Past Media, Present Flows
Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University


Core Conversation 2

The second Core Conversation, “Television Restoration: Pragmatic Realities and Implications for Media History,” featuring Moderator Dr. Caroline Frick, Dr. Derek Kompare, and Ryan Adams and David Grant from CBS Multimedia Services

Flow 2014: Core Conversation 2 (Click here to listen)

Every Flow conference is fueled by enduring, yet always-shifting, questions of what constitutes television, and how we try to understand it. This year, from Horace Newcomb’s attempts to pin down veteran TV writers and critics on the question of television as a broad cultural forum, to Kevin Reilly’s admitted bewilderment at the function of audiences, the discussions largely centered around the changing relationships between viewers and medium (if we can still call something distributed and consumed through many different platforms “a medium”). In the panels I attended and participated in, the questions were largely ones of distribution and access: Does television “flow” the way Raymond Williams described it in 1974, or is it predominantly an ad-hoc, on-demand system? What are the politics of enunciative fandom in an era of (supposed) geek domination over media? Who now controls access to content and users?

I’m primarily interested in what happens to past media within all this change. This concern entails not only with the “whats” of preservation and recirculation (i.e., whether or not a particular work is saved), but also the “hows” and “whys”: How is an older work restored and accessed? Why is there so much variation in restoration and access? In an age of seeming media ubiquity, we often assume that most past media works are readily available at a few keystrokes and mouse clicks. However, as with so many other “hidden” parts of our media systems, this presumption glosses over the complex processes involved in preserving, restoring, redistributing, and consuming past media. Many decisions and practices have shaped the availability of that episode of The Bob Newhart Show you’re watching on Hulu long before you’ve clicked on it.

While such streaming and/or downloading garner the most attention today, viable methods of distributing and viewing any kind of television still include successful systems established decades ago, including over-the-air broadcasting, cable, satellite, and physical media. While those who wish to appear tech-savvy will disregard older methods, asking “who does that any more?!?” or making classist jokes at the Emmys about VCR usage, most of these methods are still quite relevant today. However, they each still matter in different ways, and as scholars and (more precisely) historians, we need to attend more carefully to how these methods relate to each other in shifting media environments.

In my core conversation talk, I discussed a survey of 95 of my students this year that had gauged their exposure to older TV shows. While space doesn’t permit a complete description of the results, it was clear that continuous runs of shows on cable channels like TBS, USA, and Nickelodeon had mattered more to my students (all aged 18-25) than the mere presence of a title on a streaming service or as a DVD box set. In this case, a wide majority of students were very familiar with Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but very few had even heard of all-time TV classic The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or hard-edged 2000s critical darling The Shield.

What Have Students Seen

What my students reporting seeing, and not seeing

While admittedly this isn’t a robust sample of changing perceptions of TV, it still suggests that we need to consider how we’ve experienced television in the past as much, if not more, as how we’re experiencing it now. TV shows aren’t isolated bundles that are encountered on their own, but texts that always come embedded in particular industrial and cultural contexts, whether broadcast schedule, journalistic retrospective, tumblr blog, streaming choice, or, yes, media studies syllabus. These always-shifting contexts determine how viewers encounter past media; de facto canons (e.g., as generated by us media scholars) are relatively tiny pieces of those contexts.

Accordingly, barring radical change to the economy, the market terms of our media culture cannot be overstated: there will always be sellers and buyers of media. Sellers always produce and/or obtain new works, but will only continue to offer old works if they perceive some buyer demand for it (“buyers” running the gamut from channels or services looking for programming to attract advertisers or subscribers, to fans wanting to own physical copies of their favorite shows). While the conditions which trigger that demand, and the seller response to it, are certainly complex, the general case for marketing a library or “back catalog” of content for a seller, as I argued in Rerun Nation, is that it is a) potentially easier to sell, since it has already made an initial appearance in the culture, and b) potentially more profitable, since production costs may have been paid off years or decades ago. Moreover, for decades new media technologies, ranging from UHF TV to cable channels to home video to the internet, have always been launched into prominence largely through old media.

Star Trek VHS

Announcing Star Trek’s VHS releases, circa 1990

Indeed, one particular category in the US, the broadcast digital subchannel, or “digi-net,” has greatly expanded in the five years since the HD conversion and reallocation of broadcast frequencies. National networks specializing in past television, like Cozi TV, MeTV, Antenna TV, Hot TV, and Retro TV, have effectively recreated the rerun-heavy independent station of the 1960s-80s. While their audiences are tiny, and their availability is often spotty (e.g., many cable systems don’t bother to carry them at all), they have been lucrative enough to warrant expansion and even generate their own fan bases. As I mentioned in my Flow talk, because of these channels, the golden age of over-the-air reruns is apparently right now; Dr. Hartley is in session on Monday nights on MeTV.

Bob Newhart Show

The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), on MeTV

Because of both audience fragmentation, multiple distribution platforms, and more precise data analysis, viewers, as fans, increasingly factor into the availability of past television, even of less prominent titles. Music and video publisher Shout! Factory has long based its business around licensing and redistributing past media directly to fans. Time-Life and Warner Archive (as I’ve previously examined) also specialize in selling otherwise marginal titles to fans. At the conference, this commercial role of fans (as potential consumers, rather than “textual poachers”) came out in discussions with Ryan Adams and David Grant from CBS Multimedia Services, who oversee most of that studio’s television restoration and repackaging. They indicated that while their work orders generally come from “above,” i.e., from CBS’ program marketing, they also seek input and feedback from fans of older shows. They claimed discussion with fans at Star Trek conventions has helped shape the production of the remastered Trek series on HD and Blu-Ray. At Flow, at least two TV fans–each prominent media studies scholars–approached Adams and Grant at the conference with a request to exhume Frank’s Place, the critically-acclaimed but otherwise long-forgotten 1987-88 CBS dramedy about a fish-out-of-water Ivy League professor running a New Orleans restaurant.

Frank's Place

Will we someday return to Frank’s Place (1987-88)?

Even if distribution is possible, the particular form the past media work takes on its return is certainly variable. The technical standards of television images and sounds have changed drastically over time, and this poses a particular challenge for older material. At the conference, Adams and Grant displayed before and after clips of the HD conversion work they oversaw on Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. While the film restoration work of live-action shots (from original camera negatives) is meticulous and impressive, the creation of new, CGI special effects shots, while necessary for the latter show to match the higher resolution, does replace existing material, though as close to the spirit of the original shots as possible. I agree with Adams that pragmatism has to meet idealism at some point, and the new shots are certainly better than not getting the show at all. Still, CBS’ cost-saving decision to split the restoration of seasons between their own, outstanding digital crew, and various outside firms, has resulted in some problematic differences. However, rather than follow an impossible quest for a commercial release of somehow unmodified “original versions” of material, we should appreciate the transactions necessary to bring them back out at all, and approach new versions as new textual iterations of the original work. These iterations will be almost certainly different than the original, and marked by their own contexts of production, but ideally still resonant enough to effectively represent the past for each present. Our task, as media historians, is to not take past media for granted, but work to understand more of how redistribution works, and help provide context along the way.

Image Credits:
1. Core Conversation 2, Courtesy of Kyle Wrather.
2. What are students watching, Graph submitted by Author.
3. Star Trek VHS
4. Bob Newhart Show
5. Frank’s Place

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Streaming as Shelving: The Media Past in the Media Future
Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

In media studies, we too often regard past media (old films, TV shows, recordings, etc.) without considering how we’re still able to access them. If we pull our focus back, we can better appreciate how our access to past media must always pass through the filters of our present media systems (and often those of times in between), with their particular protocols, practices, and codes. The most salient developments of the present in this regard center on rapidly growing (in terms of volume of data and number of end users) systems of online distribution.

