Over*Flow: It’s a F***ing Lockdown: The Branding Responses of the UK’s Public Service Broadcasters
Melissa Morton / University of Edinburgh

User created videos
BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences’ social distancing activities.

Over the past two months, the UK’s population—the vast majority at home under lockdown—have increasingly been relying on television for trustworthy news and escapist entertainment. During a time of social isolation, television has become crucial for our sense of connection with the outside world and with each other. Despite the increasingly crowded television landscape with an expanding array of online platforms—Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+, to mention a few—many viewers are looking to trusted public service channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) to be “informed, educated and entertained” during a period of crisis. At the start of the lockdown, 64 percent of people were watching more live TV than before the pandemic.[ ((Havas Media Group. 2020. “Havas Media Group study reveals swing to trusted media brands and live TV in response to COVID-19,” March 23, 2020. Available at: <https://havasmedia.com/havas-media-group-study-reveals-swing-to-trusted-media-brands-and-live-tv-in-response-to-covid-19/>))] In response, the UK’s public service broadcasters adapted their branding communications to reflect the drastic transformation of their viewers’ daily lives. Audiences have felt an increased need for connection and inspiration; accordingly, the promotions created by the UK’s main public service broadcasters particularly focus on themes of connection, laughter, and community.

On-screen branding, consisting of the “bits in-between” the programs such as station identifications, trailers, and promos, provide the UK’s broadcasters with an opportunity to articulate a distinct brand identity and the roles the broadcasters hope to play for audience members imagined as a diverse national community. The recent on-screen branding provides an interesting commentary on changing societal perceptions of the role of national broadcasters during a global crisis. Viewership data suggests a “swing towards trusted and meaningful media channels and brands,” including a reliance on the BBC as “the most trustworthy source of information.” What might increased dependence and trust mean for our relationship with public service broadcasters in the future?

BBC: Cups of Tea and Dua Lipa

At the end of March, BBC Creative produced a promotion for the BBC iPlayer which encourages people to stay at home by featuring excerpts from archival BBC comedies. These include Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and his iconic “It’s a f***ing lockdown” meltdown from the The Thick of It (2005) and Miranda Hart’s vegetable orchestra from Miranda (2009).

BBC Creative’s promotions use excerpts from archival BBC comedies to encourage Brits to stay home.

BBC One, meanwhile, has recently introduced new on-screen branding featuring multiple videos captured on smartphones, including cups of tea and an “isolation disco.” Many argue that these changes have been long overdue; throughout late March and April, BBC One had continued to use a series of station idents named “Oneness,” which showcase groups of people across the country engaging in activities ranging from dog-walking and swimming to Bhangra dancing and aerobics. Some disgruntled viewers expressed their confusion that the channel has continued to use these idents at a time when social distancing measures, including maintaining a two-meter distance from others, have been declared mandatory. In replacing the previous “Oneness” idents with home-videos, BBC One has maintained its core values of “unity and togetherness,” while reflecting its viewers’ current socially distanced realities.[ ((Red Bee Creative. 2007. “BBC One.” Available at: < http://www.redbeecreative.com/work/bbc-one-channel-rebrand>))]

Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident
Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident

image description
Safer at home BBC One brand ident

BBC One has transitioned from showing pre-social distancing brand indents to home videos of Brits staying at home.

BBC News 24, meanwhile has encouraged its viewers to experiment with its music theme composed in 1999 by David Lowe. One influencer, Rachel Leary, propelled a BBC News dance craze when her version went “viral” on social media platform TikTok. Dressed as a DJ in shades and headphones, Leary dramatically turns “dials” and presses “buttons” on a makeshift turntable and mixer made of aerosols and cleaning products. Another remix trend was led by Owain Wyn Evans, now known as “the drumming weatherman,” of BBC North West Tonight. As part of “Owain’s Big House Band,” viewers recorded and submitted variations of the BBC News theme, ranging from trumpets, banjos, and tap dancing. Lastly, Glaswegian musician Ben Howell created a remix of the News theme with Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” which, after going viral on Twitter, was showcased in a BBC News interview, the headline reading: “New News theme meme: Latest mash of corporate theme is musical smash.”

Musician Ben Howell’s BBC News Theme remixed with pop star Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate.”

The increased involvement of young people in “remixing” the theme is a promising sign for the BBC after Ofcom raised concerns last year that the BBC was “losing a generation of viewers.” The Havas Covid Media report showed that the BBC was the most trustworthy source of information on Covid-19, particularly among 18-24 year olds. Moreover, these younger viewers are not only relying on the BBC as a source of news but actively and irreverently engaging with it through remixes and viral dance crazes.

Channel 4: Buttocks and Personalities

Channel 4 also introduced new on-screen branding, adapting its irreverent and creative brand values and claiming to “innovate and take bold creative risks.” Bumpers between shows feature the channel’s stars accompanied by peaceful birdsong, including John Snow ironing a tie and Katherine Ryan painting a glamorous self-portrait. In a longer promotion, Matt Berry theatrically addresses the nation, accompanied by heroic trumpet fanfare, cymbal crashes, and harp glissandi, as images of wiggling buttocks are superimposed onto a spinning globe. Berry asks us:

Britain: When was the last time you did something that really mattered with your arse?… We need your buttocks—clench together on the sofa: stay at home; save lives.

UK’s Channel 4 encourages Brits to stay home through cheeky ads.

ITV: Outsourcing Graphic Design to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

ITV’s approach has centred on user-generated content, aspiring to create a sense of a community among its viewers. On Monday, April 6th, ITV introduced “ITV Kids Create,” enabling children to re-design the on-screen logo; parents can post their children’s designs on Twitter for the chance to have them shown on TV. ITV also re-introduced its “Get Britain Talking” campaign, which allows viewers to share a message with the nation on Twitter, spearheaded by the channel’s spokespeople, Ant and Dec.

ITV’s “crowdsourced” branding approaches accords with the BBC’s, exemplified by the BBC One idents and their decidedly “home-made” aesthetic. In sum, the branding approaches by BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 display an attempt to connect and interact with viewers, the emphasis on user-generated content and light-hearted comedy providing a sorely needed sense of connection, inspiration, and fun.

ITV logo
ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.

What Does this Mean for Public Service Broadcasting?

Initially, when the BBC was established by Royal Charter in 1927, its public service remit was conceived in terms of General-Director John Reith’s paternalistic definition of broadcasters as the nation’s “moral and cultural leaders”:

It is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need—and not what they want—but few know what they want and very few what they need.[ ((Reith, J. C. W. 1924. Broadcast Over Britain. London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Pg. 34))]

Now, nearly one-hundred years later, consumers have an overwhelming array of terrestrial, satellite, digital, and online channels to choose from, and can access content from anywhere in the world. The BBC is funded by a license fee—roughly £150 per year to be paid by every household receiving broadcasts. Although ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 are commercially funded through advertisers, these broadcasters also have to fulfill certain public service obligations in their programming. Throughout the changes in the media landscape, beginning with the introduction of commercial competition with the establishment of Channel 4 in 1982, the BBC has been transformed. Dispensing with the implicitly elitist aim to elevate the tastes of the masses, the BBC had to be more in tune with the needs and wants of its diverse target audience and formulate its television and radio stations as distinct brands. In particular, the on-screen branding designed by BBC, ITV,  and Channel 4 during the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates a marked effort to form a connection with their individual audience members as well as evoking a sense of community, evident in Matt Berry’s address to the nation (“Britain: we need your buttocks”), and the attempts by ITV and BBC to encourage user-generated content.

