Is Internet Politics Better Off Than It Was Four Years Ago?

In several of my previous Flow columns, I have sought to address the role of viral videos in shaping political discourse. I have approached this question with what—I hope—is a degree of cautious optimism, perhaps with a greater emphasis on caution as I seek to resist the dominant narrative identifying the technological innovation of YouTube and other video sharing sites with larger innovations in political campaigns. It is no doubt true that citizen-generated videos have received an unprecedented amount of attention, prompting James Wolcott and others to dub the 2008 presidential race, “The YouTube Election.”

“Vote Different” Viral Video

“Vote Different” Viral Video

And it’s equally clear that a creative video artist can produce a video that will be seen by millions of people. However, at the risk of generalizing considerably, I remain somewhat skeptical about how these videos fit within the larger narratives that have come to frame the 2008 campaign.

I’ve certainly entertained doubts about the role of citizen-generated videos in the past. In my discussion of Phil De Vellis’s masterful “Vote Different” video, I sought to argue that the video succeeded in finding an audience in part because it deftly tied into preexisting narratives that associate Hillary Clinton with Republican talking points identifying her as a kind of Big Brother figure. In fact, “Vote Different” and many other citizen-generated videos, such as the “John Edwards: I Feel Pretty” video, can be seen as participating in what Eric Alterman recently described as “the presidential pageant,” with these videos merely providing fodder for political pundits to reinforce the perception that Edwards isn’t manly enough (“Breck Girl”).

But my more recent reservations grow, in part, out of the recent attacks on MoveOn.org for the “General Betray Us” advertisement they placed in the pages of The New York Times and a recent post on techPresident by Patrick Ruffini, which asks whether campaigns themselves are finding innovative uses of the internet during the 2008 election. The MoveOn controversy illustrates perfectly the degree to which television pundits continue to shape the dominant political narratives, even when well-organized groups such as MoveOn.org attempt to challenge them. Despite the MoveOn advertisement’s trenchant critique of General Petraeus’s testimony, “debate” about the advertisement on cable news shows allowed the group to be painted as part of a political “fringe,” even though the group consists of well over three million members and a majority of Americans believe America should begin pulling out of Iraq. The reframing allowed conservatives to divert attention away from the larger problem of the war and Iraq and depict MoveOn.org as villains for daring to question Petraeus.

Moreover, in his blog post, Ruffini argues that despite the persistent claims that 2008 marks a revolutionary era for politics, it is reasonable to ask whether campaigns have evolved in any significant way. Ruffini argues that many of the most significant changes in web-based politics—the Howard Dean campaign’s use of blogs and Meetup.com as a way of organizing locally—were already established by 2004 and even suggests that many campaigns have failed to recapture the energy associated with Dean’s campaign. And, while I am less interested in “innovation” for its own sake than Ruffini is, I continue to find myself wondering about the degree to which the “living room candidate” has become the “laptop candidate” and to what ends. To be sure, my response to Ruffini’s post is colored by my own nostalgia for the early days of the Dean campaign and the transformative possibilities it represented, but as the 2008 campaign unfolds, I find myself confronted with an increasing skepticism regarding the role of online video and other “Web 2.0” features in the political process.

To some extent, online videos, especially those produced by citizens unaffiliated with specific campaigns, have allowed people to find a wider audience, and they are certainly the most noteworthy new campaign tool in comparison to 2004. And the production of a video is itself a significant form of participation. But as I navigate resources such as YouTube’s You Choose channel, compulsively clicking through video and after video, I find myself wondering if these videos significantly alter early practices or whether they reproduce the same structural relationship between campaign and citizen that existed in the era of the 30-second TV ad, despite promises that the 2008 election will be a “conversation.” At the same time, while the much-discussed YouTube-sponsored Democratic debate gave a number of YouTube users a public platform, the debate itself still conformed to the basic structure of televised debates, with Anderson Cooper and CNN reframing the questions for primetime television. So I continue to find myself asking whether YouTube has, in any significant way, offered a new way of thinking about U.S. politics. Or does it reinforce a focus on just a few centralized voices?