Late April’s flurry of news on the digital distribution front marked revealing signals on the continued transition towards on-demand media system in the US. HBO struck a $500M deal with Amazon for streaming rights to much of its vast library of programming, including The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, and miniseries and original movies like John Adams, Band of Brothers, and Mildred Pierce. AT&T announced that they are developing their own streaming site, and are rumored to be attempting to acquire satellite television distributor Direct TV. Most importantly, FCC chair Tom Wheeler announced that the commission was developing revised net neutrality rules that allow ISPs to create so-called “fast lanes” of service at a premium to content distributors while still ostensibly retaining the openness of the internet to all “legal content.” It’s worth exploring each of these interrelated developments for what they may portend for the future of media distribution.

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The Fisher clan of HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-05), headed to Amazon Prime.

Before that however, one of the overriding concerns of media distributors needs to be acknowledged: the rapidly shrinking consumer market for physical media (i.e., CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs). CD sales plunged long ago, at the turn of the century, and while it took years for the music industry to figure out online distribution, it seems to have at least worked out a somewhat remunerative system of downloads (through iTunes, Google, Amazon, and hundreds of other apps and sites) and subscription streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. That said, while the latter have exploded in popularity with consumers in the past few years, the margins are thus far not ideal for content owners, artists, and publishers. The revenues regularly reached in the 1990s are not likely to ever return to the industry. As Tim J. Anderson notes, “as digital user environments grow and change every element of the industry will have to negotiate how their productions and contributions are valued and whether or not they may wish to participate.” (( Tim J. Anderson, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy (New York: Routledge, 2014), 87. )) Meanwhile, DVD sales peaked a decade ago, and while Blu-Ray has steadily grown as a proportion of disc sales since that time, the overall trend for the video disc format is firmly down, as shown by this data compiled from Digital Entertainment Group:

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This transition is perhaps the major reason for HBO’s decision to finally license a good deal of its library for streaming. The only way to legally access their content to date has been by subscribing to HBO as part of your cable or satellite bundle, or by obtaining them on DVD or Blu-Ray. HBO has long held the line on premium pricing in both areas. They must have realized time had run out on relying exclusively on that strategy, and licensing to Amazon grants them enormous revenue and still keeps the content in wider (or at least, more accessible) circulation to Amazon Prime subscribers. Moreover, it places that content just a couple of clicks away from still purchasing the DVD or Blu-Ray versions, through the very retailer they’ve no doubt already sold many of them already. The move is both a concession to the shifting media market, and a transference of their brand to a new domain. As Myles McNutt remarks, HBO has always eventually, and effectively utilized new forms of distribution to grow their reputation beyond their paying subscribers. Thus, rather than watch Tony Soprano, the Fisher clan, or the denizens of Baltimore fade from memory, they’ve secured virtual shelf space in the next iteration of the cultural archive (albeit still not on Netflix, which remains the de facto arbiter of streaming relevance, as Anne Helen Petersen has observed). Meanwhile, Amazon, while well behind Netflix as a streaming brand, is already solidly the predominant online retailer on the planet. The HBO catalog grants them a bit more legitimacy as they build out their media ecosystem.

AT&T’s actions are more shrouded in secrecy at the moment, but are reactions to the arguably inevitable merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. As a telco, AT&T already competes with each of these cable operators in many of its markets. Faced with a new tcomm giant, with unprecedented distribution reach, and, in NBC Universal, a massive content engine, while trying to hold on to their own broadband subscribers (like myself) who’ve forgone their U-Verse TV service in favor of streaming from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and others, AT&T needs to secure its own future as a major distributor. Yet another new streaming service seems a tall order, but they’ve got tens of millions of broadband subscribers they could easily roll out to, likely at reasonable rates to their consumers. Acquiring Direct TV would hedge their bets, picking up several million new customers, though also generating some conflicts of interest with their TV business (i.e., who would subscribe to both U-Verse TV and Direct TV?).

This brings us to the proposed FCC net neutrality revision, which, at the time of this writing, has still not been released to the public in detail. The gist of the policy adjustment seems to be to allow ISPs what they’ve long sought: the ability to charge content distributors for faster bandwidth. As bandwidth needs escalate with all the HD (and even 4K) video being streamed, this new rule would essentially create a market for acceptable bandwidth. However, in a telecommunications system that’s already much slower, much more expensive, and much less competitive than those in almost every other advanced country, it’s less a robust “free” market than a giveaway to the four big ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon) who control over two-thirds of US broadband access. (( Leichtman Research Group, “2.6 Million Added Broadband from Top Cable and Telephone Companies in 2013,” http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/031714release.html )) Yes, Wheeler assures us that the terms of this transaction must be “commercially reasonable,” but despite his examples of “unreasonable” behavior, that’s exactly the sort of legal phrasing that allows for a vast range of interpretation (not unlike this longstanding policy classic: “the public interest, convenience, and necessity”). (( Tom Wheeler, “Finding The Best Path Forward To Protect the Open Internet,” Federal Communications Commission, http://www.fcc.gov/blog/finding-best-path-forward-protect-open-internet ))

The new media future will almost certainly see online distribution dominant over physical media, cable/satellite systems, and even venerable over-the-air broadcasting. As the Aereo case (the other crucial media policy development in April 2014) shows, the position of the latter in the emerging media order is far from assured. In the US market, the thick top layer of Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon obscures a more diverse and niche-focused array of streamers like Mubi, Crunchyroll, Warner Archive Instant, Acorn, Twitch, and many others. (( Europe is also an especially active region for SVOD; see Hannah Goodwin and John Vanderhoef, “Policy and Politics Dictate the Growth of the European SVOD Market,” Media Industries Project, April 21, 2014, http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/mip/article/policy-and-politics-dictate-growth-european-svod-market )) While their fortunes currently vary, this week’s developments do not particularly bode well for any of them. If the streams of the present are going to function effectively as the shelves of the future for the texts of the past, we need to take a more active role in media policy.

Image Credits:

1. Six Feet Under
2. Chart, author generated and owned.

Please feel free to comment.




Adverstreaming: Hulu Plus
Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

gejun1

In my previous installment in this look at video streaming sites, I discussed how Warner Archive Instant functions as a “cult streamer” in that its content and audience are defined by their market marginality. That is, they explicitly locate themselves within a cultural niche, and capitalize on that position.

The much more prominent subject of this exploration, Hulu, operates primarily on the opposite principle. Whereas WAI offers only a particular range of material for particular viewers, Hulu attempts to offer virtually everything for everybody: preschoolers, Korean drama fans, Criterion film fans, late night talk show fans, classic sitcom fans, anime fans, and most prominently, viewers catching up on current ABC, CW, Fox, and NBC programs. Even among fellow “big-tent” streamers (i.e., on the same tier as Amazon Prime and Netflix), Hulu is unique in the breadth of both its offerings and its organization. While its approach may seem scattershot in an era of increasing cultural niches, it’s clearly been a successful strategy. Most other streamers gather content for users; Hulu, like traditional television, instead gathers users for their advertisers.

Hulu launched on March 12, 2008, a few months after the start of Netflix’s streaming video service, and a couple of years into the broadcast networks’ own streaming efforts on their websites. It ostensibly aimed to channel the new appetite for convenient online video into a venue for advertising, at a hitherto unseen scale and scope. Since that time, Hulu has greatly expanded their utility (adding dozens of Hulu-capable devices, and new interfaces and social functions), and their content (hundreds of thousands of videos from hundreds of distributors). Although Hulu operated at first only as a free-to-user, advertising-supported platform (primarily featuring recent episodes of several broadcast networks’ shows, and an expanding library of older programs), it opened up the subscription tier Hulu Plus in the fall of 2010, which offered a much deeper content library, while still maintaining the accompanying advertisements. In other words, while “free” Hulu operates in a broadcast mold, Hulu Plus is functionally like basic cable.

