Zoey 101 and the Tween Supertext Circa 2006

Cast of Zoey 101

Cast of Zoey 101

These days, it appears, people much younger than I am are using cell phones as if they were bodily appendages (recalling Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase and book subtitle, “extensions of man” to an extreme).1 College students I pass in campus hallways or teenagers I observe in shopping malls never seem to put down their cell phones, even while they're interacting with others in their physical proximity. I wonder, first, which and how many of the various types of cell phone-carried information are holding their attention. Is it just about talking to one another? Well, obviously not. I wonder, second and on a much broader scale, what combination of interactive and passive (or new and old) media technologies it takes to engage a contemporary teenager or pre-teen. Of course I'm not the only one to speculate about this; after all, this young person is the consumer media corporations wish to make money from over the coming decades.

While channel surfing recently I gained some insight into the minds of both the young people and those programming for them. I happened upon Nickelodeon's tween-targeted Zoey 101(2005-). It's a live-action program featuring a group middle school kids and starring famous little sister Jamie Lynn Spears in the title role (most fan sites assert that she's smarter and prettier than Britney, btw). I immediately was intrigued by the program's narrative premise: somewhat ethnically mixed (though all apparently affluent) kids working together to solve common teen dilemmas (both the slapstick sitcom variety and the real-life variety) using intellect, creativity, and humor. They're both nerdy and hip! The fictitious and quasi-fantastic setting for Zoey 101 is the Pacific Coast Academy (PCA), a posh (replete with a campus sushi bar) and newly coeducational boarding school overlooking a gorgeous California beach. Students there seem to exist in a world of their own, with adult authority figures appearing mostly as helpers (especially on the rare occasions when students need to be driven to or from campus) or comic foils.

Student Lounge PCA

Student Loundge at Pacific Coast Academy

But what fascinates me more is how the array of everyday 21st-century technologies (cell phones, laptop computers, etc.) are combined with more esoteric inventions or concoctions, as the kids first get into difficult situations and then figure out how to extricate themselves. For example, in the “Little Beach Party” episode (originally aired in 2005), the nerdy Quinn (Erin Sanders) accidentally administers a sleeping potion to the ensemble. They must figure out how to get to the end-of-term beach party on their own, after they have dozed through the last bus departure. They do manage–with the help of a hired taxi. But upon finding themselves stranded at the wrong beach, a remote one, without transportation or even cell phone service, they must devise a solution. Immediate found materials including “inner tube, old rope, broken fishing pole, and sand,” clearly are of no use for transportation, so the kids decide to have a party, starting a fire and cooking a large fish but delaying efforts to get help. Then, just as everyone is getting tired and nervous, Quinn screams with delight, realizing that she can reconfigure components of one student's cell phone and another's laptop computer (conveniently brought along on the beach excursion) to create an extra-powerful cell phone. Help arrives soon thereafter, of course in the form of a “cool” teacher. Here a familiar adolescent dilemma narrative (reminiscent of older programs ranging from My Three Sons to The Brady Bunch to Saved by the Bell) readily absorbs the accoutrements of everyday adolescent life in the early 21st century. It just makes the show seem up-to-date, after all.

Much more fascinating to me still, though, is how the program's convergent technology-oriented narratives fit into the larger television “supertext.” Here I refer back to the term coined by Nick Browne in his classic 1984 article, “The Political Economy of the Television (Super) Text.”2

Browne wrote that:

The television text, let us say, is a “supertext” that consists of the particular program and all the introductory and interstitial materials — chiefly announcements and ads–considered in its specific position in the schedule…. The most relevant context for the analysis of form and meaning of the “television text” consists of its relation to the schedule, that is, to the world of television, and second, of the relation of the schedule to the structure and economics of the workweek of the general population (588-589).

Clearly Zoey's individual program narratives are interwoven with the supertext that is the 2005-2006 Nickelodeon cable network schedule–not to mention the workweek of its era–in ways not imaginable to someone writing in a world of mostly broadcast network television (with a dozen or so fledgling cable networks, including Nickelodeon, just getting off the ground). Where kids of the 1980s (and their parents) were generally pleased just to see a fun (yet not offensively commercialized) age-targeted entertainment, the media-savvy adolescent of today demands something much more sophisticated.

