by side with the writers or crossed picket lines in order to graduate on time. I happen to know that many did both. As an educator the issue was whether or not they learned something. They were both unfortunate enough and lucky enough to experience some of the effects of the strike. If educators believe that students don’t understand or appreciate the reality of the entertainment industry, then perhaps it’s because Hollywood still seems so far away for so many of them. As educators we can close that gap best we can by preparing our students about the business of the art our students will hopefully one day find themselves employed, regardless of where they may find themselves geographically.

Image Credits:
1. The picket line at Walt Disney studios
2. The line at FOX Studios, which some of Jenkins’ students encountered first-hand
3. Striking writers lie down on Pico Boulevard in front of FOX Studios

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The WGA Strike, the Internet and Media Decentralization
Dante Atkins / Founder,

It’s Not 1988 Anymore: The WGA Strike, the Internet and Media Decentralization

(Dante Atkins is a communications professional in Los Angeles.)

WGA Solidarity

Solidarity with the WGA was not a given at the outset of the strike

It’s amazing what a difference 19 years can make.

The last time the WGA had its writers on the picket lines–way back in 1988–Ronald Reagan was President, Die Hard was in theaters, and a Finnish college student was writing a program called Internet Relay Chat. At that point in time, I had just reached the ripe old age of six, so I was spending much more of my time watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit than I was paying attention to the seemingly interminable writers’ strike. It was only 19 years later–when I was hired by the WGA to help develop a blog that would become known as and assist with online media strategy–that I found out just how much the Guild’s writers had gotten the shaft 19 years prior.

The media landscape is far different today than it was 19 years ago. In the late 1980s, at what was essentially the dawn of the Internet era, major media companies not only dominated the flow of information; they were essentially the only game in town. Public relations wars could essentially be won with full-page advertisements in The New York Times, and that’s exactly how the AMPTP forced the WGA into settling for a contract that paid the guild a ridiculously low percentage of residuals from home video sales. As the writers prepared to strike in the fall of 2007, there were many fears that it would happen again.

When I walked into the WGA West headquarters for the first time a week before the latest strike was called, I was already hearing multiple complaints from strike captains about negative publicity from both traditional media sources like The Los Angeles Times, as well as more specialized trade publications such as Variety. In a situation like the WGA strike where an entire region of the country stands to lose a substantial amount of money and where ordinary people stand to lose the entertainment that gets them through the day, the onus is on the strikers to prove that they are being treated unfairly and that a strike is their only recourse.

Time Warner Center picket

WGA writers picket the Time Warner Center in New York City

Clearly, when going up against General Electric, NewsCorp, and their allies in the AMPTP, trying to win a message war by outspending the opposition isn’t going to work. This forced the WGA to rely on new ways of getting its message out to its target audience: the people who love to watch the shows that guild members write. It was definitely true that traditional media readership was declining while the popularity of new media sources was increasing dramatically, but would that trend be strong enough to win a message war against some of the best-funded sources on the planet? The WGA strike would provide a perfect test case; we just had to implement a battle-plan.

At the strike captain meeting, we formed a communications committee headed by myself and some of the more-senior strike captains. We organized four separate subcommittees that reported directly to the communications committee: rapid response; messaging; video; and blog. The messaging committee was charged with developing talking points to counter the AMPTP’s claims; the rapid response group searched for any negative publicity and was responsible for countering it with editorials or letters to the editor; the video crew created clever YouTube videos to illustrate the talking points in a more entertaining fashion; and the blog group developed an outlet for it all—a website that took the name

UnitedHollywood banner’s banner

The name may have seemed like an odd choice for a website devoted to protecting the interests of the WGA, but in truth, the name fit right in with one of the principal messages the WGA captains were trying to communicate: that the fate of the WGA in these negotiations over Internet royalties would set the bar for negotiations with other Hollywood unions like the DGA and IATSE. Indeed, there is no way the strike would have any chance at succeeding without solidarity from other unions, especially the Teamsters.

In the new age of the 24-hour digital media where people are increasingly interested in getting their news straight from the source without having to wait for tomorrow’s paper, the UnitedHollywood site proved to be a compelling resource: updated several times a day at all hours by leading strike captains and prominent show writers with the latest news, thoughts, photos, anecdotes action items and especially videos (the “Why We Fight” introduction video received over 500,000 views on YouTube), UnitedHollywood quickly amassed a loyal following during the initial weeks of the strike, reaching a total of up to 50,000 hits a day or more, according to the site’s SiteMeter statistics. There was always something new: a rumor about the status of the latest negotiations; a series of YouTube videos featuring the latest celebrities who were standing with the WGA; and essays written by the writers of the most popular shows on television. The site became a combined education, advocacy and entertainment site that presented information from the WGA’s perspective.


The “Why We Fight” YouTube Video

But the site was not just effective at getting out the message that the WGA wanted its audience to hear; it was also very nimble at quickly responding to the latest developments in the messaging war. When the AMPTP insisted that the WGA writers averaged $100,000 a year and were being greedy in asking for more, UnitedHollywood was right there to counteract that claim. When the AMPTP insisted that writers were asking for an untenable doubling of DVD residuals, UnitedHollywood immediately brought out a counter-message: we get four cents on a $20 DVD, and we’re asking for 8. The same held true for Internet residuals.

The AMPTP, by contrast, had no such Internet presence–as demonstrated by their own website, The result was that the WGA and their allies dominated the proliferating world of Internet news. As a consequence, anyone looking for news about the WGA strike online who may have been neutral about who was to blame for the strike got nearly exclusively the WGA side of the story. The consequences of this were clear. According to a Nielsen survey about the strike, TV viewers supported the writers by a whopping 77% to 9%, with 14% neutral.

Does the WGA’s success with new media imply that such a model could work for other advocacy groups and labor disputes? It is certainly true that having some of the most talented and creative people in the world pushing the message and designing videos doesn’t hurt, especially in combination with a climate already hostile to large corporations. But what is clear is this: it doesn’t matter how deep either side’s pockets are; in a message war, ignore the Internet at your own peril.

Image Credits:
1. Solidarity with the WGA was not a given at the outset of the strike
2. WGA writers picket the Time Warner Center in New York City
3.’s banner

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Fan Support and Its Effect (Or Lack Thereof) on the Strike
Erin Giannini / University of East Anglia

Converging in the Strike Zone: Fan Support and Its Effect (Or Lack Thereof) on the WGA Strike

The essence of the issue

WGA writers picket for Internet residuals

Hollywood’s recent labor strike was not just about the Internet, but waged on the Internet, in a manner that fundamentally changed labor relations in terms of information dissemination and the ability of the atomized individual to make an impact on seemingly all-powerful corporate entities. Historically and culturally, what differentiated the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike–which halted the 2007/2008 television season over a debate on residuals from new media content–from those in the 60s and 80s was the use of the Internet to mobilize fan support and expose abuses outside of the immediate parties concerned. In particular, issues of web content and fan interaction highlight the main issues at work within the WGA strike.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins discusses how what he terms “knowledge communities” can be utilized in a marketing context, if producers tread carefully. ((Jenkins H. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press; 2006.)) Further, he argues that this works both ways: corporate and consumer convergence influence one another. Media corporations spawn their products across multiple delivery channels (TV, Internet, DVD, iPods, etc); consumers use these new technologies to gain power over their media. Not only in terms of viewing processes, but in the communities they create. These communities, as Jenkins discussed in greater depth in Textual Poachers, have always managed to assert some level of re-interpretation and power over the text through the mode of fan-fiction and other fan creations. ((Jenkins H. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge; 1992.)) The current model of convergence, however, allows greater interaction between producer and consumer, and helps these consumers influence content.

