Synchronizing Creatives in Music Video Production
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los Angeles

Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017)
Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017).

Imagine you’ve created a successful music video treatment, gotten the go ahead from the label, planned a shoot… and the artist doesn’t show. This is a fairly common scenario, often resulting in cumbersome costs and delays.[ ((See Staake’s interview with Rolling Stone: Eric Ducker, “Young Thug ‘Wyclef Jean’ Director on How He Saved His Nightmare Shoot,” Rolling Stone, January 17, 2017, As Staake discusses, this project was somewhat anomalous from the scenario I paint above from the beginning. Staake was actually the second director on the project, and it wasn’t really his treatment driving the project (until after the shoot went south and he came up with the alternative idea that we ultimately see in the video). ))] But Ryan Staake and Young Thug’s 2017 “Wyclef Jean” video makes light of just such a disastrous shoot. Using title cards, subtitles, and minimal footage of Young Thug, Staake wittily narrates a music video that should by all rights have been an utter disaster. On the one hand, “Wyclef Jean” is a case where a music video’s director and its featured artist are wildly out of synch: as Staake narrates, “we never met each other.” And yet the video’s unique charm relies on the creative vision of both director and artist. Young Thug’s preposterous ideas and footage (video vixens in children’s hot wheels cars, the artist eating Cheetos) provide the perfect foil for Staake’s wry sense of humor. And in the end, both Staake and “Thugger” (as Staake refers to him in the video) benefitted from this unusual collaboration: Staake won an MTV Video Music Award for best editing (albeit without his “co-director’s” knowledge), and Young Thug gained additional notoriety (the video currently has over 36 million views). 

Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). Four screenshots taken by author and arranged in block per request.
Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug).

Despite its silliness, “Wyclef Jean” raises some serious questions regarding the work of music videomaking. In my previous column, I discussed audio-visual synchronization as a key aesthetic feature of music videos. But we can think about synchronization in a more industrial sense too. How do music video productions reconcile music and image, and the work of creative personnel from varying backgrounds, in the creative process?

Some musicians reject music videos as a waste of their time, while others have taken a more active role in their creation. Noel Gallagher of Oasis reportedly hated the time and energy he had to expend on music videos in his band’s heyday. In one of his characteristic rants, he denigrated the work of music video directors, painting them as pompous and overly serious about their work: “I fucking hate videos,” he railed, not least because, “I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now.”

Other artists, however, have found that taking an active role in the creation of music videos gives them another means of creative expression and control over their image. Cyndi Lauper, for instance, famously oversaw and participated in every aspect of her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music video. Drawing on Michael Shore’s “making of” account for Rolling Stone, Lisa A. Lewis wrote, “Lauper’s name appears over and over as a contributor at virtually every stage of production. It is ‘Cyndi’ who picks the video’s producer Ken Walz, and director Ed Griles…[She] suggests the video’s concept, picks location sites in New York City, brings in choreographer Mary Ellen Strom and finds extras to appear in the video.”[ ((Lisa A. Lewis, “Being Discovered: The Emergence of Female Address on MTV,” in Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg (London ; New York: Routledge, 1993), 133. Thanks to Paul N. Reinsch for reminding me of this important example, and as always for his feedback on my work. ))]

Lauper even did some of the set design and oversaw the editing and effects. As Lewis pointed out, this level of control was rare for a female artist at the time, and consequently Lauper’s contributions were all the more important. As she put it herself, “I know what I want and don’t want—I don’t want to be portrayed as just another sex symbol.”[ ((Qtd. in Ibid. ))]

Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).

In other cases, music videos are the result of true collaboration between musicians and mediamakers. Take, for instance, the high profile partnership between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and Hiro Murai. The pair have not only made five music videos together, including the much discussed “This is America,” but also several other projects, including the acclaimed TV show Atlanta (FX, 2016-). Murai told Deadline, “Regularly in music videos, I’ll write the pitch and convince the artists that this is a good idea, and then I’m having to make concessions to meet in the middle. With Donald, I always feel like we’re facing in the same direction. Of course, he’s a writer and he writes a lot of the concepts for the music videos, as well. So, I don’t know. There was something about it that felt very easy for me.” The extent of Glover and Murai’s partnership is unusual: as Murai notes, after all, Glover is not “just” a musician but also a writer and actor. Nonetheless, their collaboration points toward the fluidity between artists’ ideas and directors’ ideas in music video production.

“This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.

But to talk only about collaboration between directors and musicians is also reductive. Much has been made of Glover and Murai’s partnership, but the popular press has not focused on Larkin Seiple, the DP who not only shot “This is America,” but several of the duo’s other music videos. Key to “This is America’s” success has been the open-endedness of its imagery, which invites viewer-listeners to speculate and interpret. This openness is partly attributable to Seiple’s cinematography. As he discusses in an interview with American Cinematographer, he and Murai worked to develop an “accidental tableau” approach. He says, “we realized the camera should really be moving … so the audience can focus on the spectacle and the dance, letting the surreal elements drift in and out of frame. It’s more about the audience finding each piece.”

Collaboration is important to making music videos work financially as well as creatively. Director Isaac Ravishankara’s work with the group LANY demonstrates this. Ravishankara shot two videos for the group, “Thick and Thin” and “Malibu Nights,” on the same day in 2018. He recently told me that the concept for “Thick and Thin,” which consists of a long tracking shot where Paul Klein sings while sitting on the trunk of a car in motion, was based on an idea he had wanted to make for a long time. While Klein liked the idea, and was up for it, the label was skeptical, in part because of the costs: the video involved closing down a stretch of Southern California’s Pacific Coast Highway, in addition to renting a special rig to keep Klein on the car. Ravishankara consequently had the idea of shooting another video in the same location so that the label would get two videos for essentially the same cost.

LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.
LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.

The second video, “Malibu Nights” was based on an idea from Klein, who had acquired a transparent lucite piano and wanted to play it on the beach as waves crashed around him. Both videos are striking, and both play with stasis and motion, albeit in different ways. They speak to the creativity of both Ravishankara and Klein, not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of navigating the practicalities of music video production: label concerns, budgets, shooting schedules, etc.

I don’t mean to suggest that collaboration is somehow unique to music video production. Media Studies boasts an increasingly robust scholarship on the many forms of labor required to produce a project, from the work of executive producers to below-the-line personnel. However, I do think that music video’s characteristic integration of music and moving images requires a different kind of collaboration and creative balancing act. Music video directors, DPs, and editors are required to think musically much more than they would in other projects, and musicians are required to think visually. This kind of creative synchronization doesn’t always happen, but when it does, as in the examples featured here, the results are memorable.

