Beyond DRM

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on February 6, 2007, calling for the eradication of digital rights management so that downloaded mp3 music files could be played on any listening devise, growing consumer dissatisfaction with DRM regimes had come to a head. The event was significant given the market dominance of Apple’s iPod and their success in getting the big five music labels to make their songs available for download on iTunes for 99 cents per song. But the manifesto was less than magnanimous as Apple faced opposition across Europe for tying its download service to its proprietary mobile mp3 player using its proprietary FairPlay DRM software. During the summer of 2006 consumer rights agencies in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany claimed that Apple’s DRM violated copyright law. In August 2006 France passed a law giving regulators the authority to require Apple to license FairPlay to other makers of MP3 players, which Apple called “state-sponsored piracy.” The Dutch consumer protection agency joined the opposition in January 2007 and advised consumers to stop buying iPods and quit downloading music from iTunes, and instead buy generic mp3 players and download music from DRM-free services such as eMusic, which does not carry the big five’s labels but offers a range of independent music. Recently Norway ruled that Apple’s DRM strategy was illegal and the Norwegian consumer protection agency called for Apple to make FairPlay available to competitors by October 1. Microsoft and Sony were not intimidated by this and created their own proprietary DRM-protected music services tied to their own music players. In his statement, Jobs said DRM licensing would be untenable because its secrets for protection would be leaked, though critics have pointed out that Microsoft has been successful in licensing its DRM system. The internet content innovator ZDNET, a network of CNET, produced a much watched video that lambasted all of these DRM strategies as CRAP, or Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection.

In addition to pressure from consumer advocates, Apple had incentive to scrap DRM because after nearly four years of selling songs on iTunes, only 3% of the music on users’ iPods was downloaded from iTunes. An independent study found that iTunes sells only 20 songs per iPod sold. Apple is therefore less dependent on iTunes to attract iPod buyers than the music conglomerates are in finding successful models for profiting from music downloads to offset losses in DVD sales. Research at Yahoo suggests that consumers would pay 20 percent more for music downloads if there were no DRM restrictions, indicating that DRM curtails demand for pay per downloads. In a different strategy, last year Microsoft agreed to share a portion of the sales price of its new Zune mp3 player with Universal Music. Warner is looking to cell phones as a potentially more secure network for copy protected music downloads. Ad-supported music downloading sites including Spiralfrog and Qtrax are developing new revenue models and have attracted the major labels. But the promises of these services were put in doubt at the recent Midemnet industry trade show in Cannes when these two services failed to announce launch dates and a panel of young music fans unanimously agreed that audio ads sucked.

Zune Squeeze

Zune Squeeze

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal advocate for “internet freedom,” has proposed “Voluntary Collective Licensing” for music distribution. This entails the music industry forming a collecting society that would allow music file-sharing for those who volunteer to pay $5 per month. These funds are then distributed proportionally to music artists based on the volume of downloads. Since 1914 similar licensing arrangements have been formed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) for radio and television broadcasts. Unlike “compulsory licensing” which legally enforces the universal collection of fees, such as those that cable and satellite carriers pay to carry over-the-air broadcast programs, the government-weary EFF counts on “market forces” and voluntary good citizenship on the part of file-sharers and corporate music labels. A more far reaching proposal came from the French parliament in December 2005 when it introduced a bill for compulsory licensing for music and video over the internet that included an 8 to12 Euro added fee to broadband service. While receiving strong support from the left, the Green Party, the center right UDF and consumer groups, the French government bowed to intense opposition from the powerful music labels and killed the bill. The Universal Music Group vigorously opposed the legislation, as one commentator explained, “When you’ve reached 30 per cent market share, when you’ve pulled off the last big merger, when you’ve built up the barriers, there’s not a lot of benefit from equalizing access.” Meanwhile, the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an association that represents Hollywood and the US software and publishing industries, has lobbied the US government to eliminate compulsory licensing in countries around the world.

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Despite Apple’s support for a DRM-free internet, the big music labels and Hollywood are not likely to dispense with DRM and their legal enforcement teams anytime soon. Yet the prospects for a post-DRM audiovisual economy and culture present a challenge to the neo-liberal frameworks that have largely guided internet regulation to date. Less an electronic frontier of market competition and consumer choice, DRM regimes expose the failed attempts of oligopoly capital to maintain market leverage over artists and consumers in an online environment. It is not the ethics of market competition and consumer choice that provides alternatives, but an ethics of collective bargaining where laboring artists and consumers share collective interests that require agreed upon mechanisms for user payments, creative compensation and electronic distribution. Collective societies in the US such as ASCAP provide precedents for collectively compensating creative content makers through blanket licensing agreements. The state consumer rights agencies in Europe demonstrate that internet music consumers benefit when collectively represented by independent government authorities. When consumers and laborers have organized representation through compulsory licensing arrangements they can negotiate with market players to develop innovative mechanisms and business plans for circulating audiovisual culture unencumbered by restrictive DRM regimes. This is far from the market evangelism and rugged individualism of the internet enthusiasts of Wired magazine or the cyber utopianism which grew out of a counter cultural movement that prognosticated the withering of corporate and government bureaucracies. Compulsory licensing requires representative organizations from the corporate, government and user sectors to set rates, apportion compensation and enforce compliance. Messy and bureaucratic? Perhaps, yes. A potential future for a more vibrant and just audiovisual internet culture? Perhaps, if we organize.

Image Credits:
1. Steve Jobs
2. Zune Squeeze
3. Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Please feel free to comment.

The YouTube Community

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

“We could have never built this without the community,” said YouTube spokesperson Julie Supan when fielding questions about Google’s $1.6 billion stock acquisition of YouTube. In their DYI style video message giddily announcing their new financial prosperity, YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen also thanked “the community” for making them the “kings” of video sharing. In a press release Hurley commented that “our community has played a vital role in changing the way that people consume media, creating a new clip culture.” In a conference call Hurley said “we’ve listened to our community to create a stage where everyone’s voice could be heard,” where “users are now in control of what they want to watch and when they want to watch it” and where users “decide what rises to the top, what’s entertaining.”

YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley

YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley

While this idealization of YouTube as a self-organizing, radically democratic community for sharing clip culture certainly helped to buffer what could be considered an act of selling “the community” as property to a corporate giant, the image of YouTube as a revolutionary alternative to corporate media culture has been a powerful one. Consider this YouTube description from The Independent in London:

“YouTube is profoundly democratic. There is no media tycoon determining what political line the clips should take. There are no banks of clever executives manipulating the emotions of their prey. There are no trendy art directors using their skills to sell products. Instead of the manipulated world of Hollywood or mainstream television, what you watch is what you choose to watch. The videos you put on to the system are the videos you want to put on to the system. There are no ‘hidden persuaders’.”[i]

The radical promises of new media have long been imagined in opposition to the corporate control of old media, especially among cultural critics who find little pleasure in popular commercial culture. Conceived as such the stakes of a corporate takeover by Google were profound according to this writer for The Toronto Star:

“But it is perhaps the grandest scale example of co-option of an independent, self-generating culture yet. Between juggernauts like MySpace and YouTube, users push well past the 100 million mark. With billions of dollars changing hands, the sense here is that much more is at stake: the last place on earth — or outside it — free of corporate priorities and profit motives.”[ii]

Between the millionaire founders who promised their continued allegiance to “the community” and the cultural commentators who lamented the loss of an idealized space outside the global totality of commercial culture were the millions of YouTube users who responded to the Google acquisition. In the five days after the YouTube founders uploaded their announcement video, users played the video 1,837,554 times, posted 6,989 written comments and uploaded 84 video responses to it. The comments ranged from those who worshiped the YouTube creators for their vision and entrepreneurship to those who feared that Google and commercialization would destroy YouTube. Users called the founders “filthy rich dorks,” asked to borrow money, and demanded they should get a piece of the pie — as user PrinceofGraves put it, “I’m still broke and miserable — so this is less than meaningless to me.” Others debated whether Google was evil or not, admonished the founders for illegally profiting from copyrighted material, and worried that advertisements would inundate the site. The video responses were equally varied. But unlike cultural critics who imagined YouTube as outside commercial popular culture, many used popular cultural references and icons to craft their commentaries, including a video of Darth Vader flipping them off (below).

Before the acquisition, YouTube’s standout personalities have pondered what it is they are doing and who they are as a community including video posts by Paul Robinett, a 39 year old resident of Canal Winchester, Ohio, who for many represents the grassroots ethos of YouTube. Robinett posts sincere videos about his family and often comments on other videos and the YouTube experience. He also has a YouTube persona, Renetto, which is a Happy Gilmore type character who talks in squeaky broken English. Most postings are simply a close up of Robinett or Renetto speaking directly into the camera. In a video posted August 2, 2006 titled “Who are you, Who, Who…Who, Who” Robinett asked just who were the users of YouTube after his friend suggested he was wasting too much time on YouTube and that it was just a trivial hobby. Robinett said he felt that users were “real people with real lives that take this seriously,” that “people are innately born with a desire to communicate and have fellowship and community with each other,” and that video offered viewers a more intimate and revealing way to “look right into the soul of the person who is talking.” A quick glance over some of the over 900 written responses revealed viewers who shared these sentiments, such as Uberware who wrote that “some videos makes me believe in mankind again…in real life, I rarely meet people that are this open with their feelings. Everyone just tend to think mostly of themselfs [sic] all the time. And to be honest, I feel refreshed coming here.” I saw responses that came from England, Australia and Norway but most from the US . Many thought YouTube was a space open to all, as jjdonebar stated, “From my experiences on YouTube, I would have to say we are everyone: young, old, black, white, yellow, male, female, straight, gay. To borrow from another song: We Are The World. Just like the rest of the world, we are good and bad, wise and foolish, encouraging and supportive, degrading and revolting.”

Paul Robinett

Paul Robinett / Renetto

Despite these sentiments of inclusiveness, such a diversity was not demonstrated in the 341 video responses. Only two were noticeably from African Americans, and the written replies to furnifer‘s video contained overtly racists comments. Indeed, a glance at the top 100 rated, viewed and disused videos, and most subscribed channels reveals far less racial diversity than broadcast network television. Most were US uploads with some non-US sports and Japanese popular culture. Thus, rather than a “profoundly democratic” space, it is perhaps more revealing that YouTube commentary on “the community” has coalesced around musings from America’s heartland. In a follow up to his “Who are you” video, Robinett uploaded “The Community of YouTube” on August 7, 2006 where he held up his small Ohio town as an ideal template from which to measure the community value of YouTube. While sitting in his backyard by the fire pit where his family likes to gather, Robinett said it was the important “rules and regulations that make this a place where people like me and most of you would love to live. Its true community. We go walk down to the bank. There’s pizza places that we eat at all the time where we walk in and know the people there and we go to the grocery store.” Robinett contrasted this small town, wholesome portrait with YouTube which had become more like “walking into a bar… or an adult video store” that was unfit for “the mainstream.” So he advocated making YouTube a PG family space where the number of viewers could “explode.” Robinett comes across as a well-meaning and genuine guy who in one video climbed onto his roof to “standup” to end world poverty and has a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. on his YouTube site. But in the discourse on community initiated by breakout YouTube personalities such as Robinett, the utopian references to radical democracy from critics, or the paternalistic promises of the founders to not forget “the community” that launched their fame and fortune, there was little space for the two pressing issues of community that have emerged concurrently with the rise of YouTube: The Katrina disaster that found the mainstream media and our country’s leader referring to black victims as “those people in that part of the country” and the immigrant rights movement that has been met with disdain from much mainstream media and legislative bills to remove noncitizens, especially those who wave anything but an American flag, from US borders. Sure, users can find videos of the Katrina disaster and immigrant rights marches on YouTube, but the idealized YouTube community is just as strained to include residents of poor city neighborhoods and migrant workers as old media is in representing ideals of the American community.