When WGA and fan demands converge

When WGA and fan demands converge

This convergence that allows the fans the ability to “talk” to the producers and creators of these shows allows an impact greater than just registering complaints about new characters or problematic storylines. Fans have mobilized to make their opinions known to producers. In the 21st century, fan campaigns no longer rely solely on written correspondence—now, it is the sending of “things” that fans seem to think will get a studio’s attention, “things” that have a particular correspondence themselves to the televisual story they are supporting. For instance, fans of The 4400 mailed bags of sunflower seeds, while Friday Night Lights fans have sent mini-footballs, light bulbs, and eye drops. ((Stelter B., Jericho’ Resurrection Inspires Other Save-Our-Show Campaigns. New York Times 12 February 2008.)) Yet, barring exceptions such as Jericho, which fans successfully kept on the air for an additional eight episodes after mailing in tons of edible nuts, these campaigns do not have an enviable success rate.

One reason why might be found in Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s analysis of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s notions of the Culture Industry. Lash and Lury claim that rather than objects mediating representation and formulating identity, the new global model of the culture industry means that objects take on numerous properties and meanings outside of what the product intended and represent “difference.” It is the difference between the meaning of a commodity and a brand: a commodity is produced; a brand is a producer of meaning. Commodities are alike except in terms of how much they cost, whereas brands seek difference, specialness. ((Lash S, Lury C. Global Culture Industry. Cambridge: Polity Press; 2007:7.))

Broadcast networks have certainly made use of the Internet to “brand” individual shows. All of the broadcast networks in the United States provide online content; some provide full episodes, previews, or web-only episodes (known as “webisodes”), character blogs, or interactive “novels.” However, a workable economic model, either current or predictive, for what the Internet can provide in terms of value-added or actual revenues, has been claimed to not yet exist. The Academy of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) were reluctant to commit to a percentage of money from these new technological elements, as they had not yet mined the complete cost-benefit profile of Internet and new media technology. The WGA’s complaints were tied into the strike resolution in 1985, when they agreed to a cut in residuals for the video tape market, to 0.03% of profits; in the current economy, with DVDs, this amounts to about 4 cents per DVD sold. ((This debate over residuals has been occurring for a number of years. See: Brodesser C, McNary D. “It takes talent to divvy up DVD: Thesps, helmers profit while writers go begging. Variety. February 23-29, 2004;10.)) They wanted to raise that to 0.06% and include new media, in particular, downloading to unconventional mediums, such as iPods and mobile phones. The AMPTP claimed that web- and new media-based content was promotional and had no profit margin, and turned down the request. ((Furey E. WGA the Dog: CBR News Examines the WGA Strike. Comic Book Resources. November 28, 2007.))


The writing staff from The Office explains why they should be paid for their Emmy-winning webisode work.

What sets this strike apart is the presence of the very thing that is at issue: the Internet. The WGA utilized the Internet to mobilize fan communities and garner support among viewers through strike updates, blogging, and posting strike (and corporate exposure) videos on YouTube, and took the media to task for negative portrayals of the striking workers. Joss Whedon used the blog to provide updates and counteract what he felt was the negative portrayal in venues such as the New York Times, in which they referred to the writer’s strike as having “All the trappings of a union protest …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” ((Cieply M, Carr D, Barnes B. Screenwriters on Strike Over Stake in New Media. New York Times. November 6, 2007.)) He responded with:

Oh my God. Arty glasses and fancy scarves. That is so cute! My head is aflame with images of writers in ruffled collars, silk pantaloons and ribbons upon their buckled shoes…The entire writers’ guild as Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delicious. Except this is exactly the problem. The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it’s what most people think even when we’re not striking… (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It’s an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute. ((More Joss Strike Talk.

The WGA strike captains started the website United Hollywood to update WGA members (and other interested parties) and promote the “Pencils 2 Media Moguls” campaign. Fans could buy a box of pencils to send to AMPTP in support of the strike (similar to “save this show” campaigns), as well as banners and icons for use on blogs and forums, such as “Pencils Down Means Pencils Down,” “I support the WGA strike,” and specialized ones such as “Office Fans Support the Writers.”

The Office Fans Support the WritersReal Fans Support the Writers

Images of solidarity made by UnitedHollywood (left) were quickly modified by fans (right) to embody their own messages.

This is certainly an example of convergence in action. It is difficult to measure how much of an influence the fans had on the AMPTP, but show creators and writer-producers thanked fans for their support in winning the public relations war of the strike. ((World Wide Rallies In Support of the Writers. United Hollywood. November 29. 2007)) In the end, however, the real power brokers in this strike were the advertisers; they had the right to ask for their advertising dollars back if the strike persisted; in mid-November 2007, they announced that they would demand their money back before mid-December, as the strike meant that those who have contracted for first-run programs were not, in fact, getting what they paid for. ((Strike has cash-back clock ticking. Mediaweek. November 19, 2007.)) There is a debate regarding how much the strike costs, with estimates ranging from $380 million to $1.5 billion. ((Cieply M. Writers Vote to End Strike. New York Times. February 12, 2008.)) Certainly, fan support focused attention on the strike; whether it had a influence, or just gave fans something to do while their favorite shows were off the air, is a negligible conclusion.

Image Credits:
1. WGA writers picket for Internet residuals
2. When WGA and fan demands converge
3. Images of solidarity made by UnitedHollywood (left) were quickly modified by fans (right) to embody their own messages.

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“We Write, You Wrong”
Jennie Chamberlain / Screenwriter and Daniel Chamberlain / USC

(Jennie is a screenwriter and producer working in Los Angeles, Daniel is a Doctoral Student at USC. They wrote this piece together from Jennie’s perspective.)

Jennie and Daniel's Friends on Strike

Some of Jennie and Daniel’s friends on strike in front of Prospect Studios

Screenwriting can be a lonely profession. Television writers spend time in tumultuous writers’ rooms, while feature film writers tend to work alone or in pairs, working from home most of the time, occasionally typing away in cafes or diners when the need for human contact becomes acute. Life for a striking screenwriter, however, is quite different.

No longer sedentary and secluded, the striking screenwriter is expected to spend a great deal of time pacing, chanting, and talking with other screenwriters. Someone estimated that we were slowly covering four miles per day; someone else figured two. An enterprising screenwriter wore a pedometer, but our pace was not sufficient to measure the distance accurately. When writers weren’t complaining about their sore feet, the focus was on the food. Forget Jay Leno’s donuts — on our line at Prospect Studios the cast of Grey’s Anatomy purchased entire coffee carts and stacks of pizza for weary picketers, overzealous agent’s assistants drove east of La Brea to pass out scones, and neighborhood supporters dropped off pies, cookies, and assorted goodies. So much for the health benefits of walking four hours each day.

Leno brings the donuts

Jay Leno brings Krispy Kreme donuts to striking writers

Of course, with all the chanting there was barely time to eat. My personal favorite — “We write. You wrong.”— was penned on our line by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Dan Futterman. In between all the chanting and munching, wary screenwriters got to know each other. It was easy to make conversation: instead of “how are you?” our greeting was “so what do you write?” The answer was simple: “film” or “television.” If two writers hit it off they might talk about credits, actors or producers they both knew, agents. More often than not, people talked about preschool — where their kids went, when they applied, what types of snacks the schools served. There were always a few writer couples – some picketed together, some apart. People brought their dogs. Some new friendships were made — some new couples were made — but mostly the line became our own kind of town hall meeting for writers to talk about writing and striking.

Strike Dog

No animals were harmed in the walking of this picket line

To support my guild, I signed up to become a Contract Captain — a person who helps to organize and communicate with the ranks of writers. In charge of a group of feature writers living in the neighborhoods near my home, I had the task of informing a group of strangers that they were expected to wake up in the morning and show up every day at a scheduled time in order to walk around in circles for hours at a time. My team list arrived just a day before we started picketing. I spent hours making calls — most were wrong numbers. Of those who answered some had questions; some grumbled; some immediately agreed to come out to the line and see what it was all about; some decided to come only because they were intrigued by the idea of meeting other writers. Everyone was pleased to be picketing within walking distance of their home. On the line my team grew — I picked up writers who never got a captain, hadn’t heard from their captains, or who hadn’t heard enough. By the end I had an array of film and television writers on my “team,” some recalcitrant, some eager, most in between. We were loosely organized, with people taking shifts as they could around child care and other contingencies, most striving to fulfill their weekly guild obligation. The writers picketed the way they worked, changing location at whim. I would receive a couple of emails each morning – “I’m going to Paramount today,” or “I’m heading to Fox to see a friend.” Even with all of the comings and goings, across part-time writers and successful veterans, we were decidedly coming together, a conglomeration of personalities and ideas up against a unified corporate front.

