Raymond Williams on the Elliptical
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Hotel TV

The Ever-Important Hotel Television Set

One night in Miami, still dazed from a week on an Atlantic liner, I began watching a film and at first had some difficulty in adjusting to a much greater frequency of commercial ‘breaks’. Yet this was a minor problem compared to what eventually happened. ((Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, 1974. Page 145.))

In his 1999 book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry reflects upon a project he embarked upon in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, in the summer of 1980 after reading Benjamin’s translated collection, Illuminations. That book, of course, is home to one of the most-anthologized essays in media studies, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” McMurtry, however, was more interested in “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” which he felt was really “an examination, and a profound one, of the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our twentieth-century lives.” ((Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, New York: Touchstone, 1999. Page 13.)) McMurtry being McMurtry (and the title of his book being what it is), he set about investigating whether the oral tradition in his own relatively isolated, rural hometown (which he now, despite great success as a novelist, had returned to live in) had indeed gone away, or whether it still existed in places like the Archer City Dairy Queen.

The short answer (McMurtry realized pretty quickly) was no, it didn’t. Regardless, Benjamin’s essay provided McMurtry with another way of looking at his culture, and set him upon a productive path of investigation that was at tune with his everyday habits and general way of life. That is, it could be pursued more or less in the midst of reading, writing, and drinking lime Dr. Peppers at the Dairy Queen. It was also a prototypical case of applying critical theory in a specific context—the sort of thing we do routinely in television studies, although McMurtry, perhaps because he’s a novelist and not an academic, was far more willing to personalize his investigation. ((For my money, few people have contributed as much to American film, television, and literary culture as McMurtry has in the last fifty years. What many consider to be the best film of 1963, Hud, was a close adaptation of his first novel, written at the ripe age of 26, Horseman, Pass By. He wrote the novel and adapted the screenplay for The Last Picture Show, and felt rightly burned that it was called “a film by” Peter Bogdanovich. His 1983 novel Terms of Endearment was adapted and won the Best Picture Oscar. A couple of years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove—undoubtedly one of the most beloved works in American television culture. More recently, he and his writing partner Diana Ossana adapted a spare short story by Annie Proulx into the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, a feat that won them one Oscar for a film that should have won all the Oscars. Perhaps you remember him on stage, wearing jeans and talking about his typewriter.))

Dairy Queen

A Testing Ground for Benjamin’s Claims

But this essay is nominally about Raymond Williams, not McMurtry, or even Benjamin. I hate to write a sentence stating something as obvious (especially in this particular venue), but Williams’ “Programming as Sequence or Flow” is as seminal to television studies as Benjamin’s Illuminations is to critical studies at large. What has always stuck in my mind, though, is the scene of an English academic stuck in his hotel room, and as I picture him, awkwardly sitting on the end of his bed, watching TV. Williams admits that flow is so typical of TV experience that one isn’t likely to notice it—but something about being in that hotel room, out of place, trying to watch a movie, allowed him to see things differently. From his displaced position, Williams recognized “the facts of flow” which have since been widely accepted as central to the organization and experience of television.

I think there’s something to be learned from watching TV in similarly displaced ways, which might force us to notice some of the characteristics of television culture we might be missing or avoiding. In my case, this has come about in my university’s new “wellness center”—a term which apparently attracts alumni dollars more readily than “gym.” Much to my delight, on my first visit I discovered a bank of five flat screen TVs side-by-side on a wall opposite a mass of treadmills, exercise bikes, and elliptical machines, all of which have an audio jack to plug headphones into, and a channel selector to select audio from one of the five screens. As a faculty member in a gym surrounded by undergrads, I felt a little out of place, despite the presence of the TVs. That initial alienation, however, was nothing compared to what I’ve since felt trying to watch TV like this.

Here’s how I usually watch TV on the elliptical: I listen to music and I pick out a screen or two to monitor. I read the captions, but I usually don’t listen. ((Many other people choose to listen to music and watch, perhaps reading captioning, rather than listen to the audio feed. I probably see more people listening to nothing at all than actually plugged-in to the TVs.)) I feel that I am constantly shifting screens because of commercials, but even with five I often have no choice but to watch them. Inevitably, if I become interested enough to plug in my earphones, a commercial comes on. TV is meant to be a distraction in this environment, and if I actively watch any of the monitors, it feels like work. I am particularly aware of time spent watching commercials, even if they are only in my peripheral vision.

Banal realization #1: People still watch TV they don’t really like. Few people ever change any of the five channels, despite the fact that anyone can walk up and change it to something else on basic cable. I’ve only seen this happen once or twice out of around fifty trips. This is the same whether there is one, two, or fifteen people working out, which makes me think that most, like myself, are happy to choose between the five offerings currently on, whatever they may be, rather than intentionally make the effort to find something. Usually, the channels are tuned in to a couple of news channels (usually CNN and Fox) a couple of music channels (VH1, CMT and less often MTV) and always ESPN. TNT is also usually on, for some reason. I myself have willingly “ellipted” through a couple of infomercials rather than bothering to change the channels.

Banal realization #2: There are lots and lots of reruns on TV of shows no one talks about. For several weeks, it seemed that Charmed was always, always on. Then it was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I should have known that people are watching shows like this, because there are always a couple of my students who want to write about Full House or something else from a decade or two back that I thought was forgotten. Coincidentally, if you must watch The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I recommend you do it with the sound off and the captions on. You can really enjoy the early 1990s neon, hip-hop fashion, and there’s something about Will Smith’s repartee that plays especially well when read it at an unnatural pace.

