If We Are So Smart….

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

Television Fixation

Television fixation

I had been mulling over Steven Johnson’s thesis that TV makes us smarter when Aniko Bodroghkozy’s piece set off cross currents in the last two issues of Flow. And then a presenter at a recent MIT conference embraced Steven Johnson as part of the cultural studies project that validates popular culture. I therefore wondered if my objection to John Fiske formed a basis for my objection to Johnson. I am grateful that the pieces in the last issue corrected my drift into mistakenly lumping the two together. Johnson’s analysis is nothing more than congratulating TV on becoming more self-reflexive (a dubious distinction) while Fiske explores the interesting ramifications of encoding/decoding theory for mass culture. Even after we quickly dispose of Johnson, Bodroghkozy’s dichotomy between Fiske (cultural studies) and Robert McChesney (political economy),[1] is interesting since it re-raises the issue of how to approach media studies during a repressive swing in American and indeed global politics (I am thinking of the Vatican here). Media studies now may take us away from models that flatter the audience towards one that sees popular culture as renewing the strength of narcotizing dysfunction because media proliferates. The narcotizing effect comes from getting too much information and misinformation from new media.

Jenkins is quite right to state that McChesney’s current high profile is a response to the disappointing results of the last few elections. I part with Jenkins when he tries to see a glimmer of hope in the matched split of the election, in the low approval ratings of the administration, in their inability to win support for their gutting of social security. These are attempts that are quite natural for Jenkins to sustain our belief in the vox populi. The goodness of the American people that is from time to time frustrated or perverted by evil structures is a necessary belief for good media work but the evidence for it right now is rather scarce. The open corruption of our political leadership and the immoral/illegal/incompetent activities of our security forces should have meant that the elections were not even close.

Republican successes force us to consider the big question of the relationship of popular culture, mass media and politics just as Horace Newcomb wanted to consider these issues at the beginning of his career. It does seem that political economy of media is but a partial explanation of the political reversal of the last few years. There is nothing inherent about media oligopolies that correlate with the viciousness of contemporary scene. Indeed the same oligopolies of television that were so timid during the McCarthy era are the ones who sustained Edward R. Murrow for a critical time and gave us the coverage that repulsed the nation against Jim Crow laws and segregation. The three networks may have given us the mindless TV of the sixties, yet they also gave us the critical TV of the seventies. Other historical examples show that oligopolies bend from left to right, so consolidation is not sufficient to explain the present bend. Nonetheless McChesney has done good service in making connections between the rightward swing in media coverage and the deregulation that has been pushed since the “burning-toaster revolution” of Mark Fowler and Reagan’s FCC (Miller).

Should we go deeper than McChesney? We pay lip service to our desire for a synthesis of left wing political economy with cultural studies, but we are too fearful of grand narratives to really work at such a synthesis. Thus there is little motivation to go deeper. Academics will not be swayed by such broad analysis. Politicians, who already dismissed any media academic influence when they wrote the 1996 Telecommunications Act and shut downed the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, are not interested in analyses supplied by anyone other than lobbyists. Deeper analysis would only encourage a widening gap between the academy and the policy makers. If I understand McChesney and Mark Crispin Miller at all, I understand them to be seeking political influence and they ought to do so because we know we need a program if and when democracy is restored to our country.

Dana Polan suggests how to go deeper with his thoughts on post network TV eroding the “folk culture” of the national-popular. I found myself behaving just as he describes, searching for the niche within the media that flatters my own ideology and lulls me into thinking I have contributed to the political discourse by the passive action of listening. On the cusp of the network TV era Lazarsfeld and Merton defined narcotizing dysfunction as when the viewer “comes to mistake knowing about the problems of the day for doing something about them” (502). I think this dysfunction must be further intellectualized particularly because post-network TV seems to be an era when scandals are exposed but not redressed. Watergate was exposed and redressed and TV played a large part in broadcasting that episode in 1973-1974. However, starting in 1987 with Iran-Contragate through the current revelations about administrative lying and incompetence, TV exposure of wrongdoing has little redemptive power. This is of course from my left wing point of view. But the right wing could also wonder why TV exposure of Clinton’s sexual conduct did not further alienate the public. In either case it does not seem that exposure on TV sways a polarized audience. Is the audience too distracted by its own harried leisure space and its scramble to maintain living wages to respond to the other than to watch it? Are the instant polling and other new media simulacra of interactivity lulling the audience into ineffective action?