John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama

John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama

Finally, citizen-generated videos, especially those that go viral, have also been characterized in terms of speed, with Wolcott associating the practice of watching viral videos with a “nervous twitch,” while Jeff Jarvis highlights the ways in which YouTube allows any “misstatement gains toxicity and speed,” creating what might be called, after Matt Hills’ concept of just-in-time fandom (2002, 178-179), a kind of just-in-time participation, in which citizens can produce and disseminate videos incredibly rapidly. These viral videos quite often inspire a quick flurry of activity, including blog posts, video responses and knock-offs, and, in some cases, commentary in other media. And while this rapid response may be able to mobilize voters very quickly, I also wonder what gets lost in this form of just-in-time participation, especially as people move on to the latest video after a few days of breathless commentary on the video of the week. To what extent does the rapid proliferation of videos work against meaningful discussion of the presidential candidates or against developing a deeper focus on the many important issues at stake in the 2008 election? What are the implications of replacing the living room candidate with the laptop candidate, and are the laptop candidates truly inspiring greater political participation?

Works Cited
Hills, M. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Images:

1. “Vote Different” Viral Video

2. Edwards, Clinton, Obama

Please feel free to comment.




Watch Now: Netflix, Streaming Movies and Networked Film Publics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayettesville State University

In this article, I am interested in thinking about some of the ways in which the computer appears to be supplanting both the movie screen and the television set as the crucial site for encountering and consuming Hollywood films, while also acknowledging the role of place in shaping media access, not only in terms of the kinds of texts but also in consumption practices. While scholars such as Barbara Klinger and Anne Friedberg have increasingly focused on the home as a site for watching movies, I have begun thinking about the computer in terms of the formation of networked film publics, with film audiences increasingly organizing and finding each other on the web. In this context, I will be looking at the new Netflix “Watch Now” player, which allows viewers to watch high-quality streams of selected Netflix movie and television content.

Netflix

Netflix

In her June 29, 2007, Flow column, “Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens) Part One,” Joan Hawkins describes the ways in which media access is often limited in certain sections of rural America. Building on Gregory Waller’s observation that most histories of movie spectatorship describe urban experiences, Hawkins convincingly argues for a need to look at what she calls “Dish Towns,” the rural communities, often spread out over dozens of miles, marked by hundreds of satellite dishes. She goes on to describe the poor quality of cable television and the lack of choice at nearby movie theaters, but for my purposes, Hawkins’ observations point to need to think about the role of geography in shaping access to certain media texts.

Hawkins’ comments about these Dish Towns reminded me of my own experiences with media and place. In the fall of 2006, I moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, a medium-sized military city best known for its connection to Fort Bragg. When I first moved to Fayetteville, after several years of living in either Washington D.C. or Atlanta, one of my first major questions was whether or not there was an art house theater. Fortunately, Fayetteville has the Cameo Art House Theatre, a locally-owned theater in the city’s slowly recovering downtown neighborhood. The theater’s two screens offer more than enough to satisfy my art house movie needs, and the local ownership is responsive to community interests and tastes.

Finding a good video store, however, turned out to be more difficult. Like many smaller cities, the only stand-alone video stores are the major chains, Blockbuster and Hollywood. Access to art house and independent movies on DVD requires a Netflix membership, and so despite my preference for skimming the shelves of local video stores for a forgotten classic or a new discovery, I have reluctantly joined the Netflix generation. While Netflix offers a selection that exceed most video stores, in the first year or so that I had a Netflix membership, I found that I watch fewer movies and that I have even felt “obligated” to watch a DVD that has been sitting next to my TV for several weeks, its bright red envelope collecting dust. I mention these details in part because I believe they illustrate the ways in which place can shape one’s experience of film culture, but also because these viewing practices may soon change as digital distribution of movies increasingly appears to be a feasible alternative or supplement to theatrical distribution. While it is something of a cliché to describe movie watching practices as being in a state of perpetual transition, the various forms of digital distribution raise important questions about the relationship between movie watching and configurations of public and private space.