While the picket lines became the public face of the strike, a great of deal of information-sharing went on in places both less and more visible. A couple of screenwriters, envious of the obvious connections amongst television writers, took it upon themselves to organize weekly drinks for feature writers. Organized by geography, all one had to do was show up at a bar and have the chance to rub elbows with the likes of James L. Brooks, Nancy Meyers or Mike White. Informal meetings at screenwriters’ homes were also organized so that writers could air their concerns directly to WGA board members. Here the discussions focused on strike tactics, rumors, how much money people were losing. When Larry Karaszewski learned that I had joined the guild just days before the strike, he let me know the same happened to him in 1988. Judging by his house, things turned out just fine. These gatherings served as outlets for the diversity of opinions held by a disparate constituency, all the while connecting writers who would normally have no contact with one another and consequently building a sense of community.

More official still were the captain’s meetings, where the guild’s negotiating team spoke directly of their progress. Even in this format, the tone and agenda was set as much by the writers as by the leadership or staff. One of the most telling moments came during a question and answer session in which we were asked to keep things short. A writer went on a rant instead. No one thought this tirade was an appropriate use of our time, but when he was summarily shut down, all anyone could talk about was how they should have showed him more courtesy and let him finish. The writers had a deep respect for individual voices, even if that meant damaging the projection of a united front.


“Not the Daily Show” presents “Winter of our Dissed Content”

The greatest variety of writers’ voices were heard on the Internet. The nature of the guild, and its thousands of writers, is that people will do what it takes to make their voices heard. Prominent writers appeared on NPR — both for and against the strike. John Wells disseminated emails detailing his thoughts. John August and Craig Mazin kept up-to-the minute blog discussions. United Hollywood (a collection of guild members) was formed to counter obvious falsities and biases of mainstream sources. Massive discussions were generated – betweens writers, fans, below-the-line crew, anyone with a keyboard. Mini-editorials, YouTube videos, alternative news pieces (most notably Nikke Finke’s insider Deadline Hollywood Daily blog) appeared. Unlike the AMPTP, which made its decisions behind closed doors and then paraded their sound bites through the very mainstream media they owned, the WGA membership clamored with a cacophony of voices across a variety of Internet sources. One-way communication was broken — no longer controlled by the media or the guild, but taken on by the membership.

No one was happy that we were on strike and most writers spent the majority of their time complaining, but if you talk to them now many will say that they kind of miss it. The strike may well have served the conglomerates’ purposes in giving them cover to cut costs and wrangle out of deals, but it served writers’ interests beyond any specific deal points. Months of walking, chatting, eating, and arguing brought us together, connecting people who are usually solitary. We weren’t necessarily calling the shots (most of us were simply walking in circles) but there was a sense it was our strike, and despite our differences we were all in it together.

Image Credits:
1. Some of Jennie and Daniel’s friends on strike in front of Prospect Studios
2. Jay Leno brings Krispy Kreme donuts to striking writers
3. No animals were harmed in the walking of this picket line

Please feel free to comment.

Deal of a “Lifetime”? A New Future for Project Runway
Alisa Perren / Georgia State University

Project Runwayon Bravo

Lifetime recently announced that it had acquired the rights to Project Runway and would begin airing new seasons in November 2008. Within hours of the announcement of this arrangement, NBC – the owner of Bravo, the cable network on which the program presently airs – filed suit for breach of contract against the program’s producer, The Weinstein Company. The transaction and subsequent lawsuit quickly provoked a wave of coverage on media-oriented blogs, fan sites, and popular magazines as well as in industry trade publications.

What might seem at first glance to be a rather mundane topic actually suggests a great deal about the continuing value of signature programs in branding television networks. Yet perhaps even more fascinating than the coverage of the event itself is the consistency with which a range of media outlets have reproduced similar attitudes toward gender, class and age in their coverage.

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Runway hosts Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum will follow the show to Lifetime

The contours of the conflict can be summed up as follows: Since its debut in 2004, Project Runway has become Bravo’s most successful program. Viewed by just 350,000 viewers when it premiered, the finale of the most recent season (its fourth) earned 3.8 million total viewers. ((350,000 figure from Anne Becker, “Bravo’s Project Runway to Lifetime Television; NBCU Sues,” Broadcasting & Cable at ; 3.8 million statistic from Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” Its ratings in the 18-49 demographic exceeded those of both ABC and CBS in the same hour. ((Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” The program helped Bravo shift its brand identity away from its “high culture” roots toward a certain type of reality programming and, in the process, gain a larger market share.

This Bravo brand of reality programming – which has grown to include such shows as Top Chef, Top Design, and The Real Housewives franchise – is often considered “young” and “hip.” The snarky tone, edutainment structure and upscale affiliations have helped Project Runway and many of its Bravo kin avoid the barbs directed by critics more broadly at the reality genre. As further evidence of the respect held for the program, Project Runway became the first reality series to earn a Peabody award. ((As per the Peabodys and touted on Bravo’s website, Project Runway “redeems the reality-contest genre, this face-off competition among upstart fashion designers demands, displays and ultimately rewards creativity that can’t be bluffed.” See (Notably, the announcement was made just days before the show’s move to Lifetime was announced.)

Project Runway’s attraction to what are perceived to be younger viewers with more disposable income proved attractive to a Lifetime network that for several years has been desperately trying to re-brand itself and thus attract more “desirable” advertisers. In spite of a number of recent changes to its schedule, including the recent additions of the drama Army Wives and the Carson Kressley-hosted self-improvement show How To Look Good Naked, Lifetime has been unable to shake its image as what one blogger describes as the “home for melodramatic made-for-tv movies for housewives.” ((

One of Lifetime’s biggest hits to date

A glance at some additional tongue-in-cheek comments made online about the Runway deal indicates the extent to which both bloggers as well as more “mainstream” journalists are hindering Lifetime’s rebranding efforts:

* “The ladies’ network is ecstatic to gain a program that is not about homicidal suburban moms out to sleep with their teenage cheerleader daughter’s boyfriend – who has an eating disorder.” ((

* “We’ve said the show needs a new format and all, but – Lifetime? We didn’t mean we wanted to “fem it up” with, like, a pink runway, or more Heidi Klum screen time or whatever other scary estrogen tampon stuff they’ve got in mind.” ((

On the run from NBC head Jeff Zucker?

* “Lifetime has fashioned itself as the ‘network for women’ for years. The ‘women in peril’ movies and ‘Golden Girls’ reruns have fans wondering if the contestants’ first project will be to design a new wardrobe for Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia. Or there’s the fear that the judges will now be Meredith Baxter, Melissa Gilbert and Judith Light.” ((

As one writer noted, the reasons the Weinsteins made the deal with Lifetime are quite easy to discern: “money and ego.” ((From The Weinstein Company, well-known in the independent film world for strong-arming its competitors, now has used similar tactics in TV-land. No surprise there. The deal with Bravo, valued at approximately $150 million, includes five seasons of Runway, as well as a package of the company’s theatrical films and two new reality shows (including a spinoff called Models of the Runway). ((The nuances of the conflict are beyond the scope of what I can get into here. For more on the nature of the conflict, and the positions taken by the various parties, see Also see Robert Marich, “Upfront & Center: Lifetime Sets Project Runway Companions,” Broadcasting & Cable at

Harvey Weinstein, drawing ire

While the motivations of The Weinstein Company and Lifetime are easy to figure out, what is more difficult to understand – or, at least, swallow – is the negativity directed by many fans and journalists toward both the cable network and the show itself. As the comments above indicate, Lifetime’s image is linked with stereotypical and sexist visions of “frumpy,” middle-aged Middle American housewives. ((Frumpy label from Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” While it may be the highest rated channel among women, those women are largely perceived to be both different from – and less valuable from a cable network and advertisers’ perspective – than the women who watch Bravo.