The brand responses raise questions about the role of public service broadcasting today, particularly that of the BBC. Since its inception, the BBC has increasingly had to justify its existence to those who consider the license fee as “unnecessary, elitist and anticompetitive.”[ ((Born, G. and Prosser, D., (2001). “Culture and Consumerism: Citizenship, Public Service Broadcasting and the BBC’s Fair Trading Obligations.” Modern Law Review. 64: 5 pp. 657-687.))] Perhaps the BBC’s most precarious time was under Margaret Thatcher, who was strongly in favour of scrapping the license fee and replacing it with advertising. Although the BBC managed to maintain its public funding model, the debate has continued. As recently as February, Dominic Cummings controversially suggested that the government could scrap the license fee and replace it with a subscription model when the Charter comes up for renewal in December 2027.

However, increased viewership numbers and surveys carried out by the Havas Media Report suggest that the UK’s population largely trusts public service broadcasters in a time of crisis, not just for accurate news but also for irreverent escapism and laughter. There is still a long way to go until the BBC’s charter renewal in 2027. Will the BBC maintain its current status as the “most trustworthy source of information” and stay relevant among younger viewers? As broadcasters and their audiences both attempt to adapt to a “new normal,” the nature of the longer-term impact on public attitudes and government policy towards public service broadcasting is not yet clear.

Image Credits:

  1. BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences social distancing activities.
  2. Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident.
  3. Safer at home BBC One brand ident.
  4. ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.


Audiences as Subscribers and Netflix’s Notions of Success
Lane Mann / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix audience

Audiences as Netflix Subscribers

Exploring how mainstream subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) companies consider and construct their audiences is vital when researching how SVOD platforms – Netflix specifically – brand their popularity. Surveying Netflix’s public discourse reveals a few themes prioritized in the contemporary SVOD industry: engagement, a new understanding of ratings, and brand building techniques.

In Desperately Seeking the Audience, Ien Ang discusses two primary ways the TV industry – as of 1991 – imagines audiences: audience-as-market (connected to commercial service) and audience-as-public (connected to public service). [ (( Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1991), 28. ))] With changing cultures and technologies, legacy TV companies and premium cable channels have imagined audiences in other, distinct ways since Ang’s theorization. An understanding of how SVODs construct audiences both diverges from and overlaps with legacy TV and cable’s new imaginings. Through a focus of SVODs, I have targeted three ways dominant SVOD players imagine audiences: audiences as subscribers, as data, and as promotional partners.

SVOD industry’s interactions with these three imagined audience groups allows for an insight into larger business plans, brand strategies, and notions of ideal viewing practices. Further, these audience categories address culturally shifting ideas of audiences within the ever-changing TV industry. SVOD platforms carefully guard ratings data, thus audiences are constructed differently from network and cable TV audiences, which are inherently shrouded in Nielsen ratings rhetoric. SVOD-produced audience discourse can help divulge how these companies quantify people, imagine user actions, envision their platform, define success, and forecast how their programming is watched. While these are the strengths in examining SVOD audience constructions, it is important to remember that audiences are commodities. As Dallas Smythe theorized, “Audience power is produced, sold, purchased, and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity.” [ (( Dallas W. Smythe, “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981), 233. ))] The imagined audience employed by SVODs and their stakeholders is reductive, utilized for the perception of greater consumer choice and personalization.

Netflix subscribers

Netflix Subscription Data

For the sake of this post, I focus on just one of the SVOD imagined audience groups listed above: audiences as subscribers. Also, I use Netflix as a test case and example, since their subscription service is the most publicly known and utilized, with 83 million members in June 2016 – though most major SVODs employ similar rhetoric. Netflix uses subscriber statistics as a proxy for audiences. The company is interested in subscriber data because subscribers drive revenue and appease stakeholders, content creators, and advertisers. While subscriptions statistics do not figure prominently in mainstream press coverage or widespread marketing, the statistics are contained within quarterly reports. These statistics, however, do not give information about audience engagement and viewership (what people actually watch). Put simply, subscriber numbers only detail the amount sold rather than the amount used. [ (( Nielsen data is arguably trying to encompass viewership data (amount used/TV viewed). But, just because a TV is on a particular channel does not mean anyone is watching. Though, Nielsen ratings are more relevant to viewership than SVOD subscription numbers. ))] Comparatively, insights into Netflix algorithms and their data collection process convey more information about actual consumption patterns and usage, but Netflix relies on subscription figures in reports. Subscriber numbers are invoked, foremost, for intra-industry stakeholders. The idea of “audiences as subscribers” feeds into a larger, industry-held idea that a monthly monetary exchange – your automatic subscription payment – proves success. However, this data does not prove engagement, which is a key asset for modern media brand strategy. And, it doesn’t show how particular viewers regard the platform. Audiences as subscribers is primarily valuable within the industry itself.

Further defining SVOD success through subscribers is challenging. Without access to internal corporate documents or audience engagement data, their performance is difficult to assess. The only available option is raw subscription numbers and, as of 2015, Netflix dominated the market. To survive within the larger TV industry, streaming platforms must cultivate a sense of superiority and active audience engagement to remain competitive and relevant. Subscription numbers only go so far for the platforms, primarily circulating to tout income and challenge rivals.

Quantifying success

Netflix Brands Success

Netflix in particular, much like legacy TV channels, still relies on imagined audiences to promote and define their perceived success. But Netflix’s conception of ratings is different from legacy TV. As television scholar Jason Mittell writes in The Atlantic, “Netflix simply doesn’t care about ratings – at least not in the way other television providers do.” [ (( Jason Mittell, “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/netflix-ratings/462447/. ))] Netflix still cares about ratings, to be sure, but this is a new conception of ratings. Such a new conception must be considered in future SVOD studies and by TV studies scholars more generally. The “new ratings,” or, the common ways Netflix has defined success without sharing ratings, have been disclosed through award nominations/wins (an appeal to taste cultures), occasional PR releases including viewer and subscriber data (quantifying success), and by marketing high levels of cultural relevance (success measured by engagement). Other TV companies frequently use these metrics too, though as a complement alongside Nielsen ratings.