Banal realization #3 (the one you knew was coming): Flow between segments on one channel is nothing compared to the flow of segments on five channels simultaneously. On the one hand, this leads to serendipitous pleasures such as seeing Alyssa Milano in Charmed simultaneously juxtaposed with Alyssa Milano talking about her baseball book on Morning Joe. Perhaps more significantly, it also occasionally belies the constructed nature of “live” news. Routinely one sees the same guest doing the rounds on the various morning shows, sometimes simultaneously thanks to taped delays. One morning, I watched the crew of Flight 1549—remember the “Miracle on the Hudson?—doing what appeared to be live interviews on two network morning shows simultaneously, quickly followed by a third. Miraculous, indeed.

Gum TVs

A Big, Lousy Remote Control

One overall benefit of this kind of TV watching is that I believe it is good to be forced to witness aspects of television culture that we may otherwise acknowledge, then neglect for those in our own areas of expertise. Case in point, Fox News. I rely on The Daily Show to keep me up with the latest in Fox News’ inanity, but everyone should be forced to watch a solid forty-five minutes of its programming. That is the approximate time the channel devoted, one morning, to the latest, dumbest moral panic: “sexting,” which I now know is when someone texts a nude photo to his or her significant other, a practice apparently rampant among American teens and responsible for at least one suicide. The difference between actually watching a good dose of Fox News (or any of the other TV in this manner) is that you recognize that what you are watching is not atypical. It has not been packaged into a nice, funny skit to make a point you already knew.

The mundane nature of most of television programming is what I’ve been forced to recognize on the elliptical. TV is usually not LOST or The Mighty Boosh or even The Office. It is reruns from the 1990s. It is the deliberate attempts to produce outrage on Fox News. It is the inadvertent outrage produced by Teen Cribs on MTV. It is Dr. Phil and Nancy Grace. And a whole lot of commercials. Stripped of my DVR and remote, I understand why so many people eagerly say they don’t like TV, because it’s hard to feel much enthusiasm for what I see from the elliptical.

In his essay on Benjamin, McMurtry says something that I think succinctly explains his methods as a cultural observer: “Stay in one place long enough, or return to the same place often enough, and some interesting ironies are likely to accumulate.” ((McMurtry, 29.)) I admit that comment also reflects my typical approach to TV scholarship. But despite returning over and over again to the Dairy Queen in his hometown, McMurtry throughout his life has removed himself from his comfort zone, with the result of being better equipped to document and assess the culture he writes about. Williams did the same thing when he subjected himself to the movie on his Miami TV set. So here’s all I’m saying: You don’t have to climb on an elliptical machine, but watch TV differently.

Image Credits:

1. The Ever-Important Hotel Television Set
2. A Testing Ground for Benjamin’s Claims
3. A Big, Lousy Remote Control (Provided by Author)

Please feel free to comment.

Facebook and the Return of the Repressed, or Watching Political Comedy on a Social Network
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M – Corpus Christi

SNL on Facebook

The Political is Personal

Judging by increased mainstream news attention and, more importantly, my own friend list, the 2008 holiday season marked a tipping point for Facebook, the “Target” of social networks to MySpace’s “WalMart.” ((For the most recent (and funniest) of these, see “Why Facebook is for Old Fogies,” Lev Grossman.)) My millennial undergraduates were the first to bring Facebook to my attention, of course, and when I signed up I soon found many of my TV studies comrades. While the “out of the past” section of my friend list grew slowly over the last couple of years with the addition of old friends, it has in the last couple of months seriously snowballed to include many more I’m happy to reconnect with, and others that I hadn’t thought much about since I last saw them wandering the beige hallways of my alma mater. ((On the “high-schooly” nature of Facebook, see Michele Byars’ Flow column, “I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True,”)) I speculate this tipping point was brought about by scenes reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play:

A living-room in a seaside town. Two old friends, Mitch and Tim, sit blankly in front of a television set. Mitch gets up silently and sits down at a computer. Tim continues staring at the TV.

Tim: What are you doing?

Mitch: I’m going on Facebook.


Tim: Isn’t that for high school kids?


Mitch: No.


Tim: Really?

Mitch: (defensively) No, actually.

Several days later, Tim signs up on Facebook and soon embarrassing old pictures of Mitch (or me) start showing up on the Internet for the viewing pleasure of current friends and colleagues. All that is perfectly fine with me; what I am interested in discussing here is how such shifts in social networks affect the circulation and consumption of political comedy via the posting of links and videos. If Tim posts a video of Tina Fey caricaturing Sarah Palin on SNL, for example, does it means something different to Mitch than if he had watched it live on TV himself, or if he had sought it out himself on Hulu.com? Are Mitch and Tim more or less likely to talk about such content? Or is Mitch going to take this as an opportunity to sever ties with Tim for good?

For those of us interested in how comedy can articulate cultural criticisms when people have their guard down, the posting of videos on social networks like Facebook demands special attention. To borrow the language of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding,” posting videos on a network “structures the polysemy” of political comedy by impacting the content of the comedy or comic performance itself, and, more importantly, by framing the “decoding” or consumption of the post in a more personal way. One of the oft-made promises of new media has been to get what you want, when you want it: “personalized” media tailored to your tastes and desires. What you instead get via your friends’ Facebook posts is “personal” media because it is posted on your network “feed” by people you know. It is not targeted to you as an individual. Rather, it is there for you because someone else is your friend. Social network posting is a different kind of distribution that is limited not so much by institutional control or technological limitations, but by which people you allow in your network and whose posts you continue to allow to be published in your feed.