Two troubling issues emerge out of this scenario. First, Lifetime’s acquisition of Project Runway indicates the degree to which the same types of programming are being cultivated across a growing number of broadcast and cable networks (e.g., WE, Oxygen, MTV, and increasingly, the ABC and TNT). This despite the rhetoric about “500 channels of choices” in the universe of digital cable and despite the fact that this highly desired demographic continues to migrate to the Internet and away from television’s linear program schedule.

Second, the hostility evidenced by the caustic comments noted above regarding this deal indicates the extent to which certain viewers are not merely caricatured and dismissed by executives or programmers, but also by critics, bloggers and even the fans themselves. Watching Bravo – and not Lifetime – is clearly bound to issues of self definition and cultural value. Parodying or attacking Runway’s move not only becomes a means of defining one’s taste (or lack thereof), it may also serve to reinforce certain values based on gender, class and age.

What remains to be seen is whether these initial responses have any substantive impact on viewing practices of Runway if and when it makes its move. Should the show continue to attract high ratings on Lifetime with the same demographics it presently obtains on Bravo, we can conclude that either the network has been able to reinvent itself or that some viewers have been able to overcome their negative predispositions. In addition, if the show does succeed, Lifetime will have reinforced the continuing importance of “flagship” shows in promoting both a television schedule and a network identity. ((Of course, in this day and age, the goal is to use the franchise to lead viewers not only to other shows on their television set but also to the Lifetime online universe.)) These are not insignificant points in an age when it is assumed that viewers follow shows, not networks.

Image Credits

1. Project Runway on Bravo

2. Runway hosts Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum

3. Army Wives

4. Project Runway on the run from NBC

5. Darth Weinstein

Please feel free to comment.

Modern Marvels: Celebrating How It Works
Janet Wasko and Carlos Calderon / University Of Oregon

Modern Marvels

Modern Marvels

“Celebrating ingenuity, invention and imagination brought to life on a grand scale, MODERN MARVELS tells the fascinating stories of the doers, dreamers and sometime-schemers who created everyday items, technological breakthroughs and man-made wonders.” ((

Documentaries were pretty much an afterthought in the 1950s and ’60s when ABC, CBS and NBC dominated commercial television in the U.S. and sitcoms, westerns, variety shows, an occasional drama, and quiz shows pretty much dominated prime time television.

As a result, documentaries were few and far between, and were often relegated to weekends. Two series stand out, however. Victory at Sea was a documentary about naval warfare in World War II, highlighting the U.S. Navy in a 26-episode series which had a then-unheard of budget of $500,000. The series first aired on Oct. 26, 1952, and ended May 3, 1953, featuring the music of Richard Rodgers.

The Twentieth Century was a weekly documentary, which aired on late Sunday afternoons, and showcased a host with a deep and compelling voice by the name of Walter Cronkite. The weekly show opened with a V-2 rocket blasting off from White Sands Missile Range and shooting into the stratosphere and it featured important events, many of them battles from World War II. It was the flagship of television documentaries and catapulted Cronkite into the country’s most trusted television news person.

But as the American television market has become increasingly fragmented with the advent of cable and satellite television, a number of channels and networks now specialize in documentaries that often appeal to viewers tired of mindless sitcoms and mind-numbing reality shows.

Modern Marvels, which airs several times a week on the History Channel, is an on-going documentary series that offers in-depth explorations how things work, exploring technological and engineering wonders, as well as how a wide array of products and services are produced. One description of the series notes that the focus is on “historical technology.”

Modern Marvels Historical Technology

Modern Marvels Historical Technology

Modern Marvels appears on the History Channel, which is one of the A&E Television Networks (AETN). AETN is a joint venture of The Hearst Corporation, ABC, Inc. and NBC Universal. The company is involved in television programming, home videos/DVDs and music CDs, and Web sites.

AETN includes A&E Network, The History Channel, History International, The Biography Channel, The History Channel en español, Military History Channel, Crime & Investigation Network, A&E HD, AETN International, and AETN Consumer Products.

The History Channel

The History Channel

The Modern Marvels series debuted on January 1, 1995, and has produced more than 450 episodes since then. Thus, the range of topics that has been covered is immense. An overview from reads: “The series has focused on the wonders of construction (Erie Canal, the Pentagon, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Big Dig), the machinery of war (nuclear submarines, tanks) as well as technology linked to the everyday (power tools, home tech, garbage).” Past programs have explored various forms of transportation, technological and architectural wonders, as well as engineering disasters. Forthcoming episodes focus on corn, magnets, farming technology, and the Pacific Coast Highway. Other recent shows have explored bread and rats, as well as bathroom technology, and deep freezing. One of the taglines reported for the series is: “If it changes your life, chances are it’s a Modern Marvel!”

Based on the number of episodes produced, the series obviously has been successful. Average total viewers in prime time are reported to be 1.2 million this year, up 28% from 2007. ((Jon Lafayette. 2008. “Altering History to Woo Ad Partners: Cable Channel Re-Edits ‘Marvels’ With Cisco Content,” As one viewer explained on a fan website: the show is “oddly addictive.” ((

From the success of Modern Marvels, the History Channel has developed an entire genre of “how it works programs,” including Where Did It Come From?, Wild West Tech, and Tactical to Practical (military solutions turned into everyday products). Meanwhile, The Discovery Channel offers Really Big Things and the Science Channel has How It’s Made and Cool Stuff: How It Works.

An example of the “how it works” phenomenon in another medium is the website, HowStuffWorks, which has recently become a part of Discovery Communications. The site is described as, “…the award-winning source of credible, unbiased, and easy-to-understand explanations of how the world actually works.” (( HowStuffWorks is reported to have become the focal point of Discovery’s digital activities, as the company plans to create “a fully multimedia version of an encyclopedia, with content and video that will answer virtually any question an Internet user might have.” A HowStuffWorks program on the Discovery Channel is currently in preparation.

One of the positive features of these “how it works” documentaries and sites is the demystification of industrial and commercial processes. In other words, viewers are introduced to what is actually involved in the production and distribution of everyday products and services. The resources involved – including labor – in the production of commodities become more transparent, emphasizing the point that consumer products don’t just “fall from the sky” or appear magically on super market shelves.

While Modern Marvels does a generally good job of presenting an historical background for most of the topics explored, the show walks a fine line in its relationship to the producers of the various products and services explored in some of the programs. Of course, the Modern Marvels producers rely on these sources for content and footage for the programs and such access might become problematic if an overtly critical tone is adopted.

However, the program sometimes finds itself blatantly crossing the line. A recent example is the addition of new segments in several existing shows to feature Cisco Field, the new home of the Oakland Athletics. Cisco Systems is one of the program’s on-going sponsors. As one television commentator noted: “History’s adding new segments to an existing show for a sponsor is a new wrinkle in the trend of marketers looking for ways to embed their messages into programming.” ((Lafayette)) The deal also included a three-minute mini-documentary (“advertorial”) about Cisco Field produced by the cable network that appears during the programs, as well as on

Cisco Field

Cisco Field

In addition, the show seldom provides any kind of critique of the corporations involved or any of the dubious processes that are involved in producing and distributing some of our “modern marvels.” An example: several shows on snack foods avoid any serious comments about the problem of overeating and obesity in the US these days. Perhaps not too surprisingly, overt critical commentary about environmental and other impacts of the featured marvelous creations of mankind is often missing from these programs, as well.

Despite the lack of critical commentary and the obvious ties with corporate America, many of Modern Marvels episodes still may prompt viewers to think about how modern societies are organized and maintained. And even though we risk the scorn of avid American Idol and Survivor fans, Modern Marvels seems far less annoying and even somehow more “entertaining” than much of the other drivel that American television currently offers.

Image Credits

1. Modern Marvels

2. Modern Marvels Transcontinental Railroad

3. Modern Marvels Sugar

4. Cisco Field

Please feel free to comment.

The Weigh-in as National Money Shot
Jennifer Fremlin / Huntingdon College

The Biggest Loser

Are weight-loss programs the new pornography?

