Defining Virtual Words: An Emerging Medium Collides With Popular Culture

Cultural change is accelerating.

Really. I’m not kidding. Things are speeding up. We see it on the faces of our loved ones, in the rising stack of unanswered e-mails, text messages, and voice mails, and in the relentlessly scrolling RSS news feeds that tell us everything but answer nothing.

In slightly more than a century, humanity has progressed from the motion picture, telegraph, and radio to personal computers, cell phones, and the world-wide web. The speed of computer processors doubles every two years, and this exponential growth is transforming our species in ways we don’t fully understand.

Consider the unending emergence of technology-fueled subcultures. Ham radio. Jazz. Beat poets. Personal computing. Hip-hop. Punk. Computer networking. Zines. Indie rock. Raves. Flash mobs. Alternate reality games. Virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds

Virtual worlds

In all of these cultural movements, there is a familiar tendency. The sub-culture starts with a spark: an act of technical or creative genius that points the way to entirely new possibilities. As new minds become involved, they riff, modify, and extend the movement in new directions. During the early days, enthusiasm is contagious and sub-cultural participants are driven by a shared passion that seems unfathomable to outsiders. Eventually, as more people are drawn into the mix, motivations multiply. Some join the movement because they want to look cool, while others are primarily concerned with delivering new cultural inputs to the marketplace.Gradually at first, and then almost overnight, the subculture bursts from the fringes into popular awareness. In the process, the movement is folded back into the mainstream, changing both the virus and the host in the process. A few pioneers stumble into great fortune, cool hunters move on in search of the next big thing, and the subculture’s most passionate practitioners carry on much as they did before.Complaining about this phenomenon would make as much sense as being upset that the Earth rotates around the sun. In the fractal cultural patterns of the human species, sub-cultural absorption is as inevitable as the movement of the moon and the tides. It has happened before, it is happening now, and it will happen again.

Though it is inevitable, there is something fascinating about that transformative stage when ideas and technologies formerly relegated to the margins are folded back to the center. We are living through such an era right now, in late 2007. This is the moment when virtual worlds such as Second Life, There.Com, and China-based Hipihi are announcing their presence in homes and Internet cafes throughout the wired world.

During the month of October, on US television screens, the social virtual world Second Life functioned as a crucial plot point for Law and Order: SVU, CSI: New York, and The Office. One year ago, Second Life claimed fewer than eight hundred thousand residents and it was used in a few dozen classrooms around the country. Today, more than ten million people have downloaded the software to their personal computers, and the number of educational institutions investigating virtual worlds continues to skyrocket.

Second Life

Second Life

According to the industry group Virtual Worlds Management, more than one billion dollars were invested in the virtual world landscape in the past year. Seventy percent of this figure is accounted for by Walt Disney’s $700 million purchase of the kid-oriented Club Penguin, while the remaining $300 million funded close to three dozen software designers, content developers, and hardware manufacturers.Despite this flurry of creative, financial and cultural activity, there has been little attention to virtual worlds in scholarly publications such as Flow. This is likely to change in the coming months. In fact, the jargon currently associated with this nascent medium (e.g. metaverse, virtual currency, avatars) may soon seem as dated as the cyber-, e-, and i- prefixes of the late 1990s.In this, the first of four columns focused on virtual worlds, I will sketch a broad outline of the technology. Future columns will explore pedagogical considerations as well as potential implications for media studies.

Origin stories are always controversial, but most virtual world researchers agree that this all started in 1978 at the University of Essex. An 18-year-old college undergraduate named Richard Bartle worked with Roy Troubshaw to create MUD-1 on a PDP-10 mainframe. They wanted to convert the single-player computer adventure game Dungeon into an experience that could be shared by multiple people simultaneously. The acronym MUD originally stood for “multi-user dungeon,” but politically-savvy researchers eventually reformulated it as “multi-user domain” in an attempt to garner greater institutional support.



Today, when we discuss virtual environments, most people imagine the compelling graphics found in games such as World of Warcraft and Halo III. Many are surprised to learn that the first MUDs, like novels and short stories, relied solely on written prose to submerge readers inside compelling, artificial worlds. These MUDs also added four elements that continue to characterize all computer-based virtual worlds. These are:

• Immersion in a synthetic world created entirely through computer-mediated representations,
• user embodiment in the synthetic world in the form of game characters called avatars,
• co-presence of multiple users in the synthetic world, and
• the ability of user-controlled avatars to make persistent changes to the shared world entirely as a result of their in-world behaviors.

As MUDs evolved, developers incorporated programming and scripting commands that made it possible for users to dramatically modify characteristics of the synthetic world while they were actually “inside” the game itself. This revolutionary innovation went much further than merely having a persistent impact on a pre-built environment. Users could make significant changes to the content and the form of the medium in which they were contained.

Powerful tools for user-created content are at the core of only a few contemporary virtual worlds. Second Life offers accessible three-dimensional modeling tools along with client-side scripting and server-side programming control, and China’s Hipihi delivers similar functionality. A handful of other worlds are moving in this direction, but — since most contemporary virtual environments lack these content creation technologies – they are not considered one of the medium’s defining characteristics.

During the past three decades, virtual worlds have diverged into two major categories: game-worlds and social virtual worlds. These are not mutually exclusive categories, and some environments attempt to blur the boundaries, but this can be a useful distinction.

Game-worlds such as World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, and Warhammer Online are fun, heavily structured environments in which players compete, cooperate, and socialize within the framework of rules and stories designed by the game developers. These game worlds offer immersion, embodiment, and co-presence, while scaling back the ability of players to affect the virtual environment in persistent ways.

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

Social virtual worlds do not include an overarching narrative or game-based framework, and they exist primarily as vehicles for open-ended interaction between users. These social worlds host user-created role-playing, sports, and action games, but such activities are dwarfed by a broader emphasis on creation, dialogue and performance. Also, as hard-core gamers are quick to point out, the game physics and audiovisual qualities of most social virtual worlds pale in comparison to the dedicated game-worlds.Because social virtual worlds and game-worlds share so many characteristics, they sometimes seem indistinguishable to newcomers. To a parent who is reminding her teenage daughter to finish her homework before bed, it makes little difference if the student’s attention is riveted on Second Life Teen Grid or Everquest II. From the bedroom doorway, these worlds appear to be identical distractions, but they encourage different types of on-line interaction.Some of us dream of a virtual world that will seamlessly incorporate the best elements of both forms. We would hunt Orcs in the morning, fish for puzzle clues in the afternoon, learn a new language in the evening, and engage in critical political discussions after dinner. We would do all of this while expressing facets of a coherent virtual persona. This sounds far-fetched, but platform developers are working with scholars, government officials and industry giants to develop interoperability standards similar to the W3C guidelines that provided the foundation for the world-wide web. With such standards in place, there will be many more connections between formerly isolated virtual landscapes.There is much work to be done before such a vision is realized. Then again, cultural change is accelerating.I’m not kidding. Things are speeding up.


Many of the ideas expressed in this column are based on ongoing conversations with other virtual world scholars and game developers via the academic web log Terra Nova and Metaversed, and the annual State of Play conference hosted by New York Law School. The defining characteristics of virtual worlds are adapted from Edward Castranova’s noted article “Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier” and Richard Bartle’s textbook Designing Virtual Worlds. Available via Amazon, Bartle’s work focuses on all aspects of virtual community. Though the title suggests a heavy technical tome, the book is primarily concerned with people and communities. The distinction between social virtual worlds and game-worlds was originally introduced by Betsy Book at the second annual State of Play gathering in 2004.

To learn more about Winifred (St. John) Mont Eton, Chapell, visit the web site created in her memory by her son (Larry Wagner) at

Image Credits:
1. Virtual worlds
2. Second Life
3. MUD
4. World of Warcraft

Please feel free to comment.

Burning Down the House: Community Access TV and the Downtown Art Shows

The Downtown Art Show (1974-1984) was one of the celebrated art events of 2006. Drawn in part from materials which Richard Hell donated to the New York University Fales Library, the show brought together original cultural products, fashion, and artifacts (hand lettered signs, a crowbar, fundraising letters, and an old menu from Max’s Kansas City, to name a few items). It was colorful and hip and loud. And it traveled to three cities. It opened at the Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library at New York University (January 10-April 1, 2006). From there it traveled to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (May 20-September 3, 2006). Finally, it closed at The Austin Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas (November 11, 2006-January 28, 2007). Recently, a related show, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967 opened at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (Sept 29. 2007-Jan 6, 2008). While this show starts with the Velvet Underground, it devotes a large number of galleries to the downtown and No-Wave movements of the1975-1995 period.[2]

The Downtown Art Show

The Downtown Art Show

There’s a lot to be said about the way the Downtown show traveled—and I would recommend this exhibit as a case study for anyone working in Museum Studies. What concerns me in this column, however, is not the larger exhibition politics of the Downtown and Sympathy shows, but rather the way film and tv are presented in each. While films and tv programs were shown on monitors throughout the galleries in both Pittsburgh and Austin, the larger institutional role played by community access cable and independent film distribution was largely invisible (The distribution and exhibition practices of the art world were not similarly erased; in Pittsburgh, they were foregrounded).[3] In the catalogue, even specific television programs get short shrift, since they receive only brief mention within a larger essay on No-Wave Cinema.[4] At the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, attribution is more problematic. Individual videos are presented totally outside their institutional context. Information tags tell us the names of the pieces, the performers, and the artists who created the works, but give no information about where the pieces were originally shown.

In part, this erasure is a definable function of museum and “core art cinema institutions,” which—as Haidee Wasson points out—“have tended to pose themselves explicitly against commercial film [and tv] culture and formed around concepts of aesthetic distinctiveness.”[5] But the limited reference to exhibition and distribution masks the key role which television played for artists of this era. The Downtown Art Scene was one of the first alternative art movements to use tv in a concerted way, as a means both of showcasing work and of building community. The largely unpublicized late-night cable Downtown lineup included films, gallery tours, interview shows, news videos and public service announcements. The PSAs—often starring “celebrities” like Laurie Anderson and Kathy Acker—informed viewers about the burgeoning culture wars affecting grant funding, about police crackdowns, and about AIDS. The news videos were stranger. Throughout the period, artist-videographers took their cameras into the street and simply recorded what they saw there. Charles Ahearn’s Doing Time on Times Square (1991) and Rik Little’s The Church of Shooting Yourself (1993-present) are among the best known latecomers to this tradition. But throughout the 80s, frequently unattributed tapes would simply show up at a station; these often-jarring cinema-vérité/reality TV amalgams would play on Community Access. When people came home from their night jobs, they could tune in and see what had happened on the street while they were waiting tables. This was alternative media before the Net—a time when late night television was as surreal and real an experience as anyone could hope to have.

Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

Television was one of the principal means for disseminating art outside the immediate New York area. Community Access stations in the Midwest picked up tapes and public service packages which they aired in special Free Speech TV slots.
In the early 90s, I saw a lineup of PSAs and Craig Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws (1995) on BCAT (Bloomington Community Access Television, Bloomington Indiana)—Channel 3 on my television dial. Through that transmission I discovered the Monday, Wednesday, Friday Video Club in New York, which distributed Downtown titles on poorly transferred VHS tapes. Through MWF, I was able to teach the things I had been watching during the eighties—when I lived on the West Coast—to my midwest students.[6] Given the institutional trajectory—independent production to community access cable to indie distribution to classroom use–one could argue that much of the niche-market for the Downtown Art Show was created, early on, by the artists themselves—through the savvy use of guerilla distribution and Community Access tv.

It is not my intention here to trash two shows which I enjoyed and which do a superb job of returning the Downtown Art scene to the cultural radar screen. But I do want to make a case for writing Cable Access Television and Independent Film Distribution back into Downtown history. As I have already noted, cable television played a key role in showcasing experimental works, and, by extension, in constructing the downtown scene itself. Not only did it chronicle downtown life and circulate needed information, but—as Gregg Bordowitz has noted in another context—it constituted an event “because its production…[was] part of a larger effort to organize increasing numbers of people to take action.” The Downtown Art Scene was perhaps the last historical movement which believed deeply that one could make a political difference simply by intervening in society’s spectacle. So every transmission, every tv show, every film played a double role of entertainment/education on the one hand and agit-prop on the other.[7]

Sonic Outlaws

Sonic Outlaws

In addition, TV aesthetics played a crucial role in the look of Downtown Art. While shows like Willoughby Sharpe’s New York were shaped by what Raymond Williams might call a Downtown “structure of feeling,” they were also heavily influenced by the look of certain kinds of commercial TV. Segments frequently remind me less of formal Dada art and theater (to which they are frequently compared) than to the old Ernie Kovacs Show (1951-1956) or to Laugh-In (1968-1973). But this televisual effect extends beyond television and video works to some Downtown graphic pieces and publications as well. Downtown Art follows a longstanding avant-garde tradition of drawing heavily from popular culture, and the popular culture which Downtown Artists knew best was pop music, comic books, film and television.

Special thanks to Chris Anderson, Robert Clift, Marlene Costa and Skip Hawkins.

[1] The title of this article refers to the song “Burning Down the House,” which was initially released on the Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues LP (Sire Records1983).

[2] Downtown art refers to the movement roughly spanning 1974-1995 which took its name from the Lower East Side of New York City (“downtown”) where it was largely centered. Affiliated with punk music and the new raw trends of Suburban Ambush literature, the movement comprised people like Kathy Acker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Karen Finley, Jenny Holzer and David Wojnarowitz.

[3] The Warhol Museum described alternative gallery exhibition against the context of the Loft Law (which made it legal for artists to live in SoHo’s industrial spaces) and the larger real estate politics of New York City.

[4] Marvin Taylor, ed. The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984.
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. See pages 103, 108,121-122, note 7 on page 128.

[5] Haidee Wasson, Museum Movies: the Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. 6.

[6] The Monday, Wednesday, Friday Video Club has been transferring their titles to DVDs.
The webpage is Accessed 10.20.07.

[7] Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-2003. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2004. 50-51.

Image Credits:
1. The Downtown Art Show
2. Sympathy for the Devil
3. Sonic Outlaws

Please feel free to comment.

All I Want for Christmas is Some Cultural Policy in the Public Interest

Judging by the FCC’s holiday plans, it seems that this year, billionaire media moguls have been very, very good and the public has been rather naughty.

Acting as Santa Claus or the Grinch, depending on your perspective and corporate holdings, FCC Chair Kevin Martin announced last month that he would like to make dramatic changes to the nation’s media ownership rules… before Christmas.

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin

Martin’s announcement was shocking for a number of reasons. First, the idea of increased consolidation in the media industries has been wildly unpopular of late with the American public; indeed this issue became political suicide for his predecessor, Michael Powell. The last time the FCC attempted to loosen these rules 4 years ago (under Powell), the ensuing public uproar stopped the FCC in its tracks. The Commission received millions of complaints and statements opposing further consolidation, Congress stepped in, the President made an about-face and declined to intervene on behalf of his appointed Chairman and when the federal courts finally got involved, Powell was “taken to the woodshed by the 3rd Circuit” as Commissioner Michael Copps has described it. And yet, the resulting “compromise” from that round of negotiations increased the station ownership cap to — surprise! — the exact percentage held by Viacom and News Corporation (though still short of what Powell and media lobbyists had planned). Those rules were eventually sent back to the FCC for another rewrite after the Supreme Court refused to hear corporate media’s appeal, and their fate has remained in limbo. Until now. This time, the FCC is again attempting to craft policy solely based on and determined by the needs of the largest media companies. The biggest issue on the table is the cross-media ownership rule, which has prevented one company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market since the mid-1970s. Martin is intent upon repealing this with unprecedented speed, leaving no time for sufficient analysis or public comment and also ensuring that those opposed will not have the time to organize the type of widespread response that was generated in 2003.

Martin’s remarkably swift timetable is perhaps more easily understood when looking at the ticking clock on the $8.2 billion deal for the Tribune Company. Chicago real estate baron Sam Zell is relying on the FCC to repeal the cross-ownership ban in order to keep the Tribune empire intact; currently, the company owns newspapers and broadcast stations in 5 markets, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The waivers allowing for this would expire if the company changes ownership, which makes this repeal crucial for Tribune and Zell. Further, if the deal does not go through by December 31, there are provisions that make it much more expensive — $871,884 more expensive every single day, to be exact. Many analysts think that if the rule is not repealed or if Tribune is not granted temporary waivers for all five markets by mid-November, the deal could unravel.

Sam Zell

Sam Zell

Each time ownership limits have been deregulated, large-scale mergers in media industries follow. Thus, the potential scope of impact on the media landscape and their schedule for completion are clearly alarming aspects of Chairman Martin’s latest announcement. Yet for television scholars and critics, this Media Ownership Redux should also be quite striking for its lack of visibility in discussions and debates about television itself. The issue of ownership ultimately becomes just as much (if not more) a question of arts and culture as it is of legality or economics. In fact, this relationship between regulatory practice and discourses, the vitality of media and the nexus of technological and institutional convergence is actually a matter of cultural policy. However, largely because of the (entirely false) mythology that the United States does not have cultural policy, the domain of the FCC is rarely framed as such.[1] Unfortunately, that disconnect means that it is much harder for media regulation and reform to hit prime time, or at least get closer to the front page or the entertainment news. Most coverage of these impending changes has been eliminated outright — especially on mainstream television. What remains in newspapers has been relegated to the business or financial sections. This placement ensures that media ownership is almost never discussed in the press as a cultural issue or one relevant to the public, art or personal freedom. And yet, it is one of the most crucial elements behind the quality of public information, collective cultural expression and the strength of a functioning democracy. Market forces are strongly related to arts subsidies, carriers are intricately attached to their content and the political economy of television is directly linked to the schedules of Dancing with the Stars and Kid Nation. Culture and commerce are obviously and desperately interconnected but somehow critical discourse has failed to characterize this relationship effectively enough to achieve much notice from the FCC.

WGA Strike

WGA Strike

Of course, those in the media reform movement have been boldly ahead of this curve for many years.[2] They have also been turning their attention to the issue of who will control the digital space where television will soon reside full-time. One only needs to look at the issues in the current WGA strike to have a full appreciation of what is at stake for this intersection, especially in relation to the consolidation of media ownership. Chief among reformers’ concerns is control of distribution, which is also part of the fight to maintain “net neutrality.” This safeguard against corporate gatekeeping in cyberspace was secured for just two years as a condition for regulatory approval of the AT&T/Bell South merger.[3] It is still alive, but just barely. As Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America and one of the foremost experts in this area has said, “We saved it, but it is on life support in the ICU and a code blue is about to sound.” Based on the present goals of the FCC and the recent antics of Comcast, it appears that this frontier of media ownership is poised to host the next showdown between government regulators, telecommunications giants, global entertainment conglomerates and the public interest. Hopefully, it will be understood for the complex battle that it is: one that could determine the art and economics of media’s future. Stay tuned to the middle of your business section (below the fold) for more on these important stories!

If you are unhappy with your probable lump of coal from the FCC, try clicking here:



[1] For an excellent discussion of this divide, see Napoli, “Bridging Cultural Policy and Media Policy in the U.S.: Challenges and Opportunities,” 2006

[2] In fact, Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS has recently profiled this issue. For outstanding coverage, links, transcripts and resources, click here:

[3] This was an $85 billion deal and the largest telecomm merger in history.

Image Credits:
1. Kevin Martin
2. Sam Zell
3. WGA Strike

Please feel free to comment.


I watch TV, and sometimes quickly push the buttons on my remote, but don’t really surf. Mostly I wade—recognizing my limitations and lack of necessary zeal. Years ago, when a faculty colleague made a good-natured jibe about me as a coastal town “surfer boy,” I took no offense or effort to correct him. But the fact is, despite my great love of water, sand, and all things beachy, I have never, in the local parlance, actually “picked up the stick.” I’m convinced that the sport of surfing ocean waves, as opposed to surfing television channels, is an activity for only the athletic, practiced and very dedicated. As Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil writes, “ It takes years before anyone appears less than ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, seek out the pictures of hyper-jock Matthew McConaughey floundering in the shore break at Malibu.”