It is within this context that I have begun experimenting with Netflix’s “Watch Now” player, which offers customers at a certain membership level the option to watch some of its movie and television content online. While much of the conversation about digital distribution has focused on independent filmmakers, such as the maker of Four Eyed Monsters, who have distributed their movies via YouTube, I am much more interested in thinking about the of online distribution of Hollywood films. While watching the movie online may not substitute for seeing a movie projected on a big screen with a large audience, the high quality streams are adequate, producing a fairly impressive level of detail. And the rudimentary player offered some of the basic time-shifting controls of pausing, rewinding and once the film is fully loaded, skimming ahead. That being said, the “Watch Now” player currently works only in Internet Explorer, which can be annoying for those of us who use Firefox or other web browsers. And the streams appear to lack the “extras” that I have normally come to associate with home viewing on my DVD payer—the director’s commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and other information that I have come to regard as a significant part of my domestic film experience. That being said, it’s easy to imagine a near future in which some or all of these DVD extras could be streamed as well.

Four Eyed Monsters

Four Eyed Monsters

In a sense, the Netflix Watch Now option parallels the already existing practice of making episodes of certain TV series available online; however, the focus of Netflix on movie rentals seems to represent an important shift in how we access movies and our relationship to wider public film cultures. The Watch Now option feeds the desire for immediacy or spontaneity associated with trips to the video store. Audiences are not forced to wait the 2-3 days for that little red envelope to show up in the mail. While using the Watch Now player, I’m more likely to browse the available films by genre or groupings—in my case independent films and documentaries—to find DVDs that conform to my current mood or immediate needs, something I’m finding more difficult to juggle with my often stagnant queue. Instead, as I’ve watched online, I’ve found myself watching movies more frequently than at any time in the recent past, while being more willing to take chances on certain movies, based in part on the perception that I’m making a relatively spontaneous decision, one that won’t result in a movie sitting on my shelf for several weeks at a time.

My Watch Now choices are somewhat informed by the networked film publics structured around the film blogging communities and film-oriented social networking sites in which I participate. Thus far, I’ve been able to watch three films on the Netflix player, including The Candidate, which I watched because of a friend’s enthusiastic blog entry, and Loud QUIET Loud, a documentary about the Pixies, which I watched simply because I like the Pixies and never got a chance to see the film in theaters. I also watched Darfur Diaries, a short documentary about the crisis in Darfur that I was considering for my fall course on “Documenting Injustice.” In all three cases, the decision to watch felt relatively spontaneous, as I skimmed the selections looking for a movie to “rent,” but the choices were also structured by the films available through the streaming service and by the Netflix algorithm for identifying films that would conform to my tastes based on my ratings of films and on the ratings of others who have similar tastes (an algorithm that is surprisingly accurate).

And yet I find myself facing some reservations about the ways in which this “Watch Now” option structures how I watch movies at home. The streaming option currently feels like a highly individualized viewing experience targeted for individual consumption. Netflix is rumored to be working on a set-top player that would allow consumers to transfer movies from their computer to their TV screen, but arranging for more than couple of people to gather around a laptop screen to watch a movie might prove difficult. And the service, like Netflix in general, is framed around a model of consumer choice that needs to be interrogated. In addition to the movies I mentioned, I also watched a preview episode of the new Showtime series, Californication, featuring former X-Files star, David Duchovny as a New York novelist finding himself navigating what he takes to be the shallow Hollywood film industry, while also managing to seduce virtually every young woman who crosses his path, prompting jokes that the series should be called “The Sex Files.” While the episode was mildly entertaining—I probably won’t continue watching—I found myself increasingly aware of the ways in which Netflix was shaping my available viewing options by promoting the preview episode of a new TV series, in the hope of generating buzz for the show and new subscribers for Showtime, suggesting the ways in which media convergence, to use Henry Jenkins’ phrase, opens up new possibilities for selling media content. In conclusion, the Watch Now player introduces some important questions about how digital distribution will reshape film and television reception, as well as to what extent the Netflix model anticipates or shapes a networked film public.

David Duchovny

David Duchovny

Sources consulted:
Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

Hawkins, Joan. “Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens) Part One.” Flow 6.3 (June 2007).

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Image Credits:

1. Computer Shopper

2. Four Eyed Monsters

3.Showtime Official Site

Please feel free to comment.