Recently, television has experienced a rapid proliferation of reality shows focused on weight loss and/or bodily transformation, as exemplified by NBC’s The Biggest Loser. The shows’ promise to their participants seems to be that through cutthroat competition and national exhibitionism, they will lose weight, win prizes, gain status–and in the case of celebrities, make it off the “D-list”–and live happily ever after. But what do these shows promise to the viewer? What pleasure do we get from the shameless display of televisual obese or ugly bodies? Why do I like to secretly watch others publicly confess their dissatisfaction with their bodies?

Linda Williams defines film pornography in her work Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” as the “visual (and sometimes aural) representation of living, moving bodies engaged in explicit, usually unfaked, sexual acts with a primary intent of arousing viewers.” ((Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley & Los Angeles: California UP, 1989, p. 30)) This allows the viewer to understand what feels pornographic about potential responses to shows like The Biggest Loser: the visual (and sometimes aural) representation of living, moving bodies engaged in explicit, usually unfaked, food acts, with a primary intent of arousing viewers. However, the arousal response is not sexual so much as it is one of shame. Pornography traffics in the arena of shame, of course, but the putative spectatorial pleasure is titillation and the refusal of shame. Responses can include positive affirmations such as “it makes me horny,” “I am not repressed,” “sex is not dirty,” or “I am not a prude.” The notion of “getting off” on watching other people publicly lose weight, however, is of a different nature.

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“Before” and “After” for Erik Chopin, season three winner on The Biggest Loser

To extend this somewhat attenuated analogy of the spectatorial pleasure of porn and weight-loss shows, consider the weigh-in to be the equivalent of the “money shot.” This moment on The Biggest Loser et al. consists of contestants stepping up onto scales akin to those used for weighing cows, and submitting themselves to being weighed on national television while wearing only a sports bra or tank top and cycling shorts. As the numbers spin and dip and leap around—200 pounds, 300 pounds, even 400–the contestant and audience watch and wait in suspense for it to end, land, or climax: will it be higher than last week’s? Will it be lower, and if so, how much lower? The number flashes, and the contestant (usually) expresses satisfaction, the host chimes in, teammates hoot, and the audience at home lets out a simultaneous yelp. Visibility of the public weigh-in becomes proof of spectatorial pleasure. As with porn, watching the weigh-in is an essentially private pleasure. Viewing at home, the spectator is constructed as voyeur. The pleasure in watching the small-screen image comes from simultaneous vicarious identification—“that could be me”—and relief that it is not. This therefore accords the spectator power over the contestant’s masochistic display. What’s the shame in that?

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank have written provocatively about shame as an affect, taking as their starting point a reading of the work by American psychologist Silvan Tomkins. They write that for Tomkins, shame is a basic affect, that “the pulsations of cathexis around shame . . . are what enable or disenable” one’s “ability to be interested in the world.” ((Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21 Winter 1995: p. 500)) Shame is the affect that most defines the space wherein a sense of self will develop. In Sedgwick and Frank’s formulation, “without positive affect, there can be no shame; only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush. …[The shame affect] produces bodily knowledge…. Shame, as precarious hyper-reflexivity of the surface of the body can turn one inside out, or outside in.” ((Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21 Winter 1995: p. 501)) If this is true, if in fact watching Celebrity Fit Club and The Biggest Loser makes me ashamed, and not just in the “I’m too smart/I know better” way but at a physiological, stomach-turning, torso-squirming inside-outness close-my-eyes-I can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this way, even when no one is watching me watch this and need never know, I must therefore also be experiencing a positive affect: this turns me on.

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The cast of Celebrity Fit Club

It is tempting to watch these shows ironically, analytically, academically, for the ways that they reproduce economies of the visible, confirming the sight of the body as the site of the body being transformed and culturally written under late-capitalism. One can also view them as sites of intensive discursive and medicalized work, literally effacing people off the planet–the host often exclaims when a contestant has lost 150 or more pounds, “you’ve lost a whole person!” The televisual gaze is indeed punishing and surveilling self-selected Americans from every state who–according to The Biggest Loser’s application form–are “OUTGOING, CHARISMATIC AND CANDID individuals with PERSONALITY who have the WANT, DESIRE and COMPETITIVE EDGE to vie for this all expense paid chance of a lifetime.”

The application form is a fruitful text ripe for analysis. There is much to be made of this rhetoric, not the least of which is the national stake in representing overweight Americans in a way that rewrites them as extroverted competitors playing for prizes and money. Irony abounds in a show whose premise is that Americans are growing unhealthily fatter, the proffered solution to which is individual effort and self-display along with quality time from personal trainers. No mention is made of efforts in national health care, healthier food choices for lower-income populations, or promotion of exercise in a way that is not couched in the language of immorality, gluttony, or sloth. It is important to remember that The Biggest Loser is uniquely American. Unlike Big Brother and Celebrity Fit Club, for example, which began abroad and then emigrated to the U.S., The Biggest Loser is an American contribution, although according to its website it has now been packaged into an international television format.

The application form further constructs potential Biggest Loser participants in terms of performativity and shame. The paperwork asks would-be “contestants” (never referred to as “patients” or “dieters”) to answer questions such as “Have you ever acted, performed, or appeared on television or film?” and “What other reality/game tv shows have you applied to or been on?” The dieter is constituted here as performer, and his or her ability to lose weight as a performative identity. Further down, the form asks, “What do you think would be the best thing about being thin?” “What’s the hardest thing about being overweight?” “Describe your most embarrassing moment or experience?” One wonders what possible use the producers might have for the answers to these questions. I imagine the answers are similar to those voiced by the recently-thinner Americans featured each January in People magazine’s post-New Year’s issues designed to inspire weight loss. Would-be contestants likely confess to such shame-producing spectacles as “I couldn’t fit into a regulation-sized seat,” “I split the seams of my clothing,” or “I couldn’t chase after my child.” For our squirming viewing pleasure, we would be offered painful reenactments of such moments.

Ultimately, I find that I do not enjoy these shows, or the segments of these shows that focus so heavily on the shame of the contestants. The wonders of DVR allow the viewer to fast forward not only through commercials, but through the boring personal tales; stultifying televised sequences of other people exercising, bickering, being chastised by or chastising others; and the temptation sequences. Usually, I fast-forward right to the money shot: the weigh-in. This is all I really care about: the thrill is in seeing the “before” body imaged next to the weekly more-slender “after.”

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The climax of another episode of The Biggest Loser

While I lack statistics to back this up, many people–mostly women–weigh themselves every day, sometimes more than once. At the Y where I exercise, women stand on the scales in such a way that no one else can see their verdict. There is a scale in the coed weight room but I mostly see men use it; when women do, they often slide the weight away before they leave so the next person doesn’t see their weight. These are people who stand naked or nearly so in front of strangers in the locker room. Why are they so secretive about their weight? This everyday protectiveness and covering up is part of the mechanism that makes the public weigh-in on national TV or in print magazines so provocative: the live “performers” are willing to do in public what is usually reserved for private spaces. Best of all, they let us watch. They publicly confess what we keep behind closed doors or under layers of clothing. They put their shame on display: at being fat, their exerted bodies wheeze and squeeze into spandex workout clothes meant for svelter shapes. Their exhibition becomes a cover for our own shame as viewers who, by participating in their humiliation, in turn abject ourselves.

Image Credits:
1. Screenshot provided by author
2. “Before” and “After” for Erik Chopin, season three winner on The Biggest Loser
3. The cast of Celebrity Fit Club
4. The climax of another episode of The Biggest Loser

TV Cooking Shows: The Evolution of a Genre

Kathleen Collins / John Jay College, CUNY

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Classic examples of the Early Period of television cooking programs

Television cooking shows are as old as the medium itself. How is it that the genre has withstood the sharp elbows of airwave competition for over sixty years, especially given their former association with dull, prescriptive women’s programming? Despite the inherent artificiality and non-biological character of the particular entity of television cooking shows, the answer to their continued existence lies in the laws of nature. One can periodize televised cooking shows as falling into the Early (1946-1962), Middle (1963-1992), or Modern (1993-present) eras. What follows are some of the major tenets of the biological theory of evolution applied to the genre of TV cooking programs from the Early Period to the present. ((For the sake of convenience, I have used as my source the main
Wikipedia entry on evolution.))

