The Future of Television is…Comics?
Alisa Perren / University of Texas at Austin

agents of shield

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast

One of the most anticipated shows of the fall 2013 season was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel’s skillful and profitable expansion of its cinematic universe from Iron Man through The Avengers, along with Joss Whedon’s widely reported involvement with the launch of the series, led to tremendous enthusiasm on the part of critics, journalists, and fans about the new series. Speculation ran rampant: Would Marvel do for television what it previously had done for movies? Might this mark a new moment in the movement of comic book properties to television? How might the company expand the storyworld and characters through a big-budget, high-profile weekly broadcast series supported by all the resources at parent company Disney-ABC’s disposal?

Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did not live up to the pre-broadcast hype. In spite of extensive promotion, the show’s viewership rapidly declined. Many viewers (myself included) found the show’s cardboard characters and superhero-adjacent storylines uninteresting and unworthy of weekly viewing. Marvel’s investment in maintaining the economic value of its cinematic superhero universe diminished the economic potential for its first major live-action television venture. The very financial success that the company had with its motion pictures demanded that it reinforce a distinctive cultural hierarchy – one in which the characters (and performers), action, and special effects of its motion pictures eclipsed those of its first television series. Industrial valuation translated into cultural valuation in a very explicit manner, at least in the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Given the current industrial and creative landscape, in which journalists, critics, and talent regularly claim that “television is the new cinema” and “TV is better than movies,” this reinforcement of cultural and creative distinctions between film and television through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is particularly striking. Entertainment companies, it seems, have not yet fully figured out the formula for transferring comic books – especially superhero properties, (( Space constraints lead me to conflate the superhero genre of comics with the medium more generally. There is a wide range of non-superhero based comics. )) my primary focus here – to television. This is not to say that there haven’t been consistent efforts over the years. From The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) to Batman (1966-1968), Wonder Woman (1975-1979) to The Flash (1990-1991), Lois & Clark (1993-1997) to Smallville (2001-2011), there have been steady, albeit limited, attempts to translate comic book properties to live-action TV. (( Shows such as M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-1995) and Heroes (2006-2010) represent unofficial interpretations of comic book properties. )) Each decade has been marked by a few such ventures, but none has proven to be a megahit in the way that so many superhero movies have been for decades.

lois and clark

Lois & Clark

Indeed, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though still on the air, is unlikely to represent the “future” of comics on television, let alone the future of (successful) corporate synergy or transmedia storytelling. Yet looking into my crystal ball, I would venture to say that the time is coming for superheroes on television – not to mention for a more expansive new phase in the comics-television relationship. As often has been noted, comic book properties have piqued the Hollywood film industry’s interest in recent years because they appeal the elusive yet desirable young male viewer and because they are viable sites for transmedia marketing, storytelling, and fandom. As Andy Greenwald observes, big-budget superhero films in effect have become serialized television – except that new installments of “episodes” of The Avengers appear in theaters once or twice a year and are discursively produced as distinctive from television in the interest of product differentiation and theatrical attendance.

Thus far, producers of live-action TV series have found it far more challenging to adapt comic book-based properties than have motion picture producers. Two programs, however, currently suggest the potential and possibilities for comics on TV: The Walking Dead (2010- ) and Arrow (2012- ). Much ink has already been dedicated to the blockbuster success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, so I will simply note here that this program suggests the potential for using non-superhero comics as a jumping off point for serialized storytelling and characterization.

Arrow is a different story. This show’s trajectory, even more so than The Walking Dead, suggests that the industrial and creative imperatives of the comics and television industries are intersecting to a greater degree than ever before. The serialization so common in comic books dating back to the 1960s has become the norm in prime-time television, and Arrow has been able to effectively meld the storytelling strategies developed in both media forms over the last several decades. Significantly, writers for the show, including writer-producers Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, also have written extensively for comics, indicating the cross-fertilization of creative labor at work here.

arrow

Arrow season 2 cast

The show expands on the well-established WB/CW formula forged with shows ranging from Dawson’s Creek (for which Arrow writer-producer Greg Berlanti wrote) to Veronica Mars while improving upon the worldbuilding and characterization initiated with Smallville. Though initially Arrow relied heavily on “cases of the week” and owed more than a little to Nolan’s Batman franchise (not to mention Lost and Robin Hood) in style, structure, and tone, as the show has developed over the last year-and-a-half, the characters have become more well-rounded and the storyworld has expanded more organically. What’s more, the action scenes have come to rival those of many motion pictures.

The recent introduction of Grant Gustin as Barry Allen (soon to be The Flash) as set up for a new CW series for 2014 – as well as the introduction of Arrow to Netflix streaming – suggests that the awareness of the show, its storyworld, and its characters will continue to grow. (( The character of John Diggle (introduced in the TV series Arrow) has since been incorporated into the comic book series. This is just one of many examples of how comic book characters and storytelling strategies are not just informing TV series, but TV series are also fueling comics stories (e.g., Vampire Diaries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books). )) Current media chatter suggests that, whereas Marvel has sought to maintain a clear division between its “film” and “television” characters thus far, DC Entertainment might just be developing characters (and performers) who will transition much more seamlessly from small screen to big screen and back again. It remains to be seen how – or if –this might contribute to a revaluation of each medium both industrially and culturally.

flash

Grant Gustin as The Flash

Although Arrow offers one direction that comics-TV convergence might take, several other projects offer indications of what is to come, including:

• The creation of a TV division at comics publisher IDW;
• Development of the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic Preacher (Vertigo/DC Comics) at AMC;
• Development of comics iZombie (Vertigo/DC Comics) and Hourman (DC Comics) at The CW;
• Development of DC Comics’ Gotham at Fox;
• Development of DC Comics’ Constantine at NBC;
• And of course, the much-reported Marvel-Netflix multi-series deal.

While these projects are certainly interesting from the perspective of transmedia storytelling and corporate synergy, it is worth underscoring that there are many other components to the comics-TV relationship that remain to be examined in greater depth. From a media industry studies perspective, what I find especially intriguing is the extent to which the creative practices, management strategies, production cultures, and corporate structures of the comics and television industries are impacting the shapes the stories take and the ways that characters are developed for each medium. As new platforms (and new TV series buyers) continue to emerge and the means of consuming television expand still more, the television and comics industries have the potential to become even more co-dependent. As the brief discussion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow above suggests, comics provide a fascinating site through which to think through industrial transformations and cultural valuations in convergent-era television.