Ocean Surfing

Ocean Surfing

The sport of ocean surfing, with its innate difficulty, intimations of mystical spirituality and evocation of nature’s power and dynamism, offers compelling narratives and has held substantial appeal within popular storytelling. For example, this past summer Surf’s Up offered moviegoers—including my entranced daughter and I—an animated tale of “Cody,” the adolescent surfing penguin finding the pure joys of oneness with the ocean and the surfing community. And in the adult premium cable category, the short-lived magical realist series John From Cincinnati placed an abusive, broken family within surfing culture in the often-malevolent Mexico—US borderlands. In such narratives, surfing is defined as a quest for freedom from all that corrupts terra firma—factionalism, commerce, violence, and other varieties of social dysfunction.

Surf’s Up

Surf’s Up

While surfers and critics have worried out loud about how such commercial vehicles might diminish or pollute the sublimity of an activity that is “the most fragile, the most vulnerable to ruination by mass consumerism,” watching John From Cincinnati and the salt-washed surfers in action at local beaches has prompted me to again think about how prominently the themes of freedom and transcendence have run through the metaphors for, and texts of, popular television.

John From Cincinnati

John From Cincinnati

In John From Cincinnati (JFC), generations of the Yost family work out their personal and familial demons, a seeming grab bag of all manners of abuse, against the backdrop of a surfing community and its interactions with crooks and charlatans. The opaque, elliptical dialogue of the series, combined with its eccentric characters and repeated invocations of higher power, prompted significant reviewer criticism, including Variety television critic Brian Lowry’s comment that John From Cincinnati “might be the strangest show ever produced for American television—an HBO drama that makes Twin Peaks look like Mayberry RFD.”

It was a strange show, and that’s certainly not all bad. But what caught my attention was the way the series—and particularly the title character and cipher John Monad (he of the interesting last name)—define digital video technologies as the means of human redemption. The messiah/apostle/alien John speaks cryptically yet consistently throughout the episodes about the importance of the “zeros and ones” and the small video camera of Cass, a young women who works for a surf promoter and seems always “on scene” to record the goings-on. And visually, viewers very frequently review filmed scenes through the medium of Cass’s video camera. Cass’s camera more than once seems to have magical abilities to give other characters access to images that seem impossible. Referring often to his unseen “Father,” John states that his Father “freelances in Cass’s camera,” and that “the zeros and ones make the Word in Cass’s camera.” And in the series finale John underlines the point that his “Father’s words”–a frequently banal and disjointed collection of utterances mediated by John throughout the series—will be “heard” and understood more clearly through Cass’s camera than in the present moment. John is unusually clear in the final episode in stating that without the camera that digitally encodes their lives, nothing much else will matter. Transcendent beings have chosen digital visual technologies as the means for human redemption.

Cass on John From Cincinnati

Cass on John From Cincinnati

Such myths, connecting human redemption and transcendence to electronic media transmission are, as Jeffrey Sconce has skillfully demonstrated in Haunted Media, well-documented historical and evolving cultural phenomena. Sometimes employed playfully as a self-reflexive commentary on the relationship between the auteur/god and audiences (as is likely the case in JFC), and other times less mischievously, such story-telling offers opportunities for students of popular culture to eschew technological essentialisms (common for example in the scholarly address of “new media”) in favor of investigations of the historical contexts, dynamics and concerns which produce popular understandings, practices and metaphors—such as the “channel surfing” television spectator. As Sconce argues, the fantastic, paranormal media tales all around us are important “not as a timeless expression of some undying electronic superstition, but as a permeable language in which to express a culture’s changing and social relationship to a historical sequence of technologies.”

Which brings me back to where I began—to television and surfing. I know that the phrase “channel surfing” dates to the mid-1980s, and refers to the practice of quickly scanning media content. But why does the metaphor enjoy such cultural purchase? Why is it that we “surf” television channels and the Internet? Why do we not channel/site skim, skip, zip, walk or hop (I know some of us zap.)? Or, as I suggested of myself earlier, speak of ourselves as viewers that “channel wade” in the televisual flow? Perhaps wading lacks the connotations of speed that seem so essential in description of postmodernity? Sconce seems to get at part of the answer in his criticism of the determinist scaffolding that supports ideas regarding television technology, television spectatorship and the medium’s “fragmented, channel-surfing schizos.” Certainly modern metaphors of television spectatorship have been powerfully informed by, and thus contrasted with, precedent visual technologies—primarily film. But metaphors of surfing also bring connotations of athleticism, spirituality, and adeptness in maneuvering through, and becoming a part of, an incessant “flow.” Such are well chronicled in surf novels, films and magazines.

In West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, Steven Kotler, a young man who writes that before surfing he “never, not once, achieved a mystical anything,” finds a regenerative sense of spirituality in the sport, and describes some qualities of surfing and their culminating manifestation when he goes into big waves off New Zealand:I paddled fast to my left, angling toward the next wave, stroked and stood and felt the board accelerate and pumped once and into my bottom turn, and then the world vanished. There was no self, no other. For an instant, I don’t know where I ended and the wave began. This was an instant beyond the redemption I had hoped to find. Surfing is a game of such instants. The Japanese use the word aware to mean “transitory beauty,” describing things that are staggeringly impactful and simultaneously vanishing. There are dozens of surf terms that all fail at capturing this moment. Of course, words and metaphors always fail at capturing such instants, whether transcendent, mystical or mundane. But they productively offer a glimpse into the myths of the moment. What are we saying about ourselves and the time in which we live when we talk of “channel surfing” or “surfing the net”? I’m still not sure. But I do know that the more we think, write and teach about popular genres such as magical realism, and seriously engage the challenge of offering better understandings of the myths and social meaningfulness of transcendence, spirituality and religion, the better students we are of contemporary TV.


1. Dan Neil (2007). “Surf and Turf.” West Magazine, July 29, 62.

2. Ibid.

3. Brian Lowry (2007). “Review: John From Cincinnati.” Variety, June 6. Accessed 10/21/07.

4. Jeffrey Sconce (2000). Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy to Television. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 10.

5. Ibid., 185-86.

6. Steven Kotler (2006). West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief. New York: Bloomsbury, 139.

Image Credits:
1. Ocean Surfing
2. Surf’s Up
3. John From Cincinnati
4. Cass on John From Cincinnati

Please feel free to comment.

The Forthcoming DTV Tsunami

The end of analog TV

2009: The end of analog TV

On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, all analog over-the-air TV broadcasting in the United States ceases, and will be replaced with an all-digital broadcasting setup. The ostensible reason for this conversion to digital television (DTV) is to improve television. With freed television spectrum resulting from the conversion, public safety communications can be increased and improved, more TV channels can be created, and picture quality can improve.

But for current TV viewers, this means that if you use an antenna to get television, you will need a new TV set, or some other digital television source (like cable or satellite), or a digital converter box — or your TV set goes dark, permanently.

The number of people potentially affected is considerable. Estimates say about 17% of Americans (roughly 51 million people) still get television through over-the-air analog signals. In Chicago, where I live, the number is about 21% of Chicago residents, according to a 2003 profile in the journal Media Week – roughly 630,000 people in a city of nearly 3 million people.

It stands to reason that many of those who still use analog TV can’t subscribe to a cable or satellite service simply because they are among the American poor or are on fixed or stagnating incomes, and understandably can’t afford to subscribe. For that same reason, they probably can’t afford to buy a new digital-ready TV set.

The remaining option is to get a digital converter box. And indeed some efforts to help are crystallizing. Congress has allotted about $1 billion to provide vouchers redeemable for converter boxes. Each American household can claim up to two $40 vouchers to offset the costs for converter boxes, which can be purchased in retail stores.

For the moment, it appears the vouchers will not cover the cost of converter boxes. Digital Streams, the manufacturer of the first government-approved converter boxes, has announced a suggested retail price of $69.99 per box. Granted, improved technology may over time lower the prices of converter boxes enough before DTV Doomsday to improve the likelihood of converter box affordability. But many questions arise: What assurances are there that retailers won’t take advantage of a guaranteed market and raise the price of converter boxes? Or even if prices remain low, are retailers prepared for what could be a marked upsurge of millions of potentially desperate customers?

The questions continue. Are people who need digital converter boxes prepared to deal with many folks in similarly dire straits, like taking time off from work to wait in massive lines? In the case of infirm or elderly individuals who can’t leave their homes, or rural communities who may not live near by any big name retailers, or Americans who don’t speak English, or people without any technical skills — what provisions are being made for them?

In urban communities like Chicago, there have been serious examples of local public policy failures, like the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave. As chronicled in Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave, neglectful public policy decisions exacerbated that disaster in which some 800 people died. For the DTV transition, it’s unclear what local provisions are being set up, or how federal and local authorities would cooperate, or whether or not authorities at all levels can coordinate matters before DTV Doomsday. The end result could be a lot of after-the-fact fingerpointing with little in the way to actually help people.

All of this of course assumes that people learn about the conversion in time and can act with ample time. But levels of public awareness about the DTV transition are dismal – surveys say that anywhere from 60% to 90% of Americans, depending on the survey, have no awareness of the DTV transition.

A new digital divide

The potential for a new digital divide attenuates DTV’s potential for human progress

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the main trade lobby of U.S. commercial broadcasters, has promised to devote some $700 million dollars worth of broadcast airtime to public service announcements to inform Americans of the DTV transition.

Magnanimous though this might sound, the NAB has simultaneously been fiercely resisting efforts in Congress to pass laws which would mandate specific educational requirements from TV broadcasters. But promises are one thing; policies are another. And considering that U.S. media companies garner some $70 billion annually from ads, this promised-but-as-yet-undelivered effort amounts to a one-time sacrifice of about one percent of commercial broadcasters’ revenue.

Nevertheless, the NAB has been losing the fight; support is strong in Congress for a law with more precise mandates, though such laws can and have been watered down and sometimes avoided. Even if a law passes and is effective, could it be a matter of too little too late?

To say the least, everything I’ve described drips with pessimism. Small wonder that FCC Commissioner Michael Copps described the DTV transition as a forthcoming “train wreck”, while his FCC colleague Jonathan Adelstein has termed it a “tsunami”.

