“Driven By Hustle”: Uber Presents, Lyft Entertainment, and Rideshare Media Production
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

Da Republic of Brooklyn
Uber Presents: Da Republic of Brooklyn, a Spike Lee joint.

On July 11, 2018, Uber released five short films “driven by hustle” in a series called Da Republic of Brooklyn. Billed as a “Spike Lee Joint,” Uber Presents’ first original production highlights the backgrounds and stories of those contractors hand-selected by Lee himself from Uber’s thousands of Brooklyn drivers and delivery partners. All of them are linked not just through their difficult upbringings and connections to the titular New York borough, but also their part-time work for Uber and UberEats. These services provide flexibility (an oft-cited rideshare talking point) for these workers to “hustle” on the side and achieve their goals. This unstable form of labor is almost always positioned as an opportunity for, and not a burden to, drivers.

Through each episode of Da Republic of Brooklyn, the series increasingly downplays Uber’s role in these people’s lives, instead positioning Uber as emblematic of how, as Domingo explains in his episode, “the Brooklyn hustle can be brought anywhere.” Sunny, an aspiring model and actress, remarks that Uber allows her to have “such a flexible, open schedule”; Rodney, an artist and restorationist, explains how Uber grants him “clarity” and gives him “the focus” he needs to find inspiration in his other work; and Keith, a driver who wants to open a doggie day care center, remarks that Uber brings “no stress” because it provides the freedom to be “your own boss” who decides “how much you want to work.” For these drivers, Uber is not their primary occupation—as many ads for rideshare companies in 2017 and 2018 noted, drivers should “get their side hustle on” to switch between earning and “chilling.”

Uber's ad to drivers
Uber lets you “be your own boss.”

The gig economy’s “side hustle” has rapidly emerged as a necessity for many Americans, particularly as wages stagnate and the American economy overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy. The “hustle” has been engrained in the rideshare industry’s ethos since its inception. A recent study showed that 48 percent of millennials say they earn extra income, pay down debt, or boost their savings through gig economy work, and the working issues that arise are often aimed at specific companies rather than the larger gig economy’s precarious and often predatory treatment of its workers. Even scripted series and films such as Insecure (HBO, 2017-) and Stuber (2019) double down on how Lyft and Uber drivers, respectively, frequently work part-time to supplement their other sources of income because it is difficult to make ends meet on just one job. I, too, drive for both Uber and Lyft part-time to make ends meet, and often find myself unconsciously recycling narratives about these companies allowing me to earn a lot when I want and as often as I want.

Da Republic of Brooklyn perpetuates the ubiquitous claim that “hustling” allows workers to achieve their own goals, even as that practice requires workers to opt out of financial security such as 401ks, work-provided health insurance, or substantial stock options in rideshare companies’ newly launched IPOs. Lyft and Uber are both incredibly valuable companies (valued around $24 and $74 billion, respectively) that continue to decrease driver bonuses, decrease mileage pay, and hemorrhage capital under the guise of staying competitive. Lee’s series does not examine how much the showcased drivers make per hour, and Uber only notes how long they have been working for the company on the information panels on Uber Presents’ website. This presentation distances Uber from its status as an employer and instead grants the rideshare company its own opportunity to position its labor as a side hustle for “partners” to eventually achieve seemingly worthier and more fulfilling career goals.

Uber Workers Strike NYC
Uber drivers’ successful strike in New York City.

For full-time drivers, working for these companies is “becoming financially untenable,” as average monthly earnings declined nearly 50 percent over the last five years as Uber’s work force increased from 160,000 Americans in 2014 to over 900,000 by late 2018. Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers’ deliberate decision to classify their employees as “partners” and, legally, as “independent contractors” allows companies to avoid proper compensation for its full-time workers in order to maximize profits. Just five months after the series debuted, New York City officials passed a minimum pay rate around $17.22 per hour for drivers on ride-hailing apps “to make sure drivers can earn a decent living.” The series’ debut in the months prior to these legislative changes is likely not coincidental, but rather part of Uber’s larger mission to market itself in a friendlier, less corporate light in the wake of sexual harassment scandals and their former CEO’s beratement of a long-time Uber driver for not taking “responsibility” for his own actions as drivers’ fares were cut.

Lyft, meanwhile, has always presented itself as the more colorful and friendlier rideshare company, and its original content advances this positioning. Lyft Entertainment is a media production company that began with lighthearted, celebrity-driven fare such as “Undercover Lyft,” with the likes of Kevin Hart, Danica Patrick, and Jason Sudeikis riding in disguise behind the wheel. These videos generated hundreds of millions of YouTube views, in stark contrast to Da Republic of Brooklyn‘s two million viewers for five videos. Lyft Entertainment has found tremendous success in the online space and recently ventured into original co-productions. The company brought back Billy on the Street (Fuse/TruTV, 2011-17; YouTube, 2018-) with Funny or Die, and premiered East of La Brea at 2019’s SXSW Festival. The latter is a co-production with Paul Feig’s Powderkeg, a company that aims “to tell the stories of talented, emerging and underrepresented voices in comedy” (Fleming 2019). Feig’s series, like Billy on the Street, has no obvious connection to Lyft’s products, but it carries the diverse and positive image that Lyft often produces.