This narcotizing to political corruption can be linked to another social theory of media that Jurgen Habermas calls re-feudalization. He describes media as ideally the sphere where public opinion is arrived through discourse and made public both to the State and to the citizenry. However, re-feudalization means that mass media do not fulfill this requirement but instead become a single medium for the display of power by the State. The public is not necessarily a captive audience before this display of the State but certainly a normally passive one, except in times of revolutionary strife. If this intellectual project of linking narcotization and re-feudalization to media proliferation was developed, perhaps we could better understand the paradox of consolidated and economically powerful media acting so timidly at the beck and call of a radical right government.

[1] Which also played out on the campus of the University of Illinois U-C in the same time period, between Larry Grossberg and Thomas Guback. It is fitting that McChesney now occupies Guback’s line.

Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton. (1948/1969). “Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action.” pp. 492-512 in Wilbur Schramm (ed.) Mass Communications. Urbana IL: U of Illinois P.

Alison McCracken’s Flow column concerning Steven Johnson’s book

Image Credits:
1. Television fixation

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Copps’s Hypothesis: Indecency and Media Ownership

by: Frederick Wasser/Brooklyn College

Michael Copps

Michael Copps

Michael Copps is the rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal Washington. He is one of two Democratic commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission. He managed to stop the juggernaut of deregulation at least once and to embarrass it several times during Michael Powell’s chairmanship. Copps famously managed to draw enough attention to their great giveaway that even the US Congress bucked the administration and passed a law that held the TV limit to 39% of the national audience (above the 35% of the 1996 law but below the 45% Powell was trying to slip through).

Part of Copps’s effective rhetoric was to wonder at the coincidence between the unprecedented rise of large media conglomerates and the increase of vulgarity, indecency, violence and sexuality on TV and the radio. He is a careful “weak” determinist, refusing to draw a conclusive link but he does suggest that as programming decisions become more centralized and further away from the local community there would be less concern about community standards.

Thus Copps used Republican rhetoric to counter Republican behavior. He came to own words such as “decency,” “local community standards,” and even “conservative,” since he charged that deregulation was the bold reckless experiment that upset the traditional way of doing business on the airwaves. It was the radical Powell who was committed to eliminating the public interest criterion (about which he even expressed ontological doubt) in favor of maximizing market opportunities. He seemed to be a consistent corporate libertarian and showed little interest in policing decency on the airwaves until the hue and cry over the Janet Jackson exposure debacle. He finally responded to pressure to get tough. Many people asked me why he left the chair’s position last month, and although my Ph.D. gives me reduced competency regarding Republicans, I assume that at this point the fun was gone for Mr. Powell.

Michael Powell

Michael Powell

His departure weakens Copps’s ability to embarrass the Republicans with the contradiction between feral capitalism and local standards. Indeed the Powells, père et fils (father and son), were the last office-holding Republicans capable of being embarrassed. The remaining administrators are perfectly willing to strike down every principle in favor of immediate gains. Kevin J. Martin, the new FCC chair, is strongly hinting that he wishes to extend the moral authority of the Federal government over satellite and cable delivery systems. And he calls himself a deregulator!!

Still those of us who still indulge in intellectual inquiry regarding federal policy should take a moment to contemplate Michael Copps’s hypothesis: that media consolidation leads to vulgarization of program content. There is nothing immediately obvious about the truth of this hypothesis. Large corporations are known for their desire to avoid controversy. Wal-Mart refuses to stock controversial CDs and DVDs, and Blockbuster avoids X-rated films. On the production side, there is Time-Warner’s sale of the Interscope record label to avoid association with “gangsta” rap. Still I do not judge that these incidents amount to a falsification of Copps’s hypothesis.

The thing to notice about very large corporations is their reduced capacity to internalize moral or other non-pecuniary standards. They have been run by at least two generations of executives trained to think the only measures of success are short-term profits and continuous rising stock valuations. Other considerations such as building prestige or establishing and burnishing corporate reputations are now largely irrelevant. The lesson of Time-Warner and Interscope is not the divestiture but that TW made the original acquisition. There may be a vestigial consideration of reputation at Walt Disney. But ever since the advent of Michael Eisner at Disney, they have practiced the strategy of shifting adult themes to other labels (Touchstone, Miramax, Dimension, etc) within the corporate umbrella. The actual Walt Disney would not have resorted to such transparent camouflage.