Concurrent with the announcement that Google acquired YouTube was another event that had to do with media, democracy and ownership but was nearly absent from YouTube community blogs — the FCC’s public hearings on media ownership in Los Angels. In a search for “FCC hearings Los Angeles” only one YouTube video came up that included a one minute opening speech by the less than charismatic FCC commissioner Michael Copps. As of this writing the video received 63 views with no written comments or video replies. No footage of any hearings participants at El Segundo High School or the USC campus had entered the YouTube community.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps

FCC commissioner Michael Copps

While Google’s acquisition of YouTube and its deals with old media corporations including CBS, Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, NBC Universal and Warner Music Group have meant that, in the words of one active video maker, “the Wild West feel of YouTube is already slipping away,” we might also recognize that just as the democratic frontier myth of America’s Wild West has obfuscated the exploitations upon which the nation was born, the mythic idealizations of electronic frontiers such as YouTube also obfuscate the ways in which video culture has reproduced, or at least has failed to excite a concerted challenge to, the inequalities that persist in our American culture. Perhaps we might think about the difference between what it means to be a YouTube community and what it would take to use the YouTube video sharing technologies to help expand the movement for racial and economic justice. For this we can learn something from YouTube personas such as Robinett’s Renetto. In his “EXCLUSIVE YouTube Founder Chad Hurley interview!” video, Renetto, with his head covered with alien-proof tinfoil, interrupts a recorded interview with Hurley with commentary that both idolizes the founder for creating the space that gave Renetto life while also mocking the corporate language of “leveraged content” and “video platforms” that Hurley and the interviewer uses. It’s a format that is certainly more engaging than watching Michael Copps at an FCC hearing.

[i] Hamish McRae, “YouTube is Young, Democratic and Shows that the World is Changing Before Our Eyes,” The Independent, 11 Oct 2006, Final Edition, pg. 31.
[ii] Murray Whyte, “Takeover,” The Toronto Star, 14 October 2006, Arts, pg J01.

Image Credits:
1. YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley
2. Paul Robinett / Renetto
3. FCC commissioner Michael Copps

Please feel free to comment.

Strategic Liberalism and Media Reform

“How Politics Will Decide the Internet’s Future” Digital Journal Article

Net neutrality image from Digital Journal

Congress is busy rewriting the rules for telecommunications policy and judging from the bill that passed in the House June 8, we are in for more of the same deregulatory policies and neoliberal principles that informed the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The bill seeks to make it easier for phone companies to offer video programming by stripping municipalities of the authority to oversee video franchising, thus streamlining the process at the national level. Once phone companies begin expanding video service in areas with cable television, cable companies will also be exempt from certain local franchising obligations. The House also voted down a clause that would have guaranteed so-called “net neutrality,” which would prevent broadband service providers from discriminating against content providers – a principal that had been in place before last year when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the regulatory status of broadband internet service from a “telecommunications” service to an “information” service.

As is typical of inside-the-beltway politics, despite broad opposition to this bill from public interest groups, the Bells won the day by filling House members' campaign coffers. But for my purposes here, I'd like to briefly consider how the campaigns for and against this legislation challenge or reproduce the neoliberal frameworks that have dominated telecommunication policy in recent decades – the master narratives that assign government the role of facilitating free market competition to optimize consumer choice.

Most of the campaigning and public debate surrounding this bill has been directed toward the issue of net neutrality rather than video franchising. It should not be surprising that the opponents of net neutrality framed their opposition in classical neoliberal speak, but the starkness and effective persistence of their ideological use should not be dismissed. FreedomWorks, the organization founded in 1984 by now former House majority leader Dick Army has orchestrated a media campaign opposing net neutrality. As the organization's spokesperson professed, “The debate over net neutrality is a fundamental choice between free market innovation and top-down government regulation. The conservative position should be to promote the development of new technologies that will provide consumers better service and more choice, not regulate the Internet in a snap-shot of time. The Internet is still evolving and government regulation will interfere with innovation by penalizing investment in the Internet backbone. The Internet has developed free of government interference, and this is a classic example of government not being able to resist the temptation to create new regulations.” FreedomWorks reinforced this idea that government interventions impede the growth of the internet by creating mock ads that depict Edward J. Markey and Hilary Clinton (the House and Senate proponents of net neutrality) as neutering veterinarians. The public officials are shown smiling next to photographs of pets waiting to have their private parts snipped, with a tagline that reads: “Be responsible. Let us 'Fix' the internet.”

Save the Internet web ad on

“Save the Internet” web ad on

Cingular, Bell South, AT&T and other corporate interests created two websites to oppose net neutrality. “The Hands Off the Internet” site uses less sarcastic methods but with similar neoliberal force in situating their two principals of “support for an unregulated approach to Internet access in which consumers, not government, choose the method that is best for them” and “opposition to government attempts at regulating and/or taxing Net content or commerce” next to a photograph of an African American mother and daughter happily surfing the internet together. The other website,, uses the same photograph under its site's tageline, “an e-forum promoting competitive internet choices for consumers.”

On the other side of the issue, The Free Press has coordinated a broad-based coalition in support of net neutrality that includes over 700 organizations from the conservative Gun Owners of America and the Parents Television Council to the liberal advocacy groups such as the Media Access Project and the Consumer Federation of America. Their outreach website,, has generated nearly 800,000 petition signatures and much attention in the blogosphere. They argue that without net neutrality provisions, the Bells and cable companies could offer their corporate clients faster connections while slowing the rest of us down. However, the movement's stated principles support rather than challenge neoliberal principles, perhaps because of its broad coalition and strategic outreach: “The Coalition believes that the Internet is a crucial engine for economic growth and free speech. We are working together to urge Congress to preserve Network Neutrality, the First Amendment for the Internet that ensures that the Internet remains open to innovation and progress.”

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig and media scholar Robert W. McChesney have been effective advocates for the movement and published an op ed in the Washington Post on the day of the House vote titled “No Tolls on the Internet.” In convincing and accessible prose they made the case that we are facing a choice between the internet as free, open and democratic versus an internet that looks more like the gatekeeping and toll charging cable TV. But their arguments, too, support the liberal ideals that new technologies and free competitive markets can create the “neutral” conditions for economic progress and democracy: “Most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital. This is no accident. Network neutrality protections minimized control by the network owners, maximized competition and invited outsiders in to innovate. Net neutrality guaranteed a free and competitive market for Internet content. The benefits are extraordinary and undeniable.” Certainly we should not underestimate the critical importance of non-discrimination rules in telecom policy for maintaining the open architecture of the internet. But it is also a policy that largely fits under liberal frameworks for policy governance – a minimized role for government that requires certain enforcement powers (non-discrimination) but no mandates or state role in securing universal broadband access.

