Flow Favorites: Gaycoms in a Progressive Age? Partners and The New Normal
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College


Flow Favorites

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Flow Senior Editor Ben Kruger-Robbins:
Stephen Tropiano’s piece regarding the recent proliferation of gay male-centered sitcoms (or “gaycoms” as he terms these programs) on network television in conjunction with the changing national discourse surrounding LGBT rights evokes crucial questions about the mass appeal and political importance of homonormative programming. In both considering the potential pleasures of Partners and The New Normal for queer audiences and wryly dissecting these programs’ ideological shortcomings, Tropiano fashions a compelling supplement to The Prime Time Closet, his meticulously researched history of homosexuality on television from the 1950s through the 1990s. Beginning where his final chapter, “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It: Homosexuality and Television Comedy” concluded, namely the mainstream success of Will and Grace, Tropiano adeptly transitions to the current political moment of queer matrimony, as the United States Supreme Court prepares to rule on cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. In simultaneously celebrating LGBT political and social advancement and questioning the limitations of “normalized” gay men on network television, Tropiano reveals intriguing spaces for continued research.

The New Normal

The ground gained on the political front for LGBT people since President Barack Obama took office in 2008 is immeasurable. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed and significant public policy changes have been made in such areas as immigration, employment, housing, health care coverage, hospital visitation rights, and LGBT-inclusive sex education programs. ((See David Badash, “22 LGBT Advances That (Probably) Will Disappear Under a President Romney.” Thenewcivilrightsmovement.org. 14 June 2012. Web. 8 September 2012.)).

On a more personal level, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democratic lawmakers added their voices of support to the It Gets Better Project, an Internet-based video channel featuring over 30,000 videos that carry messages of hope to young people being bullied by their peers because they are gay or are perceived to be gay.

TROPIANO IMAGE 1

Another advancement is the support for same-sex marriage, which was recently included in the 2012 Democratic Party Platform. Back in February of 2011, the White House announced the Obama administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. This past May, President Obama told ABC News’ Robin Roberts that he had changed his original position on marriage as only being between a man and a woman and personally supports gay marriage: “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that—for me personally—it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” At the same time, Obama said the issue needed to be worked out at the local level: “Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate.”

American attitudes appear to be changing along with the times. According to a June 2012 CNN national poll, 54% of the country believe marriages between gay and lesbian couples should be valid and include the same rights as traditional marriages (a 10% increase from 2008). Part of the shift could be due to the fact that in that same poll 60% of Americans stated that a close friend or family member is gay (an 11% increase from 2010). ((“CNN Poll: Americans’ Attitudes Toward Gay Community Changing.” CNN.com 6 June 2012. Web. 15 August 2012. .)) According to factcheck.org, multiple polls on the question of same-sex marriage indicate “a slight plurality—and in some cases a majority—of Americans support gay marriage.” ((“Do ‘Most Americans” Agree with Romney on Gay Marriage” FactCheck.org. 14 May 2012. Web. 15 August 2012. ))

It’s believed that Obama’s announcement in support of marriage equality was precipitated by remarks made by Vice-President Joe Biden, who made his feelings known during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press:

I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil liberties. . . . I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far. And I think—people fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand. ((Sam Stein, “Joe Biden Tells ‘Meet the Press’ He’s ‘Comfortable’ with Marriage Equality.” TheHuffingtonPost.com. 6 May 2012. Web. 8 September 2012. ))

I was pleasantly surprised Biden mentioned Will & Grace (1998-2006), a gaycom (a gay-centered situation comedy) that ended its eight season run six years ago. Television shows, and sitcoms in particular, are often undervalued for their power to open up people’s minds and influence the way they view at the world. Will & Grace and the groundbreaking gaycom that preceded it, Ellen (1994-1998), certainly changed the images of LGBT people on television. Both series “normalized” gay men and lesbians by demonstrating that they live healthy and productive lives–and can be just as neurotic and outrageous as their straight counterparts.

The fall 2012 schedule includes two new gaycoms: Partners (CBS), created by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, the same team responsible for Will & Grace; and The New Normal (NBC), co-created by Allison Adler and Glee‘s Ryan Murphy. It’s difficult to determine from their respective pilots how much of an impact either show could and will have, but my sense is that both shows are off to a slow start.