The next thing to see is that large media corporations are bigger than any one community. Therefore the American legal formula that obscenity is defined by community standards is mocked by the transnational media corporation. The News Corporation, operating all over the world, brings to the world the obscene standards of the worst corners of London’s Fleet Street. It is less clear where the Viacom executives responsible for the Super Bowl learned their standards, but it is safe to say not in the prim and proper Boston, near Sumner Redstone’s original local community.

Which leads to a third point. Because these behemoths transcend any community they have increasing difficulty pursuing their large trans-national audiences. Points as separate as North Dakota and Maine complain about losing their local radio station managers and waking up to programs conceived by some nameless Clear Channel executive sitting down to coffee in San Antonio. Imagine the difficulty of this same nameless executive having to pursue an audience scattered through all fifty red and blue states. What is the one thing that might get a good portion of the audience to listen? The common denominator of prurient and vulgar appeals has often proven to be the answer, particularly for the most desired demographic group of young men. It is also an easy one-stop answer and so we have the national syndication of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh across 3,000 miles rather than the variety of local drive time radio.

There have been similar arguments about the rise of violence in Hollywood films. The increasing importance of the international audience has led to the increasing importance of the action film genre. This genre deemphasizes specific cultural baggage and language in favor of easily exported Slam! Bang!! Ker-Bloom!!! While the link between action and international attention is generally accepted, Copps’s hypothesis remains suggestive rather than conclusive. If the hypothesis is to be significant, does it explain how the current situation is different from the TV wasteland accusation of the pre-consolidation era of the 1950s and 1960s? I reshaped his hypothesis to emphasize categories of quality such as vulgarity and indecency rather than the more quantifiable sex and violence. It is because I want mature sex and dramatic violence retained on TV. Indeed the moment of quality television in the 1970s and 1980s is directly associated with a willingness to overcome the banal standards and practices of the 1950s and 1960s. It is my fear that boundary stretching TV such as Roots and Soap metamorphosed into the new vulgarities such as Fox’s (News Corp.) trashy Temptation Island and the simulated steaminess of ABC’s (Walt Disney) Desperate Housewives. In order to work out this hunch we should define vulgarity in a way that avoids the high/low cultural debates and yet does not justify corporate exploitation as genuine vox populi. We have yet to work out the transcendental appeal of vulgarity. Therefore I think that Copps’s hypothesis challenges the imagination of the Left to account for this change from quality to trash. It is when media consolidation takes advantage of the boundaries stretched by sincere writers and producers that vulgarity should become part of the public’s brief against the deregulation of media ownership.

Image Credits:
1. Michael Copps
2. Michael Powell

ABC Primetime
Janet Jackson Superbowl

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Why Media Scholars Should Write Corporate Histories

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

Several trade publications have received notices that last month was the tenth anniversary of the launch of WB and UPN, the fifth and sixth broadcast TV networks, dubbed by the trades in their argot as “weblets.” My quick check of Lexis-Nexis showed no mention of the anniversary by major newspapers. Why should they mention the date? No compelling news reason. UPN and WB have not amounted to much. Indeed, reading their histories showed that they were not conceived to do much either. But it is precisely this lack of performance that should draw the attention of media historians if only because no one else will write their histories. Certainly corporate historians and trade journals write for an audience who are constantly worried only about the next new thing. They neither ask the right questions nor can afford the perspective of a historian. Despite this I should pause to praise trade journals such as Variety for often having a critical analytical eye particularly when the late A.D. Murphy was still writing for them. But we cannot hope that they should do our work for us, only that they provide the data with which we can ask our questions.

Data has become increasingly hard to come by since the days of dealing with companies that do just one thing are long gone. Indeed the big headline about UPN and WB, that neither network had a profitable year, was ignored or obscured by the various tenth anniversary notices. No profits! This is in complete contrast to the fourth network, Fox, which reached profits within five years of its launch in 1987. Nonetheless it took a phone call to a former weblet topper to confirm the hints I had gathered from the reports that these networks do not earn profits. Indeed he stated that they never will which I will discuss below. Why are such basic facts hard to come by? John Sinclair reported in a previous issue of this journal, that one unintended consequence of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act was to obscure advertising revenue trends. In general, the last two decades have been bad for watching financial trends in TV and film. When the cosmic media mergers of the 1980s occurred, the annual reports became increasingly useless since the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require revenue reports on individual divisions and does not standardize the way corporations break down their divisions into filmed entertainment, broadcast and cable operations, and foreign and domestic revenue sources. The annual reports rarely divide revenue sources into royalties and distribution, which, of course, would help both insiders and outsiders to see what is really going on.