Image Credits:

1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast
2. Lois & Clark
3. Arrow season 2 cast
4. Grant Gustin as The Flash

Please feel free to comment.




More Dark Nights for DC Comics and Time Warner?
Alisa Perren / Georgia State University

Iron Man

Iron Man, Marvel’s first release as a stand-alone studio, was one of the summer’s biggest hits

This column takes up where my last column left off in challenging widespread myths about the practices and products of the comics business. ((Thanks once again to Cully Hamner and fellow Gaijin Studios members for their input and guidance with this column.)) Only one myth will be called into question this time around, but it is a big one: Marvel and DC Comics have successfully figured out how to transform their comic book properties into profitable multi-media franchises.

This summer’s amazing box office performance of Marvel’s Iron Man and DC Comics-Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight would seem to underscore how savvy and skillful these two corporate entities have become in exploiting their characters and properties. Yet though these two films have met with astounding success, it remains uncertain whether either company will be able to sustain (in Marvel’s case) or develop (in DC’s) longer-term strategies for turning comic books into motion picture franchises.

Indeed, the next year very well may be one of the defining moments for both companies. Each finds itself in the process of initiating new corporate strategies designed to more fully take advantage of several of their comics. Yet as I indicate below, myriad obstacles remain – obstacles that might prevent us from ever seeing many comic book-based films from reaching motion picture screens (and Netflix queues). Considering some of these obstacles here helps shed light on several assumptions we may have about the operations of the media industries at large, including the monolithic nature of media conglomerates and the impact that individual figures can have within large corporate media structures.

At present, several industry analysts believe the future looks promising for Marvel. As a relatively small company focused on exploiting its own comic book properties for the first time, Marvel has been able to move more quickly in its preliminary efforts to craft a “Marvel Universe.” ((For a discussion of this strategy, see http://weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood/2008/08/marvel-vs-dc.html?query=marvel+vs+dc.)) We have witnessed the first steps of this process this summer in both Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk; characters introduced in each of these films made crossover appearances and are expected to appear in upcoming Marvel features as well.

Incredible Hulk

The second step in building the “Marvel Universe” came with this summer’s Incredible Hulk.

Yet Marvel’s investment of well over $100 million per film also places it in a risky position. So far it has been fortunate to have a mega-hit in Iron Man and a satisfactory performance with The Incredible Hulk. ((The verdict is still out on precisely how successful The Incredible Hulk (2008) was in comparison to The Hulk (2003). Domestically, the newer iteration only made a couple million dollars more than the 2003 version (as of this writing, about $135 million versus $132 million).))

However should one of its upcoming projects – which include Thor, Captain America and The Avengers – be received poorly, the company’s future viability could be endangered. All one has to do is consider the immense failure of United Artists’ recent release, Lions For Lambs, and the subsequent troubles faced by this division of MGM in order to see how a single expensive film can play a major part in harming a company.

Given the greater financial protection that a major conglomerate parent can offer, it might seem that Warners/DC have their act together. In fact, much evidence suggests the opposite is the case. Up to now, Warners has predominantly focused on launching (and re-launching) its best-known and most iconic characters, such as Superman and Batman while ignoring second-tier properties such as Green Lantern and The Flash. In spite of efforts to put both Wonder Woman and Justice League films into production, casting and script problems have prevented either from going forth. (The recent writers strike threw another wrench into the development process.)

Wonder Woman

Though several efforts have been made to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen, the project still remains in development.

Beyond the fundamental creative challenges that are typically involved in beginning production on nearly any motion picture, Warners/DC currently faces significant institutional challenges in trying to initiate any comics-to-film adaptations. One key issue involves establishing the precise relationship and chain of command between Warners and DC. Again, on the surface this seems to be a fairly easy thing to do, considering that DC Comics is a part of Warners’ filmed entertainment division as opposed to the publishing arm that houses such magazines as Entertainment Weekly, Time and People. ((For a map of Time Warner’s corporate structure see: http://www.timewarner.com/corp/businesses/detail/warner_bros/index.html)) Yet though this rather close corporate relationship has been in place for decades, DC’s activities have remained quite marginal to Warner Bros’ bottom line. Further, its newer characters and properties rarely have been mined for feature-length films or television series.

In spite of the array of new comics titles that have come out of DC and its imprints (including Vertigo and Wildstorm) in recent years, Warners has focused primarily on exploiting DC for its most well-known and obvious superhero franchises. (Notable exceptions include the film adaptation of Vertigo’s Hellblazer series, Constantine, and the adaptations of The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence – the latter two coming from DC’s graphic novel arm.) The possible “R&D” function that DC could have served – or might presently offer – has not yet come to fruition, for the most part. Only recently has Warner Bros. appointed a liaison between its motion picture and comic book divisions. Yet rumors seem to indicate that this individual has neither the power in the Warners hierarchy nor the respect of the comic book community. ((For a discussion of the current Warners-DC relationship, see http://pwbeat.publishersweekly.com/blog/2008/08/18/dcu-more-important-than-ever-to-the-studio/; http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117990659.html?categoryid=13&cs=1. The comments following the Publishers Weekly article suggest how some fans feel about Warners’ handling of DC.))

Watchmen

The upcoming release of The Watchmen will be one of the next big projects coming from Warner Bros/DC Comics.

Marvel’s recent expansion efforts, along with the consistently strong financial performance of comic book adaptations and related merchandise, have led Warners/DC to begin to discuss their desire to better “use” DC and tap into its rich library of titles. As recently as mid-August, Warners executives promised that announcements were forthcoming about how it would “revamp” its use of its DC properties. ((From http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117990659.html?categoryid=13&cs=1.)) Yet as one observer snarkily noted, so far all this has amounted to is a “plan to make plans.” ((From see http://weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood/2008/08/marvel-vs-dc.html?query=marvel+vs+dc.))