That’s What Friends Are For…Posting Shaggy Dog Videos

Certain Payoff? The editing-down of TV content for posting necessarily abbreviates video to the most desirable parts. When you are watching a posted video, you do so with the understanding that unnecessary material has been taken out, and that there is a definite payoff before the time runs out. Our anticipation of payoff does not only have to do with tighter joke-telling economics through better editing, but because we know a friend bothered to post it. Such a video is not there because it’s the “least objectionable” thing a friend happened to come across, but because he or she thought there was something notably amusing about it. Consequently, we watch more attentively, knowing all along how much longer the video has to play till the payoff. We look closely for it, determined that it’s there if we just stick things out. The “shaggy dog” joke that draws out the anticipation of a punchline without ever providing it, is thus more cruelly performed via Facebook post.

Post and Response. The ease with which you can immediately post a video and share it with your network of friends is one of the best parts of Facebook not just because posting is so simple, but because it’s so easy for others to comment and form a conversation. Posting is about sharing; viewing and commenting go hand-in-hand and this is facilitated by the site’s design. For political comedy to have wider effects upon how people think, individuals need to talk with one another about what they see and what they think about it. I would have loved to have been trading issues of Mad Magazine with friends back in the 1950s, when it took on everything on early TV from Disneyland to the Army-McCarthy hearings. However, I much prefer not to have to wait until all my friends have borrowed my magazine and passed it from one another before we can talk about it. ((Not to mention how long it would be between the airing of said TV program and the appearing of its parodic double in the magazine.)) Nowadays, if I miss an episode of The Daily Show, I know for certain that one of my friends will post any particularly striking segment. ((Though I’m emphasizing a difference between “personal” and “personalized,” I must admit that my friend’s posts are far more effective personalization than Amazon’s guesses at what books I might be interested in, forever skewed by a course I took 10 years ago on jazz & film.))

As the Facebook network expands backwards, though, what gets posted is more often not suited to my current cultural and political tastes. Because of this, there is something a little unexpected about this personal media network: rather than being a homogeneous community for sharing and consuming media culture suited to your tastes, a Facebook network is as diverse as you allow it to be, and the social dynamics of including past friends may help avoid the “echo-chamber” potential of online communities. Sharing material culture like magazines is easily limited to one’s immediate peer group. Even topics of water-cooler conversation are easily edited according to those who gather round.


Thank You For Being a Friend…Who Obsesses about Politics and The Golden Girls

The 2008 holiday season also marked the final lame-duck death throes of Bush 44. Facebook’s streamlining of its posting process occurred more or less as the 2008 presidential campaign was winding up during the fall. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this fall marked a highpoint for the distribution and discussion of political comedy. The popularity of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin caricature was the most prominent example. But there were many more originated on web-TV than adapted from broadcast or cable networks. Some of that material was undoubtedly racist or sexist and therefore offensive regardless of whether one was liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. However, satire by definition has a point of view, and therefore posting it inevitably grates against the political sensibilities of some of your friends, and posting a satiric video may draw a response directly in proportion to their political sentiments. Whether those responses are treated as opportunities to engage and exchange ideas, or to “unfriend” and make one’s network more ideologically homogeneous, is a matter of individual taste.

This seems a rich area for audience study. To what extent do individuals edit their friend lists when people post videos they perceive as incompatible with their own politics? Do they talk about such things through commenting, or cut to the chase and “un-friend”? Pursuing such questions will be important to assessing the changing cultural role of political comedy as its distribution flourishes through social networks like Facebook.

Image Credits:

1. The Political is Personal
2. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.

What a Whirlwind: Showbiz Talk and Political Snark on Chelsea Lately
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M Corpus Christi

Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Lately at first, second, and third glance is an unlikely forum for political talk. It isn’t self-consciously “political entertainment” like Real Time with Bill Maher that intentionally mixes celebrities and pundits to spur raucous political debate. Nor is it similar to the satire of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report that depends primarily upon politics (and news coverage of politics) as comic fodder. Chelsea Lately isn’t even as self-consciously political as The View, which features political disagreement among its hosts as soap opera: What will Whoopi or Joy say that will make Elisabeth cry today?

This is not to discount the effects any of those shows may have had popularizing political talk. It’s just that comedian, actress, and best-selling author Chelsea Handler is doing something different that I think ought to be celebrated. Her persona as outspoken host who is seemingly willing to insult any celebrity without fear of retribution, combined with her marginalized position on the talk circuit (programmed on E! against Leno and Letterman) has allowed her to explicitly articulate her own politics right alongside snipes at the Jonas Brothers, Lindsey Lohan, and The Hills’ Heidi & Spencer.

When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler declared that Weekend Update was endorsing Hillary Clinton, they essentially hijacked SNL from Lorne Michaels (who has always been happy to provide a pulpit to any politician if it’s good for ratings) whose authorial imprint on SNL has for all practical purposes offset the autonomy of any of the show’s individual performers. In retrospect, this “bitch” moment seems to have been a high-water mark for Fey’s ability to articulate her own politics, whether through such direct pronouncements or through embedded narrative politics of 30 Rock. As Jonathan Gray has noted, Fey’s wicked impression of Sarah Palin had an opportunity to critically define Palin in a way most impressions do not, given the McCain camp’s sheltering of the VP candidate. But when Palin and Fey met face-to-face on SNL, there was something sheepish about how Fey ducked away that suggested embarrassment more than meaningful disdain. Even more disappointing has been the third season of 30 Rock, which has featured Liz desperately longing to adopt a child and repeated scenes between Liz and Jack that awkwardly suggest that what she needs most is an alpha-male. ((Particularly desperate has been the relentless stunt-casting: Oprah, Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston and three actors from the cast of Night Court?))

