Sex, Media, Celebrity: A Queer Culture of Media Production

by: Adam Fish / UCLA

“Bring us your weird, your extreme, your niche, your marginal, your utterly twisted, and we will show you a world of wonder.”
WOW TV Manifesto

World of Wonder

World of Wonder

World of Wonder (WOW) is a cutting-edge independent documentary television, film, and new media production company headed by two executive producers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato at Sundance Film Festival

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato at Sundance Film Festival

They currently produce documentary and reality TV programs dealing with sex, media, celebrity, and queer identity. WOW almost always has something airing in the US on networks such as HBO, Showtime, Bravo and VH1 and in the UK on Channel 4.

Presently you can watch Debbie Does Dallas…Again on Showtime, Tori and Dean: Inn Love on Oxygen, and Party Monster on IFC. These shows are hyped online on their weblog, The WOW Report and licensed television for WOW TV, their hosted digital video community.

WOW brands itself with a style of intimate and verite studies of queer culture, sexuality, celebrity, and media. These topics are synergistically mobilized to produce content for US and UK cable television, worldwide festival films, and WOW’s websites.

WOW’s transmedia story of sex, celebrity, media, and queerness is charged with a subcultural capital of sexual liberation and radical individuality.

WOW adopts a drag queen plasticity with gender and a campy re-reading of sexual norms to fuel simultaneous sensationalism and political visibility on three media platforms: film, TV, and web 2.0.

WOW became a profitable documentary production company in the early-1990s, during a period of cable ascendancy, industrial instability, and competitive primetime network re-branding (Caldwell 2004, 54). The early 1990s was also an historical moment witnessing the rise of reality television.

With their documentary film sensibility and infatuation with popular culture, WOW was an easy and profitable fit with cable companies looking to hit niche demographics with low-budget reality television. WOW became and remains the go-to production company for many US and UK communications conglomerates needing to cultivate a sexually-curious, subculturally-interested micro audience.

Club Culture: The Scene becomes the Mise-en-Scene
WOW’s sensibility began in experiences in the clubs and subcultural arts scene of New York City in the 1980s. As DJs and the disco rock band The Fabulous Pop Tarts, Bailey and Barbato were insiders to a gay media movement rising in Manhattan in the wake of Warhol’s death. Failing to become pop music stars, Bailey and Barbato turned to managing in the early 1990s. They successfully introduced RuPaul, the first drag queen to hit popular American culture. The RuPaul Show aired in 1996 and ran for over 100 episodes on VH1.

As politically active or hedonistic entrepreneurs, Bailey and Barbato began to see an economic-future in producing media from their experiences in queer and art subcultures. From their experience in the Club Kid scene in the late 1980s and early 90s they made their first acclaimed documentary, Party Monster, which premiered at Sundance in 1998.

Club Kids in WOW documentary Party Monster

Club Kids in WOW documentary Party Monster

These experiences in performance, gender bending, celebrity construction and media play set the foundation for the production of over 125 documentary television series and films queerly dealing with sex, media, and celebrity. As WOW grew in stature they were increasingly interested in making participatory television and interactive websites.

Participatory Television

“Today’s underground is tomorrow’s mainstream”
–from the WOW TV Manifesto

WOW’s motto is a fitting explanation of their role in transforming the underground artist-viewer into avant-garde television users. Several of their earliest and original series were based on airing user-submitted videos and talking with viewers on live television. WOW’s participation with viewers continued from television to web 2.0.

Takeover TV was WOW’s first experiment in participatory television.

User-submitted program, Takeover TV

User-submitted program, Takeover TV

Manhattan Cable was a repurposing of strange American cable access programs for British audiences. The terrifying drag host Divine David features viewer submitted videos mixed with his diabolically drag performances. The Adam and Joe Show, a spin-off of WOW’s first show, Takeover TV, also featured campy-boy hosts toying with user-submitted video tapes. Made in the USA was a travelogue of American cable access video-auteurs. Also, WOW gave cameras to ten people to record LA after the 1992 riots for LA Stories. All of these programs are available online on WOW TV, their online, user-generated content network.