Meanwhile, DC-based comic book titles that might be turned into movies by other companies are held in a state of permanent limbo. This is the case because Warners (which usually obtains right of first refusal over any comics published through DC divisions) will not produce these projects itself, but neither will it allow the properties to go elsewhere. ((Sometimes Warners will let creator-owned projects go elsewhere, but in return it demands some type of compensation.)) Such contractual stipulations, in turn, make it more difficult for DC to sign top writers and artists to do original work. The net effect of Warner/DC’s mounting contractual demands is that it risks diminishing the quality and types of projects it can acquire and publish (if it has not done so already).

As if rumors about a glacial development process, a lack of a “grand plan” for how to exploit comics across its various divisions, and poor communication between executives in various divisions haven’t caused enough trouble, an ongoing sense of uncertainty looms over many working at Time Warner. The company has struggled ever since its disastrous merger with AOL. New management has decided to streamline the company’s operations, resulting in a continuous shedding of assets and employees. Warner Independent, New Line and Picturehouse all have been recent casualties of this strategy; the CW’s status remains in question as well.

Batman

The Dark Knight has become one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Can its success be repeated by other comic book features?

Thus, in spite of the frequent discussions of “big media getting bigger,” Time Warner seems to be going in the opposite direction at present. Of course, this is not to say that Time Warner will cease to exist – rather, its cable divisions and primary motion picture arm are doing quite nicely. But it is to say that this mega-media conglomerate is facing the same rough financial market and uncertain media landscape that everyone else is…and trying to figure out what works.

Where and how DC Comics – along with its rich and largely untapped comic book properties – fit into this rapidly shifting picture is uncertain at this time. Though DC may have been slow to act so far, we shouldn’t necessarily assume this will remain the case in the future. How Marvel fares with its recent proactive efforts at “universe building” as well as its efforts to actively involve comics creators in its feature film development activities might impact how DC (and Warners) proceed. ((For example, Marvel brought in a brain trust of comics creators who have been involved in shaping how the Marvel Comics Universe is presented in the films; see http://www.newsarama.com/film/080711-kevin-feige-interview.html. Also, on Iron Man, they brought in Adi Granov, the comics artist who illustrated Marvel’s Iron Man: Extremis, to work in a design and concept art capacity; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk43hVxywHM.))
Further, the immense critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight could reinforce the value of respecting both original source material and the distinctive voices of those adapting it.

Image Credits

1. Iron Man
2. Incredible Hulk
3. Wonder Woman
4. Watchmen
5. Batman
6. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.




Up, Up, and Away? Separating Fact from Fiction in the Comic Book Business
Alisa Perren / Georgia State University

Rest assured…comic book adaptations had a very good summer.

Rest assured…comic book adaptations had a very good summer: Angelina Jolie in Wanted (2008).

Record attendance at Comic-Con 2008 of more than 125,000. The Dark Knight breaking box office records week after week. Four of the top ten box office earners this summer based on comics. ((The films are Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Wanted and The Dark Knight. A fifth, Hancock, though not based on a comic, owes much to the medium.))

To the casual observer, recent headlines might suggest that comics are bigger than ever. All may look rosy for the comics business these days, and, in fact, there is much to celebrate. Yet the financial and popular success of comic book adaptations masks a far more complex reality for the comic book industry as a whole. Indeed, the hype surrounding the success of comic book adaptations has contributed to the perpetuation of a number of mis-perceptions about the medium on which they are based. Regular comic book readers may be well aware of these mis-perceptions; however, as a relatively new initiate into the world of comics, I have been stunned to discover the degree to which the press perpetuates a number of myths about the medium and its relationship to other media forms.

Many of us know little more of this medium than what is to be found in the pages of Entertainment Weekly or The New York Times. In this column and the next, I outline – and challenge – three prominent myths propagated about comics by the mainstream media. This information has been gathered primarily from my attendance at this year’s Comic-Con as well as recent conversations with several comic book artists from Atlanta-based Gaijin Studios. ((Particular thanks to artist Cully Hamner – Blue Beetle; Red – for his insightful comments. Click here for more information and check out Gaijin Studios. )) In outlining these misconceptions, it is possible not only to better understand the complicated relationship between comics and other media, but also to see yet another example of the often reductive nature of much mainstream press coverage today.

Myth #1: Comic-Con is all about comics. From its inception in 1970 well into the 1990s, this was largely the case. However, in recent years, the Hollywood studios increasingly have focused their energies on using the annual event as a means of promoting upcoming films and television programs. The timing of the event works especially well for broadcast networks that are starting to ramp up their promotional campaigns for their fall series. ((In fact, the summer Television Critics Association press tour has responded to the growing prominence of Comic-Con by rescheduling their 2009 event after the San Diego event. See Hollywood Reporter article for more information. And this is an interesting take on Comic-Con vs. TCA. ))

View of the 2008 Comic-Con convention floor.

What’s more, the media products being promoted aren’t simply targeted to one clearly identifiable group of super-fans. In spite of clichéd journalistic visions of Comic-Con as overrun by geeky fanboys and costumed zealots, in actuality there is a far more diverse group in attendance. As blogger and comic book/television writer Mark Evanier recently noted:

The con has turned into a place where major filmmakers and stars and writers and artists and the movers ‘n’ shakers of the entertainment industry converge, and the hall is full of adults and families and even attractive women. Isn’t it about time we drop this stupid ‘geek’ talk, like everyone there is sexually retarded and living in their parents’ basement?

A walk across the convention floor quickly reinforced the varied demographic groups being targeted by the studios. Posters and displays for everything from Showtime’s Dexter to NBC’s 30 Rock to Fox’s upcoming Fringe were visible. Similarly, companies ranging from IFC to ABC to The Weinstein Company occupied substantial exhibition space. At times I felt more like I was at NATPE or ShoWest than a so-called “comics” convention. The difference was the audience consisted of a diverse group of devoted media consumers – consumers likely to return home and begin spreading their excitement on the Internet – instead of the international distributors or theater owners that frequent industry trade gatherings.

Hollywood’s promotion of a variety of film and television properties is visible here.