Image Credits:

  1. Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017). (author’s screen grab)
  2. Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). (author’s screen grab)
  3. Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).
  4. “This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.
  5. LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s. (author’s screen grab)

The Reflexivity of Rigged Ratings: Nielsen in our Cultural Memory
Jennifer Hessler / Bucknell University

Nielsen family newspaper clipping
Profiles of Nielsen Families became commonplace in the popular press around the mid-1960s.

During the rituals of small talk on public transport or at social events, when I share that my job involves conducting research on television audience analytics—or, the Nielsen ratings—I often receive anecdotes, particularly from older generations, about how their neighbors used to be a Nielsen Family or the time their favorite television show was cancelled due to low ratings. During these interactions, the central role that Nielsen occupies in our cultural memory of television becomes readily apparent; the mere phrase “the Nielsen ratings” seems to evoke a deep-rooted nostalgia for television’s past among those who lived it.

Nielsen’s place in the popular imagination started to materialize in the mid-1960s, when the industry’s increasing reliance on ratings and the well-publicized criticism of Nielsen’s methods stimulated the popular press’ interest in the “mystical band of families” who determine which television shows live or die.[ (( Lawrence Laurent, “Memo Shows Nielsen as Wary of Probers,” Washington Post, 29 March 1963, A10; “Ratings Majors Sign FTC Consent Order,” Broadcasting 7 January 1963, 1, 66; Frank Mankiewicz, “Waiting for Rain: Down the Tube with Arbitron,” Washington Post, 5 June 1977, 244; Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time, revised edition (London: Routledge, 1994) (originally published in 1983). ))] In 1965, CBS Reports aired the first televised feature on ratings panelists, turning the Nielsen Family into “the medium’s foremost celebrity off screen.”[ (( “The Ratings Game,” CBS Reports (CBS), aired 12 July 1965; Jack Gould, “TV: Nielsen Viewers Bear Big Load,” New York Times, 16 July 1965, 55. ))] Throughout the next two decades, newscasts about Nielsen Families were commonplace, often depicting panelists as capricious, and drawing out panelists’ “confessions” about how they (unintentionally or purposefully) mis-recorded their viewing data.[ (( See for example, Hal Humphry, “Where Duty Lies for Nielsen Family,” Los Angeles Times 1 June 1966, C14; Jack Gould, “TV: Nielsen Viewers Bear Big Load,” New York Times, 16 July 1965, 55; Todd Allan Yasui, “Confessions of a Nielsen Family: What Happened when the ‘TV People’ Came to Stay,” Washington Post, 27 December 1987, TV 7; “Segment 3: The Ratings,” NBC Nightly News (NBC), 8 November 1977 (Vanderbilt News Archive, #491660), accessed 27 March 2019; “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” PBS (NewsHour Productions), aired 30 October, 1986 (American Archive of Public Broadcasting, ID: cpb-aacip/507-xg9f47hr1r), accessed 14 January 2020. ))] As the Nielsen Family was becoming an icon of American televisual culture, these stories about unreliable panelists cultivated a popular imagination of the ratings that was latent with skepticism.

News featurettes turned the Nielsen Family into an icon of television culture, while also highlighting their unreliability (The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, 1986).

This image of the ratings as dubious was further perpetuated through fiction, where the vast majority of depictions of the ratings have, curiously, entailed plotlines about the ratings being rigged. In the made-for-TV movie The Ratings Game (dir. Danny DeVito, Showtime, 1984), Vic DeSalvo (Danny DeVito) is told by executives at the fictional network “MBC” that his pilot Sittin’ Pretty will only remain on air if it can beat its time-slot competitor, the World Series, in the ratings. With the help of his girlfriend Francine (Rhea Perlman), who is a statistician at the fictional ratings firm “Computron,” DeSalvo steals the complete list of “Computron” panelists’ home addresses, invites them on a “free cruise,” and then hires mobsters to break into the panelists’ houses and tune their televisions to Sittin’ Pretty. Accordingly, DeSalvo’s series gets a 60 share in the overnights and numerous accolades until his scam is discovered and he is arrested.

The Ratings Game (dir. Danny DeVito, Showtime, 1984).

In television plotlines, it’s often the panelists themselves who rig the ratings. In “Prime Time,” Alf (NBC, 1987), the Tanners are chosen to be a “Tomson” ratings family, using the industry’s new “people log” meter. Immediately the family alters their viewing behaviors, tuning into informational programs like The MacNeil/Lehrer Report (PBS, 1983-95). But when Alf (Paul Fusco) discovers that his favorite show, Polka Jamboree, is about to be cancelled due to low ratings, he sets out to rig the ratings, calling 1000 households and convincing them to watch the show. When the Tanners find out about the stunt, daughter Lynn (Andrea Elson) exclaims, “Even 2000 people wouldn’t increase the ratings that much!” Alf answers, “Aha! …Unless they were each given a number and logged into the Tomson rating system,” which he follows with an obscure explanation of how he “hooked up the ratings box to the transmission on [his] spaceship, then shifted into sideways.”

“Prime Time,” Alf (NBC, 1987).

In “Couch Potatoes,” Roseanne (ABC, 1995), the Conner family is likewise selected to be a Nielsen Family. After installing their ratings box, the Nielsen representative asks the Conners to verify some demographic details, explaining that “advertisers not only like to know how many people watch certain programs, but also what type of people they are.” Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) asks, “And what type of people are we?” to which the representative replies, “You’re a fine type of people, like many of the people from this type of neighborhood: large households, modest income, required education only.” After the representative leaves, Roseanne exclaims, “Can you believe that, Dan? They think we’re dumb hicks. They just want to hook up some poor uneducated slobs, so the country has somebody to blame America’s Funniest Home Videos on….We are not going to watch nothing but PBS, and the Discovery Channel, and that other smart crap. We’ll show them.” The Conners spend the majority of the episode watching nature programs in effort to appear more cultured to Nielsen and to prove that they can adopt a more “sophisticated” lifestyle.

“Couch Potatoes,” Roseanne (ABC, 1995).