WB is a division of Time-Warner and UPN is controlled (not always owned) by Viacom. So we are left with estimates and rumors for these weblets that are not stand alone companies but are owned by shifting partnerships and conglomerates, none of whom need to break out figures for one division in their annual reports. One can read Electronic Media carefully and note estimates of losses ranging from $93 million for WB in 1999/2000 and $200 million for UPN the next year. But it is suspect to construct a year-to-year chart of estimates and rumors and therefore tracking trends in earnings becomes a matter of opinion, the bane of scholarship. The trades glossed over a failed and unprofitable record by noting the few successes. They also rationalized the lack of profits by noting that the weblets work as launching pads for the successful syndication of shows ranging from the Star Trek spin-offs to Smallville. Other media companies have benefited. For example, The News Corporation very successfully syndicated Buffy, The Vampire Slayer to both weblets and back again to its own cable channel; FX. World Wrestling Federation does well with its Smackdown series on UPN. Success for other companies is not necessarily a bad thing for the networks since they are part of an oligopolistic industry that has many interlocking relationships.

The oligopoly of co-productions, of networks having affiliations with stations that are owned by conglomerates that own other divisions that compete with the networks, and other dizzy co-relationships, is perhaps the greatest challenge to the media scholar. The language of cutthroat competitive capitalism still permeates the entertainment industry. The trades still take it seriously as do the writers of the numerous executive biographies that take space away from us poor academics in the media section of Barnes and Noble. But read carefully, competition rarely is little more than a kind of ego game that motivates executives to keep score. It rarely matters to the bottom line anymore. Time Warner and Viacom are too big to worry whether the weblets make money in their primary business. They did not even create them to make money but to merely protect themselves in the syndication market as the federal government rescinded the Finance and Syndication rules in 1993. These rules were put into effect in 1970 to keep production and distribution separate and to enhance competition. They may not have had the desired effect but their elimination certainly has not improved diversity.

It is perhaps a sign of how little vision the companies had in creating the weblets that they hired the executives trained by Barry Diller in his truly pioneering creation of Fox, the fourth network in 1987. Fox Broadcasting Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of The News Corporation, which also owns the production company, Twentieth Century Fox, pushed the legal bounds on every front, particularly in blurring the line between the network and the syndication business. A compliant federal government accommodated them as they coyly avoided the technical definition of being a network, and as the NewsCorp. CEO Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen to skirt rules on foreign nationals owning American broadcast stations. In turn, it is argued that Fox actually did create new original programming and competed with the big three networks forcing them into a different line of programming. But Fox’s originality was limited to parody and paranoia, and arguably did not extend to creating new genres or new ways of using TV.

Thus it seems purely defensive for corporations to hire Diller protégés to merely do what Diller had already done in a landscape that no longer had room for copycats. Perhaps the weblets are proof that media based solely on advertising as the single revenue stream has reached a limit. But do we know without good numbers? Do we know how to maximize the possibilities of broadcast television? There is no policy pressure for new businesses and new ideas. Diversity through the fake “competition” of late capitalism has proven to be a policy joke. There is little hope for new policies, not only because we have a regressive administration, but also because there is little analysis to support new policies. Certainly the trades and the journalists remain bound to the frames provided by the media conglomerates. It is only the academics who can provide such analyses. While the situation was profoundly different, let us remember that at the same time Fox was being created, Great Britain was creating Channel Four with guidance from academics and media historians. Of course they had the numbers and the understanding of a far more transparent broadcast system.

It is probably at this point that you are asking what about all that good stuff on American cable. Maybe there is some good stuff here and there as there was in the heyday of the big three networks. Still it is not enough to stop reflecting that on the tenth anniversary of UPN and WB, there must be a better way to allocate resources for our media. There must be some way to stop paying for “going through all these things twice.” Let’s begin the analysis.


Greppi, Michele. (2001, June 18th). “It’s Nervous Time for UPN Execs.” Electronic Media. P.3.