It didn’t take long to see that the size and scope of panels devoted to comic books were often overshadowed by panels on (non-comics based) media (see full program). There were sessions on several upcoming television series (NBC’s Knight Rider, HBO’s True Blood) and for several returning shows (CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, ABC’s Pushing Daisies). BET, ABC Family, Nickelodeon, MTV, BBC and Comedy Central all had panels – some more than one. There were also an equally diverse number of panels devoted to motion pictures (see: the Pineapple Express panel; the Twilight panel) and gaming (World of Warcraft, Prince of Persia).

One of the many standing room-only events at Comic-Con 2008, the Twilight panel.

One of the many standing room-only events at Comic-Con was the panel for the film Twilight (2008).

The location of the film and television studios on the convention floor in relation to comic book artists said much about the relative power and influence of these different groups. While the studios’ displays sometimes bordered on the oversized and absurd (e.g., the Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay scalable prison), most of the small-scale publishers and artists seemed to be banished to the far reaches of the hall.

Given the degree to which most comic book artists, writers and publishers have become second-class citizens in terms of both floor space and panel allocation, it comes as little surprise that a growing number of these individuals plan to stop attending the event. (( See Comic Reporter for example )) Even Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada acknowledged the extent to which Comic-Con serves little value to much of the comic book business at this point, stating that the event

…has become so much more than comics, and even from our perspective, we’re wary about how much staff we bring and of what we announce and don’t announce at the con these days… If I was still running (small publisher) Event Comics, I’d probably skip [Comic-Con] completely as a publisher and just attend as a visiting creator.

Thus, in much the same way that during the 1990s legitimately independent filmmakers were marginalized as studio specialty divisions descended in greater numbers on festivals such as Sundance, many in today’s comics business have been pushed aside as Comic-Con’s potential promotional value has become more apparent to the major film and television studios. This point, in turn, leads to a second myth about the contemporary comic book business:

Myth #2: Since movies based on comics are all the rage, comic books must be selling like crazy. The high profile accorded to comic book adaptations has not translated into higher sales for “traditional” comic books (meaning single issue series). In spite of the spate of comic book-based films in recent years, sales of monthly comics have not spiked significantly. Further, sales remain far lower than they were during a “boom period” in comics twenty years ago. (( For a sales comparison of the last ten years, see www.comichron.com/VitalStatistics/ComicShopOrders/tabid/226/Default.aspx. Additional sales figures here. ))

Several different reasons have been noted for the decline in traditional comic book sales, including more competition from other media forms, the move of comic books out of local drugstores and into a smaller number of specialty shops, and the increasingly interwoven (some would say convoluted) narrative universes of many comic books. The level of insider knowledge required to read many of the older titles seems to get larger by the day – a point that became abundantly clear to me when I recently sat down to read a random Batman comic I had picked up.

The display for the upcoming Watchmen film attracted large crowds at Comic-Con. Will the movie do the same?

In addition, the readership for comics continues to age. A disproportionate number of comic book readers are white men ranging in age from their mid thirties to late forties (a point that readily becomes apparent when one attends smaller comics conventions). Younger comics fans tend to be exposed to characters through television series, movies and video games. Such is the nature of transmedia storytelling and multi-media licensing today that the roots of Superman and Batman (not to mention non-superhero based comics such as 300, The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence) as comic books often tend to be obscured. One of the most striking examples of this for me occurred a couple a months when I had some comics professionals come into one of my classes. After the session, one of my students told me that he had always considered himself a huge comics fan. However, he added, he had never actually read a comic book!

Before becoming an award-winning film, Persepolis was an acclaimed graphic novel.

Before becoming an award-winning film, Persepolis was an acclaimed graphic novel.

This is not to suggest that all is grim for comic book publishers. A huge growth area in the last decade has been in the book market (as opposed to the more traditional newsstand and comics shop markets). In the same way that select “evergreen” television series have been reinvigorated by the rise of TV-on-DVD, one of the fastest growing sectors of the comics business has been in the publication of collected editions. Here six to twelve issues are repackaged as glossy trade paperbacks or hardcover editions and sold in retail bookstores such as Barnes & Noble (and its virtual counterpart). As these editions have grown more prominent, the audience consuming comics – as well as the means by which they are consumed – are beginning to change. Here is yet another example of Chris Anderson’s “long tail” in action, as sales may not be particularly substantive on a month-to-month basis but add up over a longer term trajectory. ((Sample sales figures can be found here. ))

In the grand tradition of comics, next month I continue this column by challenging one last myth: that that largest publishers such as DC and Marvel have effectively figured out how to exploit their varied comic book properties. Find out more next month, true believer!

Image Credits:

1. Rest assured…comic book adaptations had a very good summer: Angelina Jolie in Wanted (2008).
2. View of the 2008 Comic-Con convention floor. (Photo by author.)
3. Hollywood’s promotion of a variety of film and television properties is visible here. (Photo by author.)
4. One of the many standing room-only events at Comic-Con 2008 was the panel for the film Twilight (2008).
5. The display for the upcoming Watchman film attracted large crowds at Comic-Con. Will the movie do the same? (Photo by author.)
6. Before becoming an award-winning film, Persepolis (2008) was an acclaimed graphic novel.

Please feel free to comment.




I Don’t Think We’re In Hollywood Anymore: Television Series Go On Location
Alisa Perren / Georgia State University

inplainsight

In Plain Sight in New Mexico.

Recently, I tuned in to the pilot of In Plain Sight, a new drama on the USA network. Little about the plot or characters stood out. However, one element did catch my eye: the show’s scenic setting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The area’s distinctive architecture and landscape are among the program’s most striking components.

An effective use of a location is scarcely enough to draw me back for repeat viewings. However, its effective backdrop did lead me to think about how several recent shows have taken advantage of settings outside the traditional New York-Los Angeles axis. From Burn Notice and Dexter (Miami) to Friday Night Lights (central Texas) to One Tree Hill (Wilmington), many television programs seem to be using their surroundings effectively to help set the tone, advance the story, and define the characters.

Burn Notice: Palm Trees, Bikinis...must be Miami

Burn Notice: Palm Trees, Bikinis…must be Miami. ((It is worth noting that Miami Vice used similar locales quite effectively a couple decades ago.))

This leads me to ask a couple of questions: To what extent is the movement to other parts of the U.S. a new development? And if so, why does it seem to be happening now?