WFMU logo

WFMU logo

It has been in this very area of broadband access that the liberal frameworks for US telecom policy have failed, especially when compared to other countries. For example, in 2005 the US ranked 16th worldwide in broadband penetration, behind the top five of South Korea, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Demark and Canada. Although in some cases population densities are important factors, telecom scholars agree that these national penetration rates have been achieved through federal governments taking a leading role in creating a vision and structure, implementing widespread digital literacy programs, investing in infrastructure and promoting universal service through subsidies and grants. Canada's broadband penetration is 77% compared to 57% in the US, in part because the Canadian government initiated a National Broadband Taskforce in 2001 that supported broadband infrastructure development, subsidized pilot programs at the community level, and delivered electronic government services that stimulated demand for broadband capacity. Similarly, the South Korean government invested $11 billion between 1998-2002 to support infrastructure build outs, broadband in classrooms, digital literacy programs and tax incentives for wiring particular areas for broadband. In Japan where broadband penetration is well ahead of the US, in 2002 100 kilobits of broadband access cost 9 cents while in the US it cost $3.53. In France broadband capacity is 1/11th the cost that Verizon charges in the US. The US model (the 1996 Act) that created facilities-based competition among phone companies, the regional Bells and cable companies to stimulate competition and infrastructure investments in new services such as broadband proved a resounding failure — new entrants into local service mostly brokered capacity rather than invest in last mile broadband upgrades and the Bells refused to make upgrades because they did not want to subsidize these new local service providers.

Recent momentum for closing the digital broadband divide in the US has come from wireless broadband developments and the struggle for local governments to preserve the legal rights to offer services to citizens despite the well funded lobbying campaigns of the Bells and cable companies to limit these rights. Though these local government initiatives propose using tax dollars to create universal wireless broadband, neoliberal master narratives are persistent even in organizations that support these local government initiatives. Consider the Freepress's advocacy statement in support of these wireless broadband programs: “High-speed Internet access is fast becoming a basic public necessity — just like water, gas or electricity. But far too many Americans find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, unable to get connected or afford expensive broadband service. To address these concerns, hundreds of localities across the country are working with innovative businesses to roll out broadband service that is cheaper and faster than what the big cable and telephone companies offer. In response, the network giants have tried to outlaw these local competitors at the state and federal level. Now Congress has the chance to create a truly free market by ensuring that local governments are freed to decide what technology best serves their citizens.” Here, even a tax-funded, government administered plan is couched in the neoliberal language of “free markets.” Also, wireless broadband activists have shown a healthy distain for local government involvement in wireless broadband services.

Getting over the digital divide

Getting over the digital divide

While the media reform movement has focused their organizing around the net neutrality provisions in the Congressional telecom reform bills, less attention has been focused on the proposed changes in video franchising which is central to the recently passed House bill that strips local municipalities of their authority to oversee the franchising process. The proceedings from the February 2006 Senate hearings on video franchising reveal a conceptual split between the public interest advocates with roots in internet activism and those in the television reform community. The organizations that have worked in the trenches of local franchising for years, including the National Association of Telecom Officers, the National League of Cities, the National Conference of Mayors and the Alliance for Community Media (the cable public access movement), forcefully made the case that without local oversight, national franchising would allow new entrants to redline their way to profitability and undermine local community participation in developing community access television. However, Public Knowledge, the advocacy group focused on intellectual property issues and the defense of a “vibrant information commons,” supported national video franchising. Their hearing statement was replete with the master narratives of liberalization: “Public Knowledge believes that competition provides consumers with the widest choice of video services at the lowest prices. While the local franchising model produced many important benefits over the past 40 years, it also created disadvantages both for incumbent and competitive video service providers.” While Public Knowledge encouraged Congress to support net neutrality, sustain adequate capacity for public, educational and governmental access TV channels and embrace universal broadband principles, its commitment to easing regulations as a means of increasing competition is consistent with the neoliberal principles enshrined in the 1996 Act. History has demonstrated that when the understaffed FCC is invested with oversight responsibilities, rather than local officials, little is done to hold service providers accountable for redlining practices or local access provisions. Public Knowledge also continues the traditions of digital technology enthusiasts who have juxtaposed the promises of new media against the limitations of old media (typically coded as television): “As we undertake this discussion of video franchises, we must recognize that we are not only talking about a service — we are talking about a technology and transport mechanism with capabilities far beyond ordinary video programming services. The decisions Congress makes regarding video regulation will impact the rollout of new, sophisticated broadband conduits that will carry not only video, but also data and telephone services. Rather than splitting hairs, or hair-thin fiber, Congress should recognize that it is opening the way not only for video into the home, but for advanced broadband offerings.” So we should care less about regulations that might lower cable TV bills or ensure resources for public access TV because these “ordinary video” services will be transcended by that something special that will emerge from broadband.

As the debate over telecom reform moves to the Senate I do not want to suggest that preserving local video franchising should be more important than fighting for net neutrality or that the game is already won because of the financial might of corporate lobbyists. But I do want to suggest that we think of the media reform efforts as part of a larger movement to challenge the master narratives of neoliberalism that have prevailed at all levels of social policy. And we should remember that the revolutionary zeal surrounding the emergence of broadband technologies in the 1970s not only served as an important catalyst for deregulating the telecom sector, but also provided a foundation for the ascension of neoliberal policies across sectors. The nacent technology argument persists – let the market decide because the technology is “sill evolving.” We should all lobby for net neutrality, but also understand that this will not create a “neutral” space for a democratic media to bloom without the kinds of state redistributive programs that countries outside the US have embraced. In thinking about whether to support national or local video franchising we might think about Kevin Robins's and Frank Websters' arguments that rather than aspire to a “technocultural objective of transcending – or annihilating – distance,” we should rather embrace the disorderly possibilities inherent in “contemporary urban cultural politics” – a choice between the messy and uncertain material encounters at the local broadband hubs versus the “efficient” green lighting processes that take place in distant Washington corridors. A strategic liberalism might bring together the right and the left on an issue such as net neutrality, but perhaps we need to work toward creating a movement that provides a more coherent and sustaining alternative to the neoliberal economic, social and cultural politics that got us here.

Image Credits:

1. Net Neutrality

2. Save the Internet


4. Digital Divide

Please feel free to comment.