Despite its overall success, Hulu’s position among streaming platforms is somewhat liminal, given its often discordant corporate parents (whose divisions eventually resulted in the departure of its idealistic founder Jason Kilar in January 2013). (( Jeff Ulin, The Business of Media Distribution (Second Edition). New York: Focal Press, 2013. 404-05. )) Its early branding as a gleefully disruptive upstart battling media giants has always been undermined by its simultaneous joint ownership by three of the biggest of those giants: Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Comcast. While Comcast’s stake does not grant them control, as a regulatory condition of their acquisition of NBCUniversal, the other two partners have had disparate visions for Hulu: 21st Century Fox would prefer to focus primarily on developing the paid subscription model, but Disney favors the platform’s advertising function. That said, regardless of the economic model, all three corporations also have deep interests in the vitality of the current cable TV ecosystem. Accordingly, Hulu is never going to become positioned or supported as an alternative to that hegemony. But at the same time it is clearly valuable as an established, accessible platform for distributing content and advertising. Too valuable, indeed, to let go to an outside party (say Yahoo, Apple, or Google) who might not have as much fealty to the cable crown. Thus, plans for both an initial public offering and corporate sale of Hulu have been cancelled on multiple occasions (most recently last summer) when the corporate owners had second thoughts.

gejun2

Because of this odd marriage, Hulu is apparently both a floor wax and a dessert topping: simultaneously a subscription and advertising-based system. While this combination isn’t novel in the broad history of media platforms–most cable and satellite systems and channels worldwide have long had an identical function–it is still rare among streaming platforms, which have been perceived more along the lines of a premium cable channel: subscriber fees are exchanged for the promise of ad-free programming. According to Hulu’s mission statement, their goal is still a service that “users, advertisers, and content owners unabashedly love.” This tension between pleasing all three of these masters is most visible when one seemingly trumps the other two in particular uses, as when access to content is limited (favoring the content owner), content is (at times, clumsily) broken up by advertising (favoring the advertiser), or content is edited and shared by users with Hulu’s sharing tools (favoring the user). But this is a balance that must be kept in order to maintain the platforms appeal to all parties. As seen in the above sketch I carved out of a 1976 Saturday Night Live episode, even embedded clips contain advertising and promotional cards for their distributors.

While this tension seems at odds with the “pull” interface of Netflix (and the longstanding architecture of the web), it feels right at home with the longstanding “push” architecture of good ol’ television, where advertising is still the currency and the viewer is still the product. As Daniel Chamberlain argues, television interfaces are “gateways to the content we desire…subtly reformatting our televisual experiences along vectors of customization and control.” (( Daniel Chamberlain, “Television Interfaces,” Journal of Popular Film and Television (Summer 2010) 84-88. )) Navigating a Hulu viewing session, particularly from one’s couch, is a close replication of traditional TV channel-surfing.

Two of Hulu’s default main-page categories

Two of Hulu’s default main-page categories

Most other online streaming platforms dive immediately into your established interests and subscriptions, and offer up titles and categories accordingly. In contrast, Hulu gives only a tiny nod to your specific interests (“Shows you watch”), but then loads the rest of its main page with content categories generated by currency (“Recently Added”), popularity with users (“Trending Now,” “Top 25 Clips”, “Popular Episodes,” “Popular Shows,” “Popular Networks”), or content-owner- or advertiser-sponsored focus (“Sochi Watch,” “Urban Outfitters Presents Hulu’s Best Double Acts,” “Mythbusters Investigates”). You are not the center of this experience, but rather a willing participant in a wider viewing community.

Clicking beyond the main page–the cryptic top-level headings are “TV,” “Movies,” “Kids,” and “More”–at first continues the emphasis on popularity and established genres, but then uncovers the specificity of Hulu’s acquired content: its hidden niches. Thus, while the default emphasis is firmly on television, the primary categories under the “Film” banner are documentaries and the Criterion Collection. Similarly, “More” doesn’t bring up universal categories, but instead culturally-specific ones directly tied to distribution deals with particular content owners: “Latino,” “British,” “Anime,” “Korean Drama,” and “Video Games.”

Curating categories in Hulu’s Criterion library

Curating categories in Hulu’s Criterion library

As deep as its library is, it must be remembered that Hulu’s stated goal is not to be the top niche streamer, but, rather, to be “the world’s most effective video advertising service.” (( http://www.hulu.com/advertising/. Accessed February 8, 2014. )) Their advertising sales pitch is designed both to reassure dubious advertisers, at every geographic level, of their punch relative to television, and to emphasize the way their site architecture channels viewers to particular market-driven categories (e.g., their rapidly growing Latino content). They offer sponsorship of specific platform-wide events, when particular content is assembled under a themed banner (e.g., coinciding with the turn of seasons, or particular holidays). Their original programming is similarly organized with a rising scale of potential sponsorships, including “Hulu Spotlight” programs (“genetically engineered for advertisers”), and peaking in fully “Brand Authored Content,” like Chipotle’s anti-industrial farming satire, Farmed and Dangerous. (( http://www.hulu.com/advertising/original-programming/. Accessed February 8, 2014. ))

why buy Hulu

sponsership

framed and dangerous

Some examples of Hulu’s advertising pitch and options

We can’t know exactly how the detente between Fox and Disney over Hulu has gone, but I suspect that Disney won the argument, waving reams of advertising data. The big content deals have kept on coming, and the bar between “free” and “Plus” content has been adjusted more in favor of the latter. Even CBS, long resistant to streaming their current programming to third parties, has made a rapid series of deals with Hulu, not only for older library series dating back to the 1960s, but for much more recent programs, including Blue Bloods, Elementary, and The Good Wife. Thus, as cable TV quickly refined the advertising basis of broadcast TV, Hulu has continued that logic, offering users, advertisers, and content owners a platform that they might not unabashedly love, but that they certainly like quite a bit.

Image Credits:
1. Screengrab of Hulu website, author generated and owned
2. Screengrab of Hulu website, author generated and owned
3. Screengrab of Hulu website, author generated and owned
4. Screengrab of Hulu website, author generated and owned
5. Screengrab of Hulu website, author generated and owned

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Cult Streaming: Warner Archive Instant
Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

The rapid rise of streaming media over the past few years has altered the media landscape in many significant ways. While the shift of media access over the past few decades from ephemeral experience, to physical object, to downloadable file, and back to ephemeral experience has been subtle and overlapping, it has had profound consequences for the way media works are conceived, produced, distributed, and consumed.

We are deep along a transition from physical to virtual media objects, and while its parameters and pace are certainly debatable, the overall trajectory is not:

Transition from Physical to Virtual Media Objects

Media Transition

As this chart indicates, over the past few decades the prominence of audiovisual media objects in the culture has gradually moved from analog to digital, and from tangible to remote. The steep decline in the sales and use of physical audiovisual media objects in the recent past has been particularly impactful. The default availability of films and TV programs as tangible consumer products (as tapes in the 1970s-90s, or discs since then) has long been taken for granted, but is starting to recede as mature markets plateau and fall, and digital devices increasingly marginalize disc playback, or, more commonly in a WiFi-ed era of phones, tablets, and lighter laptops, leave it out entirely.

This transition has been, and deserves to be, a key locus of analysis and debate across the culture, and especially within media studies. Scholars like Wheeler Winston Dixon ((Wheeler Winston Dixon, Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).)) and Chuck Tryon ((Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013).)) have provided especially insightful investigations of this shift so far, focusing in particular on the impact on the production and distribution of film. However, in exploring these digital media practices, we should also consider how they diverge. Despite blanket descriptions of “the digital,” and some industrial calls for technical standards, there are still relatively few common digital forms, practices, and interfaces. This is not “a” transition, but many.

Among these, the movement of older extant media works to digital platforms is a particularly important transition. As physical media declines, accessible digital versions (whether rented, sold, or streamed) are key in maintaining the historical connection to these works. Just as syndicated and cable television and home video were instrumental in the wider circulation of film and television history, so the internet must be now if similar relationships to the media past are to continue.

One iteration of the streamed past can be found at Warner Archive Instant (WAI), the streaming version of the Warner Archive home video label. Wholly-owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Warner Archive is a manufacture-on-demand (MOD) DVD label focusing exclusively on past films and television shows at the margins of the market. Their offerings are typically too obscure for mass retailing, but nonetheless still too lucrative to leave entirely off the shelf. Thus, it is aimed primarily not at general media consumers, but rather to fans who seek out particular genres and figures: pre-code melodrama, sixties noir, made-for-TV movies, or actors like Jack Palance, Jeanette MacDonald, and John Saxon. Typical label releases include films like the Crime Does Not Pay shorts (1935-47), the sex comedy Pretty Maids All In A Row (1971), and the post-apocalyptic drama The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959); and TV shows like the western Sugarfoot (1957-61), the Saturday morning adventure Thundarr The Barbarian (1980-82), and the sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73). WAI streams many (though not all or even most) of the titles available in the Warner Archive collection for a monthly subscription fee of $9.99.