Participant Television (2.0): WOW TV

“TV is a medium that belongs to all of us. And often the best TV comes from those who have nothing to do with it.”
-Fenton Bailey, WOW Executive Producer



WOW TV was launched in late 2006. Most of the programs included in this documentary were downloaded from WOW TV and many of the television programs repurposed for WOW TV come from early WOW programs aired first in the UK on Channel 4.

WOW understood the sensationalism and activism in programming user-generated content as early as 1995 when they accumulated amateur videos for Manhattan Cable, Takeover TV, The Adam and Joe Show, Made in the USA, and Divine David. Today offering nearly 1000 downloads–the majority from WOW’s corporate library–WOW TV is a digital location to cultivate a niche audience of user-viewers.

“Randy and Fenton were new media before there was new media,” says J. Max Robins, editor of the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable. “They have always been aggregators who go out and see what’s there, put it together, and find a thread to put through it. The connective tissue is their humor and acute pop sensibility. All that translates well to the Web” (Pike 2006).

WOW TV works for WOW as a repurposing station, and works for fans as a place to showcase what may be censored on YouTube, MySpace, or Google video. WOW TV serves as a place for community media experimentation and where WOW can remain connected through structural support of their fanbase. In the ideal, WOW TV would become a cable television network.

For either their camp, voyeuristic, or genius appeal, WOW popularized participatory television, a collaborative production between broadcasters and the audience, before web 2.0 facilitated and capitalized on this interactivity. Both economics and community identification inspire WOW’s focus on making alternative visions visable. Subcultures and their subcultural capital are made profitable and brought to the masses while broadcast on television and web 2.0.

Queer Convergence
To explain how WOW began in subcultural experience, produced for television and film, and developed a powerful interactive online presence, I will use three phrases: cultural convergence, multiform convergence, and multicultural convergence. By cultural convergence I mean the culture, history, and experience that predate and fertilize a media idea. By multiform convergence, I refer to multiple media platforms–television, film, the web–working in synergy for the economic and political gain of the production company. By multicultural convergence, I mean the interactions that develop between users, viewers, and producers in online participatory media.

A transmedia story of queer visibility set within a popular culture of sex, media, and celebrity transects and connects cultural, multiform, and multicultural convergence. WOW’s transmedia story of queer visibility and interactivity began in the club culture, migrated to film and television, and emerged on the web. In the core of this communication circuit between media makers and media users is convergence, the coming together of people and the development of physical and virtual communities.

Like no other production company before or since, WOW worked documents of queer culture onto cable networks. As documentary films, reality television, and the queering of television increase in popularity, WOW’s brand satisfies the niche need in network conglomerate programming. As these network relations progress, WOW will gain more creative agency to spin their participant take on gender, sex, celebrity, and media subcultures into increasingly progressive programming.

From the beginning to the present, interactivity and a connection to subcultures are a cultural and economic imperative for WOW. WOW’s representations normalize the existence of multiple sexual identities, melding commerciability with a subtext of sexual diversity.

Convergence Circuit

Convergence Circuit

Some may say WOW produces trash TV. But because of their emphasis on and engagement with queers, sex, media, and celebrity—while being participants in these cultures—WOW’s productions are both sensational and subjectively honest, profitable and political. WOW makes visible those neglected by media representation—amateur producers, drag queens, transgendered students, male whores—and WOW re-represents and queers those overly-visible—celebrities, porn stars, and mediamakers. WOW’s ability to interactively make visible alternative genders and sexualities is behind their economic success and political potency.

Image Credits:
Images provided by author. All frame stills are the property of World of Wonder, downloaded from WOW TV, and in the forthcoming documentary World of Wonder: A Documentary of a Production Company, Raw Bird Films

Works Cited:

1. Caldwell, John. 2004. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” In Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, edited by Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, 41-74. Durham: Duke University Press.

2. Pike, Laurie. “Channel XYZ: drag queens, club kids, and amateur erotic filmmakers make WOW TV the online outlet for artists on the edge.” Los Angeles Magazine, Oct 1, 2006.