Certainly fictional television series long have been located in locales outside of New York and Los Angeles. One can point to a number of programs – from The Dukes of Hazzard (Georgia) to Dynasty (Colorado) to Cheers (Boston) and That ‘70s Show (Wisconsin) that have been set elsewhere. Yet for the most part, with the exception of recycled establishing shots and a handful of “special” episodes, all of these shows were still filmed predominantly on soundstages and in locations across Los Angeles.

Cheers

The “real” Cheers bar was located on a soundstage on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.

Lately, however, a growing number of shows – especially cable shows – are taking advantage of “real” locations outside of New York and L.A. ((Programs on cable and smaller networks such as the CW seem more likely to shoot outside of Los Angeles in order to keep their budgets down and the production values up.)) “Locals” are serving as extras and bit part players; shoots occur in city restaurants and shops. In addition, local resources such as production crews and office facilities are employed on a consistent basis.

This takes us to the real reason many of these shows are moving away from the “coasts”: state incentive programs. In the last few years, throughout the U.S., state and local governments have become more and more aggressive in giving tax credits, rebates and grants as incentives offered to recruit production companies for local shoots. In the past few months alone, a wide range of states including Connecticut, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts have passed new legislation designed to bring in more production. ((With so many states competing for local productions, it will be interesting to see which are able to attract the most productions. For discussions of recent incentive packages see: Bashirah Muttalib, “Georgia Offers Juicy Tax Credits,” Variety, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117986920.html?categoryid=8&cs=1; Lisa W. Foderaro, “Gone with the Cash: Films Go for the Best Tax Breaks,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/29/nyregion/29film.html?_r=1&scp=11&sq=film+incentives&st=nyt&oref=slogin, Matthew Ross, “American Rebates Bloom,” Variety, http://www.variety.com/index.asp?layout=festivals&jump=features&id=3073&articleid=VR1117985361; Glenn Rifkin, “Lights, Camera, Tax Credit: Massachusetts Lures Filmmakers with Generous Rebate,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/05/business/smallbusiness/05sbiz.html?partner=rssnyt))

Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais taking advantage of Massachusetts production incentives forThis Side of the Truth.

State representatives and local businesses have long viewed the recruitment of Hollywood productions as desirable. Of course there is the obvious economic motivation. Not only do local productions serve as a potential low-cost way of promoting an area and bringing in tourism, but the crews themselves bring money to the area’s economy by frequenting local businesses. For example, Georgia believes that media productions contributed $475 million to its economy in 2006; Connecticut estimates that $400 million in production costs have come into the state from July 2006 to March 2008. ((“Georgia Offers Juicy Tax Credits” and “Gone with the Cash.”))

There are also less tangible but equally powerful motivations for developing incentive programs. These include everything from politicians wanting to hobnob with celebrities who are in town during the shoot to business bureaus seeing the publicity attached to a large-scale production as an efficient way of enhancing a city or region’s image.

Typically these incentive programs have been – and continue to be – focused on attracting feature-length films. In the past not only have movie productions been more amenable to shooting on location than television series but they also have carried a mystique and cultural cachet for outsiders that television series have not. Yet though there may be more allure attached to attracting a high-profile Will Smith or Julia Roberts shoot, a successful series television show can prove a much bigger boon to a local economy in the long term. A hit series can last years, bringing in consistent revenue to a community for a much longer period of time than even the biggest budgeted feature film.

Nontheless, until recently, series television has been much less likely to hit the road. When these shows did “run away” from Hollywood, they usually did so to take advantage of the incentives in other countries, especially Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The types of shows that were most likely to leave the States were either the science fiction/fantasy variety (Xena: Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica) or those that, for economic reasons, sought to maintain the fiction that they were set in a U.S. city and worked hard to conceal their non-U.S. locations onscreen (21 Jump Street, The X-Files).

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street: Just a couple of American cops…in Vancouver.

Yet now things are changing – and they are changing quickly. Suddenly a wider range of programs are departing from Southern California soundstages and spreading across the country. The reasons for this are many: The dollar is getting weaker by the day, thus taking away much of the motivation to shoot television series outside the States much less attractive. Further, as noted above, each U.S. state seems eager to outbid the next to draw as many productions as possible. Meanwhile, TV production companies are more willing to consider the move due to the changing economics of television, including higher production costs and a greater need in this emerging post-network era for greater product differentiation in stories and settings.

Which brings us back to In Plain Sight. New Mexico has been mentioned often as one of the states that has most heavily recruited Hollywood productions in recent years. Now it seems that these efforts are starting to pay off. While luring one production is unlikely to jump-start a local media scene, it can help build a strong foundation by developing skilled crews and a solid infrastructure. ((For a discussion on the impact of television production on Vancouver, see Serra Tinic, On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market, University of Toronto Press, 2005. For a discussion of its impact in Queensland, Australia, see Tom O’Regan and Susan Ward, “Experimenting with the Local and Transnational: Television Drama Production on the Gold Coast,” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol. 20, no. 1 (March 2006), 17-31.))

Though this is certainly a promising development from an economic perspective, I want to call attention once again to the idea with which I began this column: that the rise in production in places across the U.S. offers more than just the prospect of cultivating a wider range of media centers. Rather, it also promises the possibility of representing the complexities and nuances of this country, its people, and its settings on a weekly basis, in ways which have not been seen before. Right now this is more of a hope than a certainty – but it seems to be something “in plain sight.”

Image Credits:

1. In Plain Sight in New Mexico.
2. Burn Notice: Palm Trees, Bikinis..must be Miami.
3. The “real” Cheers bar was located on a soundstage on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.
4. Ricky Gervais taking advantage of Massachusetts production incentives for This Side of the Truth.
5. 21 Jump Street: Just a couple of American cops…in Vancouver.

Please feel free to comment.




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

Project Runwayon Bravo

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

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

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

The contours of the conflict can be summed up as follows: Since its debut in 2004, Project Runway has become Bravo’s most successful program. Viewed by just 350,000 viewers when it premiered, the finale of the most recent season (its fourth) earned 3.8 million total viewers. ((350,000 figure from Anne Becker, “Bravo’s Project Runway to Lifetime Television; NBCU Sues,” Broadcasting & Cable at http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6548646.html ; 3.8 million statistic from Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” http://tvdecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/behind-the-catfight-over-runway/)) Its ratings in the 18-49 demographic exceeded those of both ABC and CBS in the same hour. ((Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” http://tvdecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/behind-the-catfight-over-runway/)) The program helped Bravo shift its brand identity away from its “high culture” roots toward a certain type of reality programming and, in the process, gain a larger market share.