Freeman, Michael. (2000, July 31st). “Mergers Prove it’s a Small World.” Electronic Media. P. 3.

Littleton, Cynthia. (2005, January 11th). “A Tale of Two Networks.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.24-25, 32.

Littleton, Cynthia, and Kimberly Speight. (2005, January 11th). “Supply Line.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.26, 32.

Sinclair, John. (2005, January 21st). “Global Advertising Data SOX-ed Up.” Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1.8.

Wallenstein, Andrew. (2005, January 11th). “Creative Outlet.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.28, 32. Interview with Dean Valentine, February 8th, 2005.

UPN Homepage
WB Homepage

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Fairness Doctrine Now! Will it really hush Rush?

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

We cannot blame this one on the media. There was no spin, no agenda setting, and no spiral of silence powerful enough to excuse the electorate. We re-elected a government engaged in an incompetent “war” on terror and an immoral one on the people of Iraq. Television fully displayed the lack of leadership skills of the present president when it broadcast the debates. The people saw and the people voted. Why talk of the Fairness Doctrine?

Television is not to blame, but television, and the rest of media are not blameless. So let us talk of the doctrine. When it was in force the Fairness Doctrine stipulated the Federal Communications Commission’s desire that every station owner broadcast matters of public controversy and give time to those with differing viewpoints on these controversies. Its reinstatement will not, nor cannot, change the media landscape by itself. Yet, surprisingly for a doctrine that was never vigorously enforced and has not been enforced at all for seventeen years, it has resurfaced. A quick Lexis-Nexis search finds the Fairness Doctrine popping up 28 times in the last year. Print outlets from the Boston Globe to Daily Variety evoke the doctrine as a sign of a kinder, gentler time. Quite obviously it is in the air because our media are so patently unfair. When Fox chooses to use the motto “fair and balanced,” it has already lied twice.

All media watchers have accumulated a list of grievances from the last cycle. The sins of commission, such as libeling Senator Kerry’s war record in issue ads, are more tangible but no less pernicious than the sins of omission (for example; cable’s refusal to show Fahrenheit 9/11 before the election). My list just touches the tip of the iceberg. Your list probably doesn’t exhaust it either. The point is whether the Fairness Doctrine could have helped.

Let’s look at its history. The Federal Communications Commission was already embarrassed in 1949 by the failure of American commercial broadcasters to honor the “public interest, convenience or necessity” mandate of various communications laws. They therefore stipulated that at the time of the license renewal they would ask station owners if they had provided coverage of vitally important controversial issues and had given reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on these issues.

The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 determined to rescind this rule along with others that had accumulated in the FCC’s attempts to widen the range of voices on American airwaves. Mark Fowler became chair of the FCC and he voiced the ingenious and more than slightly Orwellian argument that the Fairness Doctrine was counter-productive. Here the logic was that the second prong of the doctrine (to provide contrasting viewpoints) was so burdensome that station owners avoided controversial issues altogether. Rescind the doctrine and the airwaves would be full of issues of vital importance!

Researchers filed studies that showed the opposing viewpoint problem was not burdensome in any meaningful degree, all it had done was occasion some grievances and minor court cases for the multi-billion dollar industry. But Fowler, Reagan and their allies were undeterred and they killed the doctrine in 1987. The outrage of Congress was expressed in several subsequent attempts to pass the doctrine into law but Reagan successfully vetoed the strongest attempt, George H.W. Bush turned back another attempt and Clinton lost interest.

Therefore we can now test the truth of the Reagan promise that vitally important issues would now flourish. Hmmm…. TV networks have cut back their news divisions radically and therefore have almost nothing informative to say about foreign matters. Radio has consolidated and has less and less to say about local matters. Indeed local television news has little to report about local matters beside who got murdered and how to restore your wooden gable.

The one area where the Reagan promise might look like it was fulfilled is commentary on national issues, to the superficial witness. Since 1987 there has been an explosion of TV media punditry and radio talk shows. The number one topic is national news and political anger. The most famous: Rush Limbaugh went from Sacramento local anger-meister to national scold in this time period. Indeed he claims attempts to revive Fairness would “hush Rush.” In other words, these are attempts to silence the talk show genre. So is the Reagan/Fowler logic vindicated?