In the Early Period of television broadcasting, the landscape was rapidly populated with locally produced homemaking shows hosted by prim home economists and righteous nutritionists. These shows exhibited traits inherited practically wholesale from their radio progenitors. In the Modern Period, however, reproduction has become a central concept of television programming.

For example, Ruth Lockwood, the producer of the groundbreaking “The French Chef” subsequently created “Joyce Chen Cooks” whose host was the first of many to be dubbed “the [ethnicity/nationality] Julia Child.” Chen, “the Chinese Julia Child,” even used the same set as her predecessor. A Modern Period example looks at “Food 911,” wherein beefcake chef Tyler Florence visited helpless damsels in their suburban homes when they were unable to figure out how to make pot roast before husband got home. Nearly a decade later – with no extinction of “Food 911” in sight – chef Danny Boome hosts “Rescue Chef” wherein the hottie chef is prevailed upon to visit home cooks and help them avoid cruel casserole criticism from their predatory families. Other examples include the interbreeding of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin resulting in “Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home”; “Iron Chef” spawning “Iron Chef America”; and the multiple gene expressions of celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Nigella Lawson, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, and the most fecund of all, Rachael Ray.

Julia Child

Julia Child, paradigmatic television cook of the Middle Period

In the Early Period, individual members of the species were virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye (see first image). Throughout the period, however, mass consumption of processed foods and the exposure to harmful chemicals caused mutations in some pockets of the population. “Can Opener Queen” Poppy Cannon appeared on various television shows touting the wonders of using canned cream soups as the base for almost any dish. The Modern Period sees her direct descendant in “Semi-Homemade Cooking” host Sandra Lee.

Most Early Period programs died out because their producers were not yet aware of the importance of personality and “entertainment values.” As television producers and audiences became more savvy and choosy, only the fittest (watchable) survived. The theory of natural selection holds that organisms produce more offspring than can survive. This is illustrated not only by the number of cooking shows that come and go overall in the Modern Period but also on a micro level. Rapid reproduction of competition-style cooking shows is centered on the very notion of survival of the fittest. Those with harmful (e.g. “bitchy” or “cry-baby”) traits are eliminated one by excruciating one. While many of the contestants are competing for a post to run a restaurant, others are hoping to host their own cooking show. Because the Food Network ecosystem could not possibly support them all, the producers cleverly arranged for a controlled natural selection contest in “The Next Food Network Star.”

In accordance with “entertainment values,” producers in the Middle and Modern Periods introduced auspicious changes: “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr pioneered the in-studio audience. Justin Wilson (“the Cajun Julia Child”) possessed a highly imitable accent. Sara Moulton offered a call-in feature. Emeril Lagasse boasted an in-studio band and an exclamatory catch phrase (“bam!”). “The Two Fat Ladies'” motorcycle with sidecar, Martha Stewart’s enviable kitchen and Giada Delaurentiis’ mesmerizing decolletage all proved favorable for the genre’s virility.

Giada de Laurentiis

Giada de Laurentiis exemplifies the virility of the Modern Period

In the Early and Middle periods, cooking shows were essentially recipe instruction shows. The Modern Period saw the emergence of a new species: the out-of-studio food show. Chef-author Anthony Bourdain’s adventure-travel show “Cook’s Tour” started on the Food Network. But over time, Bourdain drifted too far off the continent for the likes of the Network brass who felt that their constituents weren’t so good at using maps. He eventually migrated to the Travel Channel where he was free to roam Asia and Africa in search of spiky and malodorous edibles. A couple of years after Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” Andrew Zimmern emerged with “Bizarre Foods” which likewise involved consuming things like jiggling brains in far-flung places. The two hosts live in harmony on their new island and occasionally appear together enjoying semi-deadly foods.


Anthony Bourdain dines on fetal duck egg in Vietnam

Without being schooled on the history of the genre, the average person could be excused for assuming that Julia Child was the common ancestor of the modern species. However, the first member of the species was James Beard who extolled the gastronomic pleasures of food in “Elsie Presents James Beard in ‘I Love to Eat!” The following year, Dione Lucas appeared, fixing to teach fancy French cooking to housewives. The inhospitable mindset of the Early Period – food is sustenance and cooking is a chore — did not allow Beard and Lucas to thrive. In 2005, researchers discovered that hidden genetic information unexpectedly reappears in later generations. ((Lolle, Susan J. et al. “Genome-wide non-mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis.” Nature. 434.7032. 2005: 505-509.)) A National Science Foundation press release stated, “Lolle and Pruitt postulate that the “lost” genetic information securely resides outside the standard genome and is only retrieved under particular circumstances when it may be beneficial to restore genomic sequences back to an ancestral state.” ((National Science Foundation Press Release, March 23, 2005, “Reappearance of Missing Genetic Information Poses Exception to the Rule.”)) This may explain why in the Middle Period, the Beard/Lucas gene reappeared, expressed in Julia Child, Graham Kerr and a host of offspring. Two advantageous conditions were at last present: the widespread adoption of television values and interest in food as cultural capital and a form of self-expression. As Frank Bruni wrote of Bravo’s competition cooking show, “Top Chef,” “Its narrative arc and razzmatazz editing may take it a long way from Julia Child’s ‘The French Chef’ and the beginnings of food television, but it’s a recognizable member of the same family.” ((Bruni, Frank. “Cooking Under Pressure, That’s Reality.” New York
31 Jan. 2007: F1)) Bruni clearly grasps the scientific underpinnings at work in this genre.

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Even though Early Period host is not exhibiting erect posture of Modern Period host, this attribute should not be overdetermined.

Image Credits:
1. Cooking with Experts, Kaufman, William Irving. New York: Random House, 1955.
2. Julia Child, paradigmatic television cook of the Middle Period
3. Giada de Laurentiis exemplifies the virility of the Modern Period
4. Author’s Own Collection; Even though Early Period host is not exhibiting erect posture of Modern Period host, this attribute should not be overdetermined.

Adapting to DVRing: Narrative Franchises and Advertising

Rochelle Rodrigo / Mesa Community College

Adapting to DVRing: Narratives and Franchising

A terminator robot gears up to battle the FoxBot.

Setting: Super Bowl Sunday

Since this year’s Super Bowl was in my home state, Arizona, I refused to leave the house. My partner, however, was not going to be denied the pleasure of watching the game. Because we now tend to DVR (digital video record) almost all TV that we watch, it was a rare thing that we were actually watching the game as it was broadcast. Like at most Super Bowl parties, some people watched the game (my partner) and others watched the commercials. I only looked up from my laptop if I heard something interesting during the commercials.

I am a science fiction fan, and personally I was more interested in what was happening on the new television show Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles than who was playing in the Super Bowl. I was happily surprised that I had the opportunity to get my Terminator fix during the Super Bowl intros where one of the unskinned Terminator androids battles the NFL FoxBot, a robot mascot adobpted by Fox to promote their NFL programming. Early during the football season I had commented on how I didn’t like the “toyness” of the NFL FoxBot, which so clearly resonated with the aesthetics of the Transformers robots from the summer before. I was so excited when the terminator android threw the NFL FoxBot around the screen that I cheered!


Terminator vs. the NFL FoxBot

Setting: Some weeknight at the end of February 2008

My partner and I finally got around to watching the DVRed two-hour television kick-off of a new Knight Rider series. Since I was actually taking a break and not working on the laptop at the same time, I controlled the remote during our viewing session. My partner started getting extremely agitated after the second time I stopped fast forwarding mid-commercial sequence in order to rewind and play one of the Ford commercials “starring” Justin Bruening and the Ford mustang who were both playing their characters from the movie’s narrative.


Mike and KITT, a love story. (You may want to fast forward through the first minute and a half to skip the regular ford commercial and the opening sequence for Knight Rider.)