Bringing the War Back Home: YouTube and Anti-War Street Theater

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

The IVAW Website Logo

The IVAW Website Logo

In my two previous Flow articles, I have focused on the role of YouTube and other video sharing sites in shaping political discourse. In particular, I have been interested in how YouTube has become identified with a more authentic form of political discourse defined against what is often pejoratively referred to as the mainstream media. However, while I am deeply concerned about the harmful effects of media consolidation, for example, I am also skeptical about the framing of YouTube as an authentic alternative to commercial media. In many cases, videos that appear on YouTube simply reinforce pre-existing perceptions of presidential candidates that have been circulating within the mainstream media, as we saw with the “John Edwards: I Feel Pretty” video (and, yes, I still find the Edwards video hilarious). At the same time, I recognize that YouTube stands in for the potentials of a more democratic media in which more people feel included in the political process.

These issues recently crystallized for me when I came across the Operation First Casualty video on Jason Mittell’s blog.

The video depicts a street theater performance by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which was filmed over Memorial Day weekend and posted to YouTube soon afterwards. The street theater performance has the strictly pedagogical function of depicting the experience of war for American citizens who may be oblivious to the “reality” of the war because of media representations of it. The Operation First Casualty video introduces several crucial and related questions, including questions about the potentials for street theater to disrupt everyday perceptions of the war in Iraq, the role of YouTube and other video sharing sites in mediating those representations, and the definition of political speech with regards to members of the military.

Operation First Casualty (OFC), which takes its name from the adage that the first casualty of the war is the truth, uses these street theater performances to depict the experience of war for American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As of early June, three OFC events had been staged in Washington, D.C, New York, and Santa Monica, with a fourth scheduled for June 18 in Chicago. In their performances, the soldiers simulate sniper fire and mass detentions. The soldiers perform in full military gear minus actual weapons, instead using extended arms to represent their guns. They arrest civilian volunteers, forcefully pushing them to the ground, cuffing them, and placing bags over their heads. While the soldiers emphasize their attempts to depict their experiences in Iraq as realistically as possible, there is, of course, a sense of unreality in seeing the soldiers perform without weapons in these major centers. In fact, it is this sense of unreality that—for me at least—gives the performance its power. Representations of war that rely on standard definitions of authenticity—such as many grunts’ eye documentaries—can easily be recuperated into politically ambiguous war narratives, but this form of street theater makes it more difficult to insert into these standard narratives. In addition, their performances make it more difficult to separate the performer from the audience, to separate the soldiers’ experiences from the everyday lives of American citizens. As more than one soldier comments in the OFC video, their performance is designed to “bring [the war] back home.”

These images of soldiers roaming through Times Square and making arrests and subduing protests is a bit jarring, and the meerkat video powerfully captures the puzzled reactions of onlookers who became caught in the middle of the performance while doing some Memorial Day weekend shopping. The video itself opens with a series of close-ups of the soldiers’ feet and hands as they march into Times Square while also calling attention to Times Square as a hypermediated space filled with billboards, screens flashing basketball scores, and billboards promoting the latest Broadway shows. This juxtaposition of advertising, shoppers, and soldiers in one of the primary centers of media and consumer culture calls attention to the contrast between civilian and soldiers’ experiences of the war, emphasizing the limitations of mainstream media coverage of the war and making the scene in Times Square an effective form of street theater. These performances are also clearly designed to oppose televised coverage of the war, and both the Washington and New York performances took place in locations identified with TV news.

Anti-war March, Washington DC

Anti-war March, Washington DC

In the video available on the meerkat media blog and eventually uploaded to YouTube, apparently by someone not affiliated with the production of the video, we are also presented with interviews with several of the participating soldiers who explain their opposition to the war and their reasons for participating in OFC. The video culminates with highlights from the IVAW rally after the street theater performance. These contextual details diminish, to some extent, the disruptive force of the theatrical performance; however, they also effectively connect the street theater with the larger anti-war movement, emphasizing in particular the human consequences of the war in Iraq. It is also worth emphasizing the more general role of YouTube in mediating these images of protest. Of course, YouTube has widely become identified with the assertion that the means of production—and distribution—of political materials is available to anyone with the right computer equipment, and the site has become a major center for debates about DIY citizenship and fixing a broken political process.