No. Not at all by Rush or his ilk. TV punditry and talk-radio are precisely why the Fairness Doctrine had two prongs. It is not enough to broadcast matters of public concern and controversy. There must be a response within the same channel or network. After all one cannot respond effectively to a 100 watt amplified voice with a tiny little blog whisper. Susan Drucker and Gary Gumpert have, just a year ago, justified a revival of the doctrine by arguing that we suffer from a qualitative scarcity of access to mass media.

Indeed it is not just for the benefit of the oppositional voice that we want a response. It is the anticipation of response that motivates us to fully formulate our reason for a position and makes us think more sharply. When we know there will be no effective response, it is human nature to indulge in shorthand slogans, rather than full arguments.

TV pundits do not give us arguments on the polite Washington Week type shows. They give us reports about other people’s arguments. They often do so in the context of evaluating the motivations for the argument rather than the argument itself. Television teaches us to be meta-critics before it teaches us to judge the merits of the original argument. The rude shows such as The O’Reilly Factor, do feature direct arguments although the format of short time spans and encouraged interruptions are there to heighten the entertainment factor, not to serve public “necessity.” Rude shows that feature dominant hosts undermine the ability to be thoughtful.

The importance of the Fairness Doctrine is not eviscerated by the fact that it will always fall short of giving us truly public-spirited television. Its importance is that to reinstate the doctrine is the high-minded fight to restore ideals to mass media. The doctrine will show a general political commitment to a public sphere of mutual listening and mutual talking. It is a fight for once broadly accepted simple ideals such as this one that will reinvigorate a democratic media, not a search for an impotent third way or an acceptance of the corporate media status quo. Perhaps the saddest thing about politics in the age of media consolidation is that Republicans feel they no longer have to listen to Democrats or any other oppositional voices. They don’t listen because they know the post-doctrine media will also ignore these voices. The fact that they don’t listen has led them to make repeated mistakes in their foreign and domestic policy, not only mistakes of convention, but also mistakes of competency.


Drucker, Susan and Gary Gumpert. (Spring 2003). “Scarce, Scarcer, Gone! What’s with the Fairness Doctrine?” Television Quarterly. 33(4) 10-15.

U.S.Congress. (1987, April 7th). Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearings of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

Rush Limbaugh Home
Fairness Doctrine

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Political Polarization and the New Hollywood Blockbuster

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College CUNY

The connection between politics and movies is continuous and yet murky. It is not to be found solely in the intentions of the creative team or in overt themes of the plotline. The once popular analysis of the link between politics and cinematic form that argued the jump cut is a blow against capitalism is now as a quaint reminder of the “60s.” Nonetheless the relationship between films and politics is immediate perhaps because both involve large populations and both appropriate more and more cultural resources. The rather dramatic change in the American landscape from the relative consensual mainstream politics of the post war era into the polarized, mutually incomprehensible positions of today are bound to be reflected in films. I think the reflection may even change the way New Hollywood does business.

The “blockbuster” movie was a term associated with the saturated bombing of World War Two and certainly there was mixture of shock and awe at the blockbusters of the past quarter century along with some concern over their excesses. I would like to treat the blockbuster as a genre although there is little unity of content. But there is enough sharing of formal features and marketing strategies to group these films together. Certainly they are all big budget movies attempting to achieve “event” movie status. (At what point did someone come up with the term “event movie?”) The event movie is defined as being that movie that I (and the rest of us) had to go to because everyone else was going to see it. Quite frankly despite being in the film business and now in the academic film biz and despite generally liking anything with sprocket holes and even things with time code, there are many, many event films I resent that I felt obliged to go to. Like Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, I took some minor satisfaction in railing at the minor credits in event movies. But the satisfaction was only minor. It was a bit of circular logic; I went because they were important; they were important because everybody else went.

Thus these films were particular evidence for the social importance of film. The marketing campaigns and the various formulations of new Hollywood suffice to convince a population that this was a “must-see” movie. They were invariably from the major studios except for the annual noble independent low budget film that also achieved event status precisely because it was not from the majors. Think of Sex, lies and videotape (1989), The Crying Game (1992), and The Blair Witch Project (1999) to name a few.

Suddenly this year there are two event films and they have odd relations with the majors, neither one a major studio release and neither very independent. Both are driven by outside the box marketing strategies and both are raising fierce hackles as well as exuberant praise. The dual arrivals of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911 inspires thoughts that we are at a sea change regarding the cultural status of movies or, at least, the blockbusters.