More recently, the episode “Ratings Guy,” Family Guy (Fox, 2012), follows the same pattern of the Griffin family being chosen as a Nielsen Family. After discovering that being a ratings panelist grants him influence at his local news station, Peter Griffin (Seth MacFarlane) decides to steal all of the Nielsen boxes in order to have power over all of television. With hundreds of Nielsen boxes hooked up to his television, Peter is able to influence television executives to implement nonsensical ideas such as concluding the ad campaign pitches on Mad Men (AMC, 2007-15) with lightsaber fights, effectively ruining television and inciting an angry mob.

“Ratings Guy,” Family Guy (Fox, 2012).

These narratives about rigged ratings serve as a liminal space for television writers to contend self-reflexively with their own frustrations about the ratings. The shortcomings of Nielsen’s sampling methods are a reoccurring theme. In the aforementioned plotlines, the ratings’ reliance on a very small (albeit statistically representative) number of households is what leaves them vulnerable to being rigged. Uniquely, “Prime Time” comments specifically on Nielsen’s controversial adoption of the people meter (which the episode fictionalizes as “the people log”). In an effort to learn more about the ratings, Alf watches a television interview with NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, where he is asked about the effects of the people log on ratings trends. Tartikoff gives a rambling response culminating in his assertion that “the most consistent aspect will be the total lack of ratings consistency, which is strangely enough, consistent with what we found to be an overall inconsistency.” This theme of inconsistency also manifests in relation to the ratings households themselves, who without fail end up strategically altering their viewing behavior once they become panelists. Finally, in addition to perpetuating the idea that the television industry will bend to the will of the ratings without regard to quality, the collective resolution of these episodes tends to be that the homeostasis of commercial television will always come back to a wasteland of limited story formats—such as when Peter Griffin ultimately “fixes” television by instructing executives to create fifteen workplace comedies and multiple repeats of Law and Order.

But beyond offering a reflexive outlet for television writers’ frustrations with Nielsen, the thematization of rigged ratings leans into the public’s skepticism toward the ratings, while simultaneously positioning dubious data as a necessary element of a populist media system. In other words, the Nielsen ratings’ fallibility is a result of their necessary reliance on the public’s participation in the ratings process. Ien Ang makes a similar argument when she says that “the ‘problem’ that viewers are not [panopticon] prisoners but ‘free’ consumers [sic] accounts for the limits of audience measurement as a practice of control.”[ (( Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1991), 87. ))] But what Ang does not account for is the way that the media has mythicized the maverick viewer as a rhetorical mechanism to reframe participation in audience surveillance as interactive (or even empowering) rather than disciplinary. For the viewer, alongside the skepticism they provoke, these televisual depictions perpetuate the fantasy that by subjecting one’s viewing to surveillance, one can relinquish their role as passive consumer and instead assume the role of influencer or cultural maverick.

While the Nielsen ratings have historically had a unique ontological identity, occupying a central role in our cultural memory of television, today audience measurement is almost indistinguishable among the array of consumer data exchanges that characterize the digital media landscape. Like many emblems of our television history, the Nielsen ratings (in their traditional form) are becoming archaic. In this way, these televisual narratives about rigged ratings serve as valuable time capsules—remnants of the tumultuous process of ritualizing surveillance, in part through its entrenchment in our televisual leisure, as a normalized aspect of our entertainment culture.

Image Credits:

  1. Profiles of Nielsen Families became commonplace in the popular press around the mid-1960s. Todd Allan Yasui, “Confessions of a Nielsen Family: What Happened when the ‘TV People’ Came to Stay,” Washington Post, 27 December 1987, author’s screengrab.
  2. News featurettes turned the Nielsen Family into an icon of television culture, while also highlighting their unreliability. “The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour” PBS (News Hour Productions), aired 30 October, 1986 (American Archive of Public Broadcasting, ID: cpb-aacip/507-xg9f47hr1r).
  3. The Ratings Game (dir. Danny DeVito, Showtime, 1984).
  4. “Prime Time,” Alf (NBC, 1987).
  5. “Couch Potatoes,” Roseanne (ABC, 1995).
  6. “Ratings Guy,” Family Guy (Fox, 2012).


Mr. Sandler Goes to Netflix
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College

Adam Sandler
Adam Sandler at FYC Event For Netflix’s ‘Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh’

At the end of 2019, Netflix released a list of the ten most popular shows and movies that started streaming at the beginning of the year. The list included highly promoted programming including The Umbrella Academy (#9), The Witcher (#6), Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (#5), and the third season of Stranger Things (#2).[ (( Andreeva, Nellie. “‘Murder Mystery’, ‘Stranger Things’ Lead Netflix’s List Of Most Popular Movies, TV Series & Specials Of 2019.” Deadline, 30 Dec. 2019, ))] The top spot went to the Adam Sandler film Murder Mystery (Kyle Newacheck, 2019). While Netflix did not provide exact numbers for their top ten list, the company did provide insight into how it was created. For inclusion, Netflix measured how many subscribers watched the first two minutes of each show during the first month of the program’s release. While Netflix’s method of data collection and lack of providing transparency in doing so for movies and series may be problematic, the company’s relationship with Sandler is not. Troy Dreier states “Netflix doesn’t use data for creative decisions; it uses data to match content with viewers.”[ (( Dreier, Troy. “Netflix Uses Data to Drive Creativity, and It’s Terrifying Hollywood.” Streaming Media, vol. 15, no. 4, June 2018, pp. 6–7,,shib&db=bth&AN=130177445&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] The end results are definitive; Netflix subscribers watch Adam Sandler movies.

Murder Mystery is the fifth Sandler film for Netflix. Sandler became part of the Netflix family in 2014 when he signed a four picture deal worth $250M. The deal was surprising because Sandler’s box office success had diminished in previous years. Although his films Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010) and Grown Ups 2 (Dennis Dugan, 2013) were box office hits grossing $271 and $246M worldwide, his other films during this time were not as successful. That’s My Boy (Sean Anders, 2012) lost $42.5M and Pixels (Chris Columbus, 2015) made Sony a profit of $10M.[ (( Fritz, Ben. “Sony and the Swan Song of the A-List Actor: How Profitable and Powerful Were Adam Sandler and Will Smith in the 2000s? Their Hit Films ‘bought Our Houses,’ Joked Execs. But as Audiences Turned, the Duo Became the Flashpoint for the Collapse of the Star Market — and, Nearly, a Studio.” The Hollywood Reporter, vol. 424, no. 9, Feb. 2018, p. 72,,shib&db=edb&AN=130786441&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] Yet these numbers were not a deterrent for Netflix. According to Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, Netflix subscribers have been fans of Sandler for quite some time: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.”[ (( Kilday, Gregg. “Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Explains Adam Sandler, ‘Crouching Tiger’ Deals: ‘Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is.’” The Hollywood Reporter, 3 Oct. 2014, ))] Pixels is an example; it made $78M domestically and $166M internationally. Sarandos relates that Sandler’s films do well in Latin America, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The decision to create a long-term partnership with Sandler has so far proven to be an astute one as Netflix continues to expand globally. Currently Netflix has 157M global subscribers; only 67M of those subscribers are in the United States.[ (( Kafka, Peter, and Rana Molla. “Netflix Shows off the Numbers behind Its Global Growth Story for the First Time.” Vox, 17 Dec. 2019, ))]

Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6
Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6

Sandler has cultivated a core fan base over time and his films for Netflix are designed with them in mind. His first film, The Ridiculous 6 (Frank Coraci, 2015), is a western spoof. While it was not critically acclaimed, the movie performed well for Netflix, becoming its most viewed film during the first month after its release.[ (( Robehmed, Natalie. “Netflix Zombies.” Forbes, vol. 199, no. 7, June 2017, pp. 98-100,,shib&db=bth&AN=123495471&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. ))] The Ridiculous 6, as well as its successors, The Do Over (Steven Brill, 2016) and Sandy Wexler (Steven Brill, 2017) are standard Sandler comedies in which Sandler plays a lovable, flawed leading man along with familiar co-stars and cameos from the “Sandlerverse,” such as David Spade, Rob Schneider, Nick Swardson, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz, Kevin James, John Tuturro and Chris Rock. In 2017, Netflix revealed that since the release of The Ridiculous 6 in December 2015, Netflix subscribers have watched more than 500 million hours of Sandler movies.[ (( McCluskey, Megan. “Adam Sandler Movies: Netflix Users Watch 500 Million Hours | Time.” Time, Apr. 2017, ))] Although Netflix did not provide any information about the initial films included in the partnership deal, they obviously performed well enough for Netflix to extend a second, four-movie, deal with Sandler. His fourth film, The Week Of (Robert Smigel, 2018) reunited Sandler and Chris Rock as parents and future in-laws dealing with the stress of their children’s upcoming marriage. For his fifth film, Murder Mystery, Sandler reunited with his longtime friend and Just Go With It (Dennis Dugan, 2011) co-star Jennifer Aniston.

Netflix released Murder Mystery on June 14, 2019.  Four days later, the company shared via its Twitter account that the film had broken previous viewing records with 30.9M households watching it during the first three days of release.[ (( Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston ‘Murder Mystery’ Flick.” Variety, June 2019, ))] For this data sample, Netflix counted households that finished watching (or tuning into) at least 70% of the film. The success of Murder Mystery in breaking a three-day release record as well as being Netflix’s most watched title of 2019 is not a surprise. As stated, Sandler is one of Netflix’s biggest stars. It was also undoubtedly a boon to the film that Aniston co-starred in NBC’s Friends (1994-2004), which experienced an impressive resurgence via streaming.[ (( Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston ‘Murder Mystery’ Flick.” Variety, June 2019, ))] Nielsen claimed that Friends was the second most streamed TV show in Netflix’s library. Netflix had experienced such a success with the series that they reportedly paid WarnerMedia $100M to extend the series after its initial contract. Friends ended its run on Netflix on December 30, 2019 and will be part of the HBO Max launch in May 2020. Friends also has international appeal. In January 2019, the BBC reported that the series was popular among teenagers in the United Kingdom.[ (( Coughlan, Sean. “The One about Friends Still Being Most Popular.” BBC News, Jan. 2019, ))] The Sandler-Aniston collaboration appeals to existing Netflix subscribers as well as new ones as the company continues its global expansion.

Sandler’s films assist Netflix in becoming a transnational broadcaster.[ (( Jenner, Mareike. Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ))] The deal also helps Sandler in maintaining creative control of his works. Sandler co-wrote The Ridiculous 6, Sandy Wexler, and The Week Of. In addition to starring in and producing multiple films for Netflix, Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, has made two additional films for Netflix: Father of the Year (Tyler Spindel, 2018) and the upcoming The Wrong Missy (Tyler Spindel, 2020). Both films star David Spade.

David Spade, left and Adam Sandler, right
Adam Sandler and David Spade at the premiere of The Do-Over

While Sandler’s films provide mass global appeal for Netflix, they also provide Sandler a creative outlet that is cushioned from box office numbers and critics. Until Netflix says otherwise, Sandler can keep making comedies his way. Sandler’s films are their own formulaic niche full of gags and cameos. For example, Sandy Wexler is Sandler’s version of a romantic comedy. While Wexler (Sandler), the bumbling and offensive goofball with a heart of gold falls in love with beautiful and talented Courtney (Jennifer Hudson), Sandler-staple Nick Swardson is there to provide the slapstick humor as a daredevil stuntman whose stunts go horribly wrong every time.

Sandler’s upcoming Netflix project, Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020), reunites Sandler with favorites Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Rob Schneider, Colin Quinn, and Julie Bowen. Sandler plays “’Hubie Dubois,” a well-meaning but widely mocked Halloween obsessive from Salem, Massachusetts. After a presumably wacky series of events lands Hubie in the midst of a murder mystery, it’s up to him to save Halloween.”[ (( Murphy, Rhodes. “Netflix Continues to Churn Out Adam Sandler Content With Halloween Movie.” Slate, July 2019, ))] The description fits into the Sandler formula. A loveable, blemished fellow gets into a difficult situation; hilarity ensues and all is well in the end. While Bowen (best known for her role as Claire in the hit television series, Modern Family) does not have the international appeal of Jennifer Aniston, the film will surely appeal to Sandler’s loyal fanbase. Hubie Halloween marks the first time Bowen and Sandler have worked together cinematically since Happy Gilmore (Dennis Dugan, 1996). This reunion plus the film’s holiday theme and star-studded cameos appear to be a lock for the movie to break streaming records for Netflix. 

And if it doesn’t, Sandler will not be out of work; he still has two movies left with Netflix. Moreover, Netflix might not be Sandler’s forever home as the streaming business continues to increase and diversify. Sandler could easily move to one of Netflix’s streaming competitors as the need for original content continues to increase. Regardless, it appears that as long as Adam Sandler is in the movie-making business, there will be an audience to support his seemingly never-ending string of projects.