TROPIANO_IMAGE 3_CAST OF PARTNERS

The more traditional of the two shows, Partners is based on straight Kohan and gay Mutchnick’s relationship as long-time friends and collaborators. In their gaycom they focus on a pair of architects: Louis (Michael Urie), the gay guy, and his childhood friend, Joe (David Krumholtz), the straight one. Louis has a lover, a nurse named Wyatt (Brandon Routh), while Joe has a fiancée, Ali (Sophia Bush). In the pilot episode, Joe and Louis’ friendship and partnership are threatened when Louis’ meddling nearly destroys Joe’s engagement to Ali. So Louis meddles some more and by the end of the half-hour, all is well. But much like the iconic ’50s housewife Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Louis will continue to insert himself into his partner’s other life. The clever advertising tagline says it all: “Four Friends. Three Couples.”

This is the third time around for this pilot, which was shot back in 2007 for CBS under the same title (with Jay Mohr and Brian Austin Green in the leads), and the following year for ABC under the title Fourplay (with Alan Tudyk and Josh Cooke). Unfortunately, version #3 has the look, feel, and the comedic sensibility of a 2007 sitcom with a dated premise. The problem with Partners is that it lacks the ironic edge of one-camera millennial sitcoms like The Office, Modern Family, and 30 Rock, and even the “hipness” of CBS’s other more traditional hit three-camera sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls. Like Will & Grace‘s Jack McFarland, Louis is too over-the-top. His every quip, over reaction, and gesture unrelentingly remind the audience that he’s gay, as if somehow they need to be reminded about the basic premise of the show.

TROPIANO IMAGE 2

Kohan and Mutchnick obviously get it—Will & Grace did a great gay balancing act between Jack McFarland and the smart, slightly insecure, and comparatively subdued Will Truman. But though Urie is a very funny, high-energy actor with great comic timing, Partners feels as if it needs more of a Will anchoring the lead (Routh, playing Louis’ sweet, hunky boyfriend, is unfortunately miscast). The one thing the show has going for it is its director/executive producer, James Burrows. The man who directed 187 episodes of Will & Grace not to mention countless episodes of Cheers, Frasier, and Friends, is known for making good shows better. So perhaps we should give him, Kohan, and Mutchnick some time in hope that they can make some much needed changes in the show’s tone and storylines.

Meanwhile Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy’s brand of slightly off center humor is all over the pilot of The New Normal. As with shows like Nip/Tuck, Popular, Glee, and American Horror Story, Murphy creates his own reality and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to go along for the ride. Glee works as a satire because it is about something every potential viewer has experienced—high school. But same-sex coupling and parenting are relatively new subjects, meaning compared to Modern Family‘s Cameron and Mitchell, the two gay, white urban professionals at the center of The New Normal waiting to raise a child behave more like recently graduated Glee high schoolers wondering if they should take their relationship to the next level.

TROPIANO IMAGE 4

In The New Normal pilot episode, Bryan (The Book of Mormon‘s Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) hire a single mother, Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King), to be the surrogate mother for their baby. But unfortunately, Bryan and Partners‘ Louis are cut from the same gay cloth with Bryan coming off cartoonish, a closer relative, in fact, to Will & Grace‘s Jack.

Same-sex parenting is certainly a “hot” issue, but any couple deciding to make this sort of commitment would put a little more time and thought into the decision (it seems more like a whim, sparked by seeing a cute baby in a stroller). In addition, it all moves very quickly as characters continuously remind the audience about the meaning of the word “family.” The pilot episode’s best moments belong to Goldie, who is more “real” compared to the gay daddies-to-be and her bigoted grandmother, played by Ellen Barkin, who still needs to bring it down a few notches in order not to venture into over-the-top camp territory.

It also feels ironic that the only minority characters on both of these otherwise “liberal-minded” programs are sassy female assistants–a role formerly occupied by gay male characters. Clearly there is more work to be done. A lot more.

