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)


References:




Strategies of Innovation in ‘High-End’ TV Drama: The Contribution of Cable 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington 

Mad Men

The cast of AMC’s Mad Men

Reviewing American TV drama output for 2008, Heather Havrilesky ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, 13 January. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV )) pronounced it “one of the worst years of TV in the last decade” and lamented the apparent return of the risk-adverse commissioning practices of the past, as a result of which, in her opinion, “all of the momentum and promise of the past few years” has receded into “a haze of crappy, unoriginal new programming.” ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, January 13. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV)) Notwithstanding Havrilesky’s prognosis and convincing list of “lackluster” examples, my own view is that any apparent trough for American drama in 2008 is but a blip on an otherwise eventful creative landscape.

Aside from the repercussions of 2008’s writer’s strike, there has been much to celebrate in American drama output of this decade. Indeed, Havrilesky’s ‘golden age’ assessment of successive pre-2008 shows acknowledges an unusual degree of innovation. Focussing on the creative peaks rather than the unavoidable troughs, this column contends that post-2000 innovation in American TV drama has been most striking at the ‘high-end’ of the hour-long series and serial area, this encouraged by the conspicuous success of indicative cable-commissioned examples. Although hour-long drama involves a range of programme types and budgets, the ‘high-end’ descriptor I invoke here refers to drama’s crème de la crème, whose episodes can cost upwards of US$3 million each. This drama is conceptually adventurous and narratively complex, is often created by writers or hyphenates with ‘auteur’ credentials, and uses 35mm film (or its digital equivalent) to achieve a cinematic quality.

Before 2000, mitigated by the market share implications of this drama’s exorbitant cost, the commissioning of ‘high-end’ American series and serials was generally monopolised by broadcast networks with the requisite market share and revenues. But all too routinely, this broadcast drama was creatively constrained by the “safety first” conservatism ((Gitlin Gitlin, Todd (1994) Inside Prime Time, Revised Edition, London: Routledge.)) of complacent institutions too terrified to accept the commercial risk of genuine creative experimentation. Broadcast drama has been further limited by daunting expectations of immediate success and then, if delivers the requisite ratings, by sometimes over-blown attempts to prolong its life and profitability (known in the trade as ‘jumping the shark’), one objective of which is to amass enough episodes to maximise syndication and other ‘back-end’ revenues. With such considerations bearing down particularly heavily on broadcast commissions, network timidity continues to set the creative limits on much of TV drama output.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is often heralded as a classic example of “quality TV”

Writers and producers were undoubtedly grateful for significant progressive change in American hour-long drama during the ‘quality TV’ turn of the 1980s and 1990s, which yielded what Robert Thompson ((Thompson, Robert J. (1996) From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television’s Second Golden Age, New York: Syracuse University Press.)) argued was a second ‘golden age.’ ‘Quality TV’ flourished following the success of breakthrough shows like Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) which demonstrated an under-exploited link between conceptually inventive, aesthetically edgy drama and the delivery of the affluent audience segments for which advertisers were prepared to pay several times the ‘general audience’ rate ((Feuer Feuer, Jane (1984) “MTM Enterprises: An Overview”, in Feuer, J., Kerr P., and Vahimagi, T. (eds.) MTM ‘Quality Television’, London: British Film Institute, pp. 1–31.)). With Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91) among its other ‘classic’ examples, the creative legacy of ‘quality TV’ was to extend and rework conventions in drama concept design and narrative style, to mainstream intertextual and self-reflexive referencing, and encourage production values in a cinematic direction. In these ways, the ‘quality’ turn in American drama answered the challenges of intensifying competition, market fragmentation, and the loss of broadcast audience share to cable. Although ‘premium cable’ networks HBO and Showtime began commissioning original drama as early as 1983 (Edgerton, 2008:6), increased creative experimentation in renewable hour-long drama formats seemed to follow their late-1990s entry into the hitherto broadcast-dominated competition in this costly area of drama. With HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood finding critical acclaim and luring very large audiences, it was the unexpected success of these and the cable-commissioned dramas that followed – to which the broadcast networks were obliged to respond in their own commissions – that catalysed the broader, more sustained innovation in ‘high-end’ hour-long drama that is now eliciting perceptions of a further round of ‘golden age’ achievements in the current decade.