Specific narratives branching out into a variety of modalities is nothing new; in fact, they do it in a number of ways. ((Lauer, Jean Anne, and Shelley Rodrigo. “Resident Franchise: Theorizing the SF Genre, Conglomerations, and the Future of Synergy.” Playing the Universe: Games and Gaming in Science Fiction. Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Sklodowskeij, 2007.

)) In the 1980s, George Lucas demonstrated the profitability of “continuing” the story across different media (films, books, action figures, video games, …); you see the Star Wars franchise everywhere now. For example, get in on the action in the Star Wars universe–to Las Vegas and play a slot machine.

Industries using narrative franchises to help advertise products is not new either. Product placement is big business in itself. Let’s admit it, McDonald’s’ marketing ploys aimed at small children are based on a child’s desire to continue a specific narrative’s storyline after eating his or her happy meal.


And in this instance, the narrative sprawl emerges from video games, not film or television.

Narrative franchises merging together in no longer new either.

 When you are talking the third, fifth, eighth, and eleventh numbered film in a series, you’re talking guaranteed audience attendance!

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That’s 4 Alien movies, 2 Predator movies, and 2 Alien vs. Predator movies for a grand total of 8 films in this merged series.

All three of these methods of narrative franchise sprawl have a common goal: to help advertise the consumption of the narrative, some other product, or both. I think, however, with the Terminator vs. FoxBot and Night Rider Mustang spots we are seeing something a little different. Obviously in both cases the commercial spots attempt to promote either one or both products; however, these commercials spots also try to keep viewers from fast-forwarding through their DVRed material. These commercials do not have the “trapped” audiences of pre-DVR broadcast television or online streaming re-cast “television.” Instead, these commercial spots have to persuade the viewer that if you don’t watch the commercial, you might miss something.

The Super Bowl spots with the Terminator and the FoxBot are a simplistic form of this type of advertising. Beyond seeing which android will win, there is no narrative motivation to continue watching the spot. In other words, if I never saw those commercials, I would not miss anything from the larger narrative of the actual television series. On the other hand, the Mike and KITT Ford commercials do include material that is critical to the larger Night Rider narrative. In the commercial series we quickly find out that Mike will not be able to have a love life with anyone who does not know about, and tolerate, KITT. This is critical to the larger narrative since throughout the movie, there is tension between Mike and Sarah (Deanna Russo), his childhood friend and former girlfriend, who just happens to be the only person at the end of the film who can work on KITT’s artificial intelligence system. Sarah is a woman that Mike might be able to date because she does know KITT.

With an already well-developed industry for placing products into media narratives, will we now see an emergence of broadcast commercials that expand narrative franchises within the advertisement’s storyline? Will we see a growing number of ads that contain knowledge critical to understanding key components of the narrative franchise’s overall plot? Will we see more technological advancements that allow us to continue editing out non-narrative-dependent materials? Or, will it become all narrative, all the time?

Image Credits

1. The Terminator robot gears up to battle the FoxBot.

2. That’s 4 Alien movies, 2 Predator movies, and 2 Alien vs. Predator movies for a grand total of 8 films in this merged series.

Please feel free to comment.

Of Pirates, Pacifiers and Protectionism
Ellen Seiter / University of Southern California

Captain Sabertooth: not exactly Disney’s Jack Sparrow

Captain Sabertooth wants your loot. Your most precious loot. But don’t be scared. Because if you join his pirate team, he promises to take your loot, and store in his specially guarded room where it will be safe, forever. The loot he wants to keep for you is your pacifier, and his special room is Pacifier Heaven at Kristiansand Zoo in Norway. ((The link between orality and television viewing as symbolized by Captain Sabertooth’s connection to Pacifiers reminds me of the underdeveloped strand of orality in TV theory, first premised by the late Beverle Houston in the 1980s. See Beverle Houston, “Viewing Television:The Metapsychology of Endless Consumption,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 9, 3 (Summer 1984): 183-195)). I became acquainted with Captain Sabertooth (Kaptain Sabeltann, in Norwegian) through the research Ingunn Hagen and Oivind Nakken of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). ((See Ingunn Hagen and Oivind Nakken, “Creating Long-lasting Brand Loyalty or a Passing ‘Craze’? Lessons to be Learnt from a ‘Child Classic’ in Norway” Child and Teen Consumption Conference, Trondheim, Norway, 2008; Oivind Nakken “Captain Sabertooth– Adventurous Brand Loyalty,” MA Thesis, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2007.)) The study of Captain Sabertooth was developed at the Norwegian Centre for Child Research, a research that has produced very thoughtful work about the relationship of the modern child to consumerism and hosted the Child and Teen Consumption conference last month in Trondheim, Norway.

The Captain Sabertooth DVD repackaged to reach an audience beyond Norway

Captain Sabertooth is a rare national franchise staying afloat in the tidal wave of Disney and Nickelodeon global kids’ culture. Kids can either watch him on Norwegian television in cartoon form, on DVD, or see his live stage musical performances at summer shows at Kristiansand, a zoo and theme park in southern Norway. But if you want to see him live, you’d better take a nap, because the shows don’t start until late evening. Devised and performed by Terje Formoe, who worked at Kristiansand, the character Captain Sabertooth was created to attract more children to the park. A deal with Disney for its licensed characters to make appearances at the zoo led to the creation of a homegrown character, who could be a live presence at the zoo and perform live shows. Thirty years later Captain Sabertooth exists as a rare success story of a brand that has survived despite being restricted to one nation of less than five million people.

In the world of global consumer children’s culture, Norway is one of the last holdouts. In the country it is still against the law to advertise to children. Public television produces programs that do no have any licensed merchandise to accompany them. It is one of the last vestiges of the progressive social welfare state, where the safety net remains in place for children and their families.

The changing political economy of children’s television

Global children’s media culture has spread and grown dramatically since I published my book Sold Separately in 1993. In that book, I criticized media education efforts of the 1980s and 1990s in their underestimation of children’s ability to comprehend television programs and the selling intent of commercials. My professional academic opinion was the type of research that could undermine the type of policy that Norway has clung to in the interests of protecting children. I feel uneasy recalling that in the years when audience researchers were focusing on close readings of the texts and audience resistance and agency, the structure of media corporations underwent massive deregulation, conglomeration and shifts in power. In the narrow focus on the viewer’s agency that typified cultural studies work at that time, larger issues of political economy were ignored. Incorporating a greater awareness of the political economic structure of media industries and the spread of US marketing techniques globally seems an important requirement of work on children’s television. Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book Kids Rule! is a good example of academia that accomplishes this mixture of analyzing the pleasures and the politics of children’s TV.

With the success of Pirates of the Caribbean will kids embrace another pirate figure?

The old fashioned policy of forbidding advertising to children that Norway pursued (even as European public broadcasting was dismantled in the 1990s) succeeded in preserving a space in Norway, however small, for national media production and publicly funded television. Norwegian parents and grandparents, out of a mixture of nostalgia and prosperity, have done their part to continue the Pacifier Heaven tradition with Sabertooth toy purchases, DVD sales and ticket purchases at Kristiansand.

So three cheers to Captain Sabertooth and his canny combination of synergy, live performance and television, and appeal to a nationalist Norwegian culture, with its own ideas about childhood culture. ((For an analysis of childhood culture in Norway see the work of Anne Trine Kjorholt and Ragnhild Brusdal.)) There is some talk of taking Captain Sabertooth transnational–branching out from Norway to other European countries. The multi-language website is indicative of such ambition. The animated DVD is available from Amazon in a 2003 English language version. I suspect some would accuse him of violation based on Pirates of the Caribbean, despite the fact that pirates should be considered a public domain concept and that, in his white fact clown make up, he bears no resemblance to Johnny Depp.

Dora the Explorer

Can Captain Sabertooth compete with Dora the Explorer and other “megabrands”?