Image Credits
1. President Barack Obama, itgetsbetter.org.
2. Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack and Debra Messing, fanpop.com.
3. Cast of Partners, cbs.com.
4. Cast of The New Normal, nbc.com

Original comments:

Alfred Martin said:

Thanks for an intriguing article. I wonder what your thought are about these newest/hottest series residing within comedy as a genre. Certainly these shows are tonally different (one cinematic vs. the other proscenium) but at base they’re both 30-minute comedies. And if we examine them as comedies can we understand the quick decision made by Bryan and David to have a child, even as it seems “real world” impulsive? Thanks again!

-September 27th, 2012 at 12:25 am

Maria Suzanne Boyd said:

Thank you for this excellent overview of the possibilities and limitations these two programs provide. I’ve seen both shows and while Partners is both old-fashioned in it’s style and tone I prefer it to the increasingly unfunny snark that seems to be a staple of Ryan Murphy’s brand. In the end, however, I think the potential success of each program depends on their timeslots more so than their content. A gaycom I recommend that I find to be both hip and accessible to the “mainstream” is the web-series Husbands . The webseries is co-created by Jane Espenson who has written for Buffy, BSG and currently on Once Upon A Time. The first season was produced on a shoe-string budget, but season two is larger in scope and includes cameos by Mekhi Phifer, Jon Cryer, and Joss Whedon.

-September 27th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Stephen Tropiano said:

Alfred–the question you use is an interesting one because traditionally comedy has been used in the past to tackle subjects that might otherwise seem controversial to some in their day (abortion, divorce, homosexuality). And I sometimes have to remind myself that what I am watching is a sitcom–a genre with its own set of codes and conventions. But because gay parenting is not being treated as a “topic of the week” but the premise of the entire series, I wish they had devoted a little more time developing the characters and maybe injected some reality into the show. As I said, co-creator Ryan Murphy constructs his own world–and while I feel it suits a subject like GLEE (a high school fantasy), I guess I had higher expectations for this as it has not really been approached before.

-September 29th, 2012 at 11:23 am

Please feel free to comment.




Gaycoms in a Progressive Age?: Partners and The New Normal
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College


TROPIANO IMAGE 4

The ground gained on the political front for LGBT people since President Barack Obama took office in 2008 is immeasurable. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed and significant public policy changes have been made in such areas as immigration, employment, housing, health care coverage, hospital visitation rights, and LGBT-inclusive sex education programs. ((See David Badash, “22 LGBT Advances That (Probably) Will Disappear Under a President Romney.” Thenewcivilrightsmovement.org. 14 June 2012. Web. 8 September 2012.)).

On a more personal level, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democratic lawmakers added their voices of support to the It Gets Better Project, an Internet-based video channel featuring over 30,000 videos that carry messages of hope to young people being bullied by their peers because they are gay or are perceived to be gay.

TROPIANO IMAGE 1

Another advancement is the support for same-sex marriage, which was recently included in the 2012 Democratic Party Platform. Back in February of 2011, the White House announced the Obama administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. This past May, President Obama told ABC News’ Robin Roberts that he had changed his original position on marriage as only being between a man and a woman and personally supports gay marriage: “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that—for me personally—it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” At the same time, Obama said the issue needed to be worked out at the local level: “Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate.”

American attitudes appear to be changing along with the times. According to a June 2012 CNN national poll, 54% of the country believe marriages between gay and lesbian couples should be valid and include the same rights as traditional marriages (a 10% increase from 2008). Part of the shift could be due to the fact that in that same poll 60% of Americans stated that a close friend or family member is gay (an 11% increase from 2010). ((“CNN Poll: Americans’ Attitudes Toward Gay Community Changing.” CNN.com 6 June 2012. Web. 15 August 2012. .))
According to factcheck.org, multiple polls on the question of same-sex marriage indicate “a slight plurality—and in some cases a majority—of Americans support gay marriage.” ((“Do ‘Most Americans” Agree with Romney on Gay Marriage” FactCheck.org. 14 May 2012. Web. 15 August 2012. ))

It’s believed that Obama’s announcement in support of marriage equality was precipitated by remarks made by Vice-President Joe Biden, who made his feelings known during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press:

I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil liberties. . . . I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far. And I think—people fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand. ((Sam Stein, “Joe Biden Tells ‘Meet the Press’ He’s ‘Comfortable’ with Marriage Equality.” TheHuffingtonPost.com. 6 May 2012. Web. 8 September 2012. ))

I was pleasantly surprised Biden mentioned Will & Grace (1998-2006), a gaycom (a gay-centered situation comedy) that ended its eight season run six years ago. Television shows, and sitcoms in particular, are often undervalued for their power to open up people’s minds and influence the way they view at the world. Will & Grace and the groundbreaking gaycom that preceded it, Ellen (1994-1998), certainly changed the images of LGBT people on television. Both series “normalized” gay men and lesbians by demonstrating that they live healthy and productive lives–and can be just as neurotic and outrageous as their straight counterparts.

The fall 2012 schedule includes two new gaycoms: Partners (CBS), created by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, the same team responsible for Will & Grace; and The New Normal (NBC), co-created by Allison Adler and Glee‘s Ryan Murphy. It’s difficult to determine from their respective pilots how much of an impact either show could and will have, but my sense is that both shows are off to a slow start.

TROPIANO_IMAGE 3_CAST OF PARTNERS

The more traditional of the two shows, Partners is based on straight Kohan and gay Mutchnick’s relationship as long-time friends and collaborators. In their gaycom they focus on a pair of architects: Louis (Michael Urie), the gay guy, and his childhood friend, Joe (David Krumholtz), the straight one. Louis has a lover, a nurse named Wyatt (Brandon Routh), while Joe has a fiancée, Ali (Sophia Bush). In the pilot episode, Joe and Louis’ friendship and partnership are threatened when Louis’ meddling nearly destroys Joe’s engagement to Ali. So Louis meddles some more and by the end of the half-hour, all is well. But much like the iconic ’50s housewife Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Louis will continue to insert himself into his partner’s other life. The clever advertising tagline says it all: “Four Friends. Three Couples.”

This is the third time around for this pilot, which was shot back in 2007 for CBS under the same title (with Jay Mohr and Brian Austin Green in the leads), and the following year for ABC under the title Fourplay (with Alan Tudyk and Josh Cooke). Unfortunately, version #3 has the look, feel, and the comedic sensibility of a 2007 sitcom with a dated premise. The problem with Partners is that it lacks the ironic edge of one-camera millennial sitcoms like The Office, Modern Family, and 30 Rock, and even the “hipness” of CBS’s other more traditional hit three-camera sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls. Like Will & Grace‘s Jack McFarland, Louis is too over-the-top. His every quip, over reaction, and gesture unrelentingly remind the audience that he’s gay, as if somehow they need to be reminded about the basic premise of the show.

TROPIANO IMAGE 2

Kohan and Mutchnick obviously get it—Will & Grace did a great gay balancing act between Jack McFarland and the smart, slightly insecure, and comparatively subdued Will Truman. But though Urie is a very funny, high-energy actor with great comic timing, Partners feels as if it needs more of a Will anchoring the lead (Routh, playing Louis’ sweet, hunky boyfriend, is unfortunately miscast). The one thing the show has going for it is its director/executive producer, James Burrows. The man who directed 187 episodes of Will & Grace not to mention countless episodes of Cheers, Frasier, and Friends, is known for making good shows better. So perhaps we should give him, Kohan, and Mutchnick some time in hope that they can make some much needed changes in the show’s tone and storylines.

Meanwhile Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy’s brand of slightly off center humor is all over the pilot of The New Normal. As with shows like Nip/Tuck, Popular, Glee, and American Horror Story, Murphy creates his own reality and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to go along for the ride. Glee works as a satire because it is about something every potential viewer has experienced—high school. But same-sex coupling and parenting are relatively new subjects, meaning compared to Modern Family‘s Cameron and Mitchell, the two gay, white urban professionals at the center of The New Normal waiting to raise a child behave more like recently graduated Glee high schoolers wondering if they should take their relationship to the next level.

TROPIANO IMAGE 4

In The New Normal pilot episode, Bryan (The Book of Mormon‘s Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) hire a single mother, Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King), to be the surrogate mother for their baby. But unfortunately, Bryan and Partners‘ Louis are cut from the same gay cloth with Bryan coming off cartoonish, a closer relative, in fact, to Will & Grace‘s Jack.