À la carte Culture

Media reformers concerned about rising cable television bills and “indecency” advocates offended by cable’s titillating programs have joined forces in support of so-called à la carte cable which would allow subscribers to pay for only the channels they want to watch rather than pay set fees for packaged channels. This à la carte movement gained steam after the Janet Jackson reveal at Super Bowl 2004 when Nathan Deal, the Republican Congressman from Georgia, authored an amendment to a bill that would allow cable and satellite providers to offer channel subscriptions individually. The consumer advocacy groups Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America joined the social conservatives from Concerned Women for America and Parent Television Council in a letter of support for the amendment. According to Consumers Union’s senior policy director Gene Kimmelman, à la carte would “help lower costs, increase incentives for quality fare, and give viewers the opportunity to not pay for channels they find objectionable or too expensive.” After failed efforts to reign in ownership alliances among cable systems and programming networks and unsuccessful attempts to reinstate rate regulations, Consumers Union turned to à la carte to stem cable rates that had risen 2.5 times faster than inflation since cable rates were deregulated in 1999. And cultural conservatives knew extending broadcast indecency rules to cable faced difficult legal hurdles, so à la carte emerged as an option to keep the heretical MTV out of the households that didn’t want it.

Most cable providers strongly opposed these efforts to tamper with their profitable, vertically integrated business models and editorial powers to bundle as they see fit. Other media conglomerates that did not own cable systems such as Disney also opposed à la carte because they made huge profits by using broadcast retransmission consent rules (Disney owns major market TV stations) to demand large fees and prime channel positions for its cable networks such as ESPN and the Disney Channel. But cable networks focused on African American and Latino-themed programming also vocally opposed the amendment supporting à la carte, fearing that their channels would be the first to perish under such a scheme. In April 2004 Alfred Liggins, chairman of TV One, the cable network targeting African American adults, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times arguing against à la carte. A month later Debra Lee of BET, Jeff Valdez of Sí TV, Kent Rice of the International Channel, Mike Hong at Imaginasian TV and Rudy Ibarra from Outstanding Latin Entertainment wrote letters to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce stating that under à la carte their networks would never have launched without the guaranteed access to viewers needed to attract startup capital. At this time the Congressional Black Caucus joined these programmers in opposing à la carte.[1]

2004 DSL and Cable Chart

Net profitability of DSL and cable channels, 2004-2006

In reaction to this opposition the House Committee abandoned the amendment and asked the FCC to study the potential impact of à la carte. In the spring and summer of 2004 a host of civil rights organizations representing communities of color implored the FCC to dismiss the idea that they argued, in the words of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “could diminish what little diversity is currently on cable and put minority and women programmers at risk.” Other civil rights organizations opposing à la carte included the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NALEO Education Fund, Allianza Dominicana, the National Hispanic Policy Institute, the Hispanic Federation, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Coalition of Black Civil Participation, the National Congress of Black Women, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. Women’s organizations also united in opposition, including the Sexuality Information and Education Council, the Global Fund for Women, the Feminist Majority, American Women in Radio and Television Inc. and the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Geraldine Laybourne, co-founder of Oxygen, strongly opposed the measure. Contrary to social conservatives who supported à la carte as a means to insulate families from television sex, fiscal conservative organizations such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation invoked diversity issues in their opposition, but relied principally on neo-liberal dogma to oppose any government regulations. As the Cato Institute put it in its FCC filing, “this debate really comes down to the question of whether government should preempt an industry’s preferred (and quite successful) business model.”[2]

In July 2004 Booz Allen Hamilton released a report commissioned by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association that supported these groups’ assertions that mandated à la carte and themed tiers would reduce program diversity and raise subscription rates for those who purchased nine or more channels. Under the laissez faire ideologies of then FCC Chairman Michael Powell, it was not surprising that the FCC supported these findings that warned against government mandates. The Report’s conclusions were also partially supported by the US General Accounting Office’s October 2003 study. However, the social conservatives in the House Committee, and the vocal à la carte supporter Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, strongly encouraged the FCC to continue studying the issue. Lending momentum for further study was Powell’s announcement in January 2005 that he would resign, and three months later Bush’s appointment of Kevin Martin to the Chairmanship, an FCC Commissioner who had made opposition to indecency a cornerstone of his television policy. So the FCC’s Media Bureau went to work on the issue, but instead of conducting additional research it merely revisited portions of the Booz Allen study and identified “problematic assumptions” and “biased analysis.” For example, the Bureau argued that the Booz Allen report mistakenly assumed that under à la carte, viewers would watch less TV and that diversity would not necessarily decrease because advertisers would likely find niche channels with paying subscribers more valuable. But the Bureau’s report seems most enthusiastic about saving money for “mainstream” audiences and increasing ratings for the most popular channels. Consider the classical economic supply-demand reasoning of this passage that compares current practices of channel bundling to à la carte:

“Some programming networks that appeal to mainstream consumers might find it more difficult to enter under bundling than under à la carte. As stated above, an MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] carries a network only if it either expands the base of subscribers willing to pay the bundle price or if it enables the MVPD to increase the price it can charge for the bundle. As Example 4 shows, an MVPD may prefer to add niche programming that appeals to a small set of subscribers rather than add additional mainstream programming that provides greater total value to consumers if existing mainstream programming is sufficient to attract the mainstream consumers. The example shows that programming additions that enhance the value to existing mainstream consumers may not increase subscribership and may not allow the cable provider to increase the bundle price without losing significant numbers of non-mainstream consumers. Thus, some mainstream programming may not be provided under bundling, even though it provides more total value to consumers than some niche programming that is provided.”

Not only is the report unconcerned about the loss of “non-mainstream” programming, it embraces it:

“Finally, in its discussion of efficiency in the marketplace, the First Report fails to note that bundling may result in the production of programming for which the consumer value is less than the cost of production, leading to an inflated supply of programming. If a switch to à la carte eliminated such programming, the result would not be a blow to program diversity, as the First Report suggests, but rather a restoration of programming to an efficient level, more consistent with consumer value…. The marketplace will thus be able more quickly to shed unpopular networks in favor of popular networks under à la carte than under bundling and in the process become more responsive to consumer demand for better programming.”