Image Credits:

  1. Adam Sandler at FYC Event For Netflix’s ‘Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh’
  2. Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6
  3. Adam Sandler and David Space at the premiere of The Do-Over


Syndication 202: Make Reruns Great Again
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia

Edited still from Home Alone 2
The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

As Father Time dragged his cold, atrophied body across the finish line of 2019, shriveled by a year of crippling political scandals, the news cycle found one final story to bludgeon him dead: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation viciously cut Donald J. Trump’s 7-second cameo from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Don, Jr. called the edit “pathetic,” Fox News accused the network of “censorship,” and a former member of the Canadian parliament labeled it “politically charged bias,” tweeting “DEFUND. CBC. NOW.

In response, the network released a statement attempting to explain what is really a standard industry practice for second-run syndication or rerunning: editing or post-post production and the importance of version specificity, which is the topic of this column. Snipping a joke here and there, cutting down audience applause, or even slightly speeding up the playback all add up to make more time for commercials, and the art form of this editing work is to make as many changes as possible without gaining attention. The CBC said Trump’s casualty was part of 8 total minutes eliminated in 2014. Another example from my recent research is a Viacom version of Bewitched finding a way to add more than five full minutes of commercial time to a 1966 episode, clocking 10 minutes and 37 seconds of total commercial time in a 30-minute episode – that’s talent.

Channel executives need that extra commercial revenue to pay for their leased rerun programs, which in turn generate enough money and brand identity to support their original productions. Thus, while the study of a “quality” cable drama might be important in its own right, an added consideration of its channel’s second-run syndie fare would enrich the analysis since those reruns both helped pay for the original programming and carved out the channel’s identity for viewers in the first place.

The post-post-production practices of the syndication industry are an invisible labor that hopes to hide its tracks well enough most people never notice. In that way, it is also a creative labor with meaningful implications for text and authorship that we should account for when identifying our actual objects of study (e.g. “In this piece, I am using a TBS rerun of the Sex and the City episode “Four Women and a Funeral” that aired on …”). Academic publishing styles that ostensibly assure responsible citations really demand imprecise ones. When citing a TV text, the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, requests original director, writer, and “year of original air date” regardless of which version of an episode one is actually analyzing, while MLA format requires the original network and the original broadcast date in its citations.

The Golden Girls on Hulu
On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card.

Be careful, though, because even with these very general details, the industry will try to trick you. Disney, for instance, originally produced The Golden Girls under its Touchstone Television label renamed ABC Television Studios more than two decades later. It wants you to forget that The Golden Girls originally aired on NBC. Now, all officially licensed Golden Girls merchandise includes the ABC TV logo. An unskippable title card featuring the ABC logo plays before each episode on Disney majority-owned Hulu (the thumbnails for which are also stamped with the ABC logo). The show’s Comic Con presence was called ABC’s The Golden Girls. And if you go to Amazon to purchase downloads for the show, the network listed in the official details? ABC.

Images of the Twin Towers removed from reruns of Sex and the City and The Simpsons after 9/11
After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages.

Beyond the number of extra- or paratextual elements surrounding an episode in its second and successive lives (that we have come to theorize as part of the total televisual text), there can be and often are numerous changes to the content of that episode which are made by more and more authors all snowballing into our selected objects of study, which is why I recommend instituting different citational guidelines for our field. They include editors, cultural/content analysts, timers, colorists, music supervisors, mixers/ADR specialists, foreign language voice actors, and censor experts who all make numerous edits including medium changes (pan and scan, tilt and scan, telecine, music licensing issues), technological changes (advent of color TV, prepping for streaming, remastering for HD and 4k), cultural changes (erasing/censoring sensitive content, removing offensive episodes from packages), etc. The post-post production process also offers new commercial possibilities. How I Met Your Mother reruns, for instance, recently included new product placements opportunities in already aired episodes

The promotional poster for FXX's marathon of The Simpsons
FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes.

Between the original airing of the aforementioned Bewitched and Viacom’s, what changed? Among other things, they removed the only role played by a black actor — an early African American representation on television consigned to syndication’s dustbin. If you think DVDs are a safe backup, consider that the syndie prints of both Roseanne and Alf were unwittingly used for home video release, while fans have noted that Hulu’s recent acquisition of Designing Women appears to use some syndie versions of episodes as well. I Love Lucy’s famous satin heart? Added later for syndication. And that’s not to say anything of music licensing issues created for shows like Daria and The Wonder Years that viewers argue changes their textual value. Dawson’s Creek even lost its iconic theme song for a run on Netflix. Doo doo doo do doo.

The cast of Dawson’s Creek tries to remember the show’s opening title song.

Speaking of streaming, watching Home Alone 2 is something of a new tradition in my family. This year, I braced extra hard for a cameo Canadians might have been expecting, but that never came. Sad. Who scratched Donald J. Trump from Home Alone 2? Who approved that edit? Did viewers notice? How did that impact their experience of it? Did its absence create or prevent any uncomfortable conversations? My goal in this piece is not to fetishize the “original” of anything. Rather, my interest in investigating reruns as new texts stems from such infinite and exciting research possibilities that such an understanding opens up for new analyses in textuality, industry/production practices, and particularly audiences and their pleasures. For a more thorough discussion of this televisual phenomenon I’ve called retextuality, see my chapter on Roseanne in the second edition of How to Watch Television.

As television’s grout, both reruns and first-run syndie fare take up devalued time on the TV schedule, fill it, and try to fashion something out of nothing. In serving the marginalized schedule, they often serve the marginalized audience and thus create new infinite textual meanings and research paths. In the next and final installment, I’ll discuss the creative and progressive possibilities in terms of content afforded by first-run syndication.

Image Credits:

  1. The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. (Author’s photo illustration from a screengrab of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.)
  2. On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card. (Author’s screengrab from
  3. After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages. (Author’s composite. A screengrab from the opening credits of Sex and the City and an animation cel for the 1997 episode of The Simpsons, both from here.)
  4. FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes. Art for the FXX marathon of The Simpsons from FX’s website, here.

Kids and Cable: Teaching Regulatory Circumvention
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University

Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming. CC75 folder 6. The Cable Center, Denver, CO.
Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming.

Controversy over television violence’s impact on children seems quaint—a relic of a pre-internet age when the broadcast networks dominated discussion of the mediated public sphere. And yet, the effects of these discussions remain crucial for understanding far more than whether watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (syndication, 1987-90; CBS, 1990-96) turned me, a civilian in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, into an antisocial weirdo.