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Television, Ecotourism, and the Videocamera: Performative Non-Fiction and Auto-Cinematography

by: Adam Fish / UCLA

Vanessa Garnick and Tristan Bayer

Vanessa Garnick and Tristan Bayer

In two first-person cinematographer ecotourist programs, Survivorman (Science/Discovery) and Caught in the Moment (Animal Planet), the difficulties and joys of being a small camera crew are as important as what the cameras record. Camera-crews-as-characters, cameras-as-props, the filming of tourists filming themselves–does this technological reflexivity ad nauseam signify industrial solipsism, a mise en abyme, the foregrounding of the background, or just an audience interested in television production?

Mixing the technological determinism of apparatus theory with transcendental phenomenology to measure the intersubjective distances that exist between the “bodies” of the media-producer, the media technology, and the media produced, I will define techniques of the sub-genre of first-person, reality-based adventure television: self-cinematography and performative nonfiction. Intersubjective intimacy is achieved in Survivorman by closing the distances using these techniques, while conversely in Caught in the Moment distance is increased and intimacy repressed. In the process, ideologies of tourism are interpellated in the viewer.

Survivorman is a high-concept extreme adventure program that features one man, Les Stroup, dropped off alone with nothing but a half-dozen video cameras for seven days in one of the world's least populated and ecologically dangerous locations. He is his own camera crew. His only chore is to survive and film his survival without food, water, or shelter.

Caught in the Moment
The premise of Caught in the Moment (CitM) is Vanessa Garnick and Tristan Bayer, two gorgeous, romantically-involved cinematograher/hosts collecting footage of rare anmials for a nature “conservation video.” Three camera perspectives are possible in CitM, the hosts filming nature, the hosts filming themselves, and the Animal Planet crew filming the hosts filming turtle eggs and white bears.

Performative Nonfiction
I use the term performative nonfiction to define an affective, honest, or indulgent “excess” in subjective documentary. Performative nonfiction emerges from autobiographical confessions, exaggerations, and projections. Performative nonfiction includes apparently spontaneous dialogue and body movements produced when a camera inspires the surmounting of quotidian embodiment. Behind-the-scenes moments move to center stage in performative nonfiction.

Performative nonfiction begins with the belief that the cinematographer is an active participant in the production of the document. Like interactive cinema verite before, performative nonfiction takes the camera not as a limiting filter to the realization of the real but as inspiration to show the ecstatically real. Ostensibly, every documentary–from observational to mockumentary–is a performative nonfiction. But few programs attempt to create an environment and an event where nonfiction becomes performative.

Auto-cinematography takes a lead from auto-ethnography in insisting that objectivity is impossible and responsible cross-cultural research begins with self-knowledge. Auto-cinematoghaphy continues with the interactivity of cinema verite by acknowledging the filmmaker as an event maker while simultaneously requesting the filmmaker to begin with oneself as the source of knowledge about the other. Practically this means filming oneself, producing a faithful video-diary, shot while in the transprovential flows of travel and adventure.

Stroup setting up his camera

Stroup setting up his camera

Reflexivity: Talking to Oneself v. the Second Camera Crew
In a culture of Photoshop, “imbedded” reporters, and recent scandals in photojournalism, we are skeptical of the still and moving picture image. A souvenir photograph in front of a famous obelisk is no longer enough to prove the appropriated power of visiting a sacred place. An added layer of veracity is required. We want a picture of you taking the picture. Added layers of verification, yes, but also dynamic corporeal and technological layers recursively fuel the pleasure of a reflexive text.

In CitM, the documentation of documentation is provided by the Animal Planet camera crew that films the protagonist camera crew. The duo from CitM talk about filming, and express their goofy joy at getting a good shot of a dancing crane. In Survivorman, reflexivity is achieved when Stroup reflects upon the added difficulty of filming himself when he is in hypothermia or parched dehydration, as well as telling us when he leaves a camera behind because of its burdensome weight. In both programs, through pictures of cameras and discussing the program-making process, media production–usually left behind-the-scenes or on the editing bay floor–is foregrounded for entertainment.