Si TV logo

Sí TV logo

So programming diversity is measured by the optimal number of “mainstream” channels rather than a broad array of niche channels? What this says to the civil rights organizations and “niche” channels such as Sí TV and TV One that are mostly produced and watched by historically underrepresented groups is that a properly “efficient marketplace” that is more responsive to “consumer demands” would mean a weeding out of these “over-valued” networks. As Patricia Williams has demonstrated, this invocation of the abstracted and culturally neutral individual consumer in neo-liberal justifications for policy decisions has continued to suppress the interests of historically marginalized communities under the guise of a “neutral ‘mass’ entertainment.”[3] Rather than define a mainstream culture that is oblivious to its dominant status across class, gender and race, against a ghettoized cultural “other,” as Williams argues, we need “a view of a market in which there are not merely isolated interest groups, of which the ‘mass market’ may be one, but in which ‘mass’ accurately reflects the complicated variety of many peoples and connotes ‘interactive’ and ‘accommodative’ rather than ‘dominant’ or even just ‘majoritarian.'” Indeed, it is channels such as Sí TV that might not have launched in an à la carte environment, a channel that reaches across cultures with English language programming such as Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner which provides diverse perspectives on issues such as prisoner rights and gay marriage – a recent peak at their Website revealed a discussion forum celebrating Cesar Chavez Day during this critical period when immigration reform is being debated.

But waiting for cable giants like Comcast (which owns TV One) and Time Warner (which owns Sí TV) to decide what constitutes diversity and how much we should pay for bundled programming does not solve the structural issues of vertical integration, the radically unequal distribution of advertising dollars for programs that include the perspectives of communities of color, and the class biases of subscription television in general. And while à la carte offers no solution to these structural barriers, the way in which the issue is framed can have implications for how we build networks and campaigns to address them. When the progressive Consumers Union and the Free Press support à la carte in opposition to a broad spectrum of communities of color, and they do so by framing the issues using the classical economic language of individual consumer choice (the title of a Consumers Union report supporting à la carte is, “Let the Market Decide”), we risk reproducing the abstracted, universalistic discourses of consumer choice and neutral markets that have reinforced current structural arrangements rather than invoking the cultural rights of historically disempowered groups and the necessity that we all interact broadly with cultural difference instead of walling off our television viewing through personalized channel subscriptions.

[1] For a narrative of these early developments see Public Integrity.

[2] For a list of comments from à la carte opponents see MediaZone.

[3] Patricia J. Williams, “Metro Broadcasting, Inc v. FCC: Regrouping in Singular Times,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, (New York: The New Press, 1995): 191-200.

Image Credits:

1. DSL and Cable chart

2. Sí TV logo

Redefining Indecency

Rolling Stones half-time show

Rolling Stones half-time show

Once again the organizers of the Super Bowl half-time show called upon British knighthood to rescue America’s premier global media event from the breast-baring moral depravities of half-time past. However, the transition from last year’s cautious Sir Paul McCartney pop to this year’s hip-swaggering Rolling Stones rock required a series of preemptive measures to ensure a “decent” performance. The Rolling Stones agreed to the NFL’s request that the half-time producers dampen the sound when Sir Mick uttered the lyrics “You make a dead man come” and “Am I just one of your cocks?,” though the censoring of these sexual connotations were a bit nullified when Jagger stripped down to his signature skin-tight t-shirt and mod pants as a gigantic stage tongue retracted during the performance. ABC, the network that broadcast the game, denied any involvement in censoring the lyrics, perhaps to distance themselves from validating the Federal Communication Commission’s recent crackdown on indecency and tenfold increase in fines for violations since breast-gate two years earlier. Nonetheless, ABC, perhaps jittery from the FCC’s retroactive fines against a fellow network’s stations for yet another rock star’s indiscrimination at a live event, instituted a five second broadcast delay as a failsafe to prevent naughtiness from traveling the airwaves, a standard industry practice for live shows since the infamous exposure and a way to show the FCC that self-regulation rather than government intervention could address the issue. As if to remind us of the legacies of rock-n-roll TV censorship of yore, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards impressed reporters with an Ed Sullivan impersonation in a pre-game press conference. And when the FCC and Congress turned its attention away from a broader critique of media conglomeration during the controversial biennial review of media ownership rules in 2002 to focus on dirty words and bare skin, we are yet reminded of the regulatory legacies that find lawmakers making loud public moral postures against distasteful graphic indecencies in lieu of finding structural solutions to the more broadly defined indecencies of race, gender, sexuality and class discriminations that commercial media propagate.

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

While the NFL and ABC’s layered precautions preempted any verbal or wardrobe malfunctions, other more heinous indecencies were certainly on display. Most egregious of these was the NFL’s decision to include Detroit’s legendary Motown artists in the event only after Bowl organizers received a barrage of complaints from Motown fans and artists for dissing the host city’s musical heritage. After dismissing a proposal made a year earlier to include the music from Detroit’s past and present (from Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger to Kid Rock and Eminem), the NFL hastily added a 12-minute pre-game show that included Stevie Wonder leading a medley of Motown classics and invited Aretha Franklin, New Orleans singer Aaron Neville, keyboardist Dr. John and a 150-member Detroit-based gospel choir to perform the national anthem. For those who missed the pre-game performance (that is, the 65 million viewers who saw Mick’s midriff at half-time but missed the pre-game Motown tribute), Wonder called for a coming together before “we annihilate each other,” stating that the global threat was not about our “religion” but rather about our “relationship.” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy defended this marginalization of Detroit’s musical legacies in stating that the “Super Bowl transcends the host city and even the country,” as if Motown music, and the global hip-hop it inspired, had little relevance outside the city limits. Even within this city’s borders which has experienced a history of marginalizing African American life and culture (most tragically evident in the race riots of July 1967), the historic Motown Center building which gave birth to this famous record label was torn down to create more parking for the big game. The building had been abandoned for 30 years, leaving precious documents that archived the careers of Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder for waste. Local amateur historians scrambled to collect documents before and after the demolition while the Detroit Metro Host Committee spent $10 million to insure that the Super Bowl fans, media and corporate sponsors enjoyed their stay. These abandoned cityscapes also remind us of the global dynamics that have put downward pressures on the wage and pension benefits of local autoworkers.