From examples above, as Netflix shows off to the public in order to demonstrate success, it is clear that the company values people as both a mass of subscribers for monetary purposes and as a mass of engaged viewers, and these two ideas are symbiotic for the company. Building hype by remaining a relevant brand, winning awards, and being included on year-end lists potential creates a beneficial cycle for Netflix: subscribers that become engaged viewers that generate hype and continue subscribing. I agree with Mittell’s claim that, for Netflix, at least externally, “actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity.” [ (( Ibid. ))] Netflix’s marketing strategies strongly construct and promote perceived popularity. Nonetheless, actual popularity is still important when it comes to appeasing shareholders and content producers, because actual popularity translates into income (and loss of churn). Netflix envisions its product as more successful the more people that subscribe, tweet, and share Netflix experiences. This is a different type of popularity than tuning in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday for Nielsen ratings. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, outlines his criteria for success when he asks, “Is [the show] drawing an audience? … Is it getting positive reception from fans, from you guys, from the critical reception…Is the show positive to Netflix?” [ (( Alan Sepinwall, “Ted Talk: State of the Netflix Union Discussion with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos,” Hitfix, January 26, 2016, http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/ted-talk-state-of-the-netflix-union-discussion-with-chief-content-officer-ted-sarandos. ))] There is clearly a balance of numerical popularity, critical acclaim, and brand building happening in the company’s discussion of success – all emerging from Netflix’s imagined audience.

Image Credits:

1. Audiences as Netflix Subscribers
2. Netflix Subscription Data
3. Netflix Brands Success

Please feel free to comment.

Rating the Runway: Project Runway and New York Fashion Week

Project Runway

Project Runway cast

On February 10, the three finalists from Bravo’s Project Runway presented their Fall 2006 collections at New York Fashion Week. The shows were recorded for the season finale, scheduled for March 8. Given the secrecy usually associated with reality show finales, there seems something amiss, if not completely inept, about this timing. Yet it is clearly deliberate: this is the second season structured in this way, replete with a decoy finalist whose runway presence at once nods to this asynchrony and indicates careful advance planning. This elaborate strategy instead suggests an important shift in contemporary television textuality. That fourth decoy collection and the delayed transmission of the Bryant Park fashion shows reveal viewer responses to be as much a part of PR’s text as its broadcast events1

Jane Feuer has argued that both of contemporary broadcasting’s most paradigmatic forms–reality and quality television–largely depend on their discursive and interpretative communities to create meanings2. In the case of reality shows in particular, this results in a distinctive textuality that evokes a close and dynamic relationship with an offscreen “real,’ while at the same time asserting the show’s textual specificity. Shows like Project Runway maintain a distinct textual presence while they advocate viewer participation, play with the idea of permeable and non-permeable textual boundaries and highlight the different ways in which we can access ‘the real world.’

Project Runway is currently the highest rated cable show on Wednesday nights among 18-49s–and given the prevalence of PR reruns and mini-marathons, it’s arguably easier to see it than miss it. It’s also one of the most discussed shows on television. Viewers can also extend their participation by purchasing assorted t-shirts, bags and pins from the official site and a tie-in magazine is available from Banana Republic with a purchase. If that’s not enough, they can buy clothing from the designers’ own collections, bid on the actual garments from the show, get the tie-in Banana Republic outfit or the PR Barbie.

Santino Rice

Santino Rice

PR is not about making couture accessible; instead, it explores this gap in cultural power through the vehicle of fashion. Although premised on finding “the next great American designer,” PR presents the more mundane world of mass-market retail (L’Oreal, Banana Republic, Mattell, Toys R Us). Unlike most high profile reality shows, it has no desert islands, boardrooms or elaborate stages but instead embraces the everyday while ostensibly focusing on the elite world of high fashion. Unlike American Idol, the judges alone decide who advances on PR, and the inconsistency and elitism of their criteria is the primary discussion topic on official and fan sites. Polls on the Bravo site allow viewers to correct these seemingly awry and capricious verdicts immediately after the show. In both seasons a fan favorite was eliminated just before the Bryant Park shows while a free pass was seemingly given to its “villains” (first the style-challenged Wendy Pepper, then the arrogant and outspoken Santino Rice). Viewers respond by ensuring that their favorites–season 1’s Austin Scarlett and Season 2’s Nick Verreos–win almost every challenge (at least online), regardless of the quality of their designs, blasting the judges/producers for elevating character over accomplishments.

Bravo’s site also offers commentaries from Tim Gunn, Chair of Fashion Design at Parsons, that encourage viewers to mount a counter critique of the show. These elaborate upon events we didn’t see, suggesting that the show–as broadcast–is incomplete. Viewers are implicitly invited to seal up these gaps–or rent them further apart–in order to finish the show. Websites and internet posters point to clumsy devices–voice-overs that do not match the image and obvious temporal ellipses–and offer their own interpretations of what really happened. This allows them to correct perceived errors in judgment–a bad overdub meant that the producers really sent Nick home on episode 10, favoring outsized character over good design.

Jay McCarroll

Jay McCarroll

Many PR posters admit to knowing little about fashion, however, allowing the show to mobilize another gap that exists in the real world: the gulf between the populist feelings/tastes of the masses and the elitism of those in the fashion industry. Jay McCarroll, last season’s popular winner has now been reinvented as a villain: as an outsider (contestant) he was funny and offbeat, but as an industry insider, he is just bitchy and mean spirited. On the other hand, viewers like Tim Gunn, not just because he is the paradigmatic witty and debonair gay man, but also because he is a teacher and thus occupies a liminal position between the industry and those of us permanently on the other side of the velvet ropes. During Fashion Week, he eschewed a front row seat, instead remaining backstage to support the designers. Tim thus foregrounds the distance between the viewers and the elite worlds of fashion and television while acting as a conduit for further commentary.

PR’s most obvious gap–the four weeks between its finale and the Bryant Park shows–thus not only stimulates discussion and displays the multifaceted registers of this text, but makes a statement on social status and expertise. Although initially intended as a trade event, Fashion Week is now effectively part of celebrity culture, and, as such, more about access and social status than talent or knowledge. The hierarchies of access–admission to the tent, viewing the collections on the internet (still photos that cannot display the way garments move) and watching them on television (with a four week wait)–enact the discrepancies in power that are part of high fashion and the social sphere it embodies. By stimulating viewer discussion and arguably stoking critique of its judges (celebrities and fashion world insiders alike), Bravo reiterates television’s status as ostensibly popular medium. By forsaking the conventional secrecy, shock and suspense of most reality television, PR instead offers a network-sanctioned utopian vision of a more interactive and democratic text–albeit a form of populism designed more to placate advertisers and sponsors than truly disturb hierarchies of power.

1Airing the season finale a month after the show sacrifices novelty and suspense, but as the Banana Republic magazine exposed designs and challenges before the show even aired, PR would seem to be one reality show where suspense–and with it, a concentration on the text as text–was not the point.

2Jane Feuer, “The Shifting Meaning of Quality TV: 1950s-Present,” presented at American Quality TV, An International Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, April 2004.

Image Credits:

1. Project Runway Cast

2. Santino Rice

3. Jay McCarroll

Official Bravo site Project Runway
Also see Blogging Project Runway

Please feel free to comment.

Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

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

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

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

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

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

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

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


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

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

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

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Soap in the Chocolate Bar

Ipod Nano

Ipod Nano

Apple unveiled the latest variation on its iPod portable music player on September 7, and techies could hardly contain their gadget lust. David Pogue of the New York Times hailed the iPod Nano as “gorgeous, functional, and elegant . . .to see one is to want one” (Pogue, C1). Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, usually sober-minded in his evaluations of hardware and software, gasped that the player, the size of five credit cards stacked together, was “gorgeous and sleek . . . beautiful and incredibly thin . . . I am smitten” (Mossberg, B1). Apple has always excelled at promoting fashion; early in its history, Steve Jobs suggested that its computers be encased in exotic hardwoods.