From what I can tell, Chelsea Handler took inspiration from Fey and Poehler and is taking the opportunity to “politically bitch” on her show several times a week. ((At least in the many weeks leading up to the presidential election. We’ll see what happens now.)) Chelsea Lately usually begins with a brief monologue, after which Chelsea leads a round-table discussion with a rotating panel that usually includes another host from E! and a couple of stand-up comedians. ((The roundtable is followed by a one-on-one interview between Chelsea and D-list celebrities, many of which come from E! reality shows or other basic cable programs.)) Several times a week pre-recorded skits are shown, and these sometimes offer a “behind-the-scenes” look at the show. In this way, the show parallels 30 Rock, but without Liz Lemon’s self-conscious, insecure management style. For example, one clip showed Chelsea terrorizing her staff by throwing dodgeballs at them in the office. Chelsea describes this as a productive team-building exercise, but the writers and assistants complain about having to work in fear.


“Rubber Balls & Liquor: The Chelsea Handler Story”

While the cultural politics of Chelsea as female talk show host terrorizing her staff are intriguing, what I’m interested in discussing here goes completely unmentioned: Chelsea wears an “Obama ‘08” t-shirt throughout the entire skit. David Letterman might complain when John McCain ditches his show to do an interview with Katie Couric, but you can be damn sure he’s not going to tell his audience how to vote. That, however, is exactly what Handler has done. The night before the 2008 election, she stared down the camera and told the audience that if they lived in California, they needed to vote “no” on Proposition 8. In many of her roundtable discussions she made reference to participating in campaign events for Obama, and never missed an opportunity to make fun of the few Republicans in Hollywood such as Jon Voight, Lou Ferrigno, and “one of the Baldwins.”

Handler not only hosts the show, but she possesses an authorship that can broaden the snarky talk from showbiz to capital “P”-Politics. These comments don’t just broadly hint at Handler’s views the way satiric criticism does, but explicitly state her positions on particular candidates or issues. Consider a roundtable discussion from an episode the month prior to the 2008 election.


“A total F-you to the Eskimos.”

The talk veers from Sarah Palin’s tanning bed, to the E! reality show Sunset Tan, to the economic downturn at which point Handler abruptly (and loudly) upbraids rich Americans who complain about paying higher taxes. Things move quickly back to Megan Fox’s lesbian relationship and Celine Dion’s 67-page contract rider (and after the break, Lance Bass on Dancing with the Stars!). Thus, showbiz banter remains the center of discussion. But in-between, the snarks are aimed squarely at Palin and rich Republicans.

The fact that Chelsea’s political comments are made directly alongside typical celebrity snarks suggests an articulation of political opinion that might resonate with viewers who don’t considered themselves “political.” ((My discussion of the show with students, some of whom resist talking politics even in 2008, anecdotally bears this out.)) Her righteous indignation about the rich who don’t want to pay taxes is unexpected in a way that the popular political talk on The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher never is. In this way, Handler passionately articulates her own political beliefs without that being what she or her show is ultimately “about”—something that is actually quite rare on television.

A couple of reasons why I think all this matters: First, Chelsea Lately is a successful late-night talk show hosted by a woman. The program was recently renewed and will run at least through 2009, officially, though E! VP for original programming Lisa Berger has said the cable network looks forward to running the show for “many years to come”. ((One might hypothesize that the dissonance between “many years to come” and “2009” is the result of Chelsea wanting the power to move on to bigger and better things, despite how much E! might like to keep her around.)) Secondly, the very fact that the program is marginal (a late-night, halfhour talk show on basic cable) means she can be more explicitly political than a network sitcom or even an ensemble sketch show like Saturday Night Live. Chelsea as star/host exercises an authorial influence on the program’s content that isn’t possible for Fey to exert over her own network sitcom or over Michael’s SNL (witness Tracey Morgan’s rebuttal a couple of weeks later on Weekend Update: “Bitch may be the new black, but black’s the new president, bitch!”) Third, while Conan O’Brien’s ascension to Tonight Show host may be the late-night headline in the coming year, the more significant change may be the degree to which cable talk shows (again, which due to their marginal positions can give their hosts more opportunities for explicit political statements) have eaten away at the broadcast late-night audience.

O’Brien is getting the job largely because he’s seen as appealing to a younger demographic, but that demo is the same one turning away from broadcast and fueling the success of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and, indeed, Chelsea Lately. At the top of the late-night heap, The Tonight Show’s numbers have declined from 5.74 million in 2003 to 4.84 million in 2008. In the same timeslot, Chelsea Lately’s numbers have jumped from 409,000 in 2007 to 494,000 in 2008; a modest total, but a huge proportional jump, and one accomplished without the A-list stars which are de rigueur for Leno & Letterman, or the prominent politicians and pundits that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report routinely nab. ((Brian Sternberg, “And Now, Conan O’Brien!…and Younger Viewers,” Advertising Age, 3 November 2008, p. 4.))