But it’s entirely possible that it could all end up just fine. Everyone could find out in time, even who needs help gets it, and a presumed DTV Doomsday — complete with long lines and street riots and looting and other images of unrest — could be averted. But a lot would have to happen before February 18, 2009 to avert this disaster, or a manifold compounding of disasters, of which February 18, 2009 could be just the beginning.

For example, Deaf communities have petitioned the FCC complaining that “reports of significant technical difficulties with the pass through and display of closed captioning [in DTV] are becoming rampant”, according to an August 2007 FCC filing by the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology.

Then there’s Puerto Rico, where the situation is worse still. More than half of all of Puerto Rican TV viewers use analog over-the-air signals, with fewer options available for accommodations than in the States, according to Puerto Rico’s Telecommunications Regulatory Board.

Some cynics might say: With the dismal state of TV, many people may benefit without their TVs. But despite the ascendancy of the internet as a source of news and information, most Americans still use television and newspapers for their news and information. But with millions, perhaps tens of millions, affected in the wake of a possible fiasco, DTV Doomsday and its ongoing aftermath could consign millions of Americans into a media black hole, perhaps abandoned with little additional relief. We could see the digital divide skyrocket, and escalate ongoing trends where the U.S. is becoming a Third World country, and where having a TV set would be a sign that you’re part of the privileged classes.

Echoes of Hurricane Katrina come to mind. The effective destruction of an American city was bad enough, but a half million displaced persons still sit with little aid and are unable to return to the Gulf Coast more than two years after the hurricanes, as chronicled by the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Poor people in the future might remember the time when they too had TV.

The DTV transition

The DTV transition: Trainwreck? Tsunami?

If there is a silver lining to the DTV conversion, it is that the potential for awareness and popular involvement on media-related issues could dramatically increase. In recent years, more Americans have entered the media policy arena, and they’ve been making a difference. Where three million people commented to the FCC on its controversial media ownership rewrite in 2003 (which successfully blocked an FCC vote), we could be seeing more than ten times that number possibly enter the arena. Will it be enough? Can it make a difference? The greater the involvement and the earlier people get involved, the better the chances in the end.

Image Credits:
1. 2009: The end of analog TV
2. The potential for a new digital divide attenuates DTV’s potential for human progress
3. The DTV transition: Trainwreck? Tsunami?

Please feel free to comment.

Putting the ‘F’ Back in Art

Editor’s Note: In accordance with Flow’s mission statement (“to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media at the speed that media moves”) we present the following column by a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, which is currently on strike. The WGA has posted this video explanation if you would like further information.


As a comedy writer, I’ve always been fascinated by what people find funny and–let’s face it–people find flatulence funny. When one breaks down the elements of successful comedy, one normally finds that the comedy in question has some “truth” behind it that the audience can relate to. Quite often this “truth” involves something bigger than the audience, something they wish they could control in real life, but cannot. This “truth” causes tension in their real life, whereas the comic version of the “truth” helps them to relieve this tension through laughter. Yet when it comes to comedy on television, why do we feel that laughter has to stem from some edgy, politically-motivated, potentially painful observation of society in order for it to have redeeming value? Personally, I feel that this type of comedy invokes a “laughing to keep from crying” response. Why can’t laughter just be laughter? What I am advocating for is not the widespread acceptance of the scatological on television, however, just an appreciation for the place “fart jokes” have in our popular culture.

Edward R. Murrow argued in his famous 1958 RTNDA speech that television is “used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us” from events in the real world.[1] Well, television is still used for all of these purposes and more; however, what is different 50 years later is the existence of channels dedicated exclusively to news, and the rise of the Internet. As soon as I open my browser, I’m inundated with news of destruction and chaos. This often leaves me emotionally drained and in search of lighter fair on television; unfortunately, most of the time I’m met with political humor and “ripped from the headlines” violence. Sometimes I just want to have a good gut-wrenching guffaw; however, many believe that television has an obligation to refrain from certain types of comedy that may “dumb down” the nation. I, on the other hand, think that there are worse things than child-like fart jokes, funny flatulence sounds, and gaseous sight gags.

I like biting political satire as much as the next educated person, but much of the time the “truth” behind it is a bit too painful to process. It certainly has its place in the “educational” landscape of television, but sometimes I simply want to escape the real world with a good, mindless laugh. As much as I love Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, their comedy only serves to remind me how screwed up the world is. Maybe I want to be “dumbed down” a bit when things like war, disease and global warming become easy fodder for comedy. So, why not put more benign comedy on television? We’ve seemingly given up our fear of the effects of violence on television, so why is toilet humor still seemingly so threatening? Only in recent years has the word “fart” or any perceived action or noise associated with flatulence been “allowed” by most network censors and the FCC.

“I was a network censor for ABC for about 10 years starting in ’81. Contrary to what most people think, there is no all-inclusive rule book for what is and what is not acceptable in terms of entertainment programming,” says Dr. Philippe Perebinossoff. “During my tenure, ‘fart’ would not have made it through. The same would go for sounds.”[2] There was a time when Blazing Saddles aired on network television without the campfire scene sounds.[3] This scene doesn’t even make sense without the audio! The title of the film doesn’t even invoke a smirk without the reference. Many may have forgotten that the word “fart” was actually one of three “additional” words George Carlin noted couldn’t be said on television in his “Seven Dirty Words” sketch. The justices in the 1978 FCC court case spurred by the sketch concluded that words (like “fart”) “are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”[4] Less than a decade later, you can find both the word “fart” and flatulence references all over the tube.


Family Guy

Nickelodeon’s ironically-titled program You Can’t Do That on Television featured many fart jokes.[5] Nickelodeon has continued to use fart references on its child-friendly channel. In an episode of Ned’s Declassified, the phrase “I am Farticus” is used when students decide to bond together over a farting incident.[6] For a short time, Nickelodeon even had a comedy short than ran between programs that explained the different types of farts. In an episode of The Drew Carey Show, a “toxic” cloud of glow-in-the dark gas is seen hanging over a character as he promises, “It wasn’t me.”[7] Then of course there’s South Park, where Terrence and Phillip face death by flatulence on a regular basis.

Terrance and Phillip

Terrance and Phillip

Is the use of farting and/or fart jokes on television a sign of the networks’ desire to appeal to a particular group of people or just a larger group of people? One doubts seriously that bodily function humor was what men like Murrow, Sarnoff or Chayefsky envisioned for television. I doubt seriously that they saw a future of everyday people eating rats, cheating on mates, and getting plastic surgery as the future of television either, but I digress. Everyone passes gas and most people find it funny when they aren’t the ones accused of it. Let’s face it, fart humor has probably been around since the first caveman turned to his cavemate and grunted, “Ugh, pullum finger.” Flatulence has been around in theatre and literature since well before the invention of the Whoopee cushion (circa 1950).[8]

There is evidence of flatulence humor as early as ancient Mesopotamia.[9] Respected authors, poets and playwrights across history have used flatulence in their writings. Aristophanes, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Franklin, Twain, and Dahl have all used flatulence as the subject of humor. If television is truly the literature of the masses, then it makes sense that its subject matter should appeal to the masses. Finding humor in the passing of gas is a part of the basic human experience; therefore, an occasional humorous reference to flatulence will not bring down polite society if published or broadcast.

Since all of us do it in real life and are typically embarrassed by it, the humor comes from the “truth” of it. The “release of tension” (pun intended) comes from watching someone else get away with what would otherwise be inappropriate in real life. As “lowest common denominator” material goes, it doesn’t make fun of religion, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, weight or age. We in academia typically condemn television for its focus on “the lowest common denominator,” but perhaps we are the ones who should reexamine our stance. Are we only able to laugh at that which challenges us?


Drawn Together

I leave you with one last thought. When I gave birth to my son, the doctor told me that his first smile wouldn’t be “real” but instead the result of gas. Nonetheless, the first time my baby “smiled,” it was a smile to me all the same. The first time my son laughed was when he passed gas audibly on the changing table. He started to giggle. It was the most beautiful and innocent sound in the world. I started to laugh. The harder I laughed, the harder he laughed. It was our first shared laugh. I suppose this type of humor is the “lowest common denominator” in terms of its origin, but does that mean that society suffers for laughing at it? In the grand scheme of things found on television, I don’t see how–that is, at least until Smell-O-Vision is invented.

I welcome your comments.

Works Cited

[1] Murrow, Edward R. Radio and Television News Directors Association convention. Chicago. 15 Oct. 1958.
[2] Perebinossoff, Dr. Philippe. Personal interview. 15 Sept. 2007.
[3] “Director’s Commentary.” Blazing Saddles. Writ., dir, and prod. Mel Brooks. DVD.
[4] Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation et al. 
Supreme Court Of The United States 
438 U.S. 726 
July 3, 1978, Decided. IV-B written by Justice Rehnquist.
[5] Atherton, Tony. “The Evolution of Gross.” The Ottawa Citizen. 29 Aug. 1998. “Article Archive.” You Can’t Do that on Teleivision.
[6] “Social Studies and Embarassment.” Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. Nickelodeon. 12 Nov. 2006.
[7] “Drew and the Activist (Part I).” The Drew Carey Show. ABC. KABC, Los Angeles. 9 May 2001.
[8] Beggerow, Alan. “The Whoopee Cushion – A Tribute And Short History.” EzineArticles: Shopping and Product Reviews.
[9] Castor, Alexis Q. “Between the Rivers: The History of Mesopotamia (Part II: The Great City-States)”. Lecture 24 Audio CD. The Teaching Company, 2006.

Image Credits:
1. Terrance and Phillip

Please feel free to comment.

The Good, The Bad, and the Best

Most people I know who work in or study television have an ever-changing favorite program that falls into what I categorize as good/bad television. What I mean by that is there is always at least one show each season that is truly terrible programming, but you just can’t help watching it. Much like stopping for a car wreck on the interstate you just can’t turn your eyes away.

Last year, I couldn’t help but watch the antics of cable’s favorite divorcing couple in Breaking Bonaduce.