By focusing on these titles, rather than more well-known and mainstream fare, WAI aims itself precisely at fans of myriad “cult” sensibilities. As Matt Hills ((Matt Hills, “Defining Cult TV: Intertexts, Texts, and Fan Audiences,” in The Television Studies Reader, ed. Robert C. Allen and Annette Hill (New York: Routledge, 2004) 509-23.)) has argued, the “cult” designation of any work is impossible to fix, as it is produced by the combination of textual features, media discourses, and fan practices (rather than any one of these factors). WAI encourages all three of these angles through its social media outlets (including a lively Twitter account, podcast and YouTube channel), and its curation practices. While any title, actor, or director in the site can be found in a search (as with all streamers), WAI is also distinctly organized by format, genre, decades, and special, periodic “showcases.” Thus, fans of “television,” “mondo/cult,” “1970s,” or “On Location: Los Angeles” could all use those categories to browse for content on WAI.

Warner Archive Instant

Warner Archive Instant

WAI’s classification schema isn’t unlike more “traditional,” pre-digital forms of curation, including libraries, theaters, cable TV networks, and media studies scholars, programs, and publishers. However, unlike more well-known streamers like Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon, WAI’s focus on cinematic and televisual marginalia (and mostly Hollywood marginalia at that) locates it as a boutique streamer. It does not provide something for everyone (as the top streamers all purport to), but rather markets its more limited fare to a limited audience. It has adopted the strategy of a narrowcast cable channel or specialty video label (as Warner Archive itself still is), but to a monthly subscription model, rather than advertiser-supported (as most cable channels still are) or direct payment (e.g., purchasing a DVD). It is not the only streamer which follows this model–other services with similarly limited fare include Crunchyroll (anime), Viki (global TV), Fandor (indie films), and SnagFilms (indie films)–but so far it is the only one to occupy its particular niche of half-forgotten Hollywood. While it lacks the scope and access of the major streamers (e.g., so far the only way to watch its fare is via its often-problematic website, or through a Roku box), it nonetheless connects to a smaller audience for whom some convenience may be sacrificed for audiovisual quality and eclecticism.

Ultimately, WAI’s curation practices are where the “old” context of physical media and “new” context of boundless streaming connect. By offering up material that would not otherwise be accessible, WAI, like its parent video label, and other similar commercial reissue ventures (e.g., Shout! Factory, Kino, Something Weird, Fantagraphics) serve as de facto archives of 20th century media culture that might otherwise be forgotten. In Digital Cultures, Milad Doueihi ((Milad Doueihi, Digital Cultures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).)) writes that the digital transition “has the potential to alter our historical perspective and inform the ways in which we define and understand the notion of a record, of historical record, and the narratives we will be able to produce about the events that determine our cultural history” (122). As the physical record gives way to the virtual, we need to continue to monitor this transition, accepting both its advantages and limitations, but interrogating its presumptions, textures and depths.

Image Credits:
1.Media Transition: author-made chart
2.Warner Archive Instant: screengrab of Warner Archive Instant website, owned by author

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Producers, Publics, and Podcasts: Where Does Television Happen?

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

The distance between television creators and television viewers has always seemed to me to be exaggerated, in mainstream as well as academic conceptions. “The industry,” that mysterious source of texts, is put over in one corner, and the “audience,” endlessly receiving (actively, passively, or otherwise), is parked in the other. We scholars look into each side fairly well, but rarely do we examine what happens when they meet. John Fiske once wrote about “moments of television,” where television “happens” in the interaction of text and audience.1 I’ve always liked this conception, but would suggest that we scale it back beyond only the text (which always matters, of course), to the institutions and people who made it. “Television” happens somewhere in this meeting of people, institutions, ideas, and technology.

Unfortunately, while the various parties of this relationship are generally analyzed on their own, they’re rarely brought together. The industry is all too often viewed as either a monolith or a set of fiefdoms, with transparent intents and machinations (i.e., to make lots of money). While this conception is valid, if banal, it lacks an analysis of the complex workings of the television industry, its components, and its people. The pursuit of profit alone doesn’t explain the prevalence of hand-held camerawork in single-camera shows, the explosion of procedural dramas, or even how Ashton Kutcher became a reality show mogul. Meanwhile, textual analysis, while invaluable, still separates process from product. This isn’t the place to ruminate on the interpretive role of the critic, but surely, as Keith Negus detailed in his study of genre in the music industry, the motivations, calculations, and judgments of creators and other industry personnel “matter,” at least in principle.2 Finally, while the audience has received the lion’s share of critical attention (whether categorized as viewers or fans), their documented encounters with television generally begin and end with the text, or with the texts they create. Television creative personnel rarely factor into such studies. However, many television creators today (writers in particular) consider themselves fans, and actively foster relationships with fans. These “fan-professionals,” including creators like Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon, present significant opportunities for connecting the dots between producers, texts, and viewers.

While fans have long contacted series producers and writers (dating back to radio), the growth of organized fandom over the past forty years has provided producers of particular genres with ready-made, eager and receptive, if often difficult, audiences for their work. An array of media and fora, ranging from magazines to conventions, have developed over this period to facilitate (and, yes, exploit) this connection. Over the last dozen or so years, the internet has greatly expanded the range and volume of these creator-fan encounters. Engaged creators can now obtain instantaneous feedback on their work from their most enthusiastic viewers. Some writers and producers (and in a few rare cases, actors) even directly engage with fans on their own turf, posting on fan-run message boards and blogs. Most recently, however, creators have taken an even more active role in this relationship, offering up extensive online commentary and discussion about their work.3

The producers of the new Battlestar Galactica didn’t have to put blogs (text and video), galleries of production art, or weekly podcasts online, but they did. This material has gone beyond the usual staid promotional package you’d expect on official websites, to include frank discussions about the series’ production, and salty on-set actualities. In his unprecedented podcast episode commentaries, executive producer Ron Moore is mostly concerned with explaining the “whys” of televisual storytelling, justifying narrative elements, detailing rewrites, lamenting production difficulties, and even regretting some choices. As a grizzled veteran of the rise and fall of Star Trek in the 1990s, Moore is keenly aware of the demands of fans, of networks and studios, and of commercial television itself. He effectively communicates the exhausting process of pleasing all of these masters, and yet can still gush with unapologetic fannish glee at an actor’s performance, at a shot sequence, or at his series’ much-noted moral ambiguity.

Although Galactica’s official web presence is certainly robust, Lost arguably represents the most extensive online interaction between creators and fans on American television right now. As with Battlestar Galactica, a weekly podcast enables series producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to talk directly about their work, discussing that week’s episode, and answering a few fan questions about the narrative each week. Unlike Moore and Eick, however, Cuse and Lindelof focus primarily on teasing the narrative rather than explaining how things were done. This approach runs parallel with both the dominant treatment of the series (as unfolding puzzle) and the other components of its online footprint (e.g., cryptic websites for Oceanic Air and the Hanso Foundation). Their fannish enthusiasm comes across in anticipation of “what happens next,” rather than in Moore’s “here’s how we did it.” In addition, each Lost podcast also includes an interview with a cast member. Thus far, these interviews have served as fairly standard publicity fodder, although as the podcast form becomes more established, perhaps they will evolve into something more substantial as well.

Lost

Lost

Like their fan-produced counterparts (which number in the dozens), these official blogs and podcasts offer new spaces for analysis, interpretation, and creator-fan interaction. That said, these practices shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their face value. They still function primarily as promotion material, drawing fans not only to the programs, but to ad-supported websites and other media. Moreover, significant cultural and social power differentials still remain between creators and fans, no matter how sincere the formers’ intents may be. Still, though, creators like Moore and Lindelof are clearly enthusiastic about their work, and about talking about their work with other enthusiasts. There’s something in these exchanges that needs to be acknowledged and studied, rather than ignored or written off.