One must presume that it is Chelsea’s outspoken persona (more Joan Rivers than Tina Fey, really) that is attracting the viewers. The fact that she has become more explicitly political at the same time suggests that her success is symptomatic of the tastes driving the success of Keith Olbermann and, more recently, Rachel Maddow. Tina Fey was crowned #2 Entertainer of the Year by Entertainment Weekly, while Chelsea Handler had to make do with an honorable mention as one of the “breakout stars” of 2008 alongside American Idol winner David Cook and Angel, the canine star of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, among others. Here’s to hoping Handler receives more of the sort of attention afforded Fey, whether her future lies on network or cable TV. As Handler recently said on one of her closing segments, she’s not on CNN yet, “But watch your hairy, gray back, Wolf Blitzer!”


Image Credits:

1. Chelsea Handler
2. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.

Blogger News Network? TPMtv and Online Video Aesthetics
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall on TPMtv

As a media scholar, I savor those “ah-ha” moments that open my eyes to new possibilities of media communication. The best of those give me the sense I’m seeing something in a new way, and because of that, my understanding of what it means is changing. One of those moments came in grad school when I saw the TVTV documentary about the 1972 Republican convention, “Four More Years.” It wasn’t just the observational style of covering the convention, but in particular the interaction of the TVTV crew with the delegates and network news media that for me represented one of those moments when style and content work together to create new ways of seeing and knowing. In the documentary, the “legitimate” news media is mostly dismissive of the TVTV crew: they didn’t look like the “real” news media, and what they produced didn’t look like “the news” either.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the recent Democratic and Republican conventions. In 2004 the “blogosphere” existed to cover the conventions, but online video a la YouTube hadn’t yet wedded to it. This year has been the first presidential cycle where there has been a significant “blogger video” coverage of the conventions. TVTV’s “Four More Years” was created in a moment when there was hope that portable video in the hands of “guerrilla” TV activists had radical potential for impacting culture. To begin assessing whether blogger video has any such potential, I’d like to consider how style and content might be working together in this emergent news media, creating new ways of seeing (and knowing).

I began reading Talking Points Memo (TPM) four or five years ago, and watching its transformation from a straight-up, first-person blog, written by journalist Joshua Micah Marshall, into a veritable online news empire has been quite impressive. While some political blogs have been incorporated into MSM outlets like Time.com or Slate, TPM has fashioned itself as an alternative news network, adding not just technical staff but writers/producers who both report and comment upon the news. TPM in its expansion into video reporting (TPMtv), has developed a distinctive visual style rather than aspiring to match the aesthetics of traditional (network and cable) TV news. I’d like to look at several videos that show different ways in which TPMtv has managed to maintain a critical, authorial tone typical of political blogs and true to its roots, while in fact employing multiple authors and video producers.


The Talking Points Memo Website

In recent years there have been two tastes for visual consumption that seem to contradict one another. On the one hand, those who can afford them have gobbled up high definition sets and built home theaters to enhance the quality of watching sporting events and movies in the home. At the same time, consumers have also shown that they are perfectly willing to watch a sloppily pirated DVD if it means getting that movie sooner and “free-er” and are willing to suffer frustrating download times or stuttering streaming clips that weren’t of high quality to begin with. This “lo-fi” aesthetic is usually not a stylistic affectation, but rather results from technological limitations or lack of production skills. Because it has become such a typical part of watching video online, however, it has become available as a televisual style, in the sense John Caldwell describes it, as television that self-consciously employs style to distinguish itself from “normal” TV. In the case of TPMtv, this televisual style serves to maintain the status of the new media news organization as an alternative to the MSM, even in the face of its growing success and expansion, and to a certain extent, its adoption of network news strategies.

Type in “talkingpointsmemo.com” and you will still get the main page of the site, described in the masthead as “Blog by Joshua Micah Marshall.” But the top of the page lists what amount to different sections or “channels” of the site: TPM, which contains Marshall’s posted comments and links, but also some from his associates and featured comments by readers; TPM Muckraker, which is dedicated to investigative journalism; TPM Election Central, featuring polls, news, and commentary on the campaigns; TPMtv; and TPMCafe, the community discussion area of the site. Below are three clips from TPMtv posted during the party conventions and the week or two thereafter. In each case, I’d like to discuss how the visual aesthetics employ (or at least exhibit) the “lo-fi” aesthetic as well as other non-traditional TV aesthetics.


Set aside Marshall’s unshaven face and thinning hair which make him look at least superficially different from most manicured TV news anchors. Often, TPMtv clips feature Marshall in front of a green screen and only momentarily feature graphics on it. More recently, they have begun covering the entire area behind him, as in this clip. The video editing skills needed to do this are pretty minimal. In this clip you see a couple of jump cuts in Marshall’s commentary–the sort of thing that is usually covered by a cutaway shot. These are common in nearly all of his clips. Also notable is the tone of his address: even his low volume suggests a person-to-person exchange rather than the typical broadcast, “mass communication” delivery. What Marshall introduces is essentially TPM produced video that contrasts McCain/Palin ads with footage from Palin’s earlier appearances as governor and/or mayor. The graphic framing of these within a TV, of course, also sets this up as a new media critique of political rhetoric on TV.


Every week TPMtv does a “Sunday Show Round-Up” featuring clips from such political influential programs as Meet the Press and Face the Nation, which are routinely used by the campaigns to respond to news coverage and shape it for the future. Rather than simply serving as a highlight reel, TPMtv’s “Round-Up” clips are cleverly edited to critically comment upon the content with a satiric eye–without any actual narration by Marshall or other TPM staff. The influence of The Daily Show on this is hard to miss.