Apple dominates the on-line music market, selling nearly three-quarters of all “legitimate” music downloads. The profit margins on its 99-cent downloads are razor-thin, however. Essentially, iTunes serves as a loss leader for the sale of iPods, which continue Apple’s tradition of pricing its proprietary formats at a premium in comparison with its competitors. Much of Apple’s appeal is grounded in its signification of status and conspicuous consumption.

Yet despite its sleekness, the iPod is a less than accommodating companion. All audio files must be converted to Apple’s proprietary AAC format, based on its FairPlay digital rights management system. Although FairPlay was hailed as less restrictive than other DRM schemes, tracks from rival download services such as Napster or MSN will not play on iPods. In addition to tethering Apple users to its proprietary formats, the rights of users can be altered at any time, at Apple’s sole discretion. FairPlay initially allowed downloads to be burned onto ten consecutive CDs; after that, their order must be rearranged. In May 2004, Apple reduced the number of CD copies from ten to seven, while raising the number of playback devices from three to five. The system also detects and blocks similar playlists, and does not allow songs to be edited, excerpted or sampled except exclusively on Apple’s terms. The iTunes music store does allow visitors to sample 30-second song clips, yet the clips are arbitrarily chosen and provide little insight, aside from the most repetitive selections. A former iTunes user sued Apple in 2005, accusing FairPlay of violating his fair use rights, and the iPod-iTunes DRM linkage as an “unlawful bundling and tying arrangement” that violates federal and California state laws by “suppressing competition, denying consumer choice, and forcing consumers to pay supra-competitive prices for their digital portable music players”(Cohen).

Ipod Itunes

Ipod Itunes

Given the disadvantages in sound quality and fair use that surround existing forms of digital music, what are their advantages? First, the appeal of digital music is based in part on the ability to contain huge amounts of data in a small area — the “geek” thrill of massive storage. A second attraction is the possibility of immediacy, to sort and regroup files endlessly and summon a file quickly from the database. Third, customization via digital software is expedient, efficient, and accomplished at physical remove (although software nomenclature implies otherwise; we “grab” cuts and personalize collections via “drag and drop” applications). Greater possibilities for user programming result in music increasingly approached in terms of utility, rather than aesthetics (witness the popularity of ring tones, from which the recording industry derives revenue that surpasses downloads; never mind that the sound quality is akin to jamming a darning needle in one’s ear). Rather than songs themselves, play lists serve as a form of personal expression. In cyberspace, people collect lists rather than objects. ITunes features myriad play lists, although a cursory glance of celebrity play lists reveals their propensity for self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.

Through play lists and digital rights management, Apple and other companies attempt to construct a history for artifacts that have no history. Unless they are burned onto CDs, digital files have no physical manifestation. They consist of data, metadata, and a thumbnail, and therefore lack the “value” of a medium you can hold in your hands. When a product is delivered in a string of bits, rather than presenting itself in a physical form, it appears to have less value. Diminished or nonexistent physical presence undermines the notion of intellectual property; hence the widespread illicit copying of software and public support of file sharing. As goods lose their physicality, producers attempt to imbue them with greater and greater amounts of constructed value. This, ultimately, is Apple’s strategy: Sell sexy yet crippled hardware, make the content almost incidental, and let the users do the heavy lifting of promotion. For all of its style, the iPod is little more than an exercise in corporate bad faith. The chocolate bar is filled with soap.

Peter Cohen (2005). “iTunes User Sues Apple over FairPlay,” PCWorld.com, Jan. 7.
David Pogue (2005). “Defying Odds, One Sleek Ipod At a Time.” The New York Times, Sept. 15.
Walter Mossberg (2005). “Ipod’s Latest Siblings.” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8.

Image Credits:
1. Ipod Nano

2. Ipod Itunes

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Who Wants to be a Crorepati?: Global Television and Local Genres in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Host of India\'s Version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Host of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

In 2000, when Star Plus Channel launched Kaun Banega Crorepati? (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the show quickly became the biggest hit on Indian television. Hosted by the megastar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, KBC, and catch-phrases from the show such as “lock kiya jaye,” “computer-ji,” “pucca,” and “fifty-fifty,” became popular parlance in India. At first glance, KBC may seem very similar to the many versions of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? produced in more than 30 countries under a franchise agreement with the London-based Celador Productions which produced the first version in Britain. The title of the Russian version of the show translates into English as “Oh! Lucky Man,” while in the Spanish version the title reads “50 for 15” (which refers to the 50 million pesetas that the winner of 15 questions takes home as the grand prize).(1) In the Indian version, “crorepati” refers to the contestant who can win the ultimate prize of Rs. 1 crore (approximately 220,000 US dollars).

As with all the international versions of the Millionaire show, the producers of KBC were contractually obligated to reproduce, down to the exact detail, the trademark title design, the show’s sets, music, question-format and the qualification process which are laid on in a 169-page document created by Celador Productions.(2) The studio setting for KBC consists of the standard blue background, while the foreground is well-lit to bring into focus an elevated stage with two seats in the middle for the host and the contestant, and a computer placed next to the host. The studio audience is seated around the stage, with the family members of the contestants seated prominently in the first few rows. The studio audience contributes to the pace and tone of the show by applauding for the correct answer, and observing in hushed silence as the stakes get higher for the contestants. The camera work, editing, lighting and music also contribute to create the heightened senses of suspense and relief in relation to the highs and lows of each contestant’s fortunes. The host also plays an important role in creating and maintaining the ebbs and flows of suspense and relief through the show by first putting the contestants at ease small talk at the beginning, reminding them of the rising stakes as the show goes along, and nudging them to consider the use of lifelines for the more difficult questions. A quick conversation with the family members in the studio audiences, or an occasional joke at the expense of the contestant in the hot seat, a polite hello to the friend who calls in to help the contestant in a pickle, and finally a sense of empathy with the winners and losers alike; all help to personalize the host and make a connection with both the studio audiences and the television audiences.

In other words, the program format and the studio settings created for KBC are almost identical to all the other international versions of the Millionaire show. However, during the 2000-2001 season, when it was telecast for four days a week at 9:00 p.m. on Star Plus Channel, the show captured viewers’ imagination in a manner not seen in Indian television since the serialization of Ramyan and Mahabharat on Doordarshan in the late 1980s. Initially, the ratings for KBC were stratospheric with the first season enjoying a TRP rating of 14 (while most other shows on cable were struggling in the single digits). Although KBC‘s TRP rating fell to 10.2 in the following year, viewer interest remained very high, and Star TV continued to receive around 200,000 calls a day from potential contestants.(3) Fans of the show who could not, or did not want to, get on the show were just as eager to share a seat next to the Big B (as Amitabh Bacchan is popularly known in India).