Thankfully, there are precedents in television studies for “connecting the dots.”4 These works trace the connections over time, revealing how creators sometimes rely upon viewers for creative acknowledgement and even political support, and how viewers communicate their perspectives and concerns to creators. What emerges in these accounts is an understanding of how television texts (and even institutions) are ongoing collaborations of expectations and possibilities between creators, networks, advertisers, viewers, fans, and technology. In other words, television isn’t just what happens in the proverbial living room between eyeballs and screens.

The mushrooming of content (online and otherwise) related to series — what used to be called “extratextual”–presents not only further avenues of interpretation, but also alternative conceptions of what “television” is, or can be, or was. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere in Flow, the rapidly shifting distribution of television adds to this redefinition, and arguably enhances the importance of creator-viewer interaction. The distance between the dots is shrinking, and has been for years. It’s high time to connect them.

Notes
1John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987).
2Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1999).
3The prevalence of commentary tracks and other “behind-the-scenes” features on DVD releases is another signficant incarnation of this phenomenon.
4A few examples: Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham, NC: Duke, 2001), Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina, 1994), Laurie Ouellette’s Viewers Like You?: How Pulbic TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia, 2002), and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Methuen, 1983).

Image Credits
1. Battlestar Galactica

2. Lost

Please feel free to comment.




We Are So Screwed: Invasion TV

Invasion

Invasion

Fall network television schedules are among the most revelatory features of industrial cultural production. While they don’t provide a mirror to society, they do offer significant evidence of the industry’s conceptualization of society, or at least of the demographic and psychographic bits of society that it aims to attract. Accordingly, they’re not as much reflection as caricature. Even so, they do provide significant clues about the economic state of the industry and its players, the reputations of particular genres and producers, and, not inconsequentially, the state of televisual art. Well before actual episodes materialize in September, much can be gleaned.

By these standards, the most fascinating trend of the current season, starting when it was unveiled last spring, has been the plethora of series focusing on the supernatural. No less than five new dramas, on four of the six networks, center on episodic encounters with mysterious beings and forces; one of them is actually called Supernatural. Keeping in mind that the network track record of the supernatural, and science fiction in particular, has been generally dismal (despite recent successes like Smallville, Charmed, and Lost), the sudden presence of so many genre series certainly raises a few Vulcan eyebrows. As unlikely as this is, however, the fact that three of these shows represent an even more specific genre, alien invasion, is downright weird.

The critical and popular success of Lost and Desperate Housewives last season has been largely credited with the sudden interest in mystery-laden serials. While these series general influence on network executives and series developers is certainly clear, the question remains: three alien invasion series? The Hanso Foundation notwithstanding, the answer to that question actually owes more to two earlier breakout series, 24 and The X-Files, and their common thematic of apocalyptic threat.

Each of these shows presented dense worlds of secrets and threats, in which our protagonists are seemingly the only barrier between everyday life and Armageddon. Moreover, each also centered on a complex, dark federal government which functioned (often unpredictably) as both guardian and enemy. Aesthetically, each show offered a grim, doom-laden atmosphere of darkened rooms and grisly deaths. The X-Files, at its sparkling best a decade ago, balanced this otherwise unrelenting gravity with a buoyant joie de vivre, variously expressed through comedy, graphic horror, or both simultaneously. Conversely, 24 literally has no time for such side trips, and instead barrels along at white-knuckle speed, mesmerizing viewers with unrelenting action and suspense. While each has been highly regarded by critics and viewers for years, their impact on scheduling and production decisions has arguably never been greater than now. The missing factor until now in developing similar series, aside from the bolstering effect of the successes of the otherwise atypical Lost and Desperate Housewives, is the rising perception of national insecurity.

Insecurity is different than vulnerability. The latter implies blissful ignorance, while the former suggests grim resignation to fate. The national security theme of the past few years has (finally) been revealed as a political prop, albeit one with grave consequences. The Iraq War is a bloody stalemate, and its ramifications are felt across the globe in terrorist acts and military involvement. At the same time, evidence of government incompetence and corruption mounts (not only in the US), and innocents are routinely destroyed, with no remaining logic nor end in sight. Welcome to the post-post-9/11 world, where nothing is safe, and there’s not much you can do about it.

The manifestation of zeitgeist (to the extent that such a thing exists) on television is never quite straightforward, but it can be effective. Even if the timing is often a bit off (24 actually premiered just before 9/11, just as Invasion, despite the centrality of a hurricane to its plot, was produced before the impact of Katrina), it is still possible to connect the dots, to see how particular programming trends emerge, and occasionally, as is the case this year, erupt. Each of the three new alien invasion series — ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface — follows this thematic tunnel of national insecurity, upon which characters are pulled along by events well beyond their control, with no apparent light at the end.

The core of insecurity is the idea that nowhere is absolutely safe, that nobody is absolutely trustworthy. While this theme is certainly present in Surface, it is central in Invasion and Threshold. Accordingly, the alien menaces in these series are practically invisible. In Threshold, the aliens cleverly invade through telecommunications, wielding a broadcast signal that rewires human DNA, thus saving them the hassle of actually getting to Earth. The tell-tale clues about alien infection in Threshold are under the surface, as otherwise normal human beings dream about glass forests and have bursts of superhuman strength. In Invasion, the aliens don’t even give this much away. Aside from an odd fascination with water and the occasional paranoid glance, they look and act just like humans. The point in both of these shows is that the outside threat could come from within, just as in Cold War forebears like The Invaders, various episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and, most famously, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Body Snatchers’ protagonist Miles Bennell’s direct-address scream of they’re already here! would easily fit within either of these new series.

Threshold

Threshold

Importantly, these aliens aren’t simply a pastiche of familiar SF cliche they’re calculated to tap in to the zeitgeist. Once upon a time, the aliens of 1980s and 1990s space operas like Babylon 5, Farscape, and the Star Trek franchise, all bore their differences prominently in costuming and makeup in gaudy, yet genuine, attempts to convey multiculturalism (e.g., the standard varieties of head bumps on Trek aliens). The Narn, the Delvians, and the Cardassians were all different and difficult, but the idea was to figure out how to get along. In stark contrast, today’s aliens are hidden and secretive, and we’re no longer boldly going into the final frontier, but fearfully cocooned back at home, wondering where they are, and when (not if, as we’re often reminded) they’re coming to get us.

Moreover, even the idea of home is highly suspect in these series. All three (even the relatively lighter Surface) are set among dysfunctional families and militaristic governments, where military bases, schools, hospitals, and homes are as much trap as haven. In Invasion, the broken marriage of Russell and Mariel serves as the backdrop for an ongoing drama of awkward encounters, petty jealousies, and betrayals between their children, new spouses, and in-laws. The broken family here facilitates alien infiltration, infestation easily dovetailing into pre-existing suspicions. Meanwhile, the protagonists of Threshold have been forcibly removed from their families not by aliens, but by the US government, drafted into a secret war against a viral alien menace. The series highly secretive government agency is a neo-con War on Terror techno-fantasy, replete with scowling, no-nonsense operatives and a situation room eerily (and probably not ironically) reminiscent of the one in Dr. Strangelove. The government is ostensibly on our side, investigating alleged alien sightings and protecting us at all costs, even if that means trivialities like the law and civil rights must be pushed aside. The reluctant draftees sometimes raise questions of the legality and morality of their actions, only to have them dismissed with brazen cynicism.