Motown Center demolished

Motown Center demolished

This marginalization of America’s African-American music heritage resonated as US citizens mourned the passing of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King just days before. Just as the NFL and ABC prevented Stevie Wonder’s anti-war plea from airing on the half-time center stage, the television coverage of King’s funeral three days after the Super Bowl dampened the anti-war messages that resonated in the eulogies. The Rev. Joseph Lowry received negative media attention when he stated that, “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there” [followed by a 23 second standing ovation], “but Coretta knew, and we knew, there were weapons of misdirection right here.” Much of the news coverage focused on whether this was “tasteful” or “appropriate” for a funeral, especially because George W. was in attendance – CNN even edited out 18 seconds of Lowry’s standing ovation in its coverage. Even fewer news reports repeated Lowry’s comments that linked the costs of the war to class discriminations at home: “Millions without health insurance, poverty abound. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.”

While the news media dwelled on the indecencies of breaking funeral decorum with political protests rather than honoring the work of civil rights leaders who fought to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination, the Marketing to Moms Coalition, a market research firm, conducted a recent survey revealing that 80% of America’s mothers feel snubbed by Super Bowl advertisers even though women make up nearly half of the audience. Confirming the history of this marketing bias was the special attention given to the commercial for Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” as the first Super Bowl commercial pitched specifically to women. But the ongoing assumption among advertisers that men are harder to reach than women continues to ensure that advertising pitches, especially in sports programming, will consider their male viewers first, as was evident in the nine Anheuser-Busch ads that played during the game. Typical of the masculinity on display was their “magic fridge” ad which won a USA Today poll for best ad featuring a man hiding his Bud Light from friends in a fridge that disappeared behind a revolving wall, only to reappear in the adjacent apartment to the gleeful worship of a room full of 20 something guys. Yet, while Anheuser-Busch and other advertisers reinforced this all-about-sports-and-beer construct of masculinity to pitch their wares, Shonda Rimes exploited this masculine discourse to promote her hit hospital TV drama Grey’s Anatomy which immediately followed the game. Though the series offers a reprieve from the shock-and-awe spectacles of Michael Crichton’s ER by focusing on the relationship dynamics of its racially diverse cast, Rimes tapped into the testosterone-charged environment with promotions promising an ER-esque emergency “code black” and opening the episode with a male fantasy scene depicting three women cast members sudsing-up in the shower.

Fortunately for ABC no breasts or nasty words were exposed in the scene, but there may be signs that the FCC has cooled its policing of indecency because after awarding a record $7,928,080 in fines in 2004, no fines were proposed in 2005. Perhaps they are satisfied that the networks have curbed live TV spontaneity with broadcast delays, that viewers will be shielded from the indecencies of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps they are just eager to distance themselves from the image of the sexually repressed (crazed?) old white male regulators that the internet domain registry Go Daddy parodies in their ad campaigns. For many of us who think that this narrow focus on censoring indecencies of the flesh and tongue does not address the broader injustices of racial, class, gender and sex discriminations that the structures of commercial media propagate, perhaps we can spark debate and activism by redefining the indecencies of this year’s Super Bowl, including:

1. As the live events that bring the nation together for collective viewing become less common in a fragmented digital media environment, we should care more about what the legacies of civil rights activism can tell us about ongoing racial discrimination (as evidenced by the war’s accentuation of racial and class injustices at home, the global outsourcing dynamics that impact access to living wages, the racial and class politics of the Katrina disaster, and the dismissing of America’s musical heritage steeped in these struggles) than protecting the young against foul mouths and bare skin. Let’s inoculate our youth through engaged discussion about what they might find on TV and the internet, as well as what they will not find, rather than censoring our collective viewing spaces on their behalf.
2. Address the gender discriminations in advertising-sponsored television sports that not only privilege male viewers during coverage of male-only sporting events but also limit financial support for women’s sporting events. Also, in witnessing Shonda Rime’s counter narratives to those of Michael Crichton, Paul Tagliabue and August Busch III, we should reinforce our commitment to equal opportunity rules for those who labor before and behind the cameras.
3. As more broadcast programming migrates away from over-the-air broadcasting to cable/satellite subscription services (such as Monday Night Football’s migration to ESPN), broadcast radio’s migration to pay-radio, and audio-visual migrations to the internet (which has seen threats to network neutrality principles as service providers offer faster broadband access for premium subscribers), issues of equitable access to a broad array of content should matter more than censoring what remains of our most accessible broadcast programming.

Willard D. Rowland, Jr. “The Television Violence Debates (The V-Chip). The Television History Book. Ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI Publishing, 2003. 132-6.
Anna McCarthy. “Media Effects (CBS and Stanley Milgram)” Television Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. London: BFI Publishing, 2002. 74-78.

Image Credits:

1. Rolling Stones half-time show

2. Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

3. Motown Center demolished

Please feel free to comment.

Broadcasting Is Dead, Long Live Broadcasting

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

The Pondering Primate

The Pondering Primate

Internet pundits say we are witnessing the Web’s second coming. While overly exuberant venture capitalists burst the bubble in 2000 before the Internet was ready for profitable business, now it seems that conditions for the sustainable growth of a more prosperous “Web 2.0” have been established. A critical mass of Internet users now have broadband access, open-source software and cheap bandwidth that have reduced startup costs; additionally search tools have made advertising a big business. This second coming has also reconfigured the conceptual articulations of “old” and “new” media. “Web 1.0” established its revolutionary promise by constructing a binary between an old media defined by the passive, feminized viewers of a dumbed-down, TV executive-produced mass culture and a new media defined by personal choice and masculine interactivity (Caldwell; Parks; Boddy). However, in recent months “Web 2.0” has increasingly embraced the old medium of television to transition from principally a text, image and audio-based medium to a video-based one.

Let’s consider four of these recent initiatives in Internet/TV convergence. Rather than predict future developments, let’s look back to the core principles of broadcasting to see how these nascent Internet TV initiatives hold up to what we might call a broadcast ethic of TV citizenship. Despite the significant differences between public and advertising-sponsored television, each tradition shares the following goals: 1) universal affordable access, 2) universal appeal that promotes encounters across diverse groups, and 3) fair use rights to watch when and where one likes (Alvarado; Murdock; Lessig).