Jamie Lynn Spears as Zoey

Jamie Lynn Spears as Zoey

Consider the supertext of the episode discussed above, as it was aired (as a rerun) on NickToo on February 5, 2006. There are three commercial breaks: before the start of the program, at the end, and in the middle. The middle break is the most revealing about the Nickelodeon supertext because, in addition to the usual tween-targeted commercials (mostly cereal and snack food), there is an in-house “Nickelodeon Presents: How to Be Well” PSA (a tongue-in-cheek nutrition-minded appeal to “beware of pie,” with black and white 1950s-style footage) and a Nick News with Linda Ellerbee segment on Rosa Parks. The previously mentioned spots point to Nickelodeon and its spin-off digital networks' uniquely defined marketing identity, hip and fun, yet still good for kids. I've discussed this sort of marketing identity in other work.3

Of more interest to me here and now is the fact that all other commercials during the episode, with the exception of the abundant food commercials, referenced media technologies other than television, most linked
directly to the program or the network. Websites were the most common, with Nick.com featured more than once (including several contests that required accessing the site to enter), but there were also DVD movies and a local commercial for Time-Warner Cable's RoadRunner high-speed Internet service.

Still, I could swear there were even more technology-integrated commercials running during Nick's teen- and tween-targeted shows a year or so ago. Further research would be needed to substantiate this, but if it is indeed the case, I attribute it to Nick's newly aggressive efforts to target its young audiences via multiple media platforms. The first stages in this effort are fairly well established. There are the digital networks Noggin/The N, NickGAS, and NickToo, where original Nickelodeon programs are recycled for viewing on different days and times. And there is the colorful and highly interactive Nick.com website (websites by now a standard and expected accompaniment to television programs, particularly children's programs). Among a plethora of other program-integrated features, Nick.com features the “Which Zoey 101 girl is right for you?” quiz, which allows users (presumably teen or pre-teen boys) to check personal compatibility with the show's female characters. And “Zoey101 Nerds No More,” which challenges online players to find the one appropriate combination of (movable and animated) clothing for a given character, involved in a given activity within a limited time (sort of a junior version of the popular program What Not to Wear).

Streaming video, however, seems to be the latest trend–both through the website and through Podcasts. Zoey reruns are among the first Nickelodeon programs available from the iTunes Store–and they are surprisingly viewable on the 1×1.5-inch screen of an iPod (or cell phone).4 In fact, with bright, colorful, and uncluttered sets and locations, as well as a preponderance of close-up shots, Zoey 101 easily might have been produced with tiny-screen viewing in mind specifically. Additionally, one of Nickelodeon's digital sub-networks, The N, just announced that it is introducing two new series meant to be watched both on television and on the Nick.com website–not for repeat viewing, but so that the televised episodes will be complemented by backstory from the website.5

Clearly Nickelodeon, with its young viewership, is at the forefront of accommodating the multiple-technology and multiple-platform entertainment that most in the electronic entertainment industries believe is the wave of the future. Time will tell whether or not, as the now-targeted youngsters age, more and more television or other multimedia outlets will adopt similar strategies–gambling on a future in which passive viewing is just … well … passé.


1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: Mentor, 1964.

2. Nick Browne, “The Political Economy of the Television (Super) Text,” Television: The Critical View, 4th Edition, Horace Newcomb, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1987: 585-599.

3. Megan Mullen, The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution. Austin: University of Texas, 2003.

4. As I have yet to purchase a video iPod (and my cell phone is not, yet, iTunes-capable), I have the tiny image superimposed on the Microsoft Word document I'm typing.

5. R. Thomas Umstead, “The N Wraps Webisodes Around Drama,” Multichannel News, May 1, 2006, Online edition.

Image Credits:

1. Cast of Zoey 101

2. Student Lounge at PCA

3. Jamie Lynn Spears

Please feel free to comment.

Watching TV in Tuvalu (former owner of .tv)?

Timeless Tuvalu

In the Tuvaluan language, the phrase, “Tupuna o ai? Tupuna o matou” translates as “Whose homeland is it? It is ours (exclusive)” (from Handbook on the Language of the Ellice Islands by Donald Gilbert Kennedy. This statement seems questionable to me these days, though, and I suspect most Tuvaluans would agree. Tuvalu seems to epitomize several forms of exploitation and usurpation representative of lifestyles coming home to roost in the 21st century–even though the nation has found resourceful coping mechanisms. Notably, Tuvalu has made headlines in recent years for two oddly juxtaposed reasons. First, the fact that increased sea levels attributed to global warming makes it possible that the nation will be submerged in the near future. As author and environmentalist Leslie Allen reported:

“The planet’s fourth smallest nation, they say, faces extinction because of climate change. Rising seas and deadly storms have reportedly started to swamp the islands, and fears are growing that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable or will vanish entirely within a few decades. Prime Minister Saufatu Sapo’aga told the United Nations [in 2003] that the global-warming threat is no different from ‘a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.’ Independent scientists also offer a grim forecast. ‘Because of its location and physical nature, Tuvalu is particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change and in particular rising sea level,’ concludes a 1996 scientific study coauthored by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the government of Japan.”