Breaking Bonaduce

Of course, I grew up watching The Partridge Family so that might have something to do with it. Though like most girls at the time, my crush was on David Cassidy and not Danny Bonaduce. Now, however, Danny is now far more entertaining.
Lately, I’ve found myself fascinated with Dog: The Bounty Hunter.



Like all good/bad TV (and no, it doesn’t have to be a reality series), there is a feeling when you watch it that you cannot believe the show is truly on the air. In the case of Dog, 30 seconds of viewing time and you’ll know what I mean.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, Duane “Dog” Chapman is a bounty hunter in Hawaii. He gained international notoriety for his work when he went down to Mexico and brought convicted rapist Andrew Luster, heir to the Max Factor fortune, back to the United States to serve out his prison sentence. Shortly thereafter, A&E provided Dog with his own reality series.

Dog in tactical garb

Dog is by any definition a colorful character. He has unruly, long blonde hair. He smokes cigarettes, evidenced in his gravelly voice. He wears black leather (usual a vest with no shirt underneath in order to show off his large muscles and his various tattoos) and has feathers hanging from his ever-present sunglasses reflecting his partial Native American heritage.

Dog and posse

Chapman is assisted in his work by a ragtag “posse” comprised mostly of family members. First, there is his wife, Beth, who is an extremely buxom blonde bombshell that no one is going to mess with (Beth has been with Dog for close to 20 years and they have a number of children together, but they only got married this last year which was the third season’s finale). He also regularly rides with Tim Chapman, no relation though he is often talked about as being a brother on the show, and two of his many sons, Duane Lee and Leland. Family is a recurring theme for Dog. For example, he talks of how the Chapman men “make good babies.” This is no small claim for Dog. He has twelve children, most of whom are expected to eventually enter the family business (he’s also had five wives, though this is never discussed). The newest addition to the team is “Baby Lyssa,” Dog’s daughter who just turned 18.

While it was these interesting characters that initially drew me to the show, more recently I have been mesmerized by the religious aspects that permeate the program.

The Mythology of Dog

In my book, Brands of Faith: Marketing religion in a commercial age, I write about the elements necessary to create a distinctive brand whether you are talking about toothpaste or a television show. These three key elements include a readily recognizable logo or personality, a tagline, and the brand mythology. In this case the logo is Dog himself, the tagline is “In Dog We Trust” and the brand mythology is the story of Dog’s life which like his persona is bigger than life.* He is not just a bounty hunter. He is an ex-convict-turned-bounty hunter. Not only is he an ex-con-turned-bounty-hunter, he is an ex-con-turned-bounty-hunter-turned born-again Christian (while we cannot outright call Dog a faith brand – the faith he is selling is Christianity and not himself – we might certainly call him a flanker brand for faith).

The mythology of Dog is, of course, the redemption story – the prodigal son returned home to serve his father after going so terribly astray. This plays out in a couple of ways on the program. First, in almost every episode the posse circles up for a prayer before going out to get the bad guys. These prayers are led by Dog who asks for protection and safety in their work. Second, the formula of the program is for each episode of the show to be a mini- redemption story (the fugitive returning home to “the Father”) with Dog as the catalyst who leads the lost back to the fold. While we never see what ultimately happens to these people, we are led to believe there is at least a glimmer of hope now that they have been in contact with Dog (God?) and his posse.

God and Crime

Dog certainly didn’t create the trend of blending religion and crime. Frank Pembleton on Homicide Life on the Streets was continuously negotiating his faith. On Law &Order: SVU, Detective Stabler talks about his Catholic upbringing. It is also not unusual for a cop show at some point in time to have an episode or two based around a religious conflict. Some recent examples of this include two back-to-back episodes of Cold Case: one was about a virginity club in a high school and the other about an Amish girl who is killed during rumspringer. This series includes an element of spirituality in each of its episodes. Each show ends with the dead coming back to acknowledge the good work of the cold case squad with a nod of the head.

Saving Grace

The most dramatic co-mingling of saint and sinner was last season’s Saving Grace on TNT. Grace is an out-of-control detective. She drinks, she smokes, she is an adulterer. At the most inopportune moments, an angel with exceeding large wings appears to show Grace the error of her ways. Grace, of course, is adamant that she does not believe in this apparition yet she continues to bring proof of his existence to her friend in the crime lab. The show’s tension is built around Grace’s continuing fight against good entering her life.

It is not, however, the combining of the deadly and the divine that makes for good/bad TV. Saving Grace, for example, is just bad television. Good television makes you care about the characters, whether it is reality TV or not. What makes Dog and his helpers so fascinating to watch is the dichotomy they create. They look menacing in their black Kevlar vests and mace on their belts, yet they are standing around praying. They are bounty hunters interacting with some of the lowest of lowlifes, but they ultimately treat them with respect and are trying to make their lives better. Just like Breaking Bonaduce was about one person’s fight for redemption, so too is Dog about the fight to be redeemed. Good/bad television doesn’t get any better than this.

*You can view the story of Dog’s life, A Man Called Dog, on the A&E Web site. This was presented in conjunction with the release of his now best-selling book, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide.

Image Credits:

1. Breaking Bonaduce

2. Dog

3. Dog in tactical garb

4. Dog and Posse

5. Saving Grace

Please feel free to comment.

A Tale of Two Slackers

While any number of slacker characters populate the television landscape, two stick out in my mind; Chuck Bartowski, titular character of Chuck, and Sean Spencer, title character of Psych. Chuck and Sean are late 20-ish-early 30-ish, good looking, intelligent, charming, and somewhat lost in life. Both programs are part of the NBC Universal galaxy, and both blend elements of mystery, familial drama, and humor.

There is a significant difference, however; Chuck airs on NBC while Psych airs on basic cable outlet USA. This difference in venue extends into important differences in tone, character development, and attitudes towards authority. A comparison between the ways these two programs construct their main characters speaks in interesting ways to current anxieties about the future of television and Generation Y.

NBC’s Chuck is stumbling toward adulthood.

We might call Chuck a slacker of circumstance. Though clearly intelligent, Chuck works as a member of the “Nerd Herd” at big box retailer “Buy More,” fixing computers and hanging out with his best friend and Buy More salesman, Morgan. We learn that he dropped out of Stanford after being framed for stealing exams and losing his girlfriend to his ultra suave roommate, Bryce Larkin.

Chuck is still in the middle of what New York Times columnist Paul Brooks recently called the “Odyssey years,” that increasingly extended time between adolescence and adulthoodi.(1) Living with his sister, not involved in any serious relationship, unsure about his future career plans, and spending most of his leisure time playing video games and consuming television and film, Chuck is clearly not yet adult. But, the audience knows that Chuck’s failure to grow up is a result of his past heartbreak and not his capabilities or even his desires. He longs for meaning.

Chuck finds purpose through association with the CIA.

Meaning arrives in an email from the aforementioned Bryce, who it turns out is a rogue agent from the CIA. When Chuck opens the message he is exposed to a stream of images encoded with key government security secrets, leaving his brain as the only existing database of information key to national security. The government sends two agents to both guard and “access” Chuck, super sexy CIA agent Sara Walker and super aggressive NSA agent John Casey. Though not always happy with his life situation, Chuck nonetheless maintains his relationship with government and corporate institutions that might offer him meaning, and ultimately redemption. As a man suspended in adolescence, who spends most of his leisure time consuming media, Chuck might be thought of as the ideal media consumer.

Yet, while so many young people are leaving network television behind, the emphasis on institutions as a relevant and necessary guiding force speaks to anxieties about the future of broadcast network television. Through Chuck, both the slacker and the institution are redeemable. Sure, these are trying years, but the kids are all right, the network is all right, and everything is going to settle down.

Sean Spencer is a “slacker of choice.”

If Chuck is the slacker of circumstance, then Sean Spencer might be called a slacker of choice. Lacking a hint of ambition beyond his own pleasure, Sean Spencer, the titular character, is happy embracing a life that involves avoidance of any hint of adult responsibility. Like Chuck, Sean is intelligent, possessing a keen power of observation and photographic memory. While Chuck submits to the power and guiding hand of institutions, Sean refuses any form of “legitimate” work and instead opens a fake psychic detective agency, Psych. Clearly rebelling from his over-bearing cop father, Sean has learned the power of observation that can help him solve crime and a contempt for the institution of policing.

Pretending to be psychic allows Sean to earn money solving crimes, but on his own terms. Added to the mix is Sean’s childhood friend, Burton “Gus” Guster, a pharmaceutical sales representative who is easily persuaded by Sean to spend most of his time as partner in their fake agency. If Chuck offers the hope that his “Odyssey” years might end, Sean does not. Rather, in keeping with cultural anxieties about Generation Y’s narcissism, most recently explored by Newsweek, Sean is perpetually juvenile.(2) Nevertheless, he gets the better of the Santa Barbara Police Department, for whom he and Gus frequently solve mysteries. If Chuck seems like everyone’s puppet, shot through with decency, Sean’s only master his himself and only objective is constant rebellion.

It is tempting to say that basic cable tale of slackerdom is more liberal than Chuck’s. However, it would ignore one of the key sources of pleasure in the program, its non-stop barrage of pop culture references. Many of these references seem related to NBC, such as hiring Corbin Bernsen, best remembered for playing lothario divorce attorney on the ’80s NBC megahit LA Law and references to the ’70s NBC children’s show Land of the Lost. References to television programs, music and movies frequently pepper Sean’s fake psychic episodes and his conversations with Gus.

Sean might rebel against the idea of “work,” but this is because he already has a full time job consuming popular culture. And, and of course, the audience itself is constantly flattered for its own popular culture knowledge. This flattery through nostalgia makes Psych sometimes seem like a virtual shopping mall. The kids might be permanently arrested in their development, buy hey, they sure are fun, and the audience, well they sure are smart!

Of course the ultimate aim of both NBC and USA is to secure profits by delivering audiences to advertisers. Both shows are clearly aimed at the television industry’s increasing search for alternative revenue streams as the traditional advertiser support model breaks down.(3) If sweet, sincere, loveable Chuck on NBC is the “public” face of NBC Universal, Sean, relegated to the no longer hidden corners of basic cable, is perhaps the real heart. NBC tells stories that, in keeping with the historical sedimentation of broadcast television’s ostensible public service mission and current anxieties over its increasing irrelevance, offers us the tale of a character endowed with a secret power, but, who still needs some form of institutional power to guide him.