Innovation in contemporary ‘high-end’ series and serials – which has also been evident in such broadcast examples as CSI, 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, House, and Boston Legal – has centred on the use of five strategies which, although not new to ‘high-end’ TV drama, have been more consistently deployed in American examples since 2000 ((Dunleavy Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). These are:

  • Inventive ‘generic mixing’ in concept design;
  • The profiling of ‘authorial’ input;
  • Increasing ‘narrative complexity’; ((The concepts of ‘generic mixing’ and ‘narrative complexity’ were first explored by Jason Mittell (2004: 153-7) and (2006: 29-31).))
  • The use of serial narration to foster a ‘must-see’ allure; ((The idea and objectives of ‘must-see’ allure in drama were first examined by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons (2003:2-3).)) and
  • The pursuit of a visual quality that has further reduced aesthetic distinctions between television and cinema.

Helping to disperse these strategies across leading American drama series and serials post-2000 has been an increased willingness by its network and studio investors to accommodate the creative demands of what they regard as ‘star’ producers ((Pearson, Roberta (2005) “The Writer/Producer in American Television”, Chapter One, in Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) The Contemporary Television Series, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, pp.11–26. )) and to support production budgets of around US$3 million per episode ((Higgins Higgins, John, M. (2006) “American TV Rebounds Worldwide”, Broadcasting and Cable, 18 September, pp.18–19.)) in the hope of amortising the extra cost in later sales.

Lost

The first season cast of ABC’s Lost

As the most successful drama ever produced for cable TV and the most innovative American drama serial in a creatively eventful decade, HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-06) successfully pioneered the above set of strategies to yield a sense of innovation at its peak. Offering a concept with no TV drama precedent, The Sopranos proposal was rejected first by Fox and then by CBS and ABC, before being finally being accepted by HBO ((Creeber Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). The sense of novelty that lured viewers to this serial, is grounded in an inventive generic mix whose components include “the gangster movie, soap opera, and psychological drama” ((Nelson, Robin (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” Drama, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.)). While authorship claims in long-form drama are often exaggerated, The Sopranos exemplifies the progressive potentials of drama that is able to develop under authorial control. Its ‘author’ was David Chase, the award-winning writer, producer, and director who, having conceived The Sopranos, remained head writer and the “driving creative force” (McDonald, 2007) through its six seasons.

The Sopranos was shot on single-camera film and fully exploited the cinematic regard for visual style – most evident in its feature-like cinematography, subdued and textured lighting and richly detailed sets. Important to the point of difference that this visual quality helped it achieve, was HBO’s decision to invest US $2-4 million per episode, more money than other networks were spending on drama at this time ((Edgerton Edgerton, Gary, R. (2008) “Introduction: A Brief History of HBO” in Edgerton, G. and Jones, J. P. (eds.) The Essential HBO Reader, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, pp.1–20.)). The Sopranos demonstrates the full range of textual strategies implied by ‘narrative complexity’ ((Mittell, Jason (2006) “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, The Velvet Light Trap, Number 58, Fall, pp. 29–40.)), these including the use of multiple perspectives, dream sequences for psychological revelation, temporal manipulation, and self-reflexive referencing, among other forms of intertextual play. Finally important to the ‘Not TV’ distinction of The Sopranos, is that it was a ‘premium cable’ commission. Its compelling serial narrative was designed to entice viewers to remain with HBO rather than submit to ‘churn’. Accordingly, The Sopranos cultivates ‘must-see’ allure, demanding unfaltering loyalty from its followers. Facilitating the more risqué or violent representations that also characterised The Sopranos, its cable domicile freed the emerging drama not only from anxieties about FCC content rules, but also from the other constraints on a TV drama’s design, content, and style that can be attributed to the context of an advertising-funded broadcast network ((Rogers, Mark, C., Epstein, Michael and Reeves, Jimmie L. (2002) “The Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: the Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Chapter Six in Lavery, D. (ed.) This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos, New York and London: Columbia University Press and Wallflower Press, pp. 42–57. )).