Apparently many Tuvaluans are preparing to “escape” to higher ground in places such as Australia and New Zealand should their country cease to exist. Much as attention needs to be called to this dire situation, though, it is another set of headlines I wish to deal with in this article. That is the sale of Tuvalu’s assigned Internet domain name, “.tv or dot teevee,” to North American commercial interests, as this symbolizes all manner of economic disparities. First, some background on Tuvalu and its culture is in order.

The nation of Tuvalu consists on nine coral atolls (the ninth inhabited only since the 1950s; the nation’s name translates roughly as “eight atolls”) in the South Pacific. The islands, once very sparsely populated (mostly by migrants from Samoa), were discovered by Spanish explorers in 1595 and colonized by Great Britain in the 1800s. The country’s colonial name was the Ellice Islands. The islands proved a strategic location in the Pacific theater for American forces during World War II. On January 1, 1976, the Ellice Islands were administratively separated from the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati); on October 1,1978 Tuvalu became an independent constitutional monarchy, and in 2000 it became a full, sovereign member of the British Commonwealth and member of the United Nations (with the help of revenues from .tv sales). The population of Tuvalu today is 11,636 (World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2006).

Tuvalu Fishing

Fishing in Tuvalu

Tuvalu is not as much of a tourist destination as one might expect given its tropical location. There is a traveler’s guide web site, Timeless Tuvalu, produced by Tuvaluans and sponsored by the European union, but it is hard to locate through a search engine. Also available to prospective tourists are pages from international travel agencies or tour guides, even though many of the links on these sites are broken. Traveling to Tuvalu appears to be a challenge that only the most determined (and time-endowed) tourist would take on. There are a handful of four to sixteen-room “lodges” and “guest houses” listed for accommodations in Funafuti, the capital, and virtually nothing elsewhere. While the landscape surrounding these buildings looks strikingly beautiful, the accommodations themselves seem Spartan. No matter; it would be very difficult to visit Tuvalu during the two weeks most people have to spend on vacation. There is a tiny airport on Funafuti, but it is served only twice weekly by Air Fiji (at $650 for a round trip) — so one first has to get to Fiji, which itself is no small undertaking. It is also difficult to get from island to island, as they are separated from one another by 75-100 miles and shipping lines run infrequently. Travelers would also find currency difficult to master. Transactions under $5.00 (U.S.) are in Tuvaluan dollars, while those over $5.00 are in Australian dollars. Moreover, while Australian and Tuvaluan coins look remarkably similar, they are valued differently.

Tuvalu used to be best known to foreigners for its colorful and collectible commemorative postage stamps. Now, of course, it’s known (to those who even remember) as the nation that set the precedent of selling its Internet domain name. Federated States of Micronesia sold its domain name, .fm, for obviously similar reasons. But what would make a nation give up its Internet domain? After all, this is the 21st-century business equivalent of an individual giving up her or his family name — which really only happens in the case of marriage or adoption. Could it be that television and the Internet are just not that central to Tuvaluan life?

Well, television at least does not seem to be. Set ownership in Tuvalu is nine per one thousand people, and there are no television stations operating in the country (and only one radio station). Probably people are using the nation’s hundred or so sets for video recordings and/or satellite transmissions — though certainly not any indigenous programming. If not television, then what do Tuvaluans do in their spare time? At least one of their tastes in entertainment seem rather different from those of Americans (or most other nations, for that matter). As described on Tuvalu’s national web site:

“The national game is te ano (the ball). Two teams line up facing one another and competition begins with one member throwing the heavy ball toward the other team, who must hit it back with their hands. Points are scored if the opposite team lets the ball fall and the first team to reach 10 wins. The game ends with the losers performing a funny song and dance routine intended to bring the winners back to earth.”