This Bravo brand of reality programming – which has grown to include such shows as Top Chef, Top Design, and The Real Housewives franchise – is often considered “young” and “hip.” The snarky tone, edutainment structure and upscale affiliations have helped Project Runway and many of its Bravo kin avoid the barbs directed by critics more broadly at the reality genre. As further evidence of the respect held for the program, Project Runway became the first reality series to earn a Peabody award. ((As per the Peabodys and touted on Bravo’s website, Project Runway “redeems the reality-contest genre, this face-off competition among upstart fashion designers demands, displays and ultimately rewards creativity that can’t be bluffed.” See http://www.bravotv.com/blog/thedish/2008/04/project_runway_wins_a_peabody.php)) (Notably, the announcement was made just days before the show’s move to Lifetime was announced.)

Project Runway’s attraction to what are perceived to be younger viewers with more disposable income proved attractive to a Lifetime network that for several years has been desperately trying to re-brand itself and thus attract more “desirable” advertisers. In spite of a number of recent changes to its schedule, including the recent additions of the drama Army Wives and the Carson Kressley-hosted self-improvement show How To Look Good Naked, Lifetime has been unable to shake its image as what one blogger describes as the “home for melodramatic made-for-tv movies for housewives.” ((http://www.shinystyle.tv/2008/04/will-project-runway-have-fashi-112578.html))

One of Lifetime’s biggest hits to date

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

* “The ladies’ network is ecstatic to gain a program that is not about homicidal suburban moms out to sleep with their teenage cheerleader daughter’s boyfriend – who has an eating disorder.” ((http://www.tmz.com/2008/04/07/project-runway-auffed-to-lifetime/))

* “We’ve said the show needs a new format and all, but – Lifetime? We didn’t mean we wanted to “fem it up” with, like, a pink runway, or more Heidi Klum screen time or whatever other scary estrogen tampon stuff they’ve got in mind.” ((http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/2008/04/projects_runways_next_challeng_1.html))

On the run from NBC head Jeff Zucker?

* “Lifetime has fashioned itself as the ‘network for women’ for years. The ‘women in peril’ movies and ‘Golden Girls’ reruns have fans wondering if the contestants’ first project will be to design a new wardrobe for Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia. Or there’s the fear that the judges will now be Meredith Baxter, Melissa Gilbert and Judith Light.” ((http://www.madison.com/tct/entertainment/burns/281591))

As one writer noted, the reasons the Weinsteins made the deal with Lifetime are quite easy to discern: “money and ego.” ((From http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/2008/04/the_real_project_runway_drama_1.html)) The Weinstein Company, well-known in the independent film world for strong-arming its competitors, now has used similar tactics in TV-land. No surprise there. The deal with Bravo, valued at approximately $150 million, includes five seasons of Runway, as well as a package of the company’s theatrical films and two new reality shows (including a spinoff called Models of the Runway). ((The nuances of the conflict are beyond the scope of what I can get into here. For more on the nature of the conflict, and the positions taken by the various parties, see http://www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com/fierce-weinsteins-move-project-runway-from-bravo-to-lifetime/. Also see Robert Marich, “Upfront & Center: Lifetime Sets Project Runway Companions,” Broadcasting & Cable at http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6551388.html))

Harvey Weinstein, drawing ire

While the motivations of The Weinstein Company and Lifetime are easy to figure out, what is more difficult to understand – or, at least, swallow – is the negativity directed by many fans and journalists toward both the cable network and the show itself. As the comments above indicate, Lifetime’s image is linked with stereotypical and sexist visions of “frumpy,” middle-aged Middle American housewives. ((Frumpy label from Brian Stelter, “Behind the Catfight Over ‘Runway,’” http://tvdecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/behind-the-catfight-over-runway/)) While it may be the highest rated channel among women, those women are largely perceived to be both different from – and less valuable from a cable network and advertisers’ perspective – than the women who watch Bravo.

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

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

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

Image Credits

1. Project Runway on Bravo

2. Runway hosts Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum

3. Army Wives

4. Project Runway on the run from NBC

5. Darth Weinstein

Please feel free to comment.




From Cynicism to Sentimentality: The Rise of the Quirky Indie

Expecting a limited release?

Expecting a limited release?

With the Oscars barely having passed us by, it is worth pausing for a moment to think back on the movies that “made the cut” for the nomination for Best Picture this year. The list – comprised predominantly of releases from the studios’ specialty (or “indie”) film divisions – consisted of many of the usual types of films deemed Oscar-worthy ((In the U.S., Warner Bros. released Michael Clayton; the indie releases come from Focus Features (Atonement), Fox Searchlight (Juno), and via joint venture of Paramount Vantage/Miramax–both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men)). There was the star-driven conspiracy thriller (see The Insider, Erin Brockovich) and the historical romance/literary adaptation (see The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love). In addition, there were two nominees from the omnipresent “auteur-driven indie” category (see the filmography of the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson).

Then there was the “little movie that could” entry, Juno (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine). This dramedy about teen pregnancy was perceived by many in the popular press as the “wild card” in this year’s Best Picture race. Also surprising to many has been its runaway box office appeal. With more than $125 million grossed at the U.S. box office to date, Juno has earned more than double the sum of its nearest Oscar competitor, No Country for Old Men ((According to Variety.com, box office grosses for the Oscar nominees as of the week of February 18th were: $32 million for There Will be Blood, $47 million for Michael Clayton, $48 million for Atonement, $60 million for No Country for Old Men, and $125 million for Juno.)).