Much of the controversy regarding OFC has focused on the question of whether any of the soldiers may have violated military regulations while engaged in their street performances. Specifically, the Pentagon has begun an investigation of at least one of the more active members of IVAW, Marine Sgt. Adam Kokesh, who has been accused of attending a political event while wearing his military uniform. If he is found guilty, he would be subject to receiving an “other than honorable discharge,” and his educational and other benefits could be revoked. The military is arguing that because Kokesh remains a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), he remains subject to military rules about political speech, while Kokesh’s defense is asserting that IRR members are technically civilians and therefore not subject to regulations about political events. Kokesh’s case is simply the latest site in which battles over free speech are taking place, especially as those free speech rights are inflected by military service.

While Kokesh’s free speech rights are certainly at issue—and I think it is incredibly important to assert these rights—the discussion also raises valuable questions about what counts as “political” speech and, specifically, in what way the street performance counts as political speech. In the strictest sense, of course, members of the IVAW avoid endorsing specific political candidates, however, in the broader sense in which “everything is political,” the IVAW street protests also represent a specific and powerful attempt to make visible the violence being conducted in Iraq on a daily basis, and while the video recording posted to YouTube may not approximate the experience of witnessing the soldiers’ performances live, it does illustrate some of the potential for a more participatory media culture.

Image Credits

1. The IVAW Website Logo

2. Anti-war March, Washington DC

Please feel free to comment.




“Why 2008 Won’t Be Like 1984:” Viral Videos and Presidential Politics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

As a media studies scholar and an incurable political junkie, I watched with fascination this week as the drama surrounding the (initially) anonymously posted “Vote Different” advertisement unfolded. In my previous article for Flow, I addressed some reservations about the hype regarding participatory culture, while the 2006 elections clearly depicted the potential for online videos to shape political discourse.

The “Vote Different” video, in my reading, raises further questions regarding the potential of the internet to shape the political process, questions I’m not entirely sure I can answer. These questions grow out of the following dilemma: While I remain unconvinced that the “Vote Different” advertisement significantly altered the current political discourse, I still find the underlying message of citizen empowerment irresistible.

“Vote Different,” a mashup of the highly-regarded 1984 Apple Macintosh Super Bowl advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, replaces the IBM-style Big Brother figure in the Apple advertisement with footage of Hillary Clinton’s “Conversation with America” speech. The ad famously depicts a dreary world in which workers wearing identical grey clothing move listlessly through their workday while passively absorbing the messages delivered from the giant screen that hovers above them. As Senator Clinton speaks to the inert audience, an athletic woman sprints through the crowd, throwing a hammer through the screen, and by implication shattering the “politics-as-usual” she has come to represent. Edited onto the woman’s t-shirt is a modified Apple logo made to resemble an O, identifying her with rival presidential candidate Barack Obama. The original advertisement, an allegory of the Macintosh user fighting against a conformist establishment, maps neatly onto cultural desires for a more participatory political system.

The mashup is one of the first truly viral videos to emerge from the 2008 presidential election. The original “Vote Different” video had been viewed over two million times on YouTube alone, but its real online audience would be almost impossible to measure. The video has also inspired a number of imitations, including this clumsily assembled anti-Obama mashup of the same Macintosh advertisement with the Illinois Senator’s popular Monday Night Football appearance.

Of course, one of the reasons the advertisement is so successful is its creative reinterpretation of Ridley Scott’s original Macintosh advertisement, which aired only once during the 1984 Super Bowl. While the mashup attempts to align Senator Clinton with “politics-as-usual,” through the reference to Apple’s “revolutionary” brand, it has the added bonus of bringing the legendary Apple advertisement back into public consciousness (in fact, I’m not sure that I had even seen the original Macintosh ad since its 1984 broadcast).

Much of the controversy surrounding the video can be attributed to the fact that it was originally posted anonymously on YouTube several weeks ago under the pseudonym, ParkRidge47 (Hilary Clinton was born in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1947). Because the video was posted anonymously and because it explicitly identified Clinton with Big Brother, a number of readings emerged on the web attributing the video not only to Obama supporters but also to Republican activists. While the anonymity initially posed a number of interpretive difficulties, Jeff Jarvis argued in The Washington Post that the anonymously posted advertisement betrayed an important trust within political discourse, representing the possibility that attack ads could come from “anywhere.” The video’s creator, Phil de Vellis, eventually stepped forward, taking credit for the ad when it became clear that his work on it might reflect poorly on his employer, Blue State Digital, which had worked on the Obama campaign. De Vellis’s involvement with Blue State Digital certainly raises questions about whether the advertisement is genuinely the product of a “political outsider;” however, the repeated viewings certainly suggest that the advertisement has struck a chord with the groups who have been closely following the 2008 election.