This primitive-sounding sport is not the only pastime in Tuvalu these days, however. Tuvaluans appear to be spending more and more time online, with Internet usage poised to overtake television usage as the primary audio-visual medium. Telephone service only became available in Tuvalu in the late 1990s (and seems to have around 1,000 subscribers now), but Internet service was not far behind. Perhaps Tuvalu’s awkward geographic location has allowed the country to skip from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first in its media infrastructure.

Vaiaku Lake

Vaiaku Lake in Tuvalu

Maybe Tuvaluans feel that any Internet business they will need to do can be conducted via commercial servers with no significant sacrifice? After all, the sale of the domain name has afforded residents of the impoverished nation even to access the Internet (not to mention other benefits such as purchasing televisions and satellite dishes as well as international travel). Also, since the sale allowed continuing revenues from name sales within the domain, there will be a continued revenue stream. Could it be that the Tuvaluans’ decision to sell their assigned Internet domain was partly a symbolic one — with “dot teevee” being such an inappropriate descriptor for a society that effectively bypassed the heyday of television as a standalone medium???

Allen, Leslie. “Will Tuvalu Disappear Beneath the Sea?” Smithsonian, August 2004, pp. 44-52.

BBC News Country Profile: Tuvalu.

Debre, Guillaume. “Pacific Isle Finances UN Membership Via the Internet,” Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 5, 2000, p. 7.

Maney, Kevin. “Tuvalu’s Sinking, But Its Domain is on Solid Ground,” USA Today, April 28, 2004 (online).

Timeless Tuvalu
Tuvalu Islands Home Page
Tuvalu Travel With Author David Stanley

Image Credits:

Tuvalu Islands

Please feel free to comment.

Spouse Exchanges: I Know the Perfect People …

Wife Swap

Wife Swap

I’m intrigued by what I call the spouse-exchange sub-genre of reality television — specifically, Fox’s Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and ABC’s Wife Swap. I was very skeptical at first, though, suspecting that these programs (like their Survivor-type predecessors) did nothing more than exploit people’s baser instincts. In fact I’ve found that the contrasts between the families selected for these shows reveal a great deal about both human nature and Americans’ entertainment preferences. So I’ve enjoyed them in general and have followed their development. When I started watching just over a year ago the shows seemed pleasantly spontaneous (even if this made some portions a little boring); the contrasts tended to emerge in the course of the program’s narrative, helped along by skilled editing. Since then, the differences between the families participating have become sharper and more polarized. At least that’s how they’re promoted these days. It seems as though the producers have sifted through numerous applications from people wanting their “fifteen minutes” in order to pair the most obvious opposites. The online applications do ask some provocative questions, such as whether or not there has been any feuding in the applicant’s family.

Moreover, participants, now familiar with the shows’ premises, surely have done some self-casting as well–in the ways they choose to describe themselves in the applications. At this stage the shows really don’t seem scripted, but they do seem staged. The planned contrasts make for good promotions and teasers, drawing potential viewers to watch: dogmatic Catholic trades with a Wiccan; woman from Harlem trades with affluent woman from suburban Boston; wealthy, conservative housewife goes on the road with a family band. What really keeps me watching are the unplanned contrasts — the evidence of how very difficult it is to hide your true personality when thrown into an unfamiliar and stressful situation. It helps me to look more critically at some of those nagging stereotypes I carry around in spite of my liberal do-gooder façade. (Besides, the voyeurism is just plain fun.)

Recently, for example, I watched an environmentally conscious (obsessed?) man living in a co-housing community (“commune”) trade families with a tattooed biker on Wife Swap (“Husband Edition”). I let down my guard and figured the biker was an intolerant redneck, who would quickly lose patience with the “namby-pamby” lifestyle of the environmentalist. He wouldn’t last! But I wasn’t exactly rooting for the environmentalist, either. He was over the top — having changed his name from Bill to Zeb (for some reason having to do with spirituality, I think), devoting an inordinate amount of time to recycling and composting (without showing any real sign of having a remunerative job), and beginning family discussions with asinine songs about peace and love. Even though his values are ones I basically share, the intensity with which he pursued and expressed them seemed like nails on a chalkboard. But I figured he’d triumph in the end simply because he’d consider it a personal failure to lose patience with the biker’s family.