Each series consistently applies its particular anxieties through appropriate aesthetics: Invasion gives us cramped close-ups and scenes of domestic destruction, Threshold provides jagged dream sequences and stealth technology, and Surface competently channels early 90s Spielberg and Cameron (and, oddly enough, the Star Trek film with the whales). However, they each also lack the key element that the best of their forebears had: reasons to keep watching. While many find 24‘s politics problematic (to say the least), they may still regularly watch for its sheer caffeine-rush energy. Similarly, even once you tired of The X-Files convoluted mythology, you could always relish its wit (if there’s a better episode of any 1990s hour-long series than “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” I’ve yet to see it). Even more recent series that plumb similar anxieties have done so with considerably more panache. Lost’s dense jigsaw puzzle experiment in serial narration, as is well-documented even here on Flow, continues to dazzle and perplex. Meanwhile, the must-see remake of Battlestar Galactica has singularly reinvented SF television with aesthetic verve, a continuously destabilizing narrative, and genuinely disturbing philosophical questions. In contrast, and unlike their respective alien invaders, Invasion and Threshold are exactly what they appear to be: formulaic concoctions with little energy. The formula may be new, and only now meaningful (or at least comprehensible), but it feels stale. Part of the problem in each is the unrelentingly dour atmosphere, which facilitates particularly wooden acting from most of the regulars. Indeed, Threshold is only marginally redeemed in this capacity by the performances of Peter Dinklage and Brent Spiner, whose grouchy scientists present the only apparent signs of life in the joyless government team, while Invasion is livened by Tyler Labine’s tinfoil-hat blogger Dave, who seemingly wandered in from My Name Is Earl.

Finally, in looking back on the merger of zeitgeist and programming strategy over the past several years, it’s worth noting the near disappearance of TV’s ultimate security blanket genre: the four-camera, studio-audience sitcom. Network television was filled with them as recently as the late 90s, but their only representatives now are well past their prime, unremarkable, or marginal. In a landscape of endless procedural crime dramas, cutthroat reality competitions, vengeful ghosts, and, yes, alien invasions, the idea of watching a half-dozen people hanging out and cracking jokes in the same living room, diner, or TV newsroom seems like a distant memory.

In other words, if the schedules are to be believed, insecurity is security.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Threshold

Please feel free to comment.




Reality TV

CBS Newsroom

CBS Newsroom

The banality of standard television news narratives is both frustrating and oddly reassuring. The ritualized litanies of political posturing, consumer panics, lifestyle trends, celebrity scandals, and missing upscale white women lull us into La-Z-Boys of comfort, cynicism, or cynical comfort. To be charitable, these formulas paint a distorted picture of actual contemporary American life; that said, at least it’s a dependable picture, an ongoing theater of the absurd, though without as much self-awareness.

On the last weekend in August, those standard media narratives, and their attendant comforts, were destroyed.

Given the rapid clip of news cycles, it has already become a cliche to talk of how Hurricane Katrina “blew away” the veneers of security, institutional trust, and social equality in this country. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge and try to come to terms with the massive, complex, impact of this disaster not only on the US Gulf Coast (the actual, long-term dimensions of which are only beginning to be understood) and on our relationships with our government, but also on our most immediate forms of media (radio, television, and the internet).

As I indicated above, there are many, many problems with television journalism. Its usual schizoid handling of past horrors (through trivialization, exploitation, or sheer neglect) has left us largely unable or unwilling to socially process the consequences of actions and inactions. Its tendency to exaggerate small events (e.g., Natalee Holloway, Michael Jackson) at the expense of deeper coverage of larger, more significant ones (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, global warming) has fostered the perception of an ahistorical world of assumed middle-class privilege threatened by seemingly random dangers, “evildoers,” and a few “bad apples,” rather than an understanding of a changing, complex world that might benefit from engaged citizenship. This pattern has long extended to weather coverage, though after Katrina, TV’s usual hurricane montage of windblown reporters and downed telephone poles, ruthlessly mocked on The Daily Show mere weeks ago, was revealed to be an empty ritual in spectacle and broadcast flow.

The aftermath of Katrina shattered this standard framing, as the images of the desperation, tears, anger, and horror in New Orleans and elsewhere dominated television. The contrast between the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of people and the federal government’s delayed and disorganized response became the story, as the sounds and images from the Gulf Coast clashed with those of Washington officials far divorced from reality (and long used to being so, apparently). The people, technology, and discursive apparati of broadcast news were at the nexus of these realities, and, for the first time in quite a while, did not retreat to safety and convention. The same broadcast reporters and studio anchors who had played well within Washington’s unwritten rules for years were now compelled to show, to actually reveal what was happening, most notoriously at the New Orleans Convention Center, and tell, to point fingers directly at federal officials and their ideological defenders. Many could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the President’s transparently scripted events, and reported openly on the contrast between the Administration’s words and actions. Shockingly, several reports even offered up the kind of media critique usually found in academic media criticism, as seen, for example, in ABC Primetime’s exploration of the news media’s culpability in the racial dimensions of this disaster. The sights of ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and even Fox’s Shepard Smith, losing their composure to anger and exasperation were almost as shocking as the events they conveyed.

An Upset Anderson Cooper

An Upset Anderson Cooper

Perhaps more importantly, the coverage also clearly conveyed how this disaster was compounded by our collective neglect of poverty and racism. Whether in the Superdome, on the rooftops of the Ninth Ward, abandoned in the nursing homes, or trapped on the bridge to Gretna, the vast majority of Katrina’s victims were clearly black and poor, people who had long been invisible in standard news narratives. Unfortunately, the news media’s grave concern over “looting” during that week dealt in the most basic racist assumptions, but even that perspective was mitigated somewhat by the more humanitarian concern of the majority of the coverage. Again, it is a sad testament to our expectations that it takes a deadly disaster, a literal disruption of the standard media universe, to raise awareness about so basic a problem as poverty.

While the television coverage of Katrina certainly dominates our understanding of the event, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of other media forms. The role of the internet in this regard, and in events such as these, cannot be overstated. Gulf coast radio and television stations (most notably New Orleans’ WWL) maintained continuous coverage via the web as much as possible, offering up local perspectives to global audiences. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s desperate plea for federal help during a September 1 WWL radio interview was widely replayed and disseminated across the web. Local bloggers conveyed as much information as possible from the area, presenting important alternative eyewitness perspectives. Other blog communities rapidly gathered together audio, video, textual transcripts, and timelines, documenting this event in more detail and depth than even the revived mainstream news media could muster. The blog-based spread of key official documents (including Louisiana Governor Blanco’s August 26 call for federal aid, and Homeland Security’s own National Response Plan) helped contradict Bush Administration “blame game” spin.

Katrina seemingly revived the long-dormant power of an independent American television journalism, which had been mostly missing in action for decades (and was notoriously absent during last year’s election). At the same time, it affirmed the growing power of the blogospheres as critical information sources and centers for action. In short, the kind of national media citizenship that we scholars have hoped for (despite knowing the contrary evidence all too well) seemed to finally emerge, if only briefly. Now, the big question remains: if this is a genuine opportunity to transform the news media, then how are we to build upon this moment? How can we keep it from slipping back to its standard narratives?

Moreover, how can we take on this challenge, and take television journalism — and television “reality,” in the most basic sense of the word — seriously as media critics, rather than let our opinions slide back into resigned cynicism? My own disgust with TV journalism’s obsequiousness, shallowness, and distortion runs deep and I know I’m not alone. Like most TV scholars I know, I rate entertainment television much higher for its complexity, verve, and (ironically enough) honesty. Similarly, I, along with much of Television Studies, have given reality television much more intellectual scrutiny than the ostensible televising of reality, i.e., the “news.” Revaluing, or at least redeveloping a relationship with, information television (and, for that matter, journalism education) will take a great deal of commitment.

Our interests in the mediated universes of ironic images and fantasy narratives are certainly important, but in an era of rising social tensions, deep-rooted political crises, and an uncertain economy (all balanced on a looming, perhaps catastrophic energy crisis), a better engagement with television journalism seems like the least we could do.

Meanwhile, of course, while the images and sounds left in Katrina’s wake continue to haunt and challenge our critical minds, it’s the displaced people and demolished places that still need our political will and collective and individual actions. As I write this, Rita, now a Category 5 hurricane, is making its way across the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually right through to Houston and east Texas, where a few hundred thousand Katrina refugees are struggling to put their lives back together. This weekend will give us an early indication of whether the news media maintains its newfound scrutiny of our government. . . or goes right back to pretty images of windblown reporters and downed telephone lines.