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

The debate about the advertisement also managed to attract the attention of newspaper and cable news analysts who typically argued that its popularity marked a historic shift where anyone could participate in the election process. In fact, the advertisement has prompted a number of observers to describe the advertisement as “revolutionary,” with Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, arguing in the San Francisco Chronicle, that the ad is “about the end of the broadcast era.” However, while the ad is no doubt powerful and illustrates the potential of citizen media, I can’t help but find myself feeling skeptical when I hear phrases like “revolutionary” and “end of the broadcast era” being thrown around. Instead, it’s worth emphasizing that the ad’s popularity actually depends in part on the broadcast media that it supposedly threatens. De Vellis himself promoted this reading on The Huffington Post, commenting that “the specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton’s ‘conversation’ is disingenuous. And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power.”

Whether de Vellis’s specific point about the Clinton campaign is true, I remain somewhat uncertain regarding the role of voter-generated content in shaping political discourse. The advertisement does little, in my opinion, to change popular perception of the two Democratic frontrunners. Clinton will continue to be perceived as the Washington insider identified with traditional political campaigns while Obama’s image as someone who will reinvigorate the political process remains unchanged. It is clear, however, that these videos are attracting audiences because they tap into larger cultural desires regarding the election process. As David Weinberger pointed out in the Washington Post article, “expressing frustration and unhappiness with the level of control that her campaign is exerting.” I certainly recognize the degree to which the “Vote Different” advertisement and its popularity is an expression of the desire to open up the election process to greater participation. And the expression of this desire may be the great contribution of “Vote Different” to our ongoing conversations about democracy and participation.

Image Credits:
1. Clinton Still from Summary
2. Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

Video Credits:
1. “Vote Different” (Anti-Clinton)
2. “Vote Different” (Anti-Obama)

Please feel free to comment.




Democracy in Fifteen Seconds

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University


Super Bowl XXXIX

Few events call attention to advertising and its relationship to broadcast television as much as the Super Bowl, one of the few remaining media events that engage a collective, national viewing audience. Because it is one of the few live events to attract such a large national and international audience, Super Bowl broadcasts have recently become the site of energetic debate about what kinds of images are appropriate for broadcast, with Janet Jackson's infamous halftime performance inspiring the Federal Communication Commission to crack down on indecency. However, as John McMurria reminds us, the FCC's narrow definition of indecency ignores other forms of exclusion that take place on Super Bowl Sunday.

In contrast to Super Bowl Sunday's commercialization, media pundits have designated 2006 as the year that ushered in a new era of participatory culture, with Time Magazine famously naming “you” as its “Person of the Year,” citing the widespread practices of blogging, vlogging, and podcasting as examples of a nascent digital democracy in which everyone produces as well as consumes media and anyone can become a star. In particular, the video sharing site YouTube has gained a reputation as a more authentic alternative to the corporate media, one that invites participation from anyone who wishes to submit or watch a video (or several hundred). This rhetoric of authenticity informs a contest sponsored by CBS, “15 Seconds,” in which YouTubers are invited to submit fifteen-second videos to a contest hosted on the website with the winning video potentially appearing on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday. The contest, which was announced on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, requires that each submitted video also communicate an “inspiring message” and stipulates that contestants avoid using any copyrighted content in their videos (which eliminated a number of fairly entertaining Bush mashups). A panel of judges will evaluate the videos based on their creativity, message, quality, taste and tactfulness, and goodwill, choosing five finalists every two weeks before selecting one “favorite” for possible broadcast during the Super Bowl, an evaluation process that seems rather distinct from the more populist modes of evaluation that occur on video-sharing site. Contestants are also required to submit the videos via YouTube to CBS's “15 Seconds” group, a move that can certainly be read as a means to draw attention to CBS's content on YouTube and to identify the network with YouTube's participatory, community-oriented reputation.