Redemption for Generation Y and the institution of broadcasting is possible. USA also offers us a character endowed with an enhanced ability to see what others miss. In the world of basic cable, however, our main character is the one with the power to control those around him. The price of such freedom, however, is permanent childhood, a life of extended leisure and devotion to consuming media, but one that ultimately lacks any real meaning. The beneficiary of both forms of slackerdom is NBC Universal.

(1) October 9, 2007
(2) Emily Flynn Vencat. “Narcissists in Neverland”
(3) For a great overview of such practices in relationship to NBC Universal, see Kevin Sandler, “Life without Friends: NBC’s Programming Strategies in an Age of Media Clutter, Media Conglomeration, and Tivo.” In Michele Hilmes, ed. NBC: America’s Network. Berkeley: UC Press, 2007.

Image Credits:

1. NBC’s Chuck

2. Chuck and the CIA

3. Sean Spencer

Please feel free to comment.

‘Screenifying’ Choreography: The New Parameters of Social Interaction as Envisioned by Bill T Jones’ Blind Date

Dancing Duck in Blind Date

Dancing Duck in Bill T. Jones’ Blind Date.


Get all your ducks in a row. Everything is just ducky. We are sitting ducks.

Thoughts bubble as I contemplate the 5 screens of various sizes, a large hanging frame, and a narrow, long canvas/scrim painted with what appear to be a row of rubber duckies. Blind Date has not officially started, yet it has. The curtain is open and text scrolls, flashes and dissolves across the screens; but the ducks do not change. Smiling, they waddle irresponsibly. Danger, duck crossing. But they never do. Static, they are magnified and embodied as the piece continues. A dude forced to make a living selling Ducky burgers and three large carnival-ride looking plywood ducks began to proliferate the duck motif. Dancers enter and exit the stage in precision marches that meander and loose count of bodies. The ducks hang just in the balance, sitting. “ME!” yells a falling body on stage. Other dancers scramble to catch that person before she hits; before he hits; before they hit. Feathers are flying figuratively, but the ducks are still, jolly.

Screens fly out, scrims fly in and one panel stays; faces dissolve high middle stage. They look like anyone. The audience is left wondering whether or not these are not faces of people but victims. Grotesques now, the ducks have waddled off. A soldier is talking to the business man figure (played by Bill T. himself) about never-ending, borderless, indistinguishable war. I am jolted: we are all sitting ducks pretending that everything is just ducky, thinking that we have our ducks in a row so we’ll be fine when our turn comes to yell “ME!” We recite screenified platitudes, aping knowing gestures about war mongering as if that is all the social interaction required to make it stop. “Couch potato” is a thing of the past. There is agency in accepting one’s reality from a screen when one is a dumb ass sitting duck and it is an inability to figure out the choreography required of screenified interaction.

The screen has become a prerequisite facilitator of daily movement for the allegedly productive 21st century lifestyle. Screens are mobile, and increasingly tied to microprocessors. While there is a growing body of work analyzing screens and their ubiquitous presence in our lives, the work of Heidi Cooley is not to be missed, I’m interested in their musculature: their work, placement, messaging, and activity. I will attempt to think about the CPU, the message (image/data), and the messenger (corporation, person) as the appendage to the screen. Moving alongside Blind Date and a series of mundane tasks, I draw attention to the terpsichore set by the parameters of the tech’s body in conflation and contact with our own: the screenifying of movement.


An amalgamation: bodies + images = screenified choreography

Why is it not Mediation?

Simply put, screenified interaction is a non-experience of subtle adjustments to the spinal column and weight distribution driven by the presence of screens. Human contact becomes exertion positioned in close proximity to a CPU and screen. The screen is meant to simplify the event. However, it situates avoidance and neglect as the baseline for social choreography by augmenting the transactional over the inter-relational. Absorbed into the calculations of a cash register while pacified by a video panel at the check-out line or mesmerized by a self-illuminating TV

Gas Station TV logo

The screened machine: Pump as it plays.

at the gas pump, the person inside the physiological expanse of the body quickly fights or accepts its new role: sitting duck. The helpful intrusion of the CPU’s lack–flesh and self-control–feints individual acknowledgment. “And by the grace of God, one day I will give this up!” howls Bill T Jones’ business man character, holding up his cigarette, cursing and pleading with God to rid him of his sumptuous curse.

It could be argued that the human-cum-consumer also has little if any self-control in “the point of decision making” when confronted with the mosh of “content” emblazoned across nifty panels owned and “fed” by companies like SignStory, and Gas Station TV. Blind Date shows that in the living room, the point of decision making about major political issues, people encounter difficulty with foreclosed choices offered as “selections.” The particular mixture of advertising and alleged news reporting makes it quite difficult to see the gun barrel pointing out of the duck blind. Crafting elegant and satisfying ways to have interaction during a transaction involving screens has become a time-consuming venture.

Enter a big box or major grocery store and a battalion of screens are deployed across the space. They look official and exude authority reminiscent of transportation terminals, but destinations are purposefully obscured. Seeking direction, you stand in front of a messaging screen waiting for an answer to a question you’ve long since forgotten. Unsettled, you find calm by meandering. Rediscovering “shopping event,” more things land in the cart, echoing their representations on screen. Time to pay: person or kiosk? Checkers are surrounded by screens, is there really a difference? The panel above the conveyor belt is rigged with a feed offering “news,” lest you notice the passage of time in your body. Your screens allow you to pay without cash and extend the panopticon around the checker who is conducting real-time inventory through a recessed screen. Her key pad often sits to her right, underscoring the assumption that the scanners are infallible. I can hear you laughing.

Multitasked and screenified, the checker’s focus and body are split across space, through time, and with rhythm. What was once a simple algorithmic march that closed face to face with heart muscles aligned, is now a dilemma that engenders passivity or malevolence. Quack. The video panels offer no real options: zone-out to the media feed; become agitated by the frequency range of small speakers; or rage against the distraction/intrusion from/into one’s own life. Isn’t it just ducky?

Well then . . .

Screens are encapsulations and projections. They are limits, boundaries beyond which we dare not imagine a passing image. Drawn in so close to something that feels exactly right, we instead adjust our neck in a futile attempt to avert our gaze, but the screen has swallowed us whole, not sutured us, or hemmed us in, but we could continue to think about stitches in order to make sense of the machine’s body copulating with our own. A quadrangle, the screen creates neat order, our muscles, and therefore our emotions, adjust accordingly. Our desires have absolutely no bearing on the cartography of the screen. Though we might struggle against its certitude at different junctures because we should know better, ultimately, it is that force of four corners which indicates that there is no need to run and scant little space for hiding–submersion is perhaps the only act permissible from the screen.

Ensemble piece in Blind Date

Ensemble number in Blind Date

Blind Date investigates what it means to assume one’s ducks are lined up, ready for action. Even if/when the action appears preempted by the projections, momentum redirects to the messaging flesh. No newcomer to screened dance, Bill T. Jones very early in his career harnessed the choreographic power of projected and televisual images. Indeed, a great deal of his work investigates the corpo-reality engendered by long stretches of TV watching. That he now positions this body as a very active force in our social landscape should come as no surprise. In fact, it is quite masterful as he leads the audience in the theatric space deeper into the cosmos of the “dummy box.”

Several rooms, empty spaces, echo chambers are effected by the screens. The lines on the floor which demarcate their absences as they fly in and out become screens, too.

Screen Text in Blind Date

Screen Text in Blind Date

They highlight the fact that a screen is an entrapment, an encasement, a casket, a parameter, a box, just a couple of meaningless lines unless something is projected across it. Sitting ducks, the bodies whir and toss themselves in clockwork precision gone askance, tuning back in with popular dances and formations one would see on YouTube. The dancers in counterbalanced extremities, reach just beyond the frame for contact more meaningful than the gesture itself. Mining habitual movement, movement meant to heal like yoga asana, cohesive movement like marches and line dances, Bill T. Jones reveals a culture deliberating itself, but under the mistaken idea that it can be done on a screen, without acknowledging the programmers ensconced in the feed, the code, lingering in the cpu’s fleshless body.

Image Credits:

1. Dancing Duck, photograph by Paul B. Goode

2. Blind Date: montage by Janet Wong

3. Gas Station TV

4. Ensemble number, photograph by Paul B. Goode

5. Screen text, photograph by Paul B. Goode

Please feel free to comment.

Sports Commentary and the Problem of Television Knowledge

John Frankenheimer’s 1998 film, Ronin, contains a truly sublime moment that illustrates the raw power of athleticism as an audio/visual spectacle. In one narratively insignificant scene, the camera follows a figure skater, played by former Olympic champion Katarina Witt, as she rehearses her routine. Rachmaninoff plays over the empty stadium’s speakers as Witt gracefully strides and leaps across the ice. Audible above the music are the more jarring sounds of her skates grinding into the ice as she gathers energy for her next maneuver. The scene becomes a study in contrasts, and the cumulative effect is enthralling; the violent noise of Witt’s skates belying the smooth grace of her movements, the sights and sounds of an exceptional athlete engaged in the perfection of her sport.

Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998)

I have watched, but never really been a fan of, figure skating on television, and was surprised by my attraction to this scene. What made it so compelling compared to its television counterpart, I later realized, was the conspicuous absence of the omnipresent sports commentators. Their overly-enthusiastic discourse on lutzes and Biellmanns, and their pontifications about how a particular jump was “sending a message” to the other competitors, drowned out the beauty of the skating with a flood of technical jargon. The film allowed me to experience the skater on her own terms while television insisted that I engage skating on the commentators’ terms. Obviously, sports commentary is not limited to figure skating; all televised sports exhibit similar tendencies for over-discussion. For example, no quarterback can complete a pass without the audience being told what kind of a pass it was by a former quarterback-turned-commentator who then analogizes the play to on from his own playing past. Watching sports on television is less about observing the athletic spectacle of graceful competition than it is witnessing the construction of a televisual compendium of sports knowledge for which the game is merely the backdrop.