Ha! A rather different contrast emerged, and this actually determined the outcome of the exchange. By this I mean that if one person could be identified as the episode’s “loser” — and one loser usually does emerge — it would be the environmentalist, not his wife or children, and not the biker or any members of his family. He just came across as weird and inflexible. He apparently made little effort to understand the family he had joined; he bluntly identified things he was unhappy with, such as a litter box odor in the family room; and would settle for nothing less than extreme changes in their lifestyle. It actually was the biker who emerged as the episode’s hero — to his own family as well as to the environmentalist’s wife and children. He patiently adhered to the family’s existing routines (making occasional barbed asides to the camera) and tried to figure out specific ways in which they would benefit from his lifestyle and values. The children learned to appreciate junk food and amusement parks, while the uptight mother discovered her “wild side” by wearing leather biker gear and waitressing in a biker bar. Then, when the biker arrived back home at the end, his previously distant stepdaughter suddenly loved and appreciated him, thanks to the horrible experience of living with the environmentalist. Perhaps we’re all either normal or crazy after all? We do tend to live by the stereotypes we’ve selected for ourselves — based on desire and need to fit in — but these seldom hide more basic personality traits.

People like the ones featured on spouse-exchange shows really could be part of my everyday life. In fact, they are. In fact, whenever I watch these shows and ponder the lessons learned, I think of my colleague Bonnie Peterson — someone I consider an ideal potential participant in one of the spouse-exchange shows, especially since she’s such a fan of them. A year or so ago I found out that Bonnie and her husband Joel were Survivor “addicts.” So I asked her if they also liked Wife Swap and Trading Spouses. Her look of (feigned) affront led me to think that perhaps she hadn’t yet heard of these shows. She was intrigued with the premise I explained, though, and told Joel that evening. They immediately took to these programs, and now all three of us watch them regularly.

Trading Spouses\

Trading Spouses

Bonnie hardly seems like a biker or a fanatical environmentalist or any of the other “types” I’ve seen on the shows — but then, unlike the other people I’ve watched on the shows, I know her already. She is someone with some very pronounced personal attributes that would serve the publicity needs of spouse-exchange shows. These surely would cause people who had never met Bonnie to predict a certain outcome, especially if the family pairing were done with the cunning I’ve seen recently. Yet Bonnie’s underlying personality (and Joel’s as well) would quickly draw attention from those features and provide interesting, even engrossing, substance for an episode. Bonnie teaches in my department. She also chairs the Academic Staff committee on our campus — a major responsibility. Before becoming a college teacher, she worked in the non-profit sector, including as a state-level policy analyst on issues related to the blind community. Bonnie herself is blind. Overall I would describe her personality as energetic, outgoing, and forthright. I don’t know Joel very well, having only met him once or twice. He is a former police detective, whom Bonnie describes as self-disciplined and “very conservative.” Bonnie and Joel live with three very large dogs — which she thinks would be one of the biggest challenges a “new spouse” would face in her home.

Actually, it turned out that Bonnie and Joel had already been speculating about the experience of being on a spouse-exchange show. I obviously had my own ideas about their qualifications, but decided to let Bonnie speak for herself on the subject. Bonnie says she appreciates the shows at different levels. She is the first to laugh at the extremes, and she emphatically repeats dialogue from pivotal points in the episodes (such as those selected for promotional teasers). But she also thinks there are a lot of positives in the shows. She explains that, “The negative examples lead to the positive examples…. Seeing people’s errors helps you to see that you shouldn’t be so extreme, and seeing what really good they’re doing for people is kind of nice. It’s amazing how they blend people.” Bonnie even speculates about ways in which the generation represented by most of her students has been influenced positively by watching reality TV, explaining that they seem more open than her own (baby boomer) generation to discussing personal and family problems.

When I asked about her applying to participate on one of the shows, Bonnie first made it clear that she no longer has children living at home — which she sees as a significant factor in getting one of these gigs. Somehow she didn’t seem convinced that this would necessarily preclude her participation, though, so I pushed it a bit. “What if they did an empty-nesters episode or something like that?” I asked, and here’s some of the conversation that followed:

Click here to listen to part of my conversation with Bonnie
Click here to read a transcript of this portion of the conversation

Enough emerged in this conversation to confirm my notions about what the television audience generally would get from watching Bonnie and Joel.

Being personally acquainted with a “picture perfect” spouse-exchange candidate, and having some ideas about the surprises she and her husband would offer the television audience, lends new perspective to this sub-genre of reality television — perhaps even to reality television in general. I still prefer fictional dramas in which the surprises are planned and positioned by skilled writers. But I am starting to appreciate the new type of program discussed here as well. As Bonnie points out, not even the most narcissistic and conditioned spouse-exchange “wannabe” can prepare him or herself adequately for the surprises, conflicts, and stresses of trying to fit into an unfamiliar family. And while spouse-exchange producers enjoy the privilege of being able to have the raw footage from the exchanges edited so as to bring out a storyline with heightened drama, they still can’t entirely predict what they’ll have to work with. Old-fashioned fictional television drama can be so very predictable by comparison. If outstanding dramatic writers are hard to come by these days, and riveting television dramas fewer and fewer, perhaps spouse-exchange shows can help keep me close to my small screen.