In this clip, TPMtv reporter David Kurtz comments live as Michelle Obama ends her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Luckily, he shuts up and just lets you watch for most of it. The simplicity of the clip—its amateurish quality—doesn’t just contrast with network coverage or even the sans-pundit coverage available on CSPAN. For me, it gives the sense of being in the hall, particularly as you hear Barack Obama’s comments echo over the PA system and the audience noise in reaction to them (and especially to his daughter’s ad libs).

The title of this last clip as it was originally posted on TPM was “TPMTV’s View Of Michelle Obama’s Speech.” I clicked on it expecting commentary on her speech, not literally “TPMtv’s view.” Instead I got one of those “ah-ha” moments: there’s a pleasure in watching this that isn’t about getting information or commentary, rather it’s TV putting us inside the convention via both technology and video style. In this clip and others, TPMtv offers a different way of knowing through television that works to maintain its alternative status (sometimes oppositional, usually complementary to MSM coverage). That televisual approach to creating a “blogger news network” seems derived from guerilla video a la TVTV’s coverage of the 1972 convention, The Daily Show’s satiric mash-ups, and the lo-fi aesthetics of viral video.

Image Credits:
1. Joshua Micah Marshall on TPMtv
2. The Talking Points Memo Website

Please feel free to comment.

iWant My TweenTV: iCarly, Sitcom 2.0
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

The Cast of iCarly

The Cast of iCarly

Woe be to the Flow columnist that sets out to write about how convergence is changing television comedy without acknowledging what might be the biggest success story of convergence comedy, the Nickelodeon sitcom iCarly.

Now, iCarly might not be this media scholar’s preferred convergence culture, but it is most certainly his 10-year-old daughter’s. It is what she is watching repeatedly on the DVR or on a laptop at her friend’s house, and it is the overflow she is reading online by following characters’ blogs that may or may not tie in directly to the episodes she knows by name.

iCarly is not only her preferred convergence comedy, but others as well, because it is a major success, judging by old or new media standards. The debut episode in September 2007 garnered 3.5 million viewers at 8 p.m, with another episode and encore airings the same weekend increasing those numbers. The show’s web site generated 270,000 unique visitors and 1.1 million streams on for the week of the premiere. ((Kimberly Nordyke and Nellie Andreeva, “’Closer’ tops itself again: 9.2 million viewers,” Hollywood Reporter, 12 September 2007.)) Two thousand viewer-produced videos were reportedly uploaded to the site this first weekend as well. ((John Young, “Nets compete for most popular click,” Variety, 5 October 2007, A38.)) This June, the special hour-long “iCarly Saves TV” was the highest rated non-sports program on cable the week it first ran, with 4.46 million tuning in. ((Rick Kissell, “ABC courts auds with NBA,” Variety, 18 June 2008, p. 5.))

The iCarly Saves TV Website

The “iCarly Saves TV” Website

This essay will attempt to sketch out how iCarly has integrated a Web 2.0 sensibility into the traditional sitcom format, through both soliciting viewer-generated content and altering the “look” of the sitcom. Despite the fact that iCarly debuted just a year ago, it appears to be a well-oiled television comedy machine, with a clever premise that successfully generates repetition with difference and plenty of program overflow to capture audiences away from the set as well. ((iCarly also has the best gimmick for naming episodes since Friends’ “The One Where…” model. Each episode is named “iSometing”: “iPilot,” “iWant More Viewers,” “iGotDetention,” etc.))

iCarly is about a tween-age girl, Carly, who produces her own webcast with friends Sam and Freddy. Think Wayne’s World meets Hannah Montana meets Frasier, since the gang produces the show in the Seattle condo where Carly lives with her older brother/guardian, Spencer. Most episodes of iCarly revolve around the production of the program: iCarly solicits videos for a dancing contest; the gang tries to set a world record with a 24 hour webcast; Carly tries to impress an influential blogger so he’ll write a positive review of her show, and so forth.

One of the convergent “hooks” of the show is that in most episodes Carly gives an assignment to the viewers–for example, to make videos of themselves dancing. This fan-produced content might actually be incorporated into an episode, or get posted on its web site. During an episode of the show-within-a-show, Carly will introduce clips supposedly from viewers that have them doing something silly, such as tickling themselves and saying “iCarly” over and over. Some of these clips look professionally produced; others do appear to be from “real” viewers and not just fictional ones. ((The distinction reminds me of David Letterman’s “viewer mail” and I’m not sure how much it matters whether the bits are truly homemade or not. A key difference is that some of them definitely are made by fans.)) That’s a predictable enough gimmick for a TV show about a webcast, but it is also a manifestation of how Nick has connected with a generation of viewers for whom it’s perfectly natural to watch clips of a TV show online as well as have nonlinear editing software installed on their home computer.

Freddie Records Carly and Sam

Freddie Records Carly and Sam

At the moment, the broadcast networks seem to have passed the sitcom mantel to cable channels that don’t seem to fear that young viewers are averse to the multicamera sitcom. While adult oriented sitcoms have attempted to reinvigorate the genre through formal innovation (The Office, Arrested Development), increased seriality and genre hybridity (Entourage, Weeds) fairly standard multicamera sitcoms like Two and A Half Men continue to garner higher ratings. Perhaps learning from those examples, or perhaps just lacking hang-ups about airing a sitcom, the kid-oriented cable networks have become the home for old school-style sitcoms with their multicamera mode of production and disruption/complication/alleviation narrative structure.