Juno’s box office performance seems particularly remarkable when its grosses are compared to those of several other recent high-profile releases. For example, the male- targeted Rambo topped out at $40 million, the female-skewing 27 Dresses hit a ceiling at $71 million, the baby boomer “sleeper hit” The Bucket List stalled at $82 million, and the most recent Tyler Perry release (Why Did I Get Married?) left theaters with just $55 million. Even the over-hyped youth-oriented Cloverfield – which has yet to reach $80 million in North America – is fading fast.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Juno star Ellen Page

Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Juno star Ellen Page

A discussion of these numbers raises the question: who is seeing Juno and why? While this query cannot be answered without further empirically-based audience research, it does point to a more speculative question, which I would like to probe here: Namely, what interests or desires might this film have tapped into in terms of contemporary American culture – and how unique is it in doing this?

Certainly part of Juno’s appeal stems from its clever dialogue and its iconoclastic, strong-willed lead female character. And of course, the high degree of publicity surrounding the film – especially the widely circulated “stripper-turned-screenwriter” narrative told and re-told about scribe Diablo Cody – has been a useful marketing angle. The presence of cult teen star Michael Cera of Arrested Development and Superbad fame doesn’t hurt either. But I think that the film’s buzz is not limited to just these factors. Rather, I believe one can better gauge Juno’s longevity in theaters (which, as of this writing, is going on three months) by considering the relationship between the film’s tone and its narrative trajectory.

The film starts with a first trimester Juno, cynical yet idealistic. The early part of the movie is filled with snappy one-liners and witty repartee. However, as the seasons wear on and Juno becomes more pregnant – and more involved in emotional complications with the adoptive parents – much of the fun banter fades, as does Juno’s idealism. She re-adjusts her expectations, re-thinks her relationships, and becomes less guarded, less jaded. By having her ideals challenged, she actually becomes more hopeful about life’s possibilities and her own future. In other words, we witness both the character of Juno – and the film itself – become more sincere.

This sincerity seems counter to the tone and substance of the majority of the edgy ‘90s-era indie films. One need look no further than the aforementioned Oscar nominees, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men – both products of filmmakers whose careers flourished during the post-Disney Miramax age (1993 on). Thinking back to the tales told about other notable teenage characters in indie films during the ‘90s and early 2000s is equally suggestive. Just a few examples include Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Dede Truitt in The Opposite of Sex (1998) and Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World (2001). As with the edgy indies of Anderson and the Coens, the world these characters inhabit is much darker, their outlook much bleaker (not Bleeker).

Youth, 90s Indie-style

Youth, ‘90s Indie-style

This comparison offers up two possibilities for why Juno has taken off: First, the ‘90s-era edgy indies speak to – and for – a very different generation of viewers, raised on different media and a distinct socio-political climate. Perhaps my response to the “optimism-in-spite-of-adversity” outlook of Juno derives from my presently-obsessive viewing of political coverage which trumpets “change,” “hope” and “inspiration.” Or perhaps it comes from witnessing several of my students routinely wearing Barack Obama stickers, t-shirts and buttons. But I am inclined to think that some of Juno’s appeal springs from the coming-of-age of a new generation along with a more widespread desire to just stop with the cynicism. Perhaps Juno the film and Juno the character speak to, about, and for youth in a way that many other recent popular culture artifacts have not.

A Return to Idealism?

A Return to Idealism?

The second possibility for the film’s widespread appeal more directly connects to industrial factors. Juno was distributed in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of Fox/News Corp. In fact, it has become Searchlight’s highest-grossing release in the company’s ten-plus year history. For a company that has released such high-profile films domestically as Bend It Like Beckham, Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and The Darjeeling Limited, this is an impressive accomplishment.

I mention these titles – and this company – not simply as background information, but to suggest that there are striking ties between many of these films and Juno. Most notably, the latter three titles are, unlike the films of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, less edgy and more quirky. This “cinema of quirkiness,” which is becoming increasingly noticeable, is less likely to present sex, violence and coarse language than it is to depict off-kilter but well-intentioned characters engaged in offbeat activities. In these films – of which Juno is clearly one – characters may screw up and get themselves into unbelievable and often unfortunate situations. But in spite of their missteps, they appeal to audience sympathies because in the end they mean well and they are kind. Not unlike Juno’s pregnancy, their momentary slips permit them an escape and a return to who they really are: youthful idealists ((Thanks to Steve Perren for his input on this point.)).

Certainly there were precedents for this in the ‘90s. (Wes Anderson’s entire body of work comes to mind here). However, in the last few years, this type of film has become more prominent, not in the least because Fox Searchlight executives appear to have identified it as a lucrative niche with a viable audience. It seems highly likely that, given the immense financial success of Juno, and the degree to which it seems to tap into this particular cultural and political moment, we can anticipate more such characters to appear in theaters – and possibly the Oval Office – in the near future.

Image Credits:
1. Expecting a limited release?
2. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Juno star Ellen Page
3. Youth, ‘90s Indie-style
4. A Return to Idealism?

Please feel free to comment.




I Never Promised You A Rose: Exposing the Unreality of the Dating-Reality Program

The formula for ABC’s reality program The Bachelor is quite simple: take one handsome, single, eligible, thirty-something white man. Introduce him to twenty five eligible, mostly white, twenty-something women. Winnow the number of women down week after week via a “rose ceremony,” whereby the bachelor distributes roses to the women who remain in contention to be his mate. Conclude the season with the bachelor “painfully struggling” to decide between the two remaining women.

The final episode of each season consists of a number of predictable rituals: the women meet the man’s family; the man encourages the women to “open up” and tell him how they really feel (though the show’s rules prevent him from doing the same); the man selects a ridiculously huge diamond engagement ring. This all leads up to the man meeting with the two women individually on a beautiful scenic set–sunset optional. At this point, he sends one woman “home.” He then proceeds to confess his love and devotion to the other. Often this is followed by a proposal of marriage. Fade out with the happy couple declaring to the camera–and host Chris Harrison–of their profound feelings for each other and their hope of living happily ever after. Covers of People, US Weekly and In Touch follow, as do interviews on Good Morning America and Live with Regis & Kelly.

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The Bachelor and his “ladies” in happier times.