Postscript: It might be a while before Bonnie and Joel get to participate in a spouse exchange. One area family already is appearing on Trading Spouses on January 6 and 13. Interestingly, one of their stated reasons for self-selecting was that they were just a “normal family,” not an extreme. We’ll see…. Read about them in the Racine Journal Times.

Image Credits:

1. Wife Swap

Author’s own

2. Trading Spouses

Please feel free to comment.

A Slice of American Life

by: Megan Mullen / University of Wisconsin-Parkside

AmericanLife TV Logo

AmericanLife TV Logo

Around fourteen years ago I became interested in a cable network called The Family Channel. I was curious as to why evangelical Christian shows like The 700 Club were scattered among a bunch of old TV reruns (especially westerns) and inexpensive looking programs that I’d never seen before. After a semester’s worth of research I knew that The Family Channel (eventually bought out by Fox) was the latest incarnation of televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network’s satellite cable service. It had been started in 1977 as CBN-Cable, Robertson being second only to Ted Turner in his realization that the American public has an insatiable appetite for reruns and will pay to watch them on cable.

This was a great revelation to me — a story I still like to tell my students, even though few of them now can remember life before cable television. I went on to write a lot more about this, including a book in which I argued that satellite cable owed a great deal to its ability to repeat and repackage broadcast television’s programs. I suggested at the end of the book, and have asserted ever since, that only now that cable networks have recovered their start-up costs have they been able either to grow more specialized themselves (e.g., ESPN) or to spin off “niche” networks (e.g., A&E’s Biography Channel).

But then the other night I experienced a “blast” from cable’s past — or so I believed. I went channel surfing and found AmericanLife TV (formerly known as GoodLife TV and before that Nostalgia Network). Oddly, AmericanLife seemed to represent the eclectic amalgam of TV reruns, cheap originals, self-help shows, and infomercials that had characterized CBN-Cable and The Family Channel in the early years. And there were some shows that, like The 700 Club, appeared to be packaging religious parables in mainstream television conventions — only this time the religious angle was more subtle. I had a look at some of AmericanLife’s original shows before doing further research on the network itself.

Take, for example, The American Family: A Survivor’s Guide, an hour-long morning issues program. The show has a credible look — decent production values and a professional looking studio. It is also hosted by Bettina Gregory, a longtime correspondent for ABC news, who covered such events as Princess Diana’s funeral and the House impeachment trials. Gregory actually left ABC in 2002, earned a Psy. D. degree at George Washington University, and went to work both as host of The American Family and as a columnist for The Washington Times. Gregory’s presence lends a mainstream network veneer to a program that otherwise has a clear religious agenda.

In the first half hour of the June 28, 2005 episode, “Restoring Fatherhood,” Gregory interviews founders of Project Restore, a faith-based program in South Carolina for fathers imprisoned on child support charges. In the next fifteen minutes, she interviews a man who fathered a child, went to prison on drug and alcohol charges, discovered his Christian faith, and went on to found the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood, another faith-based organization. In the episode’s last segment policy advocates debate the merits of financial child support alone and child support with marriage incentives. It is only in this last ten-minute segment that a single non-faith-based position is heard.

Other AmericanLife programs, both original and syndicated, represent a broadly conservative patriotism and “family values” theme. They range from Courtship of Eddie’s Father and I’ll Fly Away to China Beach and Combat in rerun fare. And they range from Embassy Chefs and Flea Market Mania to The American Family and Homefront America in original series. The last of these, Homefront America, cultivates an extremely paranoid and xenophobic mentality using interviews and speech excerpts from political and military officials, archival images of exploding nuclear weapons, and scenes of disaster (including bioterrorism) preparation and drills.

I’d heard of AmericanLife TV in its various incarnations; in fact I picked up a very nice canvas bag with their new logo when I was at the NCTA Cable Show this year. I even picked up a brochure. But I got busy with other things and didn’t get a chance to look through it right away. No matter — it wouldn’t have told me much about the network’s origins or ownership, anyway. The brochure merely lists Lawrence R. Meli, a veteran cable executive, as COO and gives an address in Washington, DC.