Same-sex parenting is certainly a “hot” issue, but any couple deciding to make this sort of commitment would put a little more time and thought into the decision (it seems more like a whim, sparked by seeing a cute baby in a stroller). In addition, it all moves very quickly as characters continuously remind the audience about the meaning of the word “family.” The pilot episode’s best moments belong to Goldie, who is more “real” compared to the gay daddies-to-be and her bigoted grandmother, played by Ellen Barkin, who still needs to bring it down a few notches in order not to venture into over-the-top camp territory.

It also feels ironic that the only minority characters on both of these otherwise “liberal-minded” programs are sassy female assistants–a role formerly occupied by gay male characters.
Clearly there is more work to be done. A lot more.

Image Credits
1. President Barack Obama, itgetsbetter.org.
2. Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack and Debra Messing, fanpop.com.
3. Cast of Partners, cbs.com.
4. Cast of The New Normal, nbc.com

Please feel free to comment.




Satellite TV Smackdown: Viacom vs. DirecTV
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College

description of image
Viacom channels

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at approximately 11:45pm (ET), something unexpected happened in 20 million living rooms across America. DirecTV customers (myself included) no longer had access to 17 Viacom channels, including such favorites as Comedy Central, MTV, and the #1 most watched cable channel on DirecTV, Nickelodeon. A single flick of a switch–and it was so long Stewart & Colbert, au revoir Spongebob & Dora, and good riddance Snooki and JWOWW.

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DirecTV’s notice to customers

The blackout was due to a financial dispute over an increase in the subscription fees Viacom was charging DirecTV to carry their channels, a list that also includes VH1, BET, TVLand, Spike and Nickelodeon’s siblings, NickToons, Nick Jr., and Teen Nick. According to an online video message from DirecTV CEO Mike White, Viacom was demanding DirecTV “pay over 30% more. That’s an extra billion dollars for the exact same channels you already receive.” ((“Mike White’s Message to Customers.” Lybio.net. n.d. Web. 27 July 2012. http://lybio.net/mike-white-message-to-customers-directv-ceo/people/.)) Viacom accused DirecTV of misleading their customers and set the record straight: “Here’s the truth: Viacom is asking DirecTV for an increase of a couple of pennies per day per subscriber. That’s far less than DirecTV pays other programmers with fewer viewers than Viacom.” (( As quoted in Brian Anthony Hernandez, “DireTV Removes Viacom Channels Amid Battle on Social Media.” Mashable.com. Mashable, 10 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://mashable.com/2012/07/10/viacom-directv-social-media/))

The phrase “a couple of pennies a day” makes me nervous. Exactly how many pennies are we talking about? Let’s do the math: $1 billion dollars (the additional cost per year) divided by 20 million subscribers = 5,000 pennies or $50 dollars per year per subscriber. In this economy, that’s a substantial increase, especially when, as White points out, we will be receiving the same channels.

Channel blackouts are no longer a rare occurrence. Over the past two years they have risen significantly in number, from 4 in 2010, to 15 in 2011, to 22 in the first half of 2012. According to the Associated Press, cable and satellite providers are less willing to pay higher fees because their profits have decreased due to the decline in the number new households in the current economic climate. At the same time, entertainment companies like Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, AMC, and Viacom “have kept expanding their profit share.” ((“TV Channel Blackouts Becoming More Common as Profits Stall.” www.usatoday.com. USA Today, 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2012-07-15/television-blackouts/56236886/1.)) On July 20, 2012, the same day DirecTV and Viacom reached an agreement, Time Warner Cable and the Hearst Corporation ended their financial standoff, restoring nearly half of Hearst’s twenty-nine local television stations. ((Chelsea Stevenson, “Time Warner Agrees to Restore 15 Local Hearst TV Stations.” Online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20120720-706219.html)) A heated contract dispute over licensing fees between AMC Networks and the DISH Network resulted in the second-largest satellite TV provider eventually dropping American Movie Classics, WEtv, and Independent Film Channel (IFC) from its line-up on July 1, 2012. ((William Launder, “AMC in Deal to Keep Channels on AT&T.” online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304299704577500853046352874.html)) Knowing DISH customers were outraged over missing the highly anticipated season premiere of Breaking Bad, AMC decided to live stream the episode (which they never do) in order to give Dish customers “an extra week to switch providers so they can enjoy the rest of the season.” ((Amanda Kondolojy, “AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Season 5 Premiere is Most-Watched Episode Ever.” TVbythenumbers.zap2it.com. 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/07/16/amcs-breaking-bad-season-5-premiere-is-most-watched-episode-ever/141710/))