Ipod Lounge

Ipod Lounge

Case #1. Disney/ABC has teamed with Apple’s iTunes to offer episodes of 6 current television series for playback on a newly released video iPod. Episodes of series including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven” are available for $1.99 per episode the day after they air. The iPod provides nifty portability but is far from universally accessible and affordable, as users must have high-speed Internet service, buy Apple’s proprietary portable audio/visual devise for $300-$400, and pay for each episode. Universal appeal is limited, as only a few hit Disney/ABC shows are available. TiVo, the personal video recording service, will soon make recorded programs available for download to the iPod (and other Microsoft mobile video formats) for those who can afford the additional costs of the conversion software, the TiVo player ($50-200), and TiVo’s $12.95 monthly service charge in addition to cable/satellite subscription fees. Fair use is restricted to the iPod and 5 computers – no DVD transfers allowed. In linking proprietary content to proprietary hardware at significant costs, the video iPod is a minimal service for a privileged few.

Case #2. Warner Brothers and AOL have heavily promoted their IN2TV which early next year will offer free online episodes of old TV shows that are not currently in syndication. In its first year Warner says it will draw from over 100 of the 800 series in its vault including “Maverick,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Alice,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Babylon 5.” Episodes are organized into 6 themed “channels,” each episode includes 1 to 2 minutes of commercials. This offer is part of AOL’s broader strategy to transition from primarily an Internet Service Provider to a web portal with a particular emphasis on television, including AOL’s free live streaming of the Live 8 music concerts against world poverty held on July 2nd, 2005 in cities around the world; AOL’s coverage drew praise from those who grew irritated with MTV’s edited coverage and ABC’s limited two-hour broadcast, and scorn from those who found the unedited performances offensive. AOL and Time Warner are exploiting further synergies with an online video service that offers celebrity news and gossip produced by Warner’s Telepictures division. Regarding issues of access, just as AOL’s Live 8 coverage offered far more than broadcast and cable television for those with access to broadband, the In2TV will provide free access to TV shows that are otherwise unavailable. However, the service limits viewing to certain episodes, stratifies audiences through offering high quality resolution only to AOL broadband subscribers and provides only content owned by the corporate conglomerate. Concerning universal appeal, the vintage TV programs bring with them the contested representational politics of their time, but this look back reminds us of a time before the broadcast networks spun off their multiethnic casts and working class characters to minor broadcast networks and niche cable channels (Gray). Users can watch when they want to, but fair use is curtailed in that users cannot skip commercials or copy episodes to other devises – only excerpts can be emailed to friends and potentially transferred to cell phones. While less expensive and more extensive than the video iPod, In2TV’s linking corporate content to its Web portal creates promotional synergies rather than accessible platforms for TV distribution.

Case #3. The BBC is using file-sharing technology to test a service for 5,000 users which offers BBC programs online for up to 7 days after they air. While the BBC says it will offer 500 shows each week, only BBC-owned programs and those with secured transmission rights will be available. While this far surpasses the commercial initiatives in the US, there are limitations. In using Microsoft’s digital rights management system, users are prevented from e-mailing or copying programs to other devises. It is not clear why time-shifting is limited to 7 days. System capacity might be a reason for the limited test, but the BBC’s public broadcasting goal of providing a national service to create a sense of shared culture might also motivate a design that encourages a shared weekly viewing experience. The service is also limited to those with UK e-mail addresses, which protects the BBC’s commercial business of selling international rights to programs. (However, those outside the UK can access live streaming of some BBC channels and other international broadcast channels over free services such as Beeline TV and TV4All or subscription services such as NeepTV and Netspan TV – none of these offer time or space shifting.) While the BBC test case demonstrates the importance of public ownership for making programs available free online, critics have argued that citizens would be better served if all public and commercial broadcasts were available online through a single Web site.



Case #4. PBS has been slow to make their programming available online but it has recently initiated a series of Web-exclusive one-on-one video interviews with technology gurus including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Because the appropriately named NerdTV is distributed under a Creative Commons license, viewers can legally copy episodes to other devises, email them to friends and edit their own versions. Public ownership under open source licensing clearly surpasses the other cases in realizing our broadcast principles. However, the racial and gender politics of geek TV were manifest when in the 9th episode the program’s host admitted that viewers had criticized the series for interviewing only white males on its first 8 episodes – the show interviewed the tech savvy fashion model Anina in the 9th episode.

Considering these 4 cases of Internet/TV convergence, if Web 2.0 no longer frames the Internet’s video potential in opposition to the old medium of television, these nascent examples reveal that the promises of television over the Internet could learn much from the ethics of television’s broadcasting past. Rather than as an old medium that breeds passivity and low uniformity, let’s embrace television for its ethics of universal access and broad appeal, and for its ideals of commonly held resources and spirit of cross-cultural encounter. Web 1.0 hailed from a neo-liberal ethics of venture capital speculation, government deregulation and a spirit of individual choice and personalization widely encapsulated in the classical economic speak of “video on demand.” Web 2.0 frames Internet TV very differently, as is exemplified in the words of this journalist: “[c]onsumers are rushing to hook up high-speed broadband connections like it is a vital new utility. And in many ways it is – a sight, sound and motion utility becoming as important to consumers as electricity or as TV” (Oser and Klasseen). Broadband, electricity and TV are the public utilities of the Web 2.0 age. Let’s treat them as such and continue to advocate for universal access to broadband, fair use in audio/video, and the public initiatives to ensure this –from continued support for public broadcasting to municipal-run broadband systems. One of the reasons for Web 1.0’s demise is that the internet provided so much free content that users were loath to pay for it. In that spirit let’s all just say no to the video iPod, even if your favorite TV show is “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives.”


Alvarado, Manuel. “Public Service Television: Challenge, Adaptation and Survival.” Contemporary World Television. John Sinclair ed. London: BFI Publishing, 2004. 7-9.

Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caldwell, John. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 41-74.

Gray, Herman S. Culture Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 77-130.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Murdock, Graham. “Rights and Representations: Pubic Discourse and Cultural Citizenship.” Television and Common Knowledge. Jostein Gripsrud ed. London: Routledge, 1999. 7-17.

Osser, Kris and Abbey Klaassen. “Cable Ledaing Long-awaited convergence of Internet and TV; Web ‘Arrives’ as Medium for Content Delivery as Viacom, Scripps, Others Put Shows Online.” Advertising Age (25 July 2005), 48.

Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 133-61.

Image Credits

1. The Pondering Primate

2. Ipod Lounge

3. NerdTV

Please feel free to comment.

Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.


Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

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