It turns out that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon had bought a controlling interest in the failing Nostalgia Television (founded in 1985) in 1994. The cable network, purveyor of 1970s TV “classics” like The Rockford Files and The Captain and Tennille, was sustaining heavy losses at the time — and continued to do so for several years. Moon similarly has sustained (within a huge business empire) the conservative newspaper, The Washington Times, and Insight and The World and I magazines (these three print publications, incidentally, are listed as sponsors of the AmericanLife TV website).

Washington Post writers Marc Fisher and Jeff Leen suggest that such losses could and would only have been sustained by someone with a mission and very deep pockets. In fact, Moon and his church are known to hold very lucrative businesses both domestically and overseas, though rather little is known about the nature of these businesses. Fisher and Leen point out that as membership in Moon’s ultraconservative Unification Church has apparently declined, his business empire has grown. “Moon’s businesses exist for several purposes, church leaders and critics agree: to employ members, to gain influence in industries Moon considers crucial to worldwide recognition of himself as Messiah, and to support Moon’s spiritual and political agenda.”

My first encounter with AmericanLife TV made me feel like a targeted viewer; AmericanLife seemed like the sort of network I would watch. The promotional pamphlet and website state emphatically that the network is for nostalgic baby boomers like me. As the website says,

AmericanLife TV Network — The Boomer Network — the nation’s only full-time cable channel dedicated to providing lifestyle, entertainment, and information programming for the baby boomer generation. AmericanLife TV Network’s programming reflects the attitudes and shared values important to this dynamic audience.

And yet I’m not targeted at all. I do not share the attitudes or values of the Reverend Moon any more than I share those of Pat Robertson, even though I had been drawn to both channels by reruns that evoked my sense of nostalgia. It was The 700 Club that first gave away the agenda of The Family Channel. And it was the combined emphasis on combat and family lifestyle programming that first gave away the agenda of AmericanLife TV. In both cases, a nondescript name and the use of non-controversial programs serve as Trojan horses.

Historically there has been controversy over whether the Unification Church is a legitimate religious faith or a cult. Most Americans are aware of this to some extent, and my purpose here is not to deny people’s freedom of religious expression. Of more concern, I think, is how these cable networks epitomize the very invisible commingling of ideology and entertainment that characterizes U.S. television generally. I feel this even as I watch “mainstream” cable networks like Nick at Nite, USA, and TBS: nobody makes TV reruns available as a public service for sentimental viewers. For most networks, though, reruns are an extremely cheap and lucrative programming source — propaganda for capitalism and a loosely regulated media economy, not much else. Others have subsidized this programming for different reasons, as should be clear from this essay. So dig deep and check your sources; while TV programmers adeptly appeal to your sentiments, nostalgic and otherwise, there can be a lot more underlying the schedule as a whole than you might realize!

Fisher, Mark, and Jeff Leen. A Church in Flux Is Flush Wish Cash, The Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1997, p. A01.

Image Credits:
1. AmericanLife TV Logo

The 700 Club
AmericanLife TV Network
The Unification Church

Please feel free to comment.

Television’s Gated Communities

by: Megan Mullen / University of Wisconsin-Parkside

WealthTV Logo
WealthTV Logo

In 1989 James Carey wrote, “Communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.” Nearly every communication scholar, from undergraduate to tenured professor, knows this passage. Surveying the 2005 scenario of rapidly converging and relatively unregulated media industries in the United States sheds a thought-provoking light on this seminal statement. At a time when U.S. television was still dominated by three broadcast networks, people from different backgrounds had something to share, even if it only revolved around a previous evening’s television programs. Today, people are moving away from any kind of shared cultural experience — moving both literally and symbolically into segregated or “gated” communities, from prisons to housing projects to singles condos to suburban subdivisions. Literal gated communities, though, are more a symptom than a cause of social separation and stratification. We cannot be fully part of the physical communities we inhabit if we do not also feel addressed (interpellated) as members of those communities. This should not be surprising to anyone familiar with those contemporary market research strategies that “know” more about us than we know about ourselves.