In the case of DirecTV vs. Viacom, their seven-year contract was up on June 30th but Viacom allowed DirecTV to continue to air their channels until negotiations stalled. Then a mini-modern day Game of Thrones (minus the sexposition) erupted with both sides engaging in some very intense finger pointing via on-screen messages, TV commercials, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr). DirecTV’s campaign was more corporate and subdued compared to Viacom’s, which, like the programming on MTV and Nickelodeon, was overstated, in-your-face, and a tad cartoonish.

The more adult of the two companies, DirecTV appealed to their customers by presenting “the facts” (or at least their version of them). An on-screen message on the blacked out channels and on their website, DIRECTVpromise.com, made it clear that Viacom is the guilty party. On their website, DirecTV also explained the correct number of blacked out channels is 17, not 26, the number Viacom was using in their campaign: “Viacom’s double-counting both high definition and standard definition versions of the same service to overly inflate its totals and add more unnecessary drama to what should have always remained private business discussions.” ((The 17 Viacom channels, 9 of which are available in HD (designated by an *asterisk): BET*, CMT* (Country Music Television), Centric, Comedy Central*, Logo, MTV*, MTV2, Nickelodeon*, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, Palladia, Spike*, Teen Nick, TR3s, TV Land, VH1*, VH1 Classic. ))

There was plenty of “unnecessary drama” in Viacom’s campaign urging customers to call DirecTV to stop them from “taking away 26 of your channels.” Their website, whendirectvdrops.com, featured a search engine DirecTV customers could use to find another cable or satellite service provider that carries Viacom’s channels and make the switch. DirecTV explained on their website that changing providers would not matter because “no TV provider is immune to unfair fee increases” (to prove their point they even provide a list of “current and recent industry disputes”). Still, DirecTV was no doubt concerned about losing customers (who would be charged a pro-rated early cancellation fee of up to $20 a month!) (( When a close friend called DirecTV while the blackout was going on to find out where to send an old box she had been holding on to, she inquired if they would be offering some credit since they were no longer carrying Comedy Central – she’s a Daily Show fan. Before she could say anything else they offered her 6 months of free Showtime, Starz and Encore and $10 off her bill for the next six months. )).

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Viacom’s notice to DirecTV customers

Team Viacom also encouraged customers to participate in the fun via Twitter (#whendirectvdrops.com), which also sent tweets from MTV and reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi encouraging their fans to call DirecTV and demand their channels back. DirecTV also had their own Twitter account that encouraged customers to express their support, though some chose to express their anger at both sides, accusing them of caring more about profits than their customers.

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Twitter message from Nicole Polizzi “Snooki”

Viacom even attempted to scare DirecTV customers with a shameless video montage that incorporated clips from popular shows on Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon shows that give the impression that Jersey Shore‘s The Situation, Stephen Colbert, Daniel Tosh, iCarly‘s Miranda Cosgrove, the South Park kids, and Spongebob Squarepants are reacting to DirecTV’s decision to get rid of “26 of your favorite channels” (Viacom’s name is, of course, never mentioned). The final image is a definite low point: Dora the Explorer saying, “We need your help!” (a request she often makes to her young fans). DirecTV was no doubt aware that the loss of Nickelodeon was devastating for many kids, so they added Disney Junior to their line-up.   ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV Adds Channel Amid Viacom Dispute.” Variety.com. Variety, 13 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056546)) In fact, the Disney Channel’s viewership rose during the blackout while Nickelodeon’s steadily dropped. ((Brian Stelter, “Denied Nickelodeon, DirecTV’s Youngest Clients Find Substitutes.” nytimes.com. New York Times, 18 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/business/media/dispute-with-directv-aids-viacoms-rivals-in-childrens-programming.html))

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Viacom’s video message to DirecTV customers

Viacom also tried to show whose boss by stopping the online streaming of complete episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Viacom restored the public’s access within a week after being lambasted by critics, including their own Jon Stewart, who asked, “Viacom, where are you, China?”