Camera Distanciation in Caught in the Moment

By exposing the industrial machinery of theatricality, Bretolt Brecht explored distanciation–a rupturing of the audience's drama-soporifics. The industrial machinery in CitM–cameras everywhere as props and tools– is intended to bring the audience closer to the means of production, which, in this program, is also a path of seduction–the erotics of television production. The cameras as a sex-toys –Deleuze and Guattarian “desiring machines”– are intend to break Brechtian law by making the technologies the erotics.

It doesn’twork with three or four cameras burning DV and celluloid from multiple perspectives and motives, the televised program primarily consists of images shot by the Animal Planet crew of the hosts filming and reflecting on their excitement. The super 8, mini HD, and 16 mm cameras toted by the hosts are mere props.

With a large degree of extra-diagetic narration, naturalist editing, and the cameras-as-props whose footage is rarely used in the glossy, hyperactive, digitally manipulated, and non-linear “conservation music video,” the cinematographers are distanced from the narrative, the backstory recedes from the screen, and CitM is untrue to its mission –the romance of making videos about endangered mammals.

The veracity added to an image when it is shown along with the making of that very image is voided when the cinematographers and their cameras are mere props and the images are not their own. The camera-crew-as-characters is a gimmick–not a tool for editorial polyvocality and greater transparency.

The Non-Performative in Caught in the Moment

CitM looses its potential of foregrounding the backstory by shying away from the risqué subtext of two sexually and romantically active hosts. While retailing itself as a behind=-the-scenes look at a sexy film crew in romantically ludic –near honeymoon– work, CitM only reveals these cine-hosts as sexless simulacra of tantric-cinematographers. The product, though fascinating in theory, is neutered of its sexuality and multitierd reflexivity. The lusty backstory is repressed for a G-rating. Animal Planet and its interests in a proto-teenage and family audience is to blame for this dulling containment.

Camera Embodiment in Survivorman
With no crew, camera and host are –corporeally– closer. With less mediation, fewer distinctions exist between the original footage and the televised product. In Survivorman, the camera apparatus, the body of the protagonist, and the final edited program retain greater continuity and achieve accurate representation of television making. Few filters–and less distance–exist between the camera, Survivorman's body, and the televised product.

With the exception of the introduction, all narration is spoken in-the-field, the camera becomes a survival tool or threat to survival, the stock ratio is small, and with the televised product being temporally linear –the first mini DV tapes begin the show and the last DV tape ends the show– Survivorman closes the gaps between the fore and background. Discovery Channel, guided by several successful programs that feature charismatic first-person protagonists undergoing physical challenges (Dirty Jobs, Going Tribal) may be more comfortable with this performative posthuman self-cinematography than the pre-pubescent friendly Animal Planet.

Garnick and Bayer

Garnick and Bayer

Auto-Cinematography and Performative Non-Fiction in Survivorman
Out of necessity, auto-cinematography dominates the cinematographic style of Survivorman. He is his crew. The digital footage collected by Survivorman provides for the editors a wealth of handheld activity with which to represent the dangerous–not “fly-on-the-wall” but “on-the-fly”– death-peering adventures. Auto-cinematographic mayhem, as well as the pedestrian cadence and inquisitiveness of cinema verite cinematography, dominate Survivorman. Unlike CitM, which relies on Amimal Planet's camera crew (with steady-cams, pre-prepped shots, tripods, and three camera crews), Survivorman relies upon the film footage shot by the solo progagonist with an assortment of film cameras with various states of obfuscating lens moisture –and existence as a corporeal concern– to provide a living or dying handheld look. The cameras are so near to the body that his sweat fogs the lens and endanger his life. Survivorman retains much of the immediacy and vibrancy that comes with spontaneous cinematography, unrehearsed and unscripted performance, and near in-camera edits. In contrast to CitM, which represses erotic urges, all the gruesome details of being an excreting, starving, insect-devoured body are included in Survivorman. Like another Discovery Channel program, Going Tribal, gustatory and bodily excess are prominent spectacles.

The emphatic commitment to auto-cinematography in bodily difficult situations inspires Survivorman towards corporeal transcendence. The camera is an excuse, a drug, a mantra, a totem to immediately go beyond his body pain.

This is the martial art of performative nonfiction.