Recent experiences have made me ponder the near future of consumer targeting and segregation. First, some Business colleagues at my university contacted me, seeking input on a project related to targeted cable advertising. Though greatly flattered to have been asked to share my expertise, I left with some troubling thoughts about the erosion of even the most vestigial notion of universal television service. While I was still thinking about this, an article appeared in the New York Times on “The Future of the 30-Second Spot.” Writer Lorne Manly identifies several specific firms actively pursuing technologies that “behave like a smarter version of direct mail.” He explains that, increasingly, “ads can be customized, not just by neighborhood, but ultimately by household and perhaps by viewing habits.” Clearly, my colleagues are not alone in their ambitions!

I wonder, since the technologies enabling such a refined level of targeting are still in the expensive trial stages, isn’t it likely that the first uses of the technology will be for high-end products aimed at affluent consumers? Doesn’t it therefore also seem likely that these technologies will reach upscale niche cable networks long before they reach broadcast television or even cable’s more affordable basic tier(s)? And then, when these technologies allow niche services to generate whatever levels of profits their owners desire, what quality of television programming and services will be available to the rest of us?

Shortly after reading Manly’s article, I attended the National Cable Television Association’s annual convention (“The Cable Show”) in San Francisco. There I observed the scenario I was concerned about actually coming to pass. Several of the higher-end programming services being touted involved pay-per-view and pay-per-download technologies that would eliminate traditional commercials. The programming they offer (“lifestyle” shows, in many instances) is well suited to product placement and even covert infomercials. The content will be tailored to the perceived tastes of high-end consumers (or at least people aspiring to those lifestyles). The newly launched digital and pay-per-view service Wealth TV both symbolizes and epitomizes this, with the slogan, “It’s your life … Spend it well.”

Scannable ID badges worn by all Cable Show attendees offered a convenient (almost facile) metaphor for what I was witnessing. At a network’s exhibit booth, a delegate would scan visitors’ badges, thereby assessing their relevance to the network’s business goals. Needless to say, a college professor is greeted with far less enthusiasm than a cable operator! I wasn’t prevented from taking informational brochures and logo-emblazoned freebies. So I wasn’t exactly barred from participation, but I wasn’t being courted, either. I’d say my place there was analogous to the lower- or even average-income television viewers I envision in the near future–barraged with meaningless and annoying traditional commercials, but not particularly desired by any. The programming won’t be much better than the commercials themselves.


Such a situation points out the dramatic shift in fortunes for the cable industry over the half-century of its existence. Throughout the 1960s, policymakers — ever mindful of the FCC’s local service doctrine — “flip-flopped” considerably as to whether community antennas (early cable) were a threat or a benefit to television service in smaller communities. At this stage of cable history, the mere continuation of the cable industry depended on an ability to weather shifting conceptualizations of democracy in television service. It is all too easy to forget how, when, and why this changed. By the 1970s, most visions of cable being bandied about by policymakers and the general public involved the fabled “cornucopia” of specialty services, with relatively little mention of localism as a form of specialization. Deregulatory fervor on various fronts allowed cable to move toward the least expensive programming schemes, the most widespread appeal, and the most convenient technologies.

Although the eclectic mix of inexpensively programmed cable networks that sprang up from the late 1970s through the early 1990s caused many observers to doubt that cable would ever compete with broadcast television, much less surpass it in setting programming precedents, a look around the exhibit hall of the Cable Show reminded me that it has done just that. The modern cable industry, now flush with resources, offers a programming cornucopia more varied than anyone in the 1970s ever could have imagined. And yet the one overwhelming theme of what cable television has to offer today is the pursuit of affluence — in program content, in the selection of networks, in levels of service, and in delivery technologies.

Half a century ago television set ownership identified a family as fairly well off. Quite simply, it allowed them to receive television signals — period — whether over-the-air or via community antenna. Today, with around 99% penetration, television set ownership is no longer a symbol of prestige, nor is a cable subscription. Both now mark people as “average.” This is about to change. In the near future those of us with the means will select content tailored to the lifestyle we’re most accustomed to, watch and listen to that content through consumer technologies — ranging from large-screen televisions to cell phones — that also connote social position, and share our experiences with people deemed most similar to us by market research companies. So where once U.S. television embodied a shared popular culture, now it (and technologies poised to subsume it) is becoming the metaphor for a culture of gated communities. If the reified separation I’ve considered here increasingly is our reality, then that reality is being produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed by technologies that, each day, become more sophisticated in their ability to address and flatter us based on socio-economic attributes.

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2. WealthTV

Carey, James H. Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Manly, Lorne. “The Future of the 30-Second Spot.” New York Times 27 Mar. 2005: 1+ [2 pp.] Sec 3.

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