On July 10, 2012, an agreement was reached and order was restored in ViacomLand. A seven-year agreement was reached to the tune of $5 billion (a 20% increase instead of the initial 30% Viacom was demanding). ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV, Viacom Reach Agreement.” Variety.com. Variety, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056833))

As for DirecTV’s subscribers, it’s still not clear what if anything we got out of this deal. Viacom and DirecTV had no qualms about sending their customers into battle, yet it is only a matter of time before we will be footing the bill for their war. In the meantime, all I know is I had access to 17 (or 26) Viacom channels, suddenly I didn’t, and then I got them back. And I am not expecting to get a rebate anytime soon from DirecTV for those Snooki-less summer days of 2012.

Image Credits
1. Collage by author.
2. Screen shot by author
3. whendirectvdrops.com, screen shot by author
4. Screen shot by author
5. Screen shot by author




“Television is made by human beings, my friend.”
Stephen Tropiano Ithaca College

CONGLOMERATES ON TV SET

The six major media conglomerates that dominate the American television industry.

During Mitt Romney’s speech at the Iowa State Fair last August, one voice in a crowd of hecklers asked the Republican presidential-candidate-in-waiting why he wouldn’t raise taxes on corporations, which were making record profits under the Bush tax code. Romney matter-of-factly explained that “corporations are people, my friend . . . Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? . . . People’s pockets. Human beings, my friend.”

The fairground was the perfect backdrop for Romney’s speech. He sounded like a snake oil salesman giving a skeptical crowd the hard sell on his personal brand of corporate capitalism.

But let’s be fair. Technically, Romney was telling the truth. Corporate profits do go into the pockets of human beings. But what he failed to mention is those pockets belong to a very select group of people—better known in corporate circles as “shareholders.”

So what about the rest of us? What does the American public gain when corporations are making money? Consider the six major media conglomerates that dominate the American television industry: CBS, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, TimeWarner, Viacom, and The Walt Disney Company. Their combined revenues in 2011 totaled $138 billion dollars with Disney topping the list at $40.8 billion. And what is it that we—the non-shareholders—get in return? A culture dictated by dollar signs. Movie franchises based on comic books and theme park rides. Formulaic television series designed to appeal to a mainstream (and global) audience.

WHO OWNS WHAT FLOWTV

List of TV Channels / Networks

For many years, I denounced the magnitude of these companies by challenging my students to a game of “Who Owns What?” We would begin by identifying and writing the names of the six major media conglomerates on the blackboard. Then I give them a list of twenty-five television channels and networks and ask them to identity the conglomerate they each belong to. It’s surprising how few they knew outside of MTV and Comedy Central (both Viacom) and ESPN (at least the 80% owned by Disney, with the remaining 20% owned by the Hearst Corporation). Next, I distribute a list of media holdings (film, TV, publishing, music, new media, etc.) for each conglomerate and launch into a discussion of the negative consequences, from the viewing public’s perspective, of having an oligarchy determine and control what we watch each week.

The problem with the American television industry is what my students would call a “no-brainer.” For these rich and powerful multinational corporations in control of our TV sets, it’s all about the bottom line: ratings and revenues trump quality and originality.

And then, around four years ago, I was reminded why I became interested in teaching television in the first place. I was invited to serve on the Academy of Television Arts & Science’s “Television Cares Committee.” Comprised of 18-20 members from the different branches of the TV Academy, the committee chooses the recipients of its annual “Television Academy Honors,” which is bestowed on “Television with a Conscience—television programming that inspires, informs, motivates, and even has the power to change lives.”