Ecotourism, Cameras, and Commercials
Nature is a backdrop for two ecofantastic adventures. It is a romantic getaway in CitM, typified by the working vacations with lovers — the honeymoon. It is a fear-facing extreme trip, something like pychedelic mountaineering, in Survivorman.

Jet travel and the videocamera are ubiquitous for both television and middle-class eco-adventurers. Both programs make travel and video machines part of the narration. A helicopter may save Survivorman at any moment, they all come and go by jets, the miniDV tapes survive, and Discovery and Animal Planet broadcast the programs. The armchair adventurer enjoys what she never enjoyed.

Photography is integral to tourism. Tourism is in the travel as well as the retelling. Camera wielding tourists fantasize about being the first to document exotic landscapes. Tourist photographers retell their adventures with these visual aids. While cameras are necessary to today's traveler, TV is the ultimate picture-storyteller to the widest possible audience. These programs make the camera a character and in doing so figure the middle-class tourist-photographer–and their fantasy of photographic fame–into the picture.

Jetset recreation–it's safety in danger, the romance in travel, the camera-on-tour–is sold to the travel, insurance, car, flight, credit card, and camera corporations that capitalize on expensive world travel and who dominate advertising on Animal Planet and Discovery Channel.

Bourgeois travel is a safe danger, television even safer tourism, but consumerism is travel without travel without end.

Image Credits:
1. Vanessa Garnick and Tristan Bayer
2. Stroup setting up his camera
3. Garnick and Bayer

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Paris Hilton–Anthropologist: The Production of Cross-Cultural Difference in First-Person Adventure Television

by: Adam Fish / UCLA

The Simple Life

The Simple Life

Cross-cultural transgressions — and the production of cultural difference — mark the contemporary wave of first-person, reality-based, adventure television (e.g., The Simple Life, Going Tribal, Digging for the Truth, 30 Days, No Reservations, Caught in the Moment). Not a competitive program (e.g. Survivor) nor a docusoap (e.g. Laguna Beach), this sub-genre of reality television is similar to investigative journalism and first-person ethnography. With emphasis on cultural encounters, this genre shares formal and theoretical similarities with select phases in the history and methodology of ethnography — particularly the earlier (pre-1960s) production of cultural difference through cultural encounter and the later turn towards first-person reflexivity (post-1960s; explicitly the 1980s).

The protagonists, quasi-ethnographers and our guides into the exotic, are keys to understanding the ethnographic method accidentally at work in these programs. The host families and indigenous cultures that shelter the protagonists are the subjects against which we compare the protagonists’ backstories in the production of cultural difference. The protagonists’ back-stories — necessary for establishing a baseline for gauging the cross-cultural contacts that form the crux of the shows — are revealed in on-screen personal narrations or in visceral contacts between the protagonists and their non-Western or American subcultural hosts. The contacts both magnify existing and produce new cultural differences that, in their emphasis on extremities of wealth and poverty, urbanism and ruralism, ordinary and exotic, modernity and “primitivism,” are televisually graphic while ethnographically suspect, but reveal a commonality in the first-person production of difference shared by both this genre and historical moments in ethnography. With an emphasis on the spectacle of difference, these programs look like earlier naïve objective anthropology. Upon closer analysis their subjectivity and processual nature affiliates them with cinema verite and postmodern ethnography of the 1980s. Finally, by being ethnographies latently about the televisual production of difference and the transgression of personal, social, and even national boundaries, these programs have some formal similarities with contemporary (post-1990s) anthropologies of media.

Going Tribal

Going Tribal

Six programs currently appearing on six separate networks are capitalizing — figuratively and monetarily — on the myriad issues surrounding cultural difference. The confluence and comparative success of such programs, and the emergence of similarly themed comedy features (Idiocracy, 2006; Borat, 2006), is evidence that the mining of difference has become a lucrative strategy for creating entertaining visual texts. The Simple Life (E!; 2003-), Going Tribal (Discovery; 2005-), and No Reservations (Travel Channel; 2005-) each feature faux-ethnographers being changed, resisting change, and reflecting on the process of personal change in the course of exotic adventures in foreign lands or alien (to them) environments. In each of the programs difference is isolated and magnified–or created, if necessary.