BOTS
Billy on the Street, co-produced by Funny or Die and Lyft Entertainment.

While Uber’s series more explicitly promotes the “hustle” of part-time work, Uber and Lyft’s media production coalesces around their depictions of a diverse, ambitious labor force. These companies and other technology conglomerates have faced considerable scrutiny and criticism for their racist and sexist practices, but these series act as a forward-facing promotion of rideshare companies’ progressiveness. The entrance of rideshare companies into the original content space might seem like another form of burning through venture capital (which it is), but it also enables these companies to “inch away” from the “significant criticism” they have faced, much like Facebook and Twitter faced in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))]. The production of series by and about marginalized voices is a welcome shift by the technology industry, even if it outwardly presents as self-aggrandizing and a distraction from more pervasively harmful practices.

Increasingly, other technology, software, and social media companies are launching or acquiring media production arms as a means of retaining online users, selling more lucrative advertising space, and guiding how users find and engage with online media. For social media companies in particular, the “stronger push into original content is an attempt to more directly benefit from activity already taking place on its platforms.” [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))] Facebook launched Facebook Watch in August of 2017, producing dozens of original programs ranging in cost from $10,000 to over $1 million an episode, with early reports that they would be willing to spend $3-4 million per episode in order to place the service on equal footing with competitors. Apple is finally launching Apple TV+ in fall of 2019, with the intention of the service competing with Netflix at original film programming on an awards level. These companies will more than likely use these services to not just keep users on their respective platforms and devices, but also to combat their potentially negative publicity along the way, like Lyft and Uber.

Whether Uber Presents or Lyft Entertainment will launch successful scripted programming in this crowded media landscape remains to be seen. However, these services will likely continue to benefit from producing polished promotional materials that perpetuate the harmful narrative that these companies are merely opportunities for “hustling” and important sites of diversity.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screengrab from YouTube.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Photo from Drew Angerer, Getty Images, in New York Magazine article.
4. Author’s screengrab.




Representation and Experimentation: The Women of Late-Night TV
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

The Women oF Late-Night

Figure 1: Women taking control of the male-dominated late-night landscape

“Late-night” is a complicated and often confusing term in television studies. As television in the post-network era has increasingly catered to fragmented and time-shifted viewing practices, late-night programming has dramatically shifted both aesthetically and industrially. Despite these supposed advancements, though, the genre continues to lag in its representation onscreen. Broadcast networks still exclusively have white male hosts. Cable channels and streaming services have become the outlets through which “experimentation” (read: deviation from the genre’s racial and gendered norms) occurs. Women are noticeably more present on non-broadcast late-night, but their programs are constantly qualified as niche or uncharacteristic of mainstream viewing interests.

In just the last year, Hulu launched I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman; BET debuted The Rundown with Robin Thede; and Netflix launched The Break with Michelle Wolf. Before that, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was the only late-night program hosted by a woman. While women are certainly not new to the late-night scene, their history has frequently been marked by deliberately sexist decision-making and rhetoric that re-articulates larger gendered dimensions in the comedy landscape. For instance, Joan Rivers was passed over for The Tonight Show despite her qualifications and ratings success as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson – this largely stemmed from Carson’s almighty authority with NBC and the perception of an “unruly woman” such as Rivers being unfit for broadcast audiences. [ (( Summergrad, Sophie. “Can We Talk?: A Discussion of Gender Politics in the Late-Night Career of Joan Rivers.” (master’s thesis, Boston University, 2016): 45-46. ))] More contemporary examples of women on late-night paint female comics’ transition to the nighttime genre as failures, with black women often bearing an exceptional burden: Wanda Sykes had a short-lived hour-long series on Fox followed by a short-lived sitcom on the same network; Whoopi Goldberg had a 30-minute series in syndication that lasted for just over a year; and Mo’Nique had an hour-long talk-show on BET that was cancelled within a year of its premiere. These industrial “experiments” outside of the norm and their quick cancellations perpetuated historical notions of the expected late-night audience (white men) and further validated (however irrationally) the historical placement of women’s programming in the daytime.

The recent female forays into late-night programming are significant because they push back on numerous assumptions and accepted norms within the genre. They are each aesthetically and stylistically experimental, which is inherently linked to their unique industrial positioning on their respective channels and services. Notably, late-night television is no longer assumed to be a pure promotional vehicle as its broadcast exemplars still often showcase. Instead, the genre is now, first and foremost, a form of political satire and commentary, with women often at the forefront of those shifts. Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS signaled the genre’s more politically skewed bent, and Samantha Bee’s series doubled down by formatting each episode as an extended political dialogue about the week’s current events (undoubtedly influenced by her time as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Her series is more vulgar and has drawn considerable controversy, an issue that has similarly struck comediennes like Michelle Wolf at the 2018 Correspondents Dinner. Bee’s program eschews the traditional late-night desk in favor of a monologue-heavy style that often feels like a plea with audiences at home in contrast to traditional late-night fare. This has been popularized on other cable channels like HBO, where John Oliver’s weekly series has the host delivering news almost exclusively from a desk. Oliver’s program aesthetically links to news broadcasts (inspired by his time working with Jon Stewart), whereas Bee and Wolf’s programs visually associate themselves with stand-up, a historically maligned genre.