Time Magazine

Time Magazine

To be sure, YouTube's reputation as a democratic site featuring unfettered personal expression and political commentary has been challenged after the site was sold to Google for $1.65 billion dollars, as John McMurria discussed in a recent Flow article. And while it would be easy to mock CBS's attempt to capitalize on the rhetoric of democratization associated with YouTube, glancing at the videos over the course of an afternoon, I found myself taken in by the ways in which the videos negotiated the limitations of the contest through the medium of web video. The CBS contest raises some crucial questions about how video sharing will be packaged and marketed, particularly as YouTube continues to work with broadcast and cable television. While web-enabled video sharing holds out the promise of democratization, offering everyday people the opportunity to express themselves in a public space, what happens when a major network such as CBS borrows from that language of democratization? While the contest has only captured the interest of a comparatively small number of participants–just over 100 videos have been posted in the ten days since the contest was announced on The Late Late Show–it still raises questions about the relationship between web-enabled video sharing and network television.

Unlike most YouTube content, the CBS contest requires participants to convey the “inspiring” message with their fifteen seconds of fame, demanding concise, sound-bite style statements, a limitation that several of the contestants refer to obliquely or directly in their entries. While these constraints typically have engendered vague calls for tolerance or world peace, even with those limitations, contestants managed to make use of many of the techniques characteristic of web video as a medium. In a number of the videos, participants directly address the camera, openly appealing to the sympathies of the viewers. This sense of authenticity is underscored by the setting and production values of the videos. Instead of carefully produced commercials with clearly calculated messages, these performers carefully present themselves as everyday people, filming in their cluttered bedrooms or their kitchen table, often with cheap digital cameras. Others tap more explicitly into what Henry Jenkins has called YouTube's “vaudeville aesthetic,” , filming a cat vlogger admonishing viewers against racism, performing short rap videos, or conveying messages through whimsical hand-drawn animation. The most memorable quality of the videos is this homemade status, the degree to which these videos unapologetically acknowledged their low-budget production values.

YouTube Globe

YouTube Globe

Watching all of the CBS videos consecutively over the course of an hour or so, I found myself increasingly caught up in the conversations that seemed to be taking place. While the videos themselves were produced independently, many of them repeated similar desires for peace and tolerance, with several specifically addressing the ongoing crises in Iraq and Darfur, while others sought to cut through the clutter of Super Bowl Sunday by offering us fifteen seconds of quiet. At the same time, I also couldn't help but notice that most of the contestants were white, middle-class males, details that should call attention to issues of access to participation in the culture of Web 2.0. While only a fraction of the Super Bowl audience will see most of these videos, they do raise important questions about the value of participatory culture as well as offering a careful consideration of what can and cannot be shown on network television.

Image Credits:
1. Super Bowl XXXIX
2. Time Magazine
3. YouTube Globe

Please feel free to comment.




Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Channeling Howard Beale

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

During the opening sequence of the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme’s latest series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), the producer of a weekly, live sketch comedy series interrupts the opening sketch to apologize for what will be an uninspiring episode of the show featuring few genuinely funny moments. Mendell then launches into an extended Howard Beale-inspired invective against the current state of television, lecturing to his audience that “I think you should change the channel, change the channel right now or better yet turn off the TV. Now, I know it seems like this is supposed to be funny, but tomorrow you’re gonna find out that it wasn’t and by that time I’ll have been fired. No, this is not a sketch. This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy ass broadcast network hellbent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience….We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry.” Mendell proceeds to condemn the increasing reliance on reality TV programs that feature contestants who eat worms and compete to be like Donald Trump.

Studio 60 was packaged for audiences as a form of quality television programming, largely on the strength of the writer-director team responsible for the cult phenomenon, Sports Night, and the critically-acclaimed presidential drama, The West Wing. While the pilot episode did produce one of the more compelling, if flawed, moments I’ve seen on television this fall, reviews of the show have been tepid at best, even among Sorkin’s fans, who have faulted the show’s writing for being both self-indulgent and heavy-handed. Both of these flaws are evident in Hirsch’s opening monologue. While Mendell’s criticisms of television carry some weight, in no small part due to Hirsch’s delivery, they also ring false. The jabs at reality television series such as Fear Factor and The Apprentice, in particular, seem to have arrived about three years too late, while the comments about a lack of “quality” programming also ignore a number of compelling, thoughtful series ranging from Veronica Mars and The Office on the networks to Battelstar Galactica and Entourage on cable. And yet, as I watched the pilot episode on my computer a few days before it aired on television, I found myself hoping the series would develop some momentum, perhaps in part because I am a sucker for meta-fictional series such as Studio 60 and Entourage, but also, I think, because Mendell’s speech emphasizes the ways in which TV matters, both for the people who produce television shows and those of us who consume them.