Given the ubiquity of sports commentary on television, there must be some perceived purpose behind it. But what might that purpose be? More importantly, what does it say about television sports audiences and the regard in which they are held by television networks that no sporting activity can be conveyed to the public without commentary? Why are television audiences not allowed to experience televised sports with only the natural sounds of the event? Inquiring about the role of commentating in televised sports engages how television creates knowledge and situates audiences with respect to sports. What we find is that television sports commentary turns sports from a visceral spectacle into a technical oration, and for no discernible benefit.

The most generous view of television sports commentary suggests that its purpose is to provide otherwise inaccessible information to viewers in a timely manner so as to enhance their viewing experience. And commentary can and does fulfill this function. With research staff on hand and their own well of experience, television commentators can draw out those interesting bits of history and trivia that, at the right moment in a game, can both inform and entertain their audiences with explanations of obscure rulings or contextualizations of significant plays. But commentators are not held in reserve off-camera until this information is needed, they are thrust into the foreground and seemingly required to speak even when there isn’t really much to say. They are the vanguard of the over-verbalizing forces of modern television. But information dissemination is not the same as conveying understanding, and it is the difference between those two that generates the knowledge problematic for television.

Any quality assessment of information is subjective, but one needn’t be a cynic to question the instructional value of much of the sports commentary on television. John Madden’s teleprompter circles around and discussion of the sweat stains of defensive linemen may be amusing, but certainly stretch the consideration of what counts as sports commentary. Similarly, tennis commentator Mary Carillo’s extended stories about Roger Federer’s attendance at a New York fashion show, with which she regaled audiences during play at this year’s U.S. Open, certainly make it fair to question the information value of such details over more pertinent information about the actual play on the court. Even those who applaud these digressions admit that the commentators are known more for their personalities than for their ability to provide quality information to audiences (e.g., Maffei, 2006). But I’m not describing only those instances when commentary moves from the trivial to the tangential; too much substantive information can also distract the viewer by asking them to give more attention to the commentator than to what is being commented on.

Mary Carillo at the mic

For those “in the know,” technical jargon indeed may be neither impenetrable nor detrimental to their viewing enjoyment, much in the same way that casual fans may appreciate Madden’s and Carillo’s meanderings through sensibility. But television is not a democratic but a tyrannical medium – we can only observe what it gives us. When the commentary is present, we must all accept it or mute it; there can be no in-between. The coverage interpellates the viewer as someone needing this data in order to enjoy the sporting event. Familiarity is rewarded, but not knowledge – the latter is claimed as the medium’s province. The audience is positioned as not being knowledgeable enough about the sport to enjoy it on its own terms or with only minimal informational assistance. Consequently, the commentary is a rhetoric of entertainment more than instruction. The unfortunate consequence of this assumption is that commentators believe that any factoid or story they convey – no matter its relation to what is taking place on the field of play – is of interest to the home viewer. Audiences have few means available for escaping or challenging their position in this dynamic. The forceful manner of the medium seldom creates an opportunity for audiences to assess this claim independent of the commentary and its self-established justification.

On a very few occasions, however, a different perspective has been available, and is helpful for situating sports commentary within the politics of the audience’s relationship to television. On December 20, 1980, NBC experimented with an “announcerless” broadcast of an NFL game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. Viewers at home heard only the natural sounds of the game, similar to what the fans in the stadium heard that night. The game earned respectable ratings, but the format was not continued because network executives considered it a “one-time gimmick” (Rubinstein, 2000). A quarter of a century later, following a media lockout by the Canadian Football League, several weeks worth of announcerless games were broadcast to fans, and their ratings were dramatically higher than games which featured commentary (“King Kaufman’s,” 2005). Fans, it would seem, are both capable of and willing to experience sports on television without the informational assistance of commentators or their anecdotes, and while these instances may be too few to support the claim that viewers prefer announcerless broadcasts, they do warrant additional thought along these lines.

Announcer John Madden (right) in heated discussion

If any event on television could be broadcast without worrying about the audience’s ability to understand and appreciate what they are seeing, relying on the audience’s existing level of familiarity with the concept, it certainly would be a sports event. And yet, sports are the most heavily commented events on television, to the point where it is not uncommon for there to be more commentators for an event than there are actual competitors on the field. If the explanation for this circumstance is that the audience need educating, then there are significant issues both with the quality of this education and the manner in which it is provided. Sports commentary on television, in its current form, is not simply too often distracting and trivial, its self-insistence is detrimental to fans’ ability to experience the events they have tuned in to watch. The technical knowledge hurled at television sports audiences shifts them from a position of being able to appreciate the athlete’s skills at the visceral level to a position where technical understanding is rewarded. Sports commentary as such is television’s vestigial organ, the unnecessary remnant that points out how the medium has not completely evolved into the modern media sphere. With the Internet in particular, the mythos of the uninformed audience is challenged. This is not to say that Internet audiences are smarter or better educated about the sports that they are watching, merely that they have access to a wealth of information and are far less reliant on commentators to provide it to them, as countless fan and media sites across the Web demonstrate. The realization needed here by networks is that, when it comes to sports, television is a medium of stimulation much more than it is a medium of information. Perhaps it would be best if television sports coverage were reshaped as a medium of appreciation, where the visceral impact of sport is conveyed more cleanly and directly. In the current media age, commentating is the province of audiences eager to make their own voices heard, not to simply listen to intermediaries who drift increasingly into shouting outrages in an attempt to garner attention and justify their airtime. Television should handle the transmission of the natural sites and sounds of the games and the commentary should be left to the fans to discover and generate for themselves.


King Kaufman’s sports daily. (2005, August 31). Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW:

Maffei, John. (2006, June 22). These voices don’t mince words. North County Times. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from the WWW:

Rubinstein, Julian. (2000, September 3). Monday night football’s hail Mary. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved September 15, 2007. On the WWW:

Image Credits:
Katarina Witt in Ronin (1998).
Mary Carillo at the mic.
Announcer John Madden in heated discussion.

Please feel free to comment.

Guy-Coms and the Hegemony of Juvenile Masculinity

This column was inspired by a comment at last year’s Flow Conference that television scholars tend to write about our own taste culture, rather than something like Everybody Loves Raymond. While I do discuss Raymond a little bit here, my main focus is what I call “guy-coms:” a handful of shows that debuted after Raymond’s but followed in his footsteps. These later series lack Raymond’s innovativeness and appeal among viewers earning more than $75,000. But guy-coms possess a reputation as “workhorse” series that consistently deliver respectable ratings and have come to dominate the domestic sitcom genre in the past decade. In 2003, seven of nineteen domestic comedies on the Big Four exhibited close adherence to guy-com aesthetics, including Yes, Dear; Still Standing; Everybody Loves Raymond; 8 Simple Rules; According to Jim; and Married to the Kellys. I want to suggest that guy-coms serve not only as the predominant form of domestic sitcom, but also help make juvenile masculinity hegemonic in U.S. culture. By “hegemonic masculinity,” I mean the process by which certain masculinities come to do the hard work of shoring up white male privilege.

Still Standing Cast

Cast of Still Standing

The “guy-com” subgenre features a “difficult” white male lead and a nuclear family with non-adult children. Each episode revolves around reconciling the man’s personality with the demands of family and marriage. Recently, the guy-com has also included recurrent characters in the extended family. The lead characters in guy-coms share fairly consistent gender traits. They work in occupations that demand physical rather than intellectual acumen, a fact often underscored by their fatness. They are self-centered, irresponsible, and casually sexist, prone to disrupting domestic harmony with their stubbornness. They are, in a word, juvenile.

Home Improvement Cast

Cast of Home Improvement

While domestic sitcoms have long included juvenile men, rarely have they been the genre’s main focus. But in the late eighties, for a variety of reasons, a trio of standard-setting guy-coms appeared: Major Dad, Coach, and Home Improvement. Featuring men with identifiable character defects (strictness, control issues, and childishness, respectively), these series split their action between the domestic space, where the men’s personalities clashed with the demands of family life, and the workplace where they were allowed free rein. The women in these guy-coms worked at jobs that paid better or required more intelligence than their husbands. At root, their message was that, while juvenile masculinity may be tolerable at work, it is disruptive at home.

Everybody loves Raymond cast

Cast of Everybody Loves Raymond

One of Raymond’s innovations was the replacement of the workplace with a second domestic setting, Raymond’s parent’s kitchen. No longer could juvenile masculinity escape to work, it was restricted by family on all sides. This new spatial structure restored some of the wedded bliss that earlier guy-coms had undermined: while Ray’s immaturity did cause marital problems, it usually surfaced because of his family-of-origin’s behavior. The narrative resolution of each episode pits the couple against the family-of-origin, reaffirming marital solidarity. Current guy-coms continue Raymond’s avoidance of the workplace.

The inclusion of recurrent male characters from the extended family who are more objectionable than the main characters leaves male leads as the only viable masculine performances. But main characters are also over-endowed with objectionable juvenile traits. This excessive immaturity offers male viewers a position of dominant specularity, where they can identify with the lead character’s attitudes, while distancing themselves from his more egregious character defects. A similar viewing position is constructed for women, who can see their own mates as less difficult than these men.

By bringing the extended family to the fore, Raymond pushed the nuclear family into the background. As Ray quips in the intro, “It’s not really about the kids.” The avoidance of issues of fatherhood, in particular, has an ambivalent ideological impact. On one hand, the influence of juvenile men on children is portrayed as foolhardy and destructive. On the other, the difficult accommodation between juvenile masculinity and fathering, which earlier guy-coms dramatized, disappears altogether, and is easy to ignore.

Characterization and humor do the primary work of portraying juvenile masculinity as superior to other forms of identity. In According to Jim, Jim is the only character who exhibits growth or depth, often at the end of an episode when he explains his behavior, thus balancing his immaturity with more endearing character traits. Likewise, Jim and his guy-coms counterparts are the only ones who generate what I would call exuberant self-mockery, which makes them both more fun and more self-aware than other characters.