In The Simple Life, viewers are expected to identity with the rural or middle-class host families who agree to have pampered rich girls Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton stay with them for a month while they act as the girls’ interns, husbands, parents, or whatever class-contradictory or suggestive relationship the TV producers can concoct. Quotidian physical labor is the “adventure” for these celebutants’ expeditions into the rural middle-class.

Watching Bruce Parry, a British ex-Marine, imbibe hallucinatory roots and grotesque foods — toilet pig, rat cake — right along with the “primitive” locals, is the intended joy of the ethnographic reality television program Going Tribal. Parry details to the viewer how the foods and psychedelics change him — from tongue, through intestine, to mind, and spirit. After a month with the aboriginal people, and before boarding a helicopter, Parry simultaneously confesses his worries about globalization’s effects on his indigenous friends and laments Western societies’ industrialization.

The chain-smoking, drug referencing Manhattanite and semi-famous chef Anthony Bourdain, in No Reservations, is full of self-parody and cultural irony as he eats his way through the least or most savory, rustic and 3rd world urban locations in the world. Unlike Parry, Bourdain does not attempt to alter his subjectivity in order to think and feel like the indigene. But like Parry, Richie, and Hilton, Bourdain will never give up his metropolitan existence. After establishing the televisual protagonists’ extreme difference to the “host” cultures they encounter, these programs capitalize on the instances — usually gustatory, often political — where cross-cultural frictions occur.

The Production of Difference
Each show’s protagonist magnifies, subdues, exaggerates, or overcomes his/her original culture in contact with the “foreign” body. In the process, to greater or lesser degrees, the protagonists embrace, or negate, the “other” culture with their own expectations of the exotic or their requirements for familiar terrain. The prime pleasure in watching this process is predicting its rate of failure or success, the moments of transformation, and the points of blockage. As the protagonist navigates through the foreign culture, we ask ourselves whether we would want to be in the protagonist’s or host’s positions. Strange, idiosyncratic, unpleasant, or threatening foods, difficult travel conditions, religious rituals, political ideologies, sexual patterns, and behavioral taboos are important sites for self-surmounting, self-clarification, or self-calcification. The stress on the faces and the tension in the timber of their voices add currency to the protagonists’ confessions that they are resisting change or being changed. This visceral and oratory excess is the residue of difference. It is also the early colonizing anthropologist’s cross-cultural “knowledge.” Knowledge here consists of a sense of difference yet also kinship between the two abutting cultures, and an awareness of the destabilizing process involved in their contact. The deeper pleasure and more meaningful educational value of these programs thus derives from an affirming and a challenging of the qualitative differences between the cultures.

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain

On-screen protagonists entertain and edify by juxtaposing their normal, everyday lives with their adventurous experiences. Both their “real life” and their television life are somewhat contrived. Through staging, scripting, and editing the real is made ridiculous as cultural difference and individual transformation are exaggerated. That said, self-authenticated, individual change can and does occur on these programs (if only because of the meeting with television industries), and progressive revelations are possible at the points of cultural contact. Indeed, an embodied experience of the production of televisual difference requires one to play-along with the programs’ (and the fans’) bracketing of cultural difference and the conflicts that follow. Each program produces difference differently, but each in their own way skirts the edge of ethnography, while flirting with the tourist impulse and cultural slumming that plagues anthropology’s history and academic claims to empirical cross-cultural reportage. Just like today’s ethnographer, the protagonist may be changed by the encounter, but all return to the comforts of industrial society to reap the benefits.

Today’s media anthropologists are unpacking the productions of discreet cultural units to reveal how difference is manufactured under the aegis of science or entertainment in the search for fact and spectacle. By using the tools of pro-filmic biography and on-camera in-process reflexivity, contemporary first-person adventure television reflects the personalizing of anthropological praxis. This genre has similarities to post-1980s reflexive anthropology. By situating knowledge building in the ethnographer’s or protagonist’s subjectivity, both postmodern ethnography and adventure television explore the personal process of building knowledge.

Image Credits:
1. The Simple Life
2. Going Tribal
3. Anthony Bourdain

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