The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

For those who haven’t seen Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the show focuses on the production of a late-night sketch comedy show produced by the fictional NBS network, comparable to NBC’s Saturday Night Live. When the show’s producer, Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), is fired for his on-air tirade, new NBS president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) hires writer-director team Matt Albie and Danny Tripp, using Tripp’s positive test for cocaine use as leverage to entice both men back to the series they had left four years earlier. Complicating their return, Matt’s ex-girlfriend, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) is one of the primary cast members on the sketch comedy show. These relationships allow Studio 60 to tap into the backstage politics of producing a network TV series, including network executives concerned about ratings and actors competing for parts. Mix in Sorkin’s stylistic flourishes of intelligent dialogue and topical scripts and Studio 60 seems like the kind of show that would quickly cultivate an enthusiastic audience. However, the show has been faulted for its uneven, often self-indulgent scripts, a concern underlined by Todd VanDerWerff in his review at The House Next Door, who notes that the pilot episode, in particular, suggests that Matt and Danny have returned to rescue a floundering TV series, and by extension to “fix” television, with all of the myriad problems enumerated during the pilot’s opening monologue.

Despite its early limitations (or perhaps because of them), I am interested in examining how Studio 60 explores the function of television within a larger public sphere, a subject that clearly motivates many of Sorkin’s scripts. Early episodes have focused on network executives who worry about offending religious audiences with a comedy sketch called “Crazy Christians,” while episode three details Matt and Danny’s reaction to a focus group that concludes that the show is not “patriotic” enough. These topics could have been used to focus our attention on the industrial and economic landscape in which television series are produced; however, Studio 60 falters when it comes to representing its audience, most notably in its image of an undifferentiated mass of Christian viewers eager to boycott liberal TV shows at the first appearance of any offensive material (exactly what was so offensive about the “Crazy Christians” sketch, in fact, is never made clear). This conflict over Christianity is also played out, somewhat awkwardly, in the conflict between Matt and Harriet, a born-again Christian cast-member clearly modeled on SNL alum Kristin Chenoweth. Even a passing dig on bloggers (“Bernadette is writing in her pajamas surrounded by cats”) seems remarkably condescending towards the show’s audience, many of whom are, presumably, bloggers.[1]

Simon Stiles

Simon Stiles, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 also focuses, in more or less interesting ways, in the challenges of producing a live television show. It is worth pointing out here that Studio 60 appears at a historical moment when popular definitions of television are under revision, particularly when it comes to the ways in which audiences encounter television programming, especially as TiVo and other digital video recorders, not to mention video hosting services such as YouTube, increasingly chip away at the “flow” of broadcast television. And I think this is where Studio 60 seems most out of synch. The studio of the sketch comedy show is dominated by a giant clock that counts down the days, hours, and minutes until the next episode of the show, placing special emphasis on the liveness of the sketch comedy show. This emphasis on the show’s liveness is most explicitly addressed in episode four, “West Coast Delay,” in which Simon (D.L. Hughley) and Harriet are forced to re-record a sketch several times when it is discovered that the sketch may have been plagiarized from an obscure stand-up comedian (it turns out, of course, that he’d stolen the sketch from one of the writers for the show). In my reading, Studio 60’s treatment of a live broadcast seems like one of its most significant structuring characteristics, and it is difficult, for me at least, not to read the show as faintly nostalgic for some moment in the past when shows such as Saturday Night Live could claim something close to cultural centrality.

Despite these problems, I remain optimistic that the show can contribute to our ongoing discussions of the institution of television. While Studio 60 suffers from struggles with self-importance and navel-gazing, it is also valuable because it takes television seriously and provides room for talking about the role of economic and industrial factors in the production of a major network television series, a question that is far too rarely addressed in any significant way.

Note
[1] Thanks to Lance Mannion, who happened to be live-blogging this episode of Studio 60, for pointing this out. See Lance Mannion, “Blogging Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

Image Credits:
1. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
2. The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
3. Simon Stiles, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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