The advocacy and legislative work that positioned quality children’s programming as a public good paved the way for the cable industry to position itself as a public service leader in the 1990s—at the very the same time cable pushed to maintain the deregulatory/anti-equity environment fostered by Ronald Reagan’s FCC appointee Mark Fowler.

The Failures of Broadcasting

If we look at the primary targets of pressure groups and federal legislation from the 1970s to the 1990s, the debate over children’s television seems confined to the networks. Responding to longstanding fears over TV violence and its effects, the Surgeon General’s 1972 study of television violence focused the attention of disparate groups that found common cause in reforming the content of what the industry called “Kidvid.” Whether pushing against ads during children’s programming (Action for Children’s Television) or fighting indecency and the existence of gay and lesbian people on television (Parents Television Council, the Coalition for Better Television), Kidvid campaigns gained wide press attention for their sponsor boycotts and calls for broadcaster self-regulation.[ (( For thorough analysis of these campaigns, which often differed in their aims and strategy, see Heather Hendershot, Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), especially chapters 1-3 and Allison Perlman, Public Interests: Media Advocacy and Struggles over U.S. Television (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016): 123-150. ))]

Legislatively, one of the key victories of children’s television advocates was the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (CTA), which asserted for the record that licensees “should provide programming that serves the special needs of children” as part of their public service duties. The CTA required stations to limit commercials during kids’ shows and established a (short-lived) fund to provide grants for quality educational programming (the rather ambitiously titled National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television). The final provision of CTA was the “consideration of children’s television service in broadcast license renewal.” While refraining from mandating a specific amount of children’s television (in its early years), the Act suggested that quality children’s programming would factor in to the license renewal process.

Broadcasters’ unwillingness to comply to the spirit of the law resulted in licensees’ acrobatic refashioning of the purpose and content of their existing programming. Suddenly, according to broadcaster’s license renewal applications, Yogi Bear (syndicated, 1961-62) teaches kids not to steal, the Flintstones (ABC, 1960-66) teaches history, and Biker Mice from Mars (syndicated, 1993-96) teaches caring for others (after all, the Biker Mice routinely defend their home planet from destructive invaders). Following the CTA’s impact provides entertaining reading; the obvious subterfuge of licensees made for good copy in extensive news coverage criticizing the excesses of television (see below for more). Indeed, the early failure of the Act to compel quality television was more of a story than the act itself, transforming broadcasting into an ideal foil for cable’s Kidvid campaigns.

Table depicting program titles of regularly scheduled standard-length educational programming not specifically designed for children
All of the above programs were cited by at least one broadcaster as part of their “educational” offerings during license renewal. While researching policy can be dry, one way to work against the tedium in this case is to play “what educational value, this?” Perfect Strangers (how to engage cultural differences), Beverly Hills 90210 (class inequality), Ten O’Clock News (if it bleeds, it leads).

Ultimately, while it concerned the television content of my own youth, I’m not terribly interested in material changes made (or not) to Kidvid in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, I want to begin to trace how these large-scale debates over broadcast children’s television provided the ground on which the cable industry staged a bid to become the public interest standard-bearer in the same period it pushed vigorously for deregulation.

And Cable’s Response

In short, I argue that children’s “quality” television was the ideal public interest issue for an industry that built its appeal to consumers on programming distinction while pitching narrowcast audiences to advertisers. But how did the cable industry mobilize these fundamental characteristics of U.S. cable in public campaigns?

One initiative of the National Cable Television Association
(NCTA)—the industry’s major trade association—was the National Television
Violence Study (NTVS). A 3-year, 4-university project commencing in 1993, the
NTVS performed an extensive content analysis of broadcast and cable programming
to track violence on television and explore its potential effects on children.
Underwritten by NCTA to the tune of $3 million, the study provided the cable
industry a mechanism to respond to increasing public anxiety over television violence
(legislators introduced seven different proposals to curb television violence
in 1993 alone) without directly threatening programmers’ use of edgier content
to attract subscribers.

I certainly don’t disparage either the quality of work or sincere dedication of the researchers involved in the study, which was undertaken independently of NCTA. However, I do suggest that NCTA likely saw a “violence and children’s television” study as an ideal mechanism to showcase cable’s “public interest” value relative to the broadcast networks. As a function of narrowcasting and a larger stable of national programming distributors, cable boasted C-SPAN, Nickelodeon, A&E, and CNN (among others). Despite its share of programming violence, cable was always going to look good in comparison to broadcast television when it came to children-specific programming. Indeed, yet another study from 1993, the Violence Index compiled by George Gerbner and others, indicated there was “substantially less” violence in children’s programming on cable—though cable hosted more violence overall.[ (( These studies were routinely invoked in popular and academic discussions of television violence. See, for example, Stephen J. Kim’s “‘Viewer Discretion Is Advised’: A Structural Approach to the Issue of Television Violence,” Pennsylvania Law Review 142, no 4 (1994): 1383-1441, which also gives a nice overview of the legislative activity surrounding the issue of television violence. ))]

All of this talk of television violence—and quality cable television—supported the NCTA’s second major “public service” offering, Cable in the Classroom. Founded in 1989 amid growing public dissatisfaction with the impacts of the deregulatory 1984 Cable Act, CIC allowed educators to tape commercial-free programming aired before the regular programming day freed of copyright claims.

The opening and closing bumpers of CIC, which indicated educational content available for taping and classroom use.

CIC provided the cable industry with a means to offload their own “public service” onto schools. There, critiques of cable’s handling of violence and discrimination could be addressed through educational programming for middle and high school students, rather than structural changes in ownership or greater franchisee investment in in public access, educational, and government channels. As the president of the New York Cable Association put it in a letter to Jones Intercable:

image description
Letter to Greg Liptak, May 25, 1990. CC124, Box 4, folder 30. The Cable Center, Denver, CO.

The stakes of CIC—which extend beyond increased control of media infrastructure—coincide with those I discussed in my previous column. Despite lacking the overt commercialization of Channel One, CIC (which continued until 2014) nevertheless helped redefine educational television as the province of private media companies. Here, yet another bit of context is crucial: the same pro-corporate austerity administration that passed the deregulatory 1984 Cable Act also starved public schools of funding, leading to a widely-covered “crisis” in education. CIC, a public-private partnership, was perfectly pitched to solve a crisis with the seeds of its own making (a state that takes money from public coffers to subsidize private business interests). Old hat by now, the idea that businesses should have any say in the process of education has been repeated so many times that watching some nationally-distributed A&E documentary on the space race seems rather benign compared to charter schools, careerism in higher ed, and for-profit universities. However, like the friendly “Market Commentary” and NYSE films of last time, these initiatives fit capital’s attempts to cloak itself as disinterested teacher. Whether to develop our faculties to serve the interests of financialization or to short-circuit regulatory attempts to create a more equitable media landscape, this is not education for the public interest.