Not everyone, of course, was caught up in the euphoria over KBC. In an online discussion group on KBC at mouthshut.com, a couple of irritated reviewers tried to explain to an overwhelming majority of fans that the show was just a cheap imitation of a foreign program. A posting by “Amrita” reads, “Before I start my review, let me educate the members here that KBC is an exact copy of American show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Another posting by “Sujay Marthi” is even more scathing, “What is it about this pack of new-age foreign-trained producers of TV serials/programmes that makes me think that they’ve all worked as stable hands before? The similarities in the two fields are too glaring to miss.”(4)

For the diehard fans of KBC, however, the criticism that the show is “an exact copy” of the Millionaire seems to be of little concern, as the following posting by “dhrumil 83” on mouthshut.com reveals: “KAUN BANEGA CROREPATI might have had been copied from ‘WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE’. But to tell you the truth the copied version is better than the original one. SIMPLE ANSWER – It has AMITABH BACHAN [sic] in it. He is the one the greatest…”.(5)

Although some of reasons for KBC‘s success may have to do with the trade-marked presentation and packaging of the Millionaire franchise around the world, it would be difficult to ignore the role that Amitabh Bachchan plays as the host of the show in making the show more appealing to Indian television viewers. In one of the more astute analysis of the Crorepati narratives, Shiv Visvanathan points to Amitabh’s uncanny ability to create “human interest” encounters with the participants of show, in spite of his status as a living legend in Indian cinema.(6)

It is important to note the reasons for Amitabh’s uncanny ability to make a personal connection with the average television viewer cannot be understood by simply comparing his role as the host of KBC with the performance of other hosts of the Millionaire show such as Regis Philbin in the United States. Given Amitabh’s status as the undisputed megastar of Hindi cinema, we must recognize that his performance as the host of KBC is akin to the role of a cultural translator who skillfully connects texts with audiences by drawing upon their common understanding of the codes and conventions of old and new genres.

Following Amitabh’s success as the host of KBC on Star TV, a variety of game shows and reality shows on competing networks featured other famous movie stars from the Hindi film industry. To get a share of the advertising pie in the 9:00 p.m. primetime slot that was all but owned by KBC on Star Plus, Zee TV began airing its own game show called Sawaal Dus Crore Ka (A Question of Ten Crores) with the noted character actor Anupam Kher in the host seat. Although Zee TV had upped the prize money stake by ten times over what Star TV offered contestants on KBC, the ratings for Sawal Dus Crore Ka remained poor. Anupam Kher was soon replaced by the well-known heroine Manisha Koirala, but the show failed to take off. Over at SaBe TV, a new game show called Jab Khelo Sab Khelo (When You Play, We All Play) was launched during the daytime with the popular television personality Shekar Suman at the helm of affairs. Sony TV introduced its own game show called Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke with superstar Govinda threatening to give Amitabh Bachchan and KBC a run for the advertising money.

In 2002, Sony TV quickly followed up on the success of Chappar Phaad Ke with a reality/game show hybrid called Kahin naa Kahin Koi Hai (Someone, Somewhere) featuring Madhuri Dixit — the #1 heroine in Hindi cinema during the 1990s. Known as K3H, for short, the show took the traditional concept of arranged-marriages into television land by bringing together young men and women, along with their families, and helping them find a life partner over a span of four episodes.

In this essay, I have chosen focus on Amithabh Bacchan’s role as the host of KBC not because I believe that KBC is the most “Indian” game show on television. Clearly, other game shows like Chappad Phar Ke with Govinda, and reality shows like K3H with Madhuri Dixit playing the role of the host are equally, if not more, “Indian” in their format, content and character. Rather, I focus on KBC because it appears to be an extreme illustration of commonly held view that internationally-syndicated game shows and reality TV shows in India are cheap and vulgar imitations of popular American television genres. Yet, when we look closely at Amitabh Bacchan’ role as the host and his creative enlisting of “computer-ji’s as a sidekick, it quickly becomes clear why many Indian viewers did not see KBC as a copy of a globally-successful franchise, even though most of them were well aware of the existence of other versions of the Millionaire show around the world.

Notes and Links
“Murdoch’s Millionaire Fight,” BBC News, September 21, 2000. Online at: BBC NEWS.
“Survival of the Fittest,” India Today, October 10, 2001. Online at India Today.
These postings are listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Emphasis mine. This posting is also listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Shiv Visvanathan, “The Crorepati Narratives,” Economic and Political Weekly, August 26-September 2, 2000. Online at: EPW.

Image Credits:

India’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire

Please feel free to comment.

At Last, TV for People Just Like Me

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

I hate your favorite television show. Honestly. I loathe it. You love it, I know. But it’s a stinking pile of shit. I’m sorry to be coarse, but I can’t watch it for two minutes without feeling sick to my stomach.

My favorite show is not like yours. Mine isn’t just good TV. It’s poetry. It’s timeless. It will last as long as Shakespeare, as long as human beings walk this planet. Of course, you can’t stand it.

Who could have imagined that television would give us so much to hate?

Consensus is a lovely idea, of course; but it’s just so twentieth-century. There’s still something to be said for respect and tolerance, but this is an age for preaching to the choir. If you aren’t like me, you don’t think like me.

It isn’t a tautology, or even bad faith; it’s demography — reinforced by the massless media of a new century. My tastes, as Amazon.com constantly reminds me, are remarkably similar to those of people like me.

The true savants of the age are the actuaries — those slide rule-wielding, cigar-chomping, hard-boiled avatars of Enlightenment. Think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity: the sort of guy who can take one glance at your census form then look you in the eye without blinking and tell you what brand of toothpaste you use, which programs you TiVo, how long you’ll live, and which malady will put you in the grave.

Demography is destiny.

It wasn’t so long ago that we spoke of television as the campfire around which our culture gathers to tell its communal stories. Now it’s the doctor’s office waiting room where we idly flip through back issues of Cat Fancy while awaiting our lab results; or the bedside table where we stashed our precious, dog-eared issues of Tiger Beat, the ones with David Soul on the cover.

It’s a cold-eyed glimpse of someone else’s passion, or the white-hot detonation of our own. But it’s no communal campfire — unless it’s the campfire of a Survivor tribal council where we gather in seething resentment to cement temporary, self-serving alliances.

There are times when the TV industry tries to convince us that nothing has changed, that we still live in a Ptolemaic television universe with the networks at the center — or that we have a collective investment in the beating of a butterfly’s wings in some remote corner of the galaxy where network news anchors are still being built.

Even at their best, these moments come off as crude and desperate – as when NBC recently sent Brian Williams, the shiny new anchorbot in Tom Brokaw’s chair, to report on the Asian tsunami. Presumably, an anchor’s grave conviction is the one skill that can’t be outsourced.

At their worst, these moments are so comically self-delusional that you’d hardly be surprised to see network executives being chased down Fifth Avenue by fellows with butterfly nets.

Perhaps you’ve heard that, after twelve (or so) seasons of pulse-pounding drama, NYPD Blue has come down to its FINAL TWO EPISODES! Ah, nothing lasts forever. The passage of time is indeed bittersweet. NYPD Blue is a landmark, one of the three or four greatest dramas in the history of television, and — hey, wait a second — NYPD Blue is still on the air?