The Sopranos

David Chase’s narratively complex Sopranos

The Sopranos achieved sufficient popularity and profile to draw ‘network-sized’ audiences to HBO and, having done this, raised the stakes on innovation for other networks, placing particular pressure on the broadcast sector. The conceptual originality and aesthetic edginess of ‘high-end’ series and serials appearing after The Sopranos – as exemplified by 24 and House (Fox), Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Carnivale (HBO), Lost, Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal, and Pushing Daisies (ABC), Dead Like Me, Weeds, The L Word, and Dexter (Showtime), and Mad Men (AMC) – underlines that the creative strategies it so successfully pioneered have since been applied across a broader range of drama-commissioning networks. Deployed to articulate distinctiveness in an evermore crowded, competitive TV landscape and lure hard-to-get, yet lucrative audience segments, innovative ‘must-see’ drama has become a necessity for established as well as for newer networks. Adding to the pressure on leading network providers, is that this kind of ‘high-end’ American TV drama – as the award-winning Mad Men demonstrates – is now being commissioned by ‘basic cable’ networks.

Please feel free to comment.




Brand Loyalty vs. show loyalty, the strange case of Virgin vs. Sky

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar

“There are flaws in the UK pay TV market which are harming the interests of the consumers” (National Consumer Council, UK)

On Thursday 1st March 2007 customers of Virgin Media digital cable service lost three channels which were owned by rival pay TV provider Sky Digital (satellite). This came after weeks of public dispute over the amount which Virgin Media pays Sky to deliver three of Sky’s key channels. (Virgin also own several channels which Sky pays for and then packages with others to their own customers – it all gets a bit confusing here). Sky wanted to increase the cost but Virgin refused suggesting it was unreasonable and would result in Virgin customers paying more. Sky television (part of the BSkyB group owned in part by Rupert Murdoch) and Virgin Media (formerly two digital cable networks merged in a takeover involving Richard Branson) each blamed the other for the dispute which, now three weeks on still has no clear resolution in sight.

The three channels involved were the 24 hour news network, Sky News, the sport news channel, Sky Sports News and the flagship channel, Sky One, which frequently aired parent company Twentieth Century Fox’s programmes, including The Simpsons, 24, Battlestar Galactica and more recently Lost.

Sky's Lost ad

Sky’s Lost ad

I’m not familiar with the situation regarding cable providers outside of the UK so don’t know if it similarly complicated, but what I find interesting in this case is how the companies regard their customers in this dispute.

Fans and general audiences have always been at the mercy of the broadcaster or service providers in the UK. We wait each year to find out who has bought the rights to which new fall shows from the US and the providers know that they can count on fan loyalty to increase their revenue. In recent years one terrestrial channel outbid another to show reruns of The Simpsons which resulted in increased viewers on the successful channel, however the audience did not lose out as all terrestrial channels are free to air and available to all. This is fine within the free to air market, but the situation changes when the pay TV market is taken into account.

In the case of Sky, they have attempted to position themselves as the provider of the best new shows by understanding audience loyalty. They successfully secured the rights of Lost and 24 over the terrestrial channels hoping the fans would follow and subscribe to their product. (They have always been able to secure the rights to expensive sporting events too). The result of this has been an increasingly segmented UK audience with Sky only available to those who can afford the extra fee each month, or indeed are willing to have a satellite dish installed. They follow each new acquisition with a heavy marketing campaign to entice viewers to take on the package in order to get their favourite shows. This type of marketing has always been quite successful for Sky and they have used The Simpsons for many years at the heart of their campaigns, emphasising the individual, popular shows rather than the whole package.