Image Credits:

  1. Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming. CC75 folder 6. The Cable Center, Denver, CO. (Author’s personal collection)
  2. All of the above programs were cited by at least one broadcaster as part of their “educational” offerings during license renewal. While researching policy can be dry, one way to work against the tedium in this case is to play “what educational value, this?”  Perfect Strangers (how to engage cultural differences), Beverly Hills 90210 (class inequality), Ten O’Clock News (if it bleeds, it leads).
  3. Letter to Greg Liptak, May 25, 1990. CC124, Box 4, folder 30. The Cable Center, Denver, CO. (Author’s personal collection)


Interactive Television as a Cultural Forum: Storytelling and Meaning-Making in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Ryan Stoldt / University of Iowa

Still from Bandersnatch with the option to destroy computer or hit desk
Still from Bandersnatch showing two different actions viewers may choose for the character to take.

Internet-distributed television services have recently begun incorporating interactive elements into programs like Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) and Bear Grylls’ You Vs. Wild (2019) which allow viewers to choose what actions characters take. Because these interactive choices shape what narrative is told, audiences of the same program may consume and interpret drastically different content. So, what happens to audiences’ ability to share ideological interpretations of texts when individuals’ experiences with the narrative of the texts differ? If there is not a singular “canonical” narrative for fans to consume and interpret?

Television studies scholars Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch argued that television programs serve as a cultural forum, where television programs bring up cultural topics and audiences serve as interpretive communities who personally respond to the issues being discussed.[ (( Newcomb, Horace M., and Paul M. Hirsch. “Television as a cultural forum: Implications for research.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 8, no. 3 (1983): 45-55. ))] They note that in an episode of Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954–1960) the daughter’s decision to become an engineer raises questions about women’s roles in society regardless of how the producers end that storyline (the daughter accepts a “traditional” gender role in the domestic space of the house at the end of the episode). They argued that “the raising of questions is as important as the answering of them” in television because they allow the space for audiences to respond through their own beliefs.[ (( Newcomb and Hirsch, 50. ))] Newcomb and Hirsch argued, as did Stuart Hall, that all media texts are both encoded with messages by producers and decoded by audiences, who, to put it simply, may agree, disagree, or negotiate with a shows’ authors’ intended meaning.[ ((Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/decoding.” Media and cultural studies: Keyworks 2. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. ))] Audiences’ ability to read shows differently than producers’ intended (be it through queer, racial, feminist, or any other interpretive lens) plays a formative element in the ideological messages circulated through media. Thus, the types of issues producers bring up within texts create opportunities for interpretation of texts regardless of the producers’ formalist answer to the issue.

This theorization of television as a cultural forum relies
on audiences seeing the same formalist elements of a program though. Audiences
may answer the questions a show raises differently, but the questions remain
the same. With interactive television programs, the questions raised through
the narrative may differ for individual viewers because their formalist choices
will affect what narrative they see. Thus, the meanings audiences take away
from interactive television may shift based on the types of questions asked
within the program they choose to see through their interactions.

Tweet from Netflix shares user data demonstrating how the cultural tastes of British viewers might inform what narratives they choose to follow.

I previously wrote about how interactive television shows, like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, relate and differ from video games. In this essay, I argue that audience interpretation functions both within the text and in regard to the text in interactive television shows. Meaning, audiences’ cultural tastes and ideologies will inform both their decisions within the formally interactive elements of the show as well as the interpretive choices available to them in the questions the narrative raises.

When engaging with interactive television, audiences first interpret meaning through the formalist interactive elements of the show. Netflix’s Branch Manager system offers viewers two choices at a time that affect how the story continues (see the image below for a flowchart of the choices offered in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). While audiences are free to select whichever interactive choice appeals to them most, these choices are shaped by their cultural tastes and their beliefs in how stories should unfold. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu notes, cultural tastes are shaped by people’s sociological circumstances.[ (( Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Routledge, 2013. ))] Netflix reported data on their United Kingdom and Ireland Twitter that supports this, reporting that British people were less likely, when given the choice, to throw away and “waste a good cup of tea” in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch than the rest of the world.[ (( Netflix UK & Ireland. Twitter post. January 17, 2019, 5:03 p.m. ))] While choosing whether the characters should or should not throw a cup of tea might not be the most important decision when considering a show’s meaning, it does highlight how tastes shape the narratives people choose to follow in interactive television. Importantly then, people’s cultural tastes may impact the range of questions they will encounter through interactive texts.

Flickr user Naveen Leslie Chater’s flowchart of choices for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Flickr user Naveen Leslie Chater’s flowchart of choices for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

After the formalist interpretations shape the narrative audiences see, audiences’ second level of interpretation in interactive television occurs in their ideological reading of the text. While the types of questions they encounter may be shaped by their previous choices, audiences will still respond to the questions the program raises as they would any other text. Audiences may agree with the answers to various questions the producers provide within the narrative or answer the question through their own ideological lens. The key differential in the interpretation of the text therefore lies in the first level of interpretation.

The continual process of 1.) people selecting narrative options filtered through their personal tastes and 2.) responding to the questions the narrative they selected offers mirrors the concept of the algorithmic filter bubble, where people interact with information they prefer and then see more of that content based on their previous interactions.[ (( Pariser, Eli. The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. Penguin, 2011. ))] Thus, while interactive television still raises questions that offer a cultural forum to take place, the types of questions people encounter may already be filtered through cultural lenses they adhere to. So, the narratives people see and their interpretations of the programs’ messages in interactive television may be more personalized for specific interpretations than programs that offer a singular narrative for audiences to decode.

Image Credits:

  1. Still from Bandersnatch showing two different actions viewers may choose for the character to take.
  2. Tweet from Netflix shares user data demonstrating how the cultural tastes of British viewers inform what narratives they choose to follow.
  3. Flickr user Naveen Leslie Chater’s flowchart of choices for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.


From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies, pt. 2
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University

Author's screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix
Screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix

Author’s Note: This column is the second in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of romantic comedy film. In this series, I am tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a digital streaming genre.