Still, I would suggest that iCarly not only uses the “show within a show” series architecture as a way to generate narratives or involve viewers in the series architecture via Web 2.0. The program also looks different from other sitcoms, and to that extent is similar to televisual sitcoms like Arrested Development or The Office. ((See Ethan Thompson, “Comedy Verite? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom,” The Velvet Light Trap, Fall 2007.)) iCarly’s premise allows easy integration of comic spectacle a la YouTube’s greatest hits.

A typical example is the episode previously mentioned, “iWant a World Record.” When the gang begins their 24 hour webcast, we see Freddy capturing the show with a camcorder, then see what he is capturing through its viewfinder, as a handheld camera enters the space of the performers (not typical for a multicamera sitcom). Occasional cutaway shots show an open laptop, on which we can see a window open with the webcast streaming. Carly welcomes an official to the webcast who is there to validate the world record. She presents Sam with a photo of the world’s fattest priest, which Sam shows to the camera—an incorporation of the sort of random visual jokes that circulate through email into the program’s narrative. Throughout the webcast an alarm goes off which requires the iCarly cast to engage in “Random Dancing.” During another segment, “Street Fishing,” Carly and Sam reel in a baby (doll) through a window, whose head promptly explodes. Carly introduces the video of a fan tickling himself, and they do another segment titled “Fun with Bacon.” All this takes place during the second act (along with quite a few other things). Every episode includes these show-within-a-show segments, and these offer the most literal examples of providing the sort of comic spectacles available online. In addition to this, the visual style of watching things take place in other spaces through computer or TV screens also affects narrative segmentation outside of the show-within-a-show. During this same second act, the camera cuts to another room where Spencer is attempting to romance the official from the world records book. They watch the webcast on a laptop, while we watch them. Other transitions between segments feature a computer screen with a nonlinear editing program running, and clips that are clicked on and moved, opening up into the next segment.


My personal favorite iCarly episode is the hour long “iCarly Saves TV” in which the webcast gets picked up to be a “real” TV show, but is ruined by a meddling executive who adds a dinosaur named Zeebo and a spoiled child star to the cast, amongst other alterations both brazen and lame. As a satire, the episode takes broad shots at television, particularly the out-of-touch male executive and nerdy male writers who seem determined to ruin the show. Zeebo is a Barney clone, something incompatible with iCarly’s audience, which is eager to distance itself from such childish things; the writers appear to be goateed Gen X-ers, similar to those on 30 Rock. If this episode has a satiric target, it’s the generational differences which manifest themselves in their grossly misguided attempts to cater to her audience’s tastes. In the end, about the only thing recommending selling out to the network is its catering service, and Carly returns to the greater autonomy afforded the webcast. There is ultimately not that much subversive about Nickelodeon airing such a broad satire, which was also designed to help launch an iCarly soundtrack album. ((Laura Fries, Review of “iCarly Saves TV,” Variety, 13 June 2008, p.10.)) Still, it does suggest just how different the tastes and TV watching habits of this young audience might be from the industry figures which in the past could more easily control what audiences had to choose from.

iCarly’s integration of the classic pleasures of the sitcom with the comic anarchy of the web is a convergence comedy whose pleasures can feel quite effortless compared with wading through a cluttered website and sitting through mandatory commercials so you can see a “webisode” starring some of the minor characters on The Office. In fact, it can make such an effort seem downright stodgy.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of iCarly
2. The “iCarly Saves TV” Website
3. Freddie Records Carly and Sam
4. Front Page iCarly image

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Convergence Comedy: Andy Samberg vs. SNL
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M – Corpus Christi


Andy Samberg and Lorne Michaels

Lorne Michaels has made some lame casting choices at Saturday Night Live over the years, but the addition of Andy Samberg has proven astute. Samberg’s comic persona serves as a point of identification for younger audiences, a break from the residual boomer sensibility that still permeates the show. Perhaps more importantly, his comedy fits the emerging online viewing habits of TV audiences, making a tidy addition to Michaels’ vertically-integrated comedy empire. Samberg provides an interesting case study in the convergence of television and online comedy. On the one hand, he exemplifies the kind of talent network TV must acquire in order to maintain audience share, but making his humor “fit” has meant more than just adding him to the existing staff. Samberg’s success has also come from an “old media” source, evidence of the lack of options for aspiring comedians. Posting videos on YouTube is a great way to find an audience, but as a South Park satire recently noted, “theoretical dollars” based on downloads don’t pay the rent.

SNL cast members typically achieve success through recurring characters or as host of Weekend Update, but Samberg’s has been established through a particular style of televisual presentation: video shorts produced with his longtime collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Though commercial parodies and other recorded pieces have been a mainstay on SNL for many years, Michaels has branded each Samberg video an “SNL Digital Short” complete with a black-screen intertitle separating them from the rest of the show. Audiences are thus cued that the televisual quality of the segments (and therefore their comic sensibility) will be different-more like viral videos than “old school” SNL.