They revealed how much the film product of the last twenty, twenty-five years has been pitched at the entire audience, the entire globe. Media historians have asserted that the general movement for media is to go from general audiences to niche ones (Shaw). This statement only reveals how media historians constantly overlook films. The film industry had constructed niche audiences in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the loss of the habitual audience to television. But the 1970s new Hollywood blockbuster formula of cross media marketing was premised on attracting everyone everywhere. Statistics show that video and other ancillary markets meant that eventually all age groups were attracted back to the Hollywood product by the end of the 1980s. No niche audiences here as we headed into the apogee of Titanic (1997).

Yet Passion and Fahrenheit both struck like lightning bolts within a few months at the cultural cleavage of America and it is safe to say that only a few went to both movies (I did) and that even fewer liked both (I didn’t). Will new Hollywood be able to paper over this new culture war as well as it did with the old 60s cultural war?

Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit has little in common with the blockbuster. It is a documentary that is framed around the central everyman character of Michael Moore in a popularizing tradition that refers both to TV’s 60 Minutes (1968-now) and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986). But the recent turn of the documentary genre towards the popular still rarely attracts production funding from a major studio. It was a sign of extraordinary times that Moore was able to find such financing when the Miramax division of The Walt Disney Company gave his project the go ahead. This division occasionally does revert back to the kind of marginal projects it was famous for when it was still an independent company 12 years ago. But the parent Disney showed mainstream timidity when it sold the film rather than release it itself. It was another sign of the extraordinary times that Disney anticipated a political retaliation from the Governor of Florida who is the brother of the sitting president. Is the breakdown of American polity eroding the nominal autonomy of popular culture?

Passion has many features that are in common with the blockbuster and many that are not. It was a relatively modest budget for a blockbuster but it was based on a well-known story that has been filmed many times before. Thus the production and the marketing needed to claim a unique status to compel a global audience to see this new version. Typically the New Hollywood Blockbuster handles this problem of universal appeal by promising the audience something new within a comfortable and well-known formula. They do this by giving an “A” budget to a “B” script. Thus great efforts are made to assure the audience that they will have to make very little effort to believe in the reality of such impossible things as contemporary dinosaurs, men with super-human powers, or even the end of the world. All the audience has to do in return is to show up in numbers that surpasses the usual clique of dinosaur fans or action hero enthusiasts.

In addition to a realism effect of heightened budgets, the new Hollywood likes to use universal villains such sharks, treacherous lions, serial murderers or creatures from outer space. While The Godfather (1972) angered some Italian-American groups and many action films have upset Middle Eastern groups for their choice of villains, these are viewed as lapses. After all the economics of the blockbuster dictates that it cannot alienate any sizable segment of the global audience. Even those few films that touch on real world controversies are designed to allow a great deal of flexibility of interpretation. Saving Private Ryan (1998) can serve as a recent example since it was interpreted as both a corrective to the jingoism of earlier war movies and as a continuation of the same themes. Dances With Wolves (1990) was an earlier example of correcting earlier Western movie attitudes towards Native Americans without challenging the audience.

Thus we have two measures of the new Hollywood formula: heightened believability and the attempt for universal appeal either through avoidance of cultural specifics or a polyvalent attitude towards cultural divides.

From Mel Gibson\'s The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the Christ follows the former but not the latter.

Gibson placed heavy stress that the audience will believe in his film. Of course belief takes on added meaning when speaking of the gospel of a major religion. But Gibson didn’t just rely on pre-existing faith. He resorted to the tried and true tactics of new Hollywood to compel such faith. He emphasized action and he indulged in the use of a subjective camera. The combination of the two particularly during the flagellation scenes ensured the same kind of visceral roller coaster ride that is the feature of most of new Hollywood’s blockbusters. Many critics have commented on the bloody shots of Jesus, as Gibson portrays the beating in detail. In addition to what is being portrayed we should also know it is being represented with all the hyperrealism of the blockbuster. The sound effects, particularly in the opening fight in the Mount of Olives, follow the exaggerations that were initially popularized in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982). Gibson uses the camera in the blockbuster hyperbolic manner; even going so far as to turn the camera upside down to reproduce Jesus’ point of view of his torturers. This extreme visual along with an extreme overhead at the end of the film and others would not be tolerated in old Hollywood but is relished in contemporary big budget filmmaking.