For ten seasons, The Bachelor rigidly adhered to this formula. ((The one exception was a season of The Bachelorette with Jennifer Schefft. She eliminated one man, but hesitated on committing to the other, asking for “more time” to think about what she wanted. When, a few months later, she met with him again, she called the relationship off. Rampant speculation occurred online that the whole time she had been involved with a relationship with her boss. Nonetheless, this was never confirmed, and the potential of a union with the potential bachelor candidate remained intact.)) Though structured as a dating competition, viewers were repeatedly told by the participants and the host that what was at stake was nothing less than true love. Women with ulterior motives–such as acting or modeling careers–seemed certain to be found out by the discerning bachelor and eliminated before season’s end. Fairy tale imagery dominated throughout the series. The man always took at least one woman out on a “dream date” where he provided her with a million dollars in (loaned) jewels and a fancy designer dress. In addition, each season, the final four women were offered “one-on-one” time in a “fantasy suite.” As the women proceeded to retreat with the man to the suite–as they almost always did–the show had to straddle a delicate line. There was typically the implication that, one by one, the bachelor consummated his love with all of the women. However, such acts were only implied, never confirmed. To explicitly depict his bedding of multiple bachelorettes would destroy the show’s already tenuous mythology involving an honorable man’s chaste search for the one and only Right Woman For Him.

A happy ending to each season was guaranteed and expected. That is…until the most recent season finale, when in the last scene, bachelor Brad unexpectedly deviated from the script. After sending the first woman home, he proceeded to meet with the second. But rather than proposing – something the show’s structure suggested he was ready to do – he did the unthinkable: he sent her packing. That’s right…the bachelor chose to remain a bachelor. Rather than concluding the show with a shot of a happy couple, the camera pulled back to reveal him sitting alone. The final shot? A lone rose, never to be offered to a fair maiden.

perren2.jpg

After the long goodbye.

What was stunning to see in the days following the broadcast was the fury and bemusement this simple act fueled in newspaper articles, blogs, and message boards. While Brad’s decision generated the expected debates about his personal motivations and the womens’ feelings, his actions also stimulated a number of broader discussions about reality television’s conventions, television industry practices, and American culture. The kinds of questions that circulated online in the hours after the show aired included: how could ABC broadcast such a program – especially once they knew what the results were? Could the show ever recover from some such a development? How could the network so blatantly mislead viewers via its advertisements and promotional materials? Wasn’t he required to choose someone? ((Such conversations appeared across a range of websites, including abc.com, tv.com, televisionwithoutpity.com and even (in its own especially acerbic fashion) defamer.com. ))

A number of viewers expressed anger and frustration at the bachelor’s refusal to “play by the rules.” A consistent theme was that they watched this reality show for its unreality; for its promise of a romantic heterosexual coupling. While a break-up was likely to occur, that would happen under the radar, after the next season had begun. Many individuals noted that show’s structure encouraged certain expectations which, when unmet, led to two dominant responses: either dissatisfaction with the show’s unanticipated and undesired degree of reality, or glee that the fantasy bubble had been burst so violently. Amusingly, the snarkiest of bloggers wondered whether Brad’s inability to act was one of the first visible consequences of the writers’ strike.

On the most basic level, the bachelor’s unwillingness to choose a mate underscored the illusory aspects of the dating-reality show format. It undermined the artificiality of the show and highlighted the program’s conservative gender politics. However, the show’s contrived nature might have been brought even more to the fore if the show had retained its original ending.

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I think I’ll just hold on to this.

As per The Bachelor’s creator, Mike Fleiss:

The original ending, before the network made me change it, was after the girls were crying we fade down and come back up to a shot of Brad sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, clicking on the game, munching on a submarine sandwich. That’s what I wanted at the end. But the network said no. (( Jessica Shaw, “Bachelor’s Creator on Brad’s Double Diss,” www.ew.com, November 20, 2007.))

ABC may have objected to such an ideologically charged ending but–unsurprisingly–the network had no qualms about exploiting Brad’s decision for maximum ratings value. Whether to avoid viewer revolt or exploit the buzz surrounding the season finale, the network aired a follow-up episode, “After the Final Rose,” the very next night. In a blatant attempt to present Brad’s act as an aberration, a disruption to the show’s ability to create wholesome white, middle-class American families, the host began and ended the program by parading the two success stories from prior seasons in front of the camera. First came Ryan and Trista, along with their newborn child; this was followed by Mary and Byron. (The Bachelor’s matchmaking abilities were not helped when, just a few days after the most recent show aired, former contestant Mary was arrested for allegedly punching Byron while under the influence of alcohol.) ((Hal Boedeker, “From The Bachelor to the Battered? Did Byron Suffer?,” www.blogs.orlandosentinel.com, November 23, 2007.))

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The bloom is off the rose in yet another Bachelor relationship.

The presence of these couples was meant to assuage viewers discomfited by Brad’s decision. However, the excess of emotion presented during the rest of the program created a sense of dissonance. In what may have constituted one of the premier examples of train wreck television, the host, the final two women, and a studio audience “confronted” Brad about his decision. The recurring theme over the course of the episode–as well as online–was that the show was supposed to produce pleasure: not only for the couple at the end of the season, but also for the viewers. Yet instead, all that was experienced on this go-round was pain. The host declared as much when he wrapped up the show by telling Brad that “Six years of doing this, that was the most uncomfortable, toughest thing I’ve ever sat through…” ((Direct quote from Chris Harrison in the “After the Final Rose” episode.))

Notably, more viewers tuned in to witness this hour of awkwardness than any other program on television airing at that time. In fact, it is likely that the publicity surrounding the finale contributed to huge ratings for the next night: whereas 11.4 million watched Monday’s episode, 12.8 million viewed the subsequent “After the Final Rose” episode. ((Don Kaplan, “Bachelor Finds Ratings, Not Love,” http://blogs.nypost.com/tv/, November 22, 2007.))

In an age when such kitschy and self-aware programs as Rock of Love, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and Scott Baio is 45…and Single dot the television landscape, The Bachelor seems ever-more farcical and anachronistic (if not downright offensive). The question remains as to whether this will be the last hurrah for a show that has revealed its ugly seams. Only time will tell if the romance between The Bachelor and its viewers–or, at least, ABC–will continue.

Image Credits:
1. The Bachelor and his “ladies” in happier times.
2. After the long goodbye.
3. I think I’ll just hold on to this.
4. The bloom is off the rose in yet another Bachelor relationship.

Please feel free to comment.