ACADEMY HONORS

The Television Academy Honors — Television with a Conscience

Academy Honors is separate from the Emmys and choosing the recipients each year is far less complicated than the complex nomination and selection process governing the Emmys. Television networks, companies, and producers submit programming they feel meets the general criteria stated above. The committee watches the submissions, discusses them, watches more submissions, followed by more discussion, and eventually the list is reduced to eight recipients. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes down to making the final decisions. Everyone doesn’t necessarily agree—and everyone has his or her reasons for ranking one show higher than another. But unlike a corporate balance sheet, where profit is the main goal, there’s no right or wrong. Quality is certainly an issue, but there’s a greater emphasis on what a show has to say than the size of its viewing audience. And there is no empirical formula to measure either the quality of a program or its message. Profitability and popularity are not the highest-ranking criteria—much in the way quality and intellectual content are not in the corporate world.

As the only academic in the group (yes, the TV Academy has an academic branch), I sometimes have to restrain myself from overanalyzing a program and pointing out its ideological contradictions (but unlike some of my undergraduates, the committee members actually listen and there’s none of that eye rolling students think we don’t see). As someone who teaches television, participating in this process is doubly important. I am reminded that television shows are made by (in the words of Mitt Romney) “human beings.” It also reaffirms for me that television and, more specifically, the creative people behind it, has the potential—and often succeeds—to challenge, enlighten, and yes, even motivate the viewing public.

Academy Honors are awarded to fiction and non-fiction programming—documentaries, specials, and single TV episodes that aired on commercial, commercial cable, and pay cable networks. Past recipients have tackled such varied topics as drug addiction (Vanguard: The Oxycontin Express/Current TV), adoption (Home For the Holidays/CBS), Alzheimer’s (Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? With Maria Shriver/HBO), Autism (Unlocking Autism/Discovery Health; Parenthood/NBC), cancer (The Big C/Showtime; Stand Up to Cancer/ABC, CBS & NBC), same-sex marriage (Brothers & Sisters/ABC), euthanasia (Private Practice/ABC), racism in sports (Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football/HBO Sports; The 16th Man/ESPN), the effects of war (Women, War & Peace/PBS), and the death penalty (Explorer: Inside Death Row/National Geographic).

As I like to tell my students, there was a time when our viewing choices were limited to seven or eight channels (three major networks, a few local stations, and HBO if you could get it). As a kid, I studied the TV Guide every week, and I knew what was on every channel every single night. The deregulation of the American media that began in the 1980s caused media conglomerates to swell in size along with the amount of television content. Now, with so many channels, it’s impossible to keep track of what’s on–so it was easy to overlook the three excellent episodes honored this year when they originally aired:

PHOTO 4 RESCUE ME

An emotional episode (“344”) of Rescue Me focused on New York firefighter Tommy Gavin’s (played by series co-creator Denis Leary) struggle to come to terms with his grief when he returns to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

PHOTO 6 HARRY'S LAW

Harry’s Law, a courtroom legal dramedy starring Kathy Bates and created by David E. Kelley, addressed the health risks posed by contact sports with an episode (“Head Games”) involving a high school student who suffered a fatal brain injury playing football.

MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE

An episode of Men of a Certain Age (“Let the Sunshine In”) followed three middle-aged men (Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher, and series co-creator Ray Romano) on a road trip to Palm Springs for a weekend of golf, male-bonding, and colonoscopies. The latter subject, which receives little media attention beyond The Dr. Oz Show, is treated with intelligence and humor.

Unfortunately, all three series are no longer on the air. Rescue Me ended its seven-season run in 2011. TNT cancelled Men of a Certain Age back in July of 2011 after two seasons. Less than two weeks after Kelly and co-executive producer Bill D’Elia accepted their award, NBC announced Harry’s Law would not be picked up for a third season. The show earned respectable ratings, but it didn’t attract enough viewers in the coveted 18-49 year old demographic to keep it on the air.

NBC shareholders are no doubt sleeping easier tonight. But that doesn’t do much for the rest of us human beings.

Image Credits:
1. TV set with names of major conglomerates, collage by author
2. List of TV Channels/networks, collage by author
3. Academy Honors – Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
4. Rescue Me banner – TV Guide
5. Harry’s Law banner – Hulu
6. Men of a Certain Age banner TV Guide