Image Credits:

1. CBS Newsroom

2. An Upset Anderson Cooper

Please feel free to comment.




Teaching Television, or What I’ve Learned From Flow

by: Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

Triangle

University College Northamptone

This point of the summer sees most of us academics out of the classroom, but not too far out of it. Sure, we’re taking advantage of relatively open time to research, read, write, revise, clean house, watch DVDs, play with our kids, catch up on our McSweeney’s,and maybe even take a bona fide vacation. We’re also prepping our fall courses.

This summer, more than I have in a while, I’m rethinking how I teach television. More specifically, I’m rethinking that most vexing of classroom ventures: the first-year core course. Usually denoted by the portentous labels of “Introduction,” “History,” or “Survey,” these courses are our programs’ front doors. Ideally, they prepare most of our students for the rest of the curriculum, providing them with a base of useful knowledge and skills and an awakened sense of inquiry (while the rest reconsider that Business degree that Mom and Dad advocated). While core courses can and do work this well, they may also function in a much less engaged mode, taught and experienced cursorily (even reluctantly) as a rote journey through well-worn chapters and exams, with about as much intellectual engagement as a trip to the dentist.

We, especially those of us on the near side of tenure, are often inclined or guided (indirectly or frankly) towards this latter approach, albeit for perfectly valid reasons (those articles aren’t going to write themselves, after all). The narrower, deeper, and ostensibly “richer” soils of our upper division and graduate courses seem to present more tantalizing pedagogical opportunities. Moreover, this perspective is often shared by our students (and, it must be said, more than a few academic advisors) as these courses are nakedly regarded as “stuff to get through” before moving on to “the good stuff.” The resigned acceptance of these mutual expectations, hovering in the classroom sometime during the first week of the term, is one of the saddest, yet predictable, moments in US higher education.

Heading into my seventh year on the tenure track (at two different universities), and my (gulp) fifteenth teaching undergrads, I’ve realized that I’ve fallen into this rut. It’s not that my techniques are ineffective or outdated, or that my evaluations are low; they aren’t. It’s more that that vital spark has diminished. Even though I’ve only taught this particular class for two semesters (I’ve only been at SMU since last fall), it has become something to “get through” as much for me as for my students. It didn’t help that the textbook I hastily chose last spring was more of a burden than a benefit, or that the Frankensteinian merging of new material into old lectures didn’t always work. In resigning myself to these resources, I had already lowered my own expectations.

While this problem afflicts any teacher, at any level, in any field, it’s particularly troubling in Media Studies. How can we fail to engage students in media culture, of all things, the very thing that’s ostensibly been distracting them from their “real” studies their entire lives? Perhaps, in our zeal to weed out the kids who think it’s a class where you “like, watch TV,” we’ve overcompensated, turning media into our joyless projections of, say, Organic Chemistry (“This is a Serious Field.”).[1] You go too far down that path, and suddenly it really is joyless. Television Studies’ tenuous disciplinary status adds to this uncertainty. Our field is ably represented in a wide variety of academic departments across the humanities and social sciences, with widely differing institutional norms, expectations, and conditions, which almost always differ from those we were trained in. Our successes in producing our television curricula in these wildly disparate (and sometimes difficult) situations don’t often come easily.

So, in rethinking this course from the ground up, I’ve consulted the experts: I’ve read the entirety of Flow. In the process, I think I’ve found what I’ve been missing (or, had at least misplaced lately) in my television teaching: passion. Not my passion for television per se, but the communication of that passion, that urgent press of big questions and big ideas, powered by big intellectual enthusiasm. This passion, redolent on Flow, is generally infused with the forms and styles of both scholar and subject. I know many of the “Flowers” personally, and can easily envision their animated, somewhat caffeinated delivery behind various conference podia. But there’s more going on here. In text alone, so many articles have effectively conveyed the very “TVness” of Television Studies, as the paedocratic play long suggested by John Hartley (and pursued most effectively by resident chef/Benny Hill fan Anna McCarthy); the civic engagement presented variously here by Michael Curtin, Faye Ginsburg, Tom Streeter, and Fred Wasser; the mediated wonder explored by Brian Ott and Robert Schrag; and myriad other senses. Like the best diaries on your favorite blog, or just about anything by Frank Rich, Flow articles are compact yet powerful; in classroom terms, they’re the kind of mini-lectures you deploy to incite your students on sleepy Thursday mornings in November or April.

This kind of passion, effectively worked into the course, can puncture the core-course blues, and eviscerate two common student reactions: knee-jerk indifference (“it’s just TV”) and knee-jerk hostility (“TV bad”). The former attitude is usually shorthand for “don’t make me think,” while the latter generally boils down to “everything mainstream is shit and we’re all doomed.”[2] Well-directed passion complicates both positions, by revealing television to be more complex and engaging than either allows for. It destabilizes the process of dismissive generalization, and ignites interest in the grit of TV: cinematography, gender representation, issue framing, corporate mergers, etc.

Triangle

Studies Triangle

Reading Flow has also reinforced my primary teaching point about media (not just television): media is always social. It is produced and consumed (to tailor a massive range of activities down to the standard binary) by people, in groups, and as individuals. As a teacher of potential media-makers, and certain media-users, I feel the connection between the media world and conscious thought cannot be overstated.[3] Regardless of what you think about Lost, Chappelle’s Show, or Beauty and the Geek, people make them, people distribute them, people watch them, and people discuss them. Media texts, systems, and meanings are actively produced by actual, living, breathing people. Giddens’ structuration theory is most helpful here, as James Lull suggests, in that it identifies structure and agency as key components of contemporary life, but, critically, does not simply pit them against each other.[4] Neither is purely “good” or “bad,” but both are essential to modern survival. And there is no better proof of it in action for the intro course than the judicious use of TV itself, in its specific contexts, warts and all, as myriad Flow examples indicate. Reading Cynthia Fuchs, Heather Hendershot, Allison McCracken, Jason Mittell, or Mimi White explore particular genres and programs has reminded me that the best criticism explodes its subject like a firework, creating dazzling insights and connections. Emphasizing television’s social nature helps bolster the importance of all sorts of approaches, whether cultural, regulatory, industrial, historical or aesthetic, not as abstract categories and dry lists of terms, but as networked nodes of significance.

Along the way, passion should also be instilled in the assignments. Yes, students should know some specifics about the formation of RCA, and the Prime Time Access Rule, and the difference between a rating and a share (and yes, they will all be on the test; don’t forget your Scantron forms). However, assignments, even exams, should inspire and gauge passion and engagement. Accordingly, I’m ratcheting up the writing component a bit for this class (though still well short of burying my desk). My students will actually generate the topics of much of these writing assignments the first weekend of the semester, as I’m taking a preemptive strike towards understanding their media worlds; Gen-Y lifestyle pieces from the Times or market analyses in Madison & Vine alone can’t cut it. If they don’t watch Survivor anymore, or don’t know who Gilda Radner was, or have their entire music collection on their iPod, I want to know up front.

One last suggestion for the intro course, inspired, indirectly, by the so-called Fiske-McChesney debate on this site. Passion is critical, but so is reason. The two are the yin and yang of our profession. For what it’s worth, as one of those Vilas grad students caught “between” John and Bob in the 1990s, I believe each had, and has, copious passion and reason. Each questioned preconceived attitudes in their respective fields, and each has produced a body of challenging, passionate scholarship. Moreover, each reminded us that the world beyond the screen (whether “behind” it or in front of it) is what we’re really about. Thus, like Bob and John, I think it is incumbent on us to continue to explore the relationships between mediated and “real” reality in the intro course, not solely to catalog their “gaps,” but (perhaps more importantly) to explore their resonances. How, precisely, does 24 inform our understanding of national security practice and American national identity? How do the umptillion police procedural series on the broadcast networks shape our sense of the real criminal justice system? What are the relationships between the physical and mental upheavals of reality television and the lack of news coverage of important real suffering? How is the encroaching digital shift changing our social relationships? How do the mainstream news media and the blogospheres produce several divergent socio-political realities?