When I walked into a toy store at the local mall in Trondheim, Norway, Captain Sabertooth was hard to find—and it wasn’t just a problem with my lack of Norwegian. The toys were at the last row of the store, at the end of an aisle, facing the back wall. There you could buy figurines or the Sabertooth ship at the fantastically high prices that make Norway absurdly expensive for all but those who live there. Front and center in the store greeting shoppers is Pirates of the Caribbean. Figurines, toys, costumes and video games. Equally prominent are all the usual megabrands: Bratz, Dora the Explorer, and Bob the Builder. I had to ask the clerk to find a Captain Sabertooth DVD for me. The target audience for Captain Sabertooth is boys 2-8. Now they graduate from the local brand to the Disney brand, and can extend their pirate fascination while progressing to a global franchise.

And somehow, that makes me sadder than a two-year-old surrendering his pacifier.

Image Credits:

1. Captain Sabertooth: not exactly Disney’s Jack Sparrow.

2. The Captain Sabertooth DVD repackaged to reach an audience beyond Norway.

3. The changing political economy of children’s television.

4. With the success of Pirates of the Caribbean will kids embrace another pirate figure?.

5. Can Captain Sabertooth compete with Dora the Explorer and other “megabrands”?

Please feel free to comment.

More than Meets the Ear: Dubbing and Accents on TV

Karen Lury / University of Glasgow


Dr. Who and Donna

In a recent episode from the new series of Dr. Who, the Doctor’s new companion, Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate) assumed that since she could understand everything – from conversation to street signs – this meant that the Doctor had not taken her to ancient Rome as promised. (She thought it must be a film set – which it was, since this episode borrowed the set from the HBO/BBC television series, Rome). Regular viewers of Dr. Who will know that proximity to the TARDIS allows it to act as a universal translator for its travellers. Once Donna became aware of this TARDIS facility, a running gag then ensued so that first she, and then the Doctor deliberately used common Latin terms (‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, ‘Status Quo’, ‘Caveat Emptor’) to find out what the Romans (actually it turns out they are in Pompeii) would hear instead. It emerges that by speaking Latin they sound Celtic, or as the Doctor pointed out, Welsh. As the most recent series of Dr. Who is shot in Cardiff and produced by BBC Wales this was yet another in-joke.

Few television markets supply their needs completely with locally-originated material. Factual programmes are frequently shot in other countries. In the absence of a TARDIS this requires broadcasters to somehow translate. The TARDIS does so perfectly and seamlessly, yet in the real world broadcasters must negotiate the compromises of dubbing or subtitles. Sometimes this means that things get lost in translation and occasionally, something is added. The choice between dubbing and subtitling often lies in convention and tradition: in the UK dubbing is used where it can apparently go unnoticed (in animation) and sub-titles are used in more specialist genres (documentary, art-house drama series and films) where audiences are believed not to be ‘put off’ by the difficulty of reading subtitles and want to be assured that the performance (of character or of self) is as ‘authentic’ as possible. In the British context there is therefore often an implied assumption – related to class and taste – about what kind of translation particular audiences will prefer.


Dr. Who and the TARDIS

But why is dubbing seen by UK audiences as easier to understand but problematic in relation to authenticity? There are two common forms of dubbing practice: one which provides a guide voice over and some dialogue translation (usually voiced by one performer), and another which uses voice-over artists to perform individual roles. In relation to the former kind of dubbing, it may be that the authenticity of the original programme is lost when there is something more akin to a transformation rather than a translation. This is not always a bad thing however: the much loved puppet animation series The Magic Roundabout was originally a French children’s programme but was famously given an eccentric, surrealist twist and a wider audience when it was screened on British television through its dubbed ‘translation’ (in effect its complete narrative transformation) by the actor Eric Thompson. Yet, more recently, anime fans have frequently lamented the way in which anime programmes translated for the Anglo-American market (sometimes involving the re-dubbing of music, voices and narration) distort the original programmes’ content and symbolism.

The more common practice is to dub voices only: recently, BBC news has taken to dubbing foreign language vox pops with voices that originate from within a particular British region or class, with the intention of giving more ‘life’ to these interviews that were traditionally dubbed in more neutral tones. (Alternatively, it may be trying to reflect the linguistic diversity of other countries aside from the UK by making regional accents – Cockney or Parisian – apparently equivalent to one another). What it demonstrates instead is how loaded with intended and unintended meaning accent remains – how accent continues to tell so clearly of our own prejudices and received assumptions about places and people. In certain instances, this vocal colouring just seems ‘funny’ (uncanny and hilarious) but it is also disruptive, even exploitative – while I know that the voice is being performed, I also find it hard to work against assumptions I have about the validity of what is being said because of how it is being said. Perhaps because I am familiar with this practice from Channel 4’s now defunct ‘youth’ magazine programme Eurotrash (which delighted in dubbing a variety of pornographic and grotesque performers and practices from continental Europe for British viewers with a range of exaggerated regional British accents) it therefore feels wrong – ludicrous and perverse – to do this in a supposedly serious news context.


Vicky Pollard on Little Britain

What the practice and business of dubbing reveals is how class and power may apparently be ‘unspoken’ in the culture but is still heard loud and clear in the voices and language of its people. The fact that humour and, in particular, the quick fire sketch show would seem almost impossible to dub or translate makes this very clear. These shows demonstrate how parochial some aspects of national culture remain. Ironically, Catherine Tate’s previous success as a comedienne is perhaps not that well known outside the UK for this very reason. Her most famous character – a lippy, white, working class, British school girl, Lauren Cooper – had the catchphrase ‘bovverred’ (as in, ‘do you think that I am bothered about what you think of me?’) In addition, her and her friends’ language was spattered with their frequent adoptions of different kinds of street-slang more often associated with the Afro-Caribbean community (‘Al-riiiiight!’) How would this kind of linguistic play be ‘translated’? Similarly, another teenage ‘girl’, Vicky Pollard, played in drag by Matt Lucas from the sketch show Little Britain (a title that of course reflects on my main point here on the parochial nature of British television) would prove equally difficult. Vicky’s endless monologues, all of which begin ‘Yeah, but, no, but, yeah but’ are funny because of the seesaw between sound-sense and nonsense. As characters, Vicky and Lauren exploit the unspoken but understood prejudices in the UK determined by the sound of class, power and race: they may do so with ironic intent, yet they inevitably consolidate assumptions about voice and personhood and enforce stereotypical associations relating to the way in which accent and linguistic markers ‘tell’ on the speaker. How easy is it to translate these kinds of characters in a manner that emphasises irony rather than bigotry?

While skilled dub artists pride themselves on adding to a performance, to synching as much as possible with the lip movements and the on-screen performers’ gestures and inference, they must inevitably transform rather than simply translate performances such as these. Done well, this may not be a problem in relation to fictional characters. Yet, if it remains the case that our perception of authenticity and even personhood remains grounded – engrained – in the voice, dubbing real people will always be problematic. For instance, I know that I would feel differently if I couldn’t hear the sound of Barack Obama’s voice; if I could understand directly what Osama Bin Laden was saying; if I did not recognise the echo and constraint of tradition, class and exclusivity in the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. And if you could hear me now – I’m quite posh and English ‘actually’ – wouldn’t that make a difference to what I’m saying?


Catherine Tate meets Tony Blair

Without a TARDIS what is to be done? Interestingly, Flow itself with its Spanish language thread on Latin American programming indicates how a more diverse range of language cultures are increasingly being maintained and expanded via the convergence of television, computers and online communities. And subtitles, which might seem to provide one kind of answer, are perhaps now more commonly accepted on television than they once were – the television news image, for instance, is more full of text than ever before. The recent success of Heroes – which cheerfully used English subtitles dancing about the screen for its Japanese characters – probably worked so well because of the graphic sensitivity inherent to the programme’s visual aesthetic; but it also revealed that if done imaginatively subtitles might be bought in to the mainstream. And, as I am writing this column I am sitting in a café with a television that is transmitting 24 hour news but with the sound turned down; yet I can watch the running subtitles (in addition to the embedded text on screen) to find out what is going on. Unfortunately, this inadvertently reveals that subtitling has its own quirks: according to the weather forecast today it is likely to be very ‘Chile’ in South West England. Hmmm…‘Little Britain’ – not so little after all?

Image Credits:

1. Donna and the Doctor

2. Dr. Who and the TARDIS

Please feel free to comment.