So much has happened in my hectic life–The Osbournes, The Sopranos, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Scott Peterson trial, Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, a DVD box set of Baretta — that, well, um, I guess I just forgot about my old friend NYPD Blue.

Motivated by the potent blend of curiosity and shame that is the emotional cocktail of choice for discerning television viewers, I returned chastened to pay my final respects. What I found was more sordid than anything I’d ever seen on television, and I’ve seen the local news during sweeps months.

In that familiar squad room stood Dennis Franz surrounded by people who looked like models from a Land’s End catalogue, a scruffy Gulliver in a land of well-scrubbed Lilliputians. Who are these people and what have they done with the real actors?

I’m sure that someone has been watching NYPD Blue since Bobby Simone died about 140 episodes ago; but I felt like I had stumbled upon the last remaining Japanese soldier in a Philippines jungle circa 1958. Did someone forget to tell ABC that the war is over?

Don’t get me wrong. I was once a dedicated fan of NYPD Blue. I made it through several cycles of tragedy and redemption, a few dozen manly embraces, and a couple jittery glimpses of Franz’s furry ass. And I appreciate the slow simmer of long-term storytelling, the leisurely revelation of character, the measured epiphany that arrives as a reward for a viewer’s commitment. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no TV drama with the storytelling depth of NYPD Blue, nor a character as rich or complicated as Andy Sipowicz.

But I reached the point of diminishing returns several manly embraces ago and by the time of Jimmy Smits’s much-hyped reappearance as one of Andy’s hallucinations during the November sweeps, I had scuttled off long ago to one of the programming niches designed for people just like me.

ABC’s ad campaign for the series finale would like us to think that there is a television-viewing public with a collective investment in NYPD Blue. But it’s an ad campaign uncorked from a time capsule buried sometime around the final episode of M*A*S*H — from a television universe that still existed when NYPD Blue first appeared, but not the one that bears witness to its demise.

I don’t doubt the passion for NYPD Blue that beats in the heart of true believers. After all, these are the days when fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have marshaled forces to create a fully searchable database for each and every episode. If NASA could channel the energy of the committed pop culture fan, we would have a colony on Uranus by now.

What seems delusional to me is the belief that the NYPD Blue finale actually matters. This may be the culminating event in the lives of some NYPD Blue fans, but there are also people who get dressed up in military costumes on the weekend and re-enact the Battle of Bull Run. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The true signpost for this moment in television history is not the final episode of NYPD Blue, as ABC would have us believe, but the second-season premiere of Deadwood, the new series by NYPD Blue creator David Milch, which returns to HBO in early March. At the nearly the same moment, HBO’s competitor, Showtime, is bringing back the second season of its drama, The L Word.

A couple of million people watch the scabrous Western, Deadwood, each week. Another, and presumably different, million watch The L Word, a contemporary drama set among a circle of lesbian friends in Los Angeles.

Each series is groundbreaking in its own way. Each charts its own course with virtually no concessions to a general audience. Each is viewed on a premium cable channel by the tiniest sliver of the national population. One is brilliant and stunningly original; the other is tedious and wildly overrated. If you’re like me, you’ll agree.

The Sopranos
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Double Indemnity
More on Double Indemnity

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Putting the ‘Syn’ into Synergy

by: Eileen R. Meehan / Louisiana State University

I beat the Rugrats to Paris by two years. In December, 1998, I was on an Air France flight from Houston to Paris. Rosy-fingered Eos was rising over Europe and our French flight attendants were distributing breakfasts. In the middle of the tray was a large container of applesauce whose foil cover was emblazoned with the faces of the Rugrats plugging their first movie. Like dozens of fellow travelers, I ripped off the cover, squenched it in my fist, and thereby helped delay another incursion of US corporate cultural imperialism into France. At least, that’s what I like to think.

The Rugrats are a good example of how almost any television program can become a franchise when the intellectual property is owned by a transindustrial media conglomerate. Creators Gsapo Csupo and Arlene Klasky pitched The Rugrats to Viacom, which acquired the property. The series premiered on Viacom’s Nickelodeon cable channel starting in 1991, running on Nick’s daytime schedule targeting children. Around 1994, Viacom reran it on the evening schedule targeting nostalgic but cool adults. Viacom built its Nick at Nite operation on such recirculation of television programs, relying on adult audiences to read old texts or texts meant for children in a different manner. That’s one form of synergy and it encourages the creation of new programs that are designed as polysemic and targeted for multiple types of consumers currently demanded by advertisers.

Another form of synergy involves moving the same symbolic universe intact across different media. (I’m looking for a term to describe this form of synergy and would appreciate suggestions.) Using this form of synergy, Viacom moved The Rugrats from television into film with The Rugrats Movie (1998). Two filmed sequels were made: Rugrats in Paris (2000) and Rugrats Go Wild! (2003). The last brought together the Rugrats and Viacom’s Wild Thornberrys, a Nick cartoon featuring a nuclear family. (The Internet Movie Database identifies the working title as Rugrats Meet the Wild Thornberrys.)

All this synergy allowed Viacom to ensure that its multiple operations would have recognizable products. Let’s take Rugrats in Paris as our core example and consider some of the products derived from it. Four products involved repackaging: taking all or part of the core product and generating ‘new’ products that reproduce some or all of the experience of the original. The film Rugrats in Paris was repackaged as a video and DVD — a fairly direct process in which the original product undergoes very little manipulation. More manipulation is involved in generating Rugrats in Paris: The Movie Storybook and the CD soundtrack. Storybooks typically use sections of the storyboard and script; soundtrack CDs use a film’s musical soundtrack. In both story books and CD soundtracks, the point is to reiterate the film, to promote the film, and to earn revenues for the film’s product line. It’s worth noting that Viacom had operations repackaging films as DVDs and videos (Paramount Home Entertainment), publishing books (Simon & Schuster), and renting DVDs and videos (Blockbuster).

Viacom also owned television venues, giving it the opportunity to recirculate Rugrats in Paris across its pay channels, digital channels, basic cable channels, and its broadcast networks, UPN and CBS. In recirculation, a product moves from one venue to another like from theaters to pay channels to basic channels to networks. Multiple recirculations fill the schedules of different venues with internally owned products. Viacom’s nostalgia operations — the TV Land cable channel and the Nick at Nite programming block — reposition very old products as pop culture classics.

Another form of synergy is recycling: incorporating parts of one product into another as with Viacom’s The Making of the Rugrats in Paris. Like any ‘making of,’ this one lifted bits of the Paris film and placed them in a new context. I don’t know if Viacom ran The Making of the Rugrats in Paris on its pay channels, which is standard industry practice. The piece did run as an episode on the VH1 series Behind the Movie, thus updating that channel’s targeted 18-49 year old audience on a film targeted for children. The Making of the Rugrats in Paris was subsequently released on video — another example of repackaging.

Finally, I’d like to go back to the original Rugrats and note one more type of synergy: spin offs. As everybody knows, these are television series derived from previous series. They typically maintain the armature of the original’s symbolic universe and one or more of the original characters. But, while keeping the same cultural rules, assumptions, presumptions, values, narrative structures, and character types, spin offs move to a new fictive site. For the Rugrats, the idea was floated in the special Rugrats: All Growed Up (2001). The premise was that the Rugrats had, as the title suggests, gotten older. Their post-Rugrat adventures were then presented in the 2003 series All Grown Up on Nick.