There’s still enough summer left to enjoy, but I have to say… I’m looking forward to the fall.

Notes
[1] No offense; I’m sure organic chemists are plenty joyful.
[2] I’ll add here that veteran teachers can spot the purveyors of said attitudes a mile away.
[3] This is certainly not to disregard the importance of unconscious thought.
[4] James Lull, Media, Communication, Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 2000) 8-9.

Image Credits:
1. University College Northampton
2. Studies Triangle


Please feel free to comment.




The Seeds of Doom?

by: Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

Doctor Who
Doctor Who

The BBC’s revived production of Doctor Who has been, by all accounts, a smashing success in Britain. Brought back to life on television after a fifteen-year sojourn in various non-television media forms, the series has captured sizeable audiences and copious media coverage to a degree not seen since the heyday of Tom Baker in the late 1970s. Writer-producer Russell T. Davies has managed to make Doctor Who (2005) simultaneously classic and contemporary, serving up equal portions of adventure, wit, and fear in lightning-paced episodes.

While the series has taken off in the UK, however, the official reception of the new series in the United States has been much cooler. Despite an otherwise successful global sales effort, and a fair amount of US fan interest, the BBC has not yet sold the series to any US television outlet, whether broadcast, cable, or satellite. US Doctor Who fans have been left in a holding pattern of sporadic announcements of “ongoing negotiations,” and rampant online speculation as to where the series might wind up. The only publicly acknowledged rejection of the series came in late February from the Sci-Fi Channel, who, according to reports, cryptically claimed to have found the series “somewhat lacking.” This phrase, which has considerably heightened fan anxiety, frames the overall debate about the new series, and highlights the gaps of media globalization, i.e., the cultural, economic, and legal boundaries that still exist between national media regimes.

“Boundaries” are structural issues (in both the theoretical and material senses), marking off categories. In this case, as with most others in global media, the key structures are distribution networks. While the legitimate, “official” network of transnational media trade has thus far failed to bring Doctor Who to the US, the illegitimate, “unofficial,” and rapidly growing network of online file sharing has provided the series from the get-go. High-resolution video files of episodes are posted online within minutes of their UK broadcasts, mostly via BitTorrent, the radically non-centralized file distribution method that has shifted peer-to-peer file sharing into a higher gear. Unlike older P2P systems, BitTorrent is designed for optimum network efficiency, actually escalating file-sharing speed as traffic increases. Users must “seed” (upload) and “leech” (download) bits of the same file simultaneously, producing a so-called “swarm” of data as dozens, or even thousands, of computers swap file parts. When coupled with increasingly ubiquitous broadband connections, BitTorrent can deliver gigabytes of data in a matter of a few hours. The much anticipated (or dreaded, from the perspective of the copyright industries) “Napsterization” of video data is here.

Thus, we have a significant differential between distribution networks: one functions through the long-established, top-down models of audience flow, media capitalization, and copyright, while the other simply serves up media on demand. In an era where this differential will only increase, it is worthwhile to understand the logic of each.

Television programmers across the planet value genre and predictability. That is, even in an age of otherwise diverse forms of television, programs should look, sound, and “feel” like established programs. Even something as iconoclastic as Lost still “feels” like a standard ensemble drama in its narration, characterization, design, and cinematography. The BBC’s failure to find a US buyer for Doctor Who, despite early courting before the series even entered production, and despite decades of BBC programs on US TV (including the original Doctor Who), is, as unlikely as it sounds, probably a cultural misunderstanding on these grounds. Accordingly, the Sci-Fi Channel’s alleged “somewhat lacking” comment can be understood in several different ways. From a US programmers’ perspective, the new Doctor Who is lacking in stable generic markers: it is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy, comedy, character drama, and social allegory. While this might not always be fatal (see Lost), the fact that the series is British (even more so than the original) further separates it from typical US fare. Both the Ninth Doctor (played by the Mancunian Christopher Eccleston as decidedly “Northern”) and his companion Rose (played by Billie Piper as a working class shopgirl), have quite specific British accents and demeanors that do not correlate with anything else on US commercial television at this time.

Ironically, these very factors which have thus far doomed the series in the US have arguably ensured its mainstream success in the UK. For example, the early decision to clothe the Ninth Doctor in black jeans and a beat-up leather jacket — rather than the usual “eccentric” Edwardian ensemble of frock coats, bow ties, and hats — is a clear attempt to create a contemporary, urban feel to the character. Similarly, the series’ language is not the “BBC English” of the original, but more modern and varied in its idiom and accents. The generic framing of the series as “family television” also aims for a specific, longstanding UK TV sensibility, as television that works at different levels, suitable for many ages. There simply is no counterpart to this formulation in the US, so the series is at once too chaste and playful for prime-time drama, and too arch and sophisticated for the likes of Nickelodeon. The fact that the series is shot not on film, but on standard definition video (albeit “filmized” in post-production), a format alien to US prime-time drama, is the icing on this particular aesthetic cake.

Moreover, Doctor Who is also almost certainly “lacking” any of the typical financial and proprietary inducements that abound in this post-Fin-Syn media world. While virtually every program on US TV has some sort of co-production, syndication, video distribution, or sponsorship arrangement as part of its package, the BBC wished to sell Doctor Who “old school,” as in: here’s the show. No co-ownership, no ancillary distribution rights, no product placement. No wonder it has yet to run here.

Meanwhile, episodes blaze across the Atlantic via the Internet in multiple forms every Saturday night (after their airing on BBC1). Given the sheer number of file-sharing options, precise totals are difficult to come by, but one fairly well-known BitTorrent tracker recorded roughly 50,000 downloads of each episode of the new Doctor Who thus far. However, the bulk of online TV traffic parallels the trajectory of most “legitimate” global media traffic: outward from the US. Studies released in the past six months noted the growing volume of television programs available online, and reached similar conclusions about its growing scope, particularly in the UK (which represents nearly one-fifth of global television downloading), Australia, and Scandinavia, where tens of thousands of copies of episodes of 24, Lost, The O.C., and Desperate Housewives routinely head right after their US broadcasts, months before their debuts overseas. While 40,000 downloads (to take a figure cited for the UK downloading of Desperate Housewives) is clearly dwarfed by the 4 million viewers who catch the series “legally” there on Channel 4, the trajectory of file sharing is clear. At least one European network, Norway’s TVNorge, has publicly claimed that downloading of US TV is costing them thousands of viewers on the episodes’ eventual broadcasts.

Studies of file-sharing also routinely take the copyright industries to task for fighting, rather than adapting to, the new distribution networks. This advice has been slow to penetrate the capital-entrenched practices of the media industries, who will likely continue to seek cultural, legal, and technological means to maintain their status quo. However, some major firms are taking steps towards the online, on-demand world. While US broadcast and cable networks continue to offer the same piecemeal level of online video content that they’ve had for years, the BBC is actively developing extensive online distribution networks. Each of their radio networks is available as a high-quality live stream, and immense amounts of past radio programs are available as archived streams and even podcasts. This approach is being adapted to the higher-bandwidth requirements of television programming. Indeed, live test streams of four BBC TV channels (including both terrestrial channels) were briefly available worldwide in April, and the BBC is developing an ambitious video-on-demand system that will take advantage of P2P technology.

The ongoing fate of the new Doctor Who reveals a great deal about the uneven “gears” of cultural globalization. The model of centralized audience flow still retains immense cultural, economic, and legal powers, but its authority in each of these areas diminishes with each new broadband account and BitTorrent tracker. What power will remain when media users no longer have to wait for the differences within the old distribution network to work out? Even the corporate marriage of content and distribution is souring, as the Apples, Sonys, and Googles of the world also challenge the old regime’s boundaries. Still, even in the emerging on-demand world, myriad conceptual boundaries will likely continue to produce gaps and differentials in the global mediascape. All media will still be “somewhat lacking,” somewhere.

Image Credits:
1. Doctor Who

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