Michelle Wolf's monologue.

Figure 2: Michelle Wolf delivering her stand-up-like monologue

Late-night television looks considerably different on streaming services, with Wolf and Sarah Silverman acting as strong examples. Wolf’s series, as mentioned, aesthetically emulates a stand-up routine on multiple occasions. Each episode begins with the comedienne walking up to the camera and delivering a few one-liners before moving into the seemingly traditional late-night monologue. Wolf is the only late-night host to wield a microphone, an action that formally connects her monologue to stand-up. The connection does not end there, though. The director and cinematographer both capture wider angles that show Wolf’s full body maneuvering around the stage, much like a stand-up special’s visual style. This distinguishes the series visually from its other late-night counterparts, which generally cut off the monologist a little below the waist. While only a minor change, this aesthetic link is a visual marker that generally only emerges when stand-up comics perform at the end of various late-night episodes.

Both Wolf and Silverman also switch up the dynamics of the celebrity interview that usually occupies much of late-night’s format. Late-night has historically been rigidly segmented in structure: an opening monologue; then, a desk segment or two; finally, multiple celebrity interviews and a musical or stand-up performance to close out the program. Both of these comediennes place their “interviews” at the end of each episode, most notably mirroring the satirical series The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. However, the visual dynamics are much different. For Wolf, she either stands with her celebrity guest and engages in a visual stunt/prepared exchange, or she sits on a couch and delivers a scripted exchange with a fellow comic like Neal Brennan or Seth Meyers. Silverman, meanwhile, always sits on a couch for her interviews, asks guided questions, and occasionally crosses her legs or makes other visually informal decisions that are fitting for casual couch conversations at home. These are striking because these women are not reserving themselves to the desk as practically every other male late-night host does (Jimmy Fallon is a notable exception, although his celebrity interviews generally start at the desk before moving into his sketches or gags). This is only a small showcase for how female comics frequently re-negotiate the visual spaces afforded to them that have long been dictated by masculine practices and dynamics.

Despite more vulgarity and expressive openness from these women, not all women hosting late-night programs are aiming to be subversive. Busy Philipps, who recently received a series order for a late-night series on E! called Busy Tonight, points out that once-a-week late-night shows are usually “more politically bent.” [ (( Gardner, Chris. “How Busy Philipps Will ‘Bring Something Different’ to Late-Night with E! Series.” Hollywood Reporter, June 22, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/busy-philipps-new-memoir-e-show-busy-tonight-summer-plans-daughters-birdie-cricket-1122088 ))] Her series, though, will be more entertainment and pop-culture focused, and she hopes that her series will air multiple nights a week to alleviate that political burden that some series face. This rhetoric falls in line with E!’s branding and harkens back to Chelsea Handler’s time on the channel before her shift to Netflix. Handler’s short-lived run on the streaming service is remarkable on two fronts: (1) Netflix’s current strategy to mass-produce content and rarely cancel programs means that the series was an industrial failure for the service, and (2) the series’ focus on celebrity interviews and promotion demonstrates how that formula does not easily translate to non-commercial services and their respective programming strategies.

Chelsea Handler's Netflix series.

Figure 3: Chelsea Handler’s more conventional Netflix late-night series

The temporality of late-night television is also an understudied area, and one that has seen considerable shifts just within the last year. Handler’s aforementioned Netflix series shifted from thirty to sixty minutes in its second season in an effort to cut down costs and decrease the number of episodes each week. Meanwhile, all of the currently airing female-hosted late-night series are half-hours, while the broadcast networks have hour-long slots for each of their hosts. In an interview with Vulture, Conan O’Brien (who has resided on TBS since 2011 after working on NBC’s late-night programming for almost two decades) commented on his series’ upcoming shift to the half-hour format by articulating that the change could shock him into coming up with new material. Importantly, his shift is not an industrial imperative but rather a creative spark; for most women aiming to host late-night, they are not afforded the privilege of changing their time slots in hopes of inspiring creativity. Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller says that she would “kill” to have just a few more minutes in each episode, but she knows that is unlikely. Female hosts also struggle with diversity in on- and off-screen representation, a problem Robin Thede pointed out despite BET allowing her to make the show she wanted to make. The Rundown‘s recent cancellation further exemplifies how difficult it can be for women of color to receive the trust and time needed for a late-night series to prosper.

As broadcast networks increasingly move their content to online platforms like CBS All-Access or NBCUniversal’s now-defunct Seeso, the late-night format will likely continue to see considerable aesthetic and formal changes that complicate our previous understandings of the genre. This industrial trend and the concurrent movement toward more inclusive representation onscreen might signify a genre-altering shift in late-night, one hopefully led by all women.

Image Credits:
1. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee‘s take on late-night.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Author’s screengrab.

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