There is another type of synergy that Viacom has yet to apply to the Rugrats: redeployment. That is where the armature of a symbolic universe is lifted, emptied of its original characters, and used to generate an entirely new — yet, totally familiar — series. Having bought Paramount and its Star Trek franchise in 1993, Viacom has experience in redeployment from its Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Imagine what could it do with Rugrats!

Oh — on my return flight originating in Paris, I was given two pleasant meals, neither involving licensed cartoon characters. I like to think of that as a gift. Viva la France!

Rugrats on Nick
Paramount Home Entertainment

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To Pee or Not to Pee: On the Politics of Cultural Appropriation

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

I live in a borderland, in a space of crossings, in an in-between. I live in Fort Collins. Sure, with relative ease you can locate and thus seemingly isolate it on a map. But a map lacks perspective, movement, and contour. It does not adequately capture how Fort Collins is pulled, even torn, between the mythical vision of cowboy country to the North and the magical wonders of Californication to the South. Fort Collins, you see, lies nearly equal distance from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that while driving down the street one is as likely to see a bumper sticker for Pat Buchanan as for Ralph Nader. I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Fort Collins seven years ago, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of “automobile art” — alright, cheap car decals. But I guess when you live in a borderland, you feel an irrepressible urge to be immediately clear about who you are, where you stand, and what you like to pee on. With just one well-placed sticker, a driver can unequivocally communicate, “Howdy, I’m an American. I love my Ford F-150. And if given the chance, I — like this little cartoon boy — would relieve myself all over your foreign import.” Or if one prefers, a decal that informs fellow drivers, “Dude, I believe we ought to legalize marijuana. And later today, I — like this little cartoon boy — plan to … what was I talking about?”

Although I appreciate the courtesy of my fellow drivers letting me know what pisses them off and whom they’d like to piss on, I can’t help but notice that they have adopted the same cultural icon to convey, at times, very divergent targets of distaste. That icon is, of course, Calvin from the Bill Watterson cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes. In graduate school, I quite enjoyed reading this strip; it was clear that Watterson had a familiarity with contemporary literary and social theory. And though I do not recall Calvin ever peeing on anything then, it seems to me that today he enjoys peeing on everything (see Examples). In fact, as near as I can tell, Calvin suffers from a serious bladder control problem and urinates utterly indiscriminately. He’s as likely to pee on a Ford as a Chevy, on John Kerry as George Bush, on Bin Laden as an ex-wife. When the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, I’ve even seen Calvin pee on himself. Aside from the obvious fact that peeing indiscriminately de-politicizes one’s urine by transforming it from a sharp, stinging stream of social critique into a widely dispersed, gentle mist of cultural populism, I’m struck by the range of “calls” (nature and otherwise) to which Calvin has responded. One is just as likely to see Calvin praying, kneeling before a cross, or carrying a bible as Calvin urinating, though “spiritual” Calvin is apparently more comfortable on high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs than on pick-up trucks. Now, I’ll admit I don’t know what Calvin’s praying for. Maybe he’s thankin’ God for this sweet ride or maybe he’s praying for a new bladder? But I do know that mass marketing has long since destroyed whatever counter-cultural meaning Calvin may once have held. Indeed, you can customize Calvin so that he pees on the thing you personally despise (see Link).

Calvin is, of course, not the only icon or even cartoon for that matter to be appropriated for counter-cultural use only to later be co-opted and mass marketed as a symbol of resistance and even a symbol of propriety and spirituality. I see several parallels, for instance, with Bart Simpson. When The Simpsons began its regular prime-time run in January of 1990, Bart was quickly appropriated as an icon of rebellion (Conrad, 2001, p. 75). A modified “Black Bart” became a popular image in African-American culture (Parisi, 1993, p. 125) and a plaster Bart wearing a poncho appeared as part of a resistive, performance art piece title, “The Temple of Confessions” (Gomez-Pena & Sifuentes, 1996, p. 19). Bootlegged T-shirts of Bart saying, “Underachiever and Proud of It” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” began appearing on street corners and in high schools everywhere. The response to this cultural appropriation was swift and harsh. It included both the prosecution of independent vendors for copyright violation and the banning of Bart Simpson T-shirts in many high schools across the country. In retrospect, it appears that the problem was not with the message of rebellion, but with who was profiting off of that message. Today, Bart Simpson T-shirts are widely available in stores such as Hot Topic, whose entire premise from store design to store employees is to sell consumers an image of resistance and counter-culture. But Bart Simpson T-shirts with the slogan, Eat My Shorts), just ring hollow now. In the early 1990s, that message truly meant something, namely, “I reject your authority, and, as such, I invite you to consume my underwear.” But today wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt no longer marks one as “anti-authoritarian,” it simply marks one as a “consumer.” Perhaps the best evidence of this is the stunning array of Simpsons related merchandise now available.

Having watched over the years as Calvin, Bart, Beavis and Butt-head, and the characters on South Park have gone from “subversive images” to mainstream commodities, I can’t help but wonder if cultural appropriation remains a viable tactic of cultural resistance in a postmodern consumer culture. It sure seems like the moment that an icon becomes a recognizable symbol of resistance that it is immediately co-opted and sold to the very individuals who subverted it in the first place. I have a large collection of Simpsons’ toys from the early ‘90s in my office at school. Seven years ago, I could tell that this made some of my colleagues uneasy, even uncomfortable. But today, none of them seem to care. They find my toys amusing, and that, well … really pisses me off.


Conrad, M. “Thus spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the virtues of being bad.” In W. Irwin, M. Conrad, and A. Skoble (Eds.), The Simpsons and philosophy: The d’oh! of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001. 59-77.

Gomez-Pena, G, & R. Sifuentes. Temple of confessions: Mexican beasts and living Santos. New York: powerHouse, 1996.

Parisi, P. “‘Black Bart’ Simpson: Appropriation and revitalization in commodity culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, 27 (1993): 125-42.

“Pop Culture Appropriates Warning”
Intellectual Property laws and Negativland
The Che store
Boing Boing: The Folkloric History of those “Calvin Peeing” Car Stickers

Please feel free to comment.

Affective Economics 101

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Apprentice

The Apprentice

How many different ways is The Apprentice involved in branding?

1. The Brand as Protagonist: The Donald casts himself and his corporate empire as the series protagonists. In the Sept.23 episode, the Donald ascends down the escalator to a trumpet fanfare and then directs our eyes upwards to enjoy the splendors of Trump Tower. [Play Video]

2. The Brand as Task Master: So far this season, contestants have been asked to design and play test toys for Mattel, to develop new ice cream flavors for Ciao Bella, and to market a new Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste for Proctor and Gamble.

3. The Branding Process as Entertainment: On the Sept.23 episode, contestants demonstrated ways of linking brands and entertainment (circuses, the New York Mets) in order to create buzz for Crest. [Play Video]

4. The Brand as Helper: Frequently, the contestants consult with smaller companies (such as the Alliance Talent Agency [Play Video]) who aid them in their tasks in return for exposure. (see Vendor “Suite”).