According to Jim cast

Cast of According to Jim

A couple of jokes from an episode entitled “The Grill” helps clarify the different forms of humor associated with Jim and other characters When the family’s two daughters walk into the kitchen wearing ballerina costumes, Jim’s sister-in-law, Dana, twirls around and kicks over a bowl of potato chips. Meanwhile in the backyard, Jim explains the finer points of grilling to 5-year-old Kyle. “Grill my army man,” Kyle exclaims. “Where?” asks Jim. “In the middle, where it’s hotter,” replies Kyle, reciting the grilling lesson he’s just heard. “That’s my boy,” Jim shouts, grabbing the army man with his tongs and placing it on the grill. While the gag with Dana evokes derisive laugher, arising from her refusal to perform an appropriate femininity for her age and surroundings, Jim’s grilling of the toy evokes a more exuberant laugher of recognition: while no one would want to be Dana in this scene, many male viewers might want to be Jim. In fact, much of Jim’s humor involves self-mocking irony of his juvenile attitudes and behavior. This awareness of one’s own faults and the capacity to laugh at them is denied other characters. In a postmodern world, where the production of a cool, detached self is vital to economic, political, and social success, self-irony is key, but in guy-coms, only juvenile men are capable of self-irony; the other characters take themselves too seriously.

The capacity for change, the appeal of the male leads, and their ability to laugh at themselves ultimately make white masculinity comes across as a superior way of being in the world. However, it is the networks’ attempts to retain white male viewers that underwrite this portrayal of hegemonic, juvenile masculinity. While men in the 1990s were still addressed as members of family audiences and early guy-coms included extensive interaction with the nuclear family, as family viewing has continued to decline, the guy-com relegated the nuclear family to a backdrop, and the networks focused more on attracting married viewing couples. Although, as we have seen, men are the center of these stories and remain in the ideological driver’s seat, women characters, especially wives, are portrayed as mature and level-headed, thus flattering both halves of the viewing couple. Moreover, redirecting the narrative conflict from the couple to the extended family fits with couple viewing more comfortably than earlier versions of the guy-com.

Coach Cast

Cast of Coach

I would argue that guy-coms have becomes the standard form of domestic sitcom, the stylistic and ideological common sense of the television industry. However, the guy-com also signals the demise of the domestic sitcom altogether. Other generic forms are perhaps more effective in appealing to today’s lower middle-class white viewing couples, such as competitive reality shows like Dancing with the Stars or prime-time game shows like Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? In 2007-2008, only two domestic sitcoms are on the schedules of the Big Four: Two and a Half Men and According to Jim, which barely got renewed. It may be more accurate, then, to say that guy-coms set the standard for the domestic sitcom in its final years. Ironically, a genre that began its life as a way to integrate women into gender identities that fit the demands of a booming postwar U.S. economy may be ending its life by helping white men rebel against the demands of a volatile global economy at the dawn of the 21st century.

Image Credits:

1. Still Standing cast

2. Home Improvement cast

3. Everybody Loves Raymond cast

4. According to Jim cast

5. Coach cast

Please feel free to comment.

How Not to Format (or, What the Global Format Trade Could Teach Tim Gunn)

by: Tasha Oren / University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

Format television most often depends on unscripted interactions nestled within rule-defined sequences and set-piece locations: the game show, the “life-in-bubble” elimination, the makeover, the cook-off. Globally, television’s increased reliance on the format has grown so commonplace as to make up its own TV universe, existing peaceably with TV’s other universe of elaborately-structured, long-form narratives.

Indeed, the two trends are easily thought of as opposing impulses: the dazzling complexities of narrative possibilities (that play not only with multiple storylines but also through reconfigurations of the episode and season as flexible temporal units) versus the repetitive protocols of format television. Further, the growth industry of global format trade is all about paring down to content-containers: a set of formal, modular “rules” or codes. It is these codes (the format “engine”) that are traded (and borrowed, and stolen) across television systems. And, it is these rules that make each iteration familiar.

The storytelling possibilities of much of contemporary television were eloquently addressed on this site and elsewhere. But what of the evolving format? Are there particular critical tools useful for judging the delicate alchemy of rule-bound systems and repetitive custom-procedurals of tasks, ritualized judgments, nerve-fraying time-constraints, and the Great Reveal (transformation/elimination)? What’s “good” in good format TV?

Global formats depend on the most televisual of principles: formulaic repetition and familiarity. One common way of thinking about code and content is global rules and local adaptation. Examples of such local adaptation abound in writings about global reality shows like Big Brother or Pop Idol around the world. These shows are instantly recognizable to any viewer familiar with the rules, yet the content has the feel of the local, and the program, as one Australian format devisor has termed it, plays out a “parochial internationalism.” Whether the dominance of global TV formats is evidence of globalized homogenization of culture or the assertion of national locality has taken up the bulk of critical debate. But one aspect I’d like to take up here is that global formats are about the modular logic of television—the basic “innovation within convention”—and that audiences know and understand formats’ inherent mobility. Formats must, in order to work, demonstrate a satisfying complimentary relationship between code and content, rules and what happens within them. And all this brings me to Tim Gunn.


Co-hosts Tim Gunn and Veronica Webb

One of the striking TV failures this fall is Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style. For Bravo, Gunn’s makeover format show (coinciding with the release of a style book authored by Gunn) was no-brainer TV gold. Tim Gunn—the thoughtful intermediary between competing designers and judges on Project Runway—had emerged as the undisputed star of the hit designer competition format. The show would premiere to a built-in audience, a retail tie-in, a thriving all-things-Gunn internet portal and so much spin-off sheen (including appearances from Project Runway personalities). Further, Gunn’s approach (and book)—emphasizing process, lists and rules—seemed tailored to format-making.


Project Runway Season 3 cast

Built on the engine of the BBC format What Not to Wear (adapted in the US by TLC ), Gunn’s version (co-starring former model Veronica Webb) highlights rules (the four piles of closet-binging, the 10-item shopping list) but further codifies the format’s basic structure of analysis/purge/lesson/shopping/reveal with yet another overlapping structure that further names (and graphically identifies) each stage. Among them are:

The contract (in which the self-nominating woman is urged to commit to change):


The closet purge:


The underwear inspection (yes, the Gunn rulebook stresses the importance of “foundational garments”):


The consultation (Gunn uses a computer-generated image of the participant’s figure to illustrate rules of fit):


A visit to a “life coach”:


An upscale lingerie shop, the shopping spree:


The gift cabinet (each woman is presented with a product-placed gift, fetched elaborately from a set-piece cabinet):


The makeover:


And, finally, the Reveal, where friends and family enact the makeover format’s money shot, the tearful fashion show:


Following its debut in September, television critics were politely dismissive. In posts, blogs and discussions sites, viewers were unusually unanimous in their disappointment, first professing admiration for Tim Gunn and then pronouncing the show a thin, soporific gruel. After only four episodes, Bravo put the show on hiatus and, as of this writing, has no clear plans to air the remaining season.

The utter failure of the show to generate excitement, Bravo’s squandering of one of their best assets, and the format’s complete inability to speak to the network’s base offer one pathway into understanding the format universe of lifestyle TV and what about the formulaic works. There is plenty to explain the show’s inability to deliver televisual pleasure: the too-tight mechanics of segmentation, the enervating, matched coolness of Gunn and Webb, the self-conscious politics of class and borough clash, the relentless sameness of advice; in these and more, the show is instructive in—to use Gunn’s own oddly obsessive attachment to undergarments—illustrating the foundations of format success.


The Gunn 10-item shopping check list

Since all format television is recombinant, and increasingly depends on the audience’s contextual and layered understanding of its conventions, what makes certain format adaptations work is largely the fit between general protocol (the “rules” and structural logic of each text) and the specifics at play.

The show fails in skewing the ratio of code to content: successful global formats’ elaborate content is enabled by a set of simple rules. In contrast, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style is so thoroughly overburdened by tight protocol as to nearly close down variation or tension. Thus, many fans’ most memorable moment has been one participant’s horrified refusal to submit to an underwear inspection. With no built in elasticity, such pushback results in breakdown. An audience skilled in format reading enjoys the play made possible by the rules, not their clockwork efficiency.

Another important aspect of the format as a modular unit of television programming is that it often travels as an iteration, rather than an original text. Indeed, much of the (academic) fascination with Big Brother, Survivor, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? or So You Think you Can Dance has been their proliferation and various global incarnations. The format, after all, is an open recipe, a system of rules designed to produce particular—although preferably not entirely predictable—effects. Most importantly, it is not a tabula rasa, as viewers and participants draw on collective conventions of the format to read its present iteration. Thus, Gunn’s show was read by viewers as such a version, not merely of “makeover” shows but a “what-not-wear” iteration, Bravo-style. Unlike critics, viewers were not so much disappointed that the show’s format was familiar but in that Bravo and Gunn were unable to work the format—its celebrity host retreating into a staid instructor role, with the participant as star. In format, originality of form hardly matters; how rules enable character and conflict is content.

Most significantly, however, the show fails in addressing its locality—a cardinal tenet of format television.

In the emerging body of TV scholarship about global formats, persistent attention is paid to local iterations as expressions of national identity and cultural specificity. I’d like to stretch (shrink, actually) the locality approach to the U.S. case and the inter-network articulation of specificity to suggest that one reason for Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style‘s failure is its lack of Bravo native-ness.

Like globally distributed formats that seek to articulate local “takes” on global formats, inter-network formats in the U.S. case can also be understood as local iterations. For TLC’s populist appeal, the What Not to Wear format’s casual emphasis fit the network’s overall address, yet Bravo’s location on the psychic dial clashed with its iteration’s balance of code and content. The tight protocol of scheduled activities and responses allowed the show’s style-challenged participants precious few moments to be anything but compliant, while Gunn and Webb’s instruction and determinedly backseat approach highlighted the ordinary fashion woes of these straight, bridge-and-tunnel middle-class women, insisting that they, not the show’s urbane hosts, were its principle actors.


Clinton Kelly and Stacy London of TLC’s iteration of What Not to Wear


Gunn as Bravo native


And with plastic hangers

The successful format is nothing if not culturally elastic, yet articulation of location and audience-identity largely determine its ability to travel. Learning from Tim Gunn, the “local” that modifies the global of television can be more than just geographical.

Image Credits: Images supplied by author.

Please feel free to comment.