SNL Logo

Indeed, Samberg comes from the “new school.” He initially got attention for videos produced with Schaffer and Taccone in the early 2000s as TheLonelyIsland.com. In particular, 2001’s “Stork Patrol” serves as a blueprint for Samberg’s later SNL clips “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box,” which have done more to revitalize SNL than any appearance by Britney Spears or Hillary Clinton. “Stork Patrol” is a hip-hop parody, not in the sense that it makes fun of hip-hop, but because it uses hip-hop as a mode of comic address, deriving humor from the incongruity between the sexual desire so earnestly “rapped” and the object of that desire, a poorly constructed stork puppet. Samberg’s break-out short on SNL, “Lazy Sunday,” was similar, featuring himself with SNL vet Chris Parnell furiously rapping about The Chronicles of Narnia, Google maps, and Alexander Hamilton. ((See Tim Anderson, “TV Time is Now the New Playtime,” Flow, Volume 4, Issue 01)) Not only did the video make Samberg a star, but in the weeks after “Lazy Sunday” hit, YouTube’s traffic reportedly increased by 83 percent. ((“Three Easy Steps to Comedy Stardom,” New York Magazine))

Just how much Samberg would be a deviation from SNL’s past was made evident early on in a Weekend Update “impression off” with Bill Hader. Introduced as new additions to the cast by Amy Poehler, both comedians look young in the segment, sporting shaggy haircuts and track jackets. But when the impression-off begins, a clear distinction is drawn between Hader, who performs adequate if out-dated impressions of Peter Falk and James Mason, and Samberg, who barely attempts an imitation at all, goofily saying “Hey, How’s it going? I’m Jack Nicholson, Whaaaaatt’sss Uuuupp?”

Rather than the studied approach to comedy and depth of cultural capital that Hader’s impressions suggest, Samberg’s cultural knowledge is barely knee-deep played-out beer slogans rather than dead (or at least old) actors. In fact, the skit bore an uncanny resemblance to Samberg’s actual SNL audition. According to an interview in New York magazine, “Every comic has to impersonate three celebrities at their SNL tryout; Samberg, who’s not big on impressions, remembers doing Jimmy Fallon, The Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef, and one line of Alan Rickman’s from Die Hard.” ((Ibid.))

Despite the distinction drawn between Hader and Samberg, the two have repeatedly appeared together, notably in the recurring “Laser Cats” skits in which they present a cheaply made Sci-Fi short to Michaels. Apparently shot in and around the SNL offices, the skits feature the duo wielding cats, which have evolved to shoot lasers out of their mouths, as futuristic weapons. Despite their enthusiasm, the production values of the props, special effects, and wardrobes fall terrifically short. That’s the joke, and Michaels doesn’t get it–much like he probably wouldn’t get why anyone would become enamored with a stork. The continued book-ending of the Laser Cats shorts as presentations to Michaels (in the third, he’s eating lunch with Senator Chris Dodd) shows that, rather than relying upon the lousy production values being funny, their deviation from the supposed-SNL norm (and Michaels’ lack of hipness) is made the joke.

Samberg’s digital shorts indeed fit online consumption much better than the standard sitcom. SNL itself is better online, because you can just look up the skits people are talking about around the water cooler (or sending around via email). NBC has aggressively fought to keep viewer-uploaded footage of its shows off YouTube. While that has made sense for shows available commercially, it hasn’t for shows like SNL where uploaded clips could be understood as promotions for the next broadcast. At a time when SNL’s ratings were stumbling, for instance, “Lazy Sunday” was downloaded 5 million times before NBC pulled it. ((“Privates Joke,” EW.com)) Search for a Samberg SNL short on YouTube today, and you will either find somebody’s lame attempt to copy him, or be linked through to the commercially-sponsored Hulu.com, which provides access to a plethora of SNL skits, though not all of them, and no complete episodes. ((See Josh Green, “‘Why in the world won’t they take my money?’ – Hulu, iTunes, and the Value of Attention,” Flow, Volume 7, Issue 11)) Samberg’s new skits thus drive viewers to SNL’s old back catalog, while not undercutting its DVD collections or syndicated episodes.

Samberg got his big-screen debut with 2007’s Hot Rod, a script that had reportedly been languishing at Paramount for years before Michaels convinced the studio to make it (with Schaffer directing) after the success of “Lazy Sunday.” ((“Three Easy Steps”)) The film is not a good fit for the crew’s humor, but at times Samberg shines through in moments more attuned to the aesthetic of the digital short. A prime example is an exchange between Rod (Samberg) and his brother (Taccone) in which a tender moment is made less so by setting their exchange of the phrase “cool beans” to a beat, as if the two are surprise-rapping. Samberg and Taccone reportedly edited the scene themselves, and placed it in the movie just prior to its final test screening. ((Ibid.)) Hot Rod was no blockbuster, but as its commercial life continues on DVD, it’s worthwhile to note how scenes such as the “cool beans” exchange not only are more characteristic of online comedy than film comedy, but because of this, as ripped and uploaded by fans on YouTube, they serve as free promotion. ((“Cool Beans,”))

Samberg reportedly dreamed of being on SNL beginning at age eight, but he has only been successful on the show by doing digital shorts almost indistinguishable from the sort of things he, Schaffer, and Taccone were doing back in their “Lonely Island” days. Surely it would be difficult to persuade an aspiring comedian to say no to the big media co-optation exemplified by Samberg’s career. Will Ferrell may have set up his own comedy site (FunnyOrDie.com), outside the MSM, but he subsidizes it through his successful MSM comedies. Are there any other options for the aspiring convergence comedian? Clearly the posting of home-grown comedy is flourishing and as media scholars we can salute the fact that more people are making media and not just consuming it. (One great example of this is “Lazy Ramadi,” made by GI’s in Iraq.) Then again, we media scholars make a living pointing things like that out. But what do we hope is the payoff for those who make us laugh? Is independent success possible, or is big, old media still the ultimate way to get paid?

Image Credits:
1. Andy Samberg and Lorne Michaels
2. SNL Logo
3. SNL logo from homepage

Please feel free to comment.