5. The Brand as Prize: In many cases, Trump rewards contestants with access to himself and his “things” or to luxury meals and services (such as a caviar feast at Petrushian’s). [Play Video]

6. The Brand as Personal Statement: Some of the contestants can be seen wearing t-shirts promoting brands (such as Goizuetta Business School), seen as Kevin answered the phone in one episode [Play Video]) with which they feel a strong personal connection.

7. The Brand as Tie-in: Following an episode where the contestants designed ice cream, viewers at home were able to order samples of the flavors online.

8. The Brand as Community: Through a tie-in between the Apprentice and Friendster, fans can assert their affiliation with specific contestants and the producers collect real-time data about audience response.

9. The Brand as Event: Following the Sept. 23 episode, with its focus on thinking big, Trump launched a sweepstakes competition with Yahoo! Hot Jobs, whose 25k award is designed to encourage new initiatives.

These examples scarcely exhaust the roles brands play in the series (for example, the various ways NBC is using the series to revise its own brand identity). The importance of reality television goes well beyond its specific ratings successes. Reality television is the testing ground for convergence and branding strategies at an important moment of media in transition. The temptation among media-savvy people is to dismiss The Apprentice as nothing but one big product placement, but this would not adequately explain its popularity. The Apprentice is popular because it’s a well-made show and the brand tie-ins work because they are linked to its core emotional mechanics.

Let’s consider some important data points:

Right now, 43 percent of all households skip commercials. Tivo and other digital video recorder users skip between 60 and 70 percent of advertisements. These numbers are producing panic within the consumer economy. Many worry that the effectiveness of a spot during a top rated television show will be about the same or less than the clickthrough rate on the web. Yet, there are other ways of reading these figures. It isn’t that 70 percent of Tivo users skip commercials altogether; people use Tivos to decide which commercials to watch. Marketers are trying to understand what kinds of commercials people choose to watch and why. More generally, they are looking for ways to more powerfully link brands and entertainment content. These approaches include product placements, but also context-specific commercials, such as this spot for the Trump board game which ran during a commercial break on The Apprentice [Play Video] and this spot for Pringles which wraps Survivor-specific content around a commercial for their canned chips. [Play Video]

Brand managers are fusing entertainment and branding content both to grab the attention of ad-skippers and to reshape our emotional bonds with brands. Here’s former Coca-Cola CEO Steven Heyer speaking at a gathering of advertising and entertainment industry insiders last year: “We will use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. In that order. We’re moving to ideas that elicit emotion and create connections. And this speeds the convergence of Madison and Vine. Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold… whether movies or music or television… are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.” Or here’s Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, talking about what he calls “lovemarks” (brands that inspire cult followings): “the emotions are a serious opportunity to get in touch with consumers. And best of all, emotion is an unlimited resource. It’s always there, waiting to be tapped with new ideas, new inspirations, and new experiences.”

Industry researchers are discovering that the most valuable viewers may be loyals (or what we call fans). For most shows, less than 5 percent of all viewers regard the program to be a favorite. For some shows (and these including many cult and reality television programs), the numbers may reach 40 or 50 percent of viewers. Loyals are significantly more apt to watch the entire show each week, seek out additional information, watch advertisements, recall brands, and talk about them with others. Marketers, then, are seeking programs which will generate high concentrations of loyal viewers, even if those programs do not necessarily enjoy high ratings overall. And networks are seeking to slow the erosion of their own viewership to cable competitors or digital media. Reality shows may be one of the few remaining forms of appointment-based television.

Brand loyalty is the holy grail of affective economics because of what economists call the 80/20 rule: for most consumer products, 80 percent of purchases are made by 20 percent of their consumer base. A generation of cultural and media scholars had equated the active spectator with audience resistance, but now, corporate America is embracing audience activity as the golden gateway into more reliable patterns of consumption.

Marketing researchers speak about “brand communities,” trying to better understand why some groups of consumers form intense bonds with the product and through the product, with fellow consumers. These ethnographers research specific groups of highly committed consumers (such as Harley-Davidson riders, Apple computer users, or Saturn drivers) or what they call “brandfests,” social events (either commercially sponsored or grassroots) that pull together large numbers of consumers. As these brand communities move online, members are able to sustain their connections over long periods and thus to intensify the role the community plays in their purchasing decisions. Companies seek to move more casual consumers towards links with these brand communities and count on what they call “inspirational consumers,” in effect, fans of brands, to advocate on their behalf. Advertisers are drawn towards the audience participation surrounding reality programs because they can help fuel the growth of online brand communities.

Marketers want to understand the relationship between fan communities (the most committed consumers of an entertainment franchise) and brand communities (the most committed consumers of a branded product). What happens when the two are brought face to face? Do brand messages become part of what people talk about when they discuss the show? Can advertisements gain greater currency by becoming vehicles by which fans can get more program-specific information?

At the same time, consumer companies are trying to figure out what kinds of links to the entertainment properties consumers will accept or value and which links alienate viewers. For example, has frustration over the voting mechanisms in American Idol last season rebounded and left people feeling more negative towards ATT, the company which has used the show to broaden the market for text messaging? And if people are feeling more negative to ATT, how does this impact Ford and Coca-Cola, two companies that are also closely associated with the program content? The unpredictable character of unscripted programming increases the risks in some cases: a product placement for Stolichnaya Citroena during Big Brother several seasons ago went seriously awry because one “houseguest” was an alcoholic who was stealing other people’s booze, getting sloppy drunk, and required an intervention, not exactly the messaging the company intended.

Before we write all of this off as simply an insidious new marketing strategy, consider a few more implications: Such arguments strengthen the hands of fan communities lobbying producers to keep their favorite series on the air. High favorability may trump high ratings in the new affective economy. The brand communities often emerge as important sites of consumer activism as those most invested in a brand seek to hold corporations more accountable.

Consumer products companies are not the only groups trying to tap popular interest in The Apprentice to shape our emotional responses to their messages. Consider this anti-Bush commercial created by the political organization True Majority to reach younger voters and circulated virally. Is this a form of ad-busting or is it itself an ad, given the fact that Ben Cohen, one of the group’s leaders, is CEO of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream . In the marketing world, they now talk about Citizen Brands — brands that build greater consumer loyalty by tapping into our political commitments. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s or the Body Shop (on the left) or Coors (on the right) were early explorers of the relationship between consumers and citizens. At the end of the day, both Ciao Bella and Ben and Jerry’s are in the same business — selling ice cream.

The example of Citizen Brands should help us rethink of own knee-jerk responses to these marketing strategies. The product placements work because they are tied to something people care about — whether it’s how to defeat George Bush or who is going to the boardroom. If the brand campaigns interfere too much with what draws people to these programs, they fail. We may chuckle over the heavy-handedness of The Donald’s self-promotion, but at the end of the day, he makes great television.

Links of Interest:

1. NBC’s Apprentice site

2. Village Voice article on the art of Trump branding

3. An exploration of cult branding

Image Credits:

The Apprentice Logo

Please feel free to comment.