In 2018, the media conversation about romantic comedies shifted. That summer, one Thrillist headline declared, “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre” (Zuckerman). In August 2018, Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) was number one at the domestic box office for three weeks (“Crazy Rich Asians”). An adaptation of a 2013 Kevin Kwan novel, the film grossed $174.5 million at the domestic box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). That same week, Netflix released their To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018), an adaptation of a 2014 Jenny Han novel. While exact numbers on Netflix content are hard to come by, the company reports the film is “one of our most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing” (Netflix).

Both of these films feature Asian-American heroines, an important step away from the rom-com’s traditionally white protagonists. However, both films are clearly aligned with the more conservative neo-traditional approach I discussed in my previous column. More than anything else, these films intrigue me because of how and where they were successful. Crazy Rich Asians did well domestically but disappointed overseas. To All the Boys was a success on Netflix, not in movie theaters. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys indicate two new distribution strategies rom-com creators are experimenting with: rom-com as global media franchise and rom-com as a digital streaming genre. These films remind us of the genre’s ongoing struggles: Efforts to decouple romance from its white heterosexual defaults and efforts to construct romantic comedy films which work as global products with long-term digital lives.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians struggled overseas, earning $64 million at the international box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). This is significant given the initial bidding war surrounding the project. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, book author Kevin Kwan explains the project was seen as an opportunity to reach the Chinese market (Sun and Ford). As the first book in a trilogy, the story also had potential as a larger franchise. However, when the film eventually made to China it did terribly there, earning only $1.6 million (“Crazy Rich Asians”). Numerous reasons have been cited for this: The film’s Chinese premiere was delayed until late November. There was a disconnect between the film’s pan-Asian cast and the story’s Singaporean characters. Finally, the film celebrated the “crazy rich” during a time when the Chinese economy was slowing (McGregor). These are just some of the reasons why the film may not have done well in China. Ultimately, however, the film’s struggles overseas raises questions about the viability of romantic comedies in Hollywood given the current focus on film franchises that promise international box office success.

Still from Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians did important work in the North American market, disproving the tired industry claim that a film with a predominantly Asian cast won’t sell. However, Crazy Rich Asians was a test, it was an experiment in selling a rom-com across a range of global markets. In that sense, the experiment failed.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix reports To All the Boys was one of their “most viewed original films ever” (Netflix). A sequel, P.S. I Love You (Fimognari, 2020), will be released in February 2020 and a third film is anticipated (Takeuchi). Netflix launched To All the Boys as part of their “summer of love” campaign (Andrews; Feldman; Fern et al.; Grady). This set of roughly 11 different films included Set it Up (2018) directed by Claire Scanlon, Catching Feelings (2018), a South African romantic comedy written and directed by Kagiso Lediga, and the Chinese romantic drama Us and Them (2018) directed by Rene Liu. These films featured celebrities well-known to American audiences (for example, Taye Diggs and Lucy Lui in Set it Up), but also included less familiar international actors and directors. The overall mix of stories encompassed conventional romantic comedies, serious romantic dramas, and films like Like Father (Miller, 2018) which focus more on the relationship between a woman and her estranged father.

One of the most interesting features of To All the Boys is the larger range of Netflix content it’s a part of. Rather than relying on one individual film to draw viewers into theaters, Netflix relies on a database populated with many different films to attract many different subscribers from around the world. Since 2018, the number of romantic comedies on Netflix has continued to proliferate. However, when you consider the mix of titles included in summer of love or look at the mix of films included in Netflix’s romantic comedy category, it is clear that Netflix constructs and understands genre taxonomies differently than media scholars might. When the Netflix database loads its list of romantic comedies, international boundaries and time periods are ignored. Here, strict adherence to the “meet, lose, get” plotline is not required.

Still from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)

One of genre’s traditional cultural functions has been to mediate cultural tensions. Popular genres air social grievances, then work to resolve these frictions and lead their characters towards compromise. Traditionally, this cultural conversation happened en masse as large audiences engaged with individual stories. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys represent two ways contemporary media enters a broader cultural conversation. The Netflix version of romantic comedy, as a malleable category that can be personalized to mean many things to many people, is the version of romantic comedy that fits more cleanly within emerging media distribution and consumption patterns.

I’d love to point to the version of romance on Netflix and say, “Look! We’re diversifying romance!” However, it’s important to be careful here. To All the Boys represents another experiment with selling romantic comedy. It’s part of Netflix’s efforts to make its content feel personalized, to market itself in a range of different countries, and to offer the illusion of endless choice and variety. In actuality, Netflix has a limited set of products to offer its subscribers. Part of the genius of Netflix is the way the interface is designed to offer a seemingly infinite array of products while also appearing tailor-made for each individual customer.

Media industry demands for globally market-safe franchises signal long-term problems for the romantic comedy in movie theaters. However, the success of To All the Boys suggests an important move for romantic comedy, one away from movie theaters and onto smaller screens. In my next column, I will discuss another recent rebirth of romantic comedy: the rom-com film retold as a streaming series. Specifically, Hulu’s 2019 adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019–).

Image Credits:

  1. The Romantic Comedy category on Netflix. (author’s screenshot)
  2. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  3. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)


Andrews, Jared. “What Netflix’s ‘Summer of Love’ Does Right.” Vox Magazine, 29 Aug. 2018,

“Crazy Rich Asians.” Box Office Mojo, Accessed 25 Jan. 2020.

Feldman, Dana. “It’s The Summer Of Love: Netflix Releases 6 New Original RomComs.” Forbes, 20 June 2018,

Fern, Marriska, et al. “Netflix’s Summer of Love Movies to Binge-Watch.” Tribute.Ca, Accessed 5 July 2019.

Grady, Constance. “Netflix Bet on the Long-Ignored Romantic Comedy This Summer. It Paid Off.” Vox, 17 Oct. 2018,

McGregor, Tom. “Commentary: Why Crazy Rich Asians Was the Last Movie China Wanted to Watch.” CNA, 7 Dec. 2018,

Netflix. October 16, 2018 Shareholder Letter. Accessed 10 July 2019.

Sun, Rebecca, and Rebecca Ford. “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point.” The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Aug. 2018,

Takeuchi, Craig. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 3 to Start Shooting in Vancouver in July.” The Georgia Straight, 24 June 2019,

Zuckerman, Esther. “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre.” Thrillist, 23 Aug. 2018,