The blockbuster’s commitment to visceral effects is well known. Jean Pierre-Geuens is convincing in his explanation of the motivation for such visceral effects. He borrows from William James’ psychology to note that there are two preliminary human reactions to stimuli before the human can reflect even emotionally on the stimuli. For example, with a fire, there is the feeling of fire, and the flight from fire, before there is the reflective reaction of the fear of fire. Geuens notes that contemporary filmmakers aim to cause the first two reactions in their audience without concern for the third stage of a reflective emotion. This is precisely my critique of blockbusters in general which give us little time to ponder the wonder of the worlds they create and for Passion in particular which gives us no time to reflect on the universal message of Jesus’ death. The extreme physicality bullies us into crying in reaction to the brutality, not in reflecting on the love of God’s only son undergoing the human pain of death.

So Gibson learned that lesson of the blockbuster but he deviates radically from the universal appeal of the blockbuster in his own marketing and positioning. He certainly took pride from his own radical brand of Catholicism and used it in the marketing of the movie. He did not seek compromise or consensus when scholars warned him that his script reopened old sectarian wounds. This is the only recent event film that purposefully drives a wedge between Christian and Jew, between fervent believers and rational religionists. This is not the formula of new Hollywood, which now goes to some lengths to attract audiences across social divides. Gibson’s deviation from Hollywood’s marketing is reflected in his self-financing, his use of the small independent distributor (Newmarket) and his extensive use of religious groups to give marketing clout to the movie.

Both Fahrenheit and Passion avoided the bland ambiguities and polyvalent plotlines of new Hollywood. They both became “must-see” movies despite major deviations from the blockbuster formula.

What is happening to the major studio blockbuster? Is it no longer an event?

Certainly not if we just look at the figures. Shrek Two (2004) and The Shark Tale (2004) are performing to the high standards of their studios. Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) has been as eventful as Star Wars (1977). Still I detect that the fractured American audience is a glimmer of the down slope of the blockbuster cycle. Peter Bart of Variety also confirms a downward trend when he reports that a certain zest for gamesmanship has gone out of the movie executive suites in light of the 1998 summer release schedule. It stands to reason that media moguls who own the corporations of Viacom, News Corporation, and Sony are tired of their filmed entertainment divisions which rarely contribute more than a fifth of revenue and yet never settle down to be a nice dependable steady flow of revenue. Instead these divisions continue to operate with low profit margins and high stakes. The atmosphere following the success of Titanic seems to be more one of relief than jubilation. In 2002 Disney announced to Merrill Lynch that it would try to discipline the budget levels. Hardly the mantra of blockbuster movie making.

The big movies since the turn of the current century have been full-length animations. Certainly these are the movies that inspire Wall Street to buy stocks and invest money. Animation audiences are typically bimodal with parents or grandparents bringing children to the theaters or buying the DVDs. These audiences are not the universal ones that blockbusters at the height of the cycle a decade ago attracted. The big live action films are also turning towards a youthful audience with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. J. Kapur noticed that Harry Potter represents the big budget movie genre turning towards “Englishness.” Lord of the Rings has the same quality albeit New Zealanders represented its Englishness.

It stands to reason that America’s embrace of unilateralism would limit American film exporting. Perhaps we exaggerated power of our appeal even before the latest Iraq invasion. Early reports, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, were that a liberated population was storming the cinemas to see Hollywood films. Later reports clarified that they were actually anxious to see the latest imports from “Bollywood,” not Hollywood. Our grip is slipping. I suspect that even a favorable result to the upcoming election will not restore the universal global audience to Hollywood and that the fracture uncovered by Passion and Fahrenheit will lead to more niche audience marketing for American films than before.

Works cited

Geuens, Jean-Pierre. (2000). Film Production Theory. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Kapur, Jyostna. (2003, Spring). “Free market, branded imagination — Harry Potter and the commercialization of children’s culture.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media Online: Jump Cut article visited September 5th, 2004.

Shaw, D. (1991, April 4). “Rise and Fall of American Mass Media: Roles of Technology and Leadership” second annual Roy W. Howard lecture presented at Indiana University Bloomington.

Links of Interest:

1. The Passion of the Christ

2. IMDB’s 100 worst films ever


4. Best Movies

Image Credits:

1. Fahrenheit 9/11

2. The Passion of the Christ

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