Sky's 24 ad

Sky’s 24 ad

In the dispute with Virgin, Sky launched a campaign to entice Virgin customers to switch to them by specifically advertising the shows they have now lost, using such slogans as “Don’t lose Lost, Virgin Media have dropped brand new Lost” and “Get Jack back, Virgin Media have dropped brand new 24”. These poster campaigns target the fans of these shows so deliberately that the company doesn’t even mention any other benefits of their service, as well as using ‘dropped’ to reinforce that the blame was on Virgin.

However Virgin appears to be more concerned about customer satisfaction to their service, and trying to reward loyalty to the provider rather than just the shows. In an open letter to their customers, the company emphasised the notion of ‘fairness’ and claimed to be standing up to bullying tactics. While the hit shows are no longer available to their customers, the company has secured the repeat rights of a variety of other shows, (including repeats of Lost) to be made available in their new ‘On Demand’ format. Here the companies clearly differ on what they believe the audience’s priorities are. Virgin have approached the debate recognising that technological developments such as On Demand could factor heavily in their audiences viewing habits and so market appropriately. They also emphasis a longer term strategy of customer/audience satisfaction through a good and ‘fair’ product, whereas Sky try to capitalise on the current popularity of certain programs.

We have seen the effect audiences can have on the success of shows in studies on audience reception and fandom. This supports Sky’s program driven marketing strategy as the studies have repeatedly demonstrated the loyalty of fans to particular shows, which Sky is counting on, particularly in this dispute with Virgin. However (as we have discussed in this journal), alternative broadcasting methods are increasing and giving audiences much more choice. Legal and illegal downloads, DVD box sets and the old favourite of borrowing tapes of shows from friends, are all viable methods for audiences to find alternative ways to get their favourite shows without having to subscribe to Sky’s services and they are starting to do so.

When Sky secured the rights to Lost over free to air broadcaster Channel 4 last November, television discussion forums, such as digitalspy.co.uk, were full of comments from disgruntled Lost fans, who quite pointedly suggested they would use any of the alternative methods mentioned above rather than pay for the satellite channels. Similar comments appeared from Virgin customers after the loss of the three channels, who clearly agreed that Sky were to blame and refused to switch. They were again, vocal in their support for alternative methods of reception.

Since the dispute began the viewing figures for Sky have dropped drastically on both 24 and Lost, which would suggest that the Virgin customers made up a substantial part of Sky’s audience. Ratings slumps and rumours of advertisers looking to leave the channels involved suggest that perhaps fan loyalty is not enough when the alternative broadcasting methods are becoming easier and more prevalent and that perhaps neither provider should really be further dividing the audiences with this type of dispute.

In my opening quote, the National Consumer Council suggest that the market is flawed and having an adverse effect on the audiences. I would agree that some audience members who are not yet engaged with new technological alternatives may be losing out when carriage disputes emerge between rival providers. However it may by the providers who have to take into account the new technology and begin to realise that while fans may be very loyal to their shows they will seek them out wherever they can with the easiest, and quickest, methods available to them, not necessarily from the big television providers.

Image Credits:
1. Sky’s Lost ad
2. Sky’s 24 ad

Please feel free to comment.




“AZN Television: The Network for Asian America”

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

AZN TV Logo

AZN TV Logo

In March 2005, a new American television network launched. It was a quiet affair, announced mostly word-of-mouth and through the Asian American independent film festival circuit. AZN — “The Network for Asian America” — currently broadcasts in a handful of major markets including Los Angeles, The Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and Houston. It’s too early to know how the network is doing and who is watching it, but it’s a good time to consider the emergence, significance, and implications of television targeted towards Asian Americans.

What is Asian American television? As in defining ‘what is television’ more generally, we begin with the level of the text, include a consideration of the production context, and of course, emphasize the level of the reader or audience. At the same time, the concept of Asian American television floats as an open signifier, filled in by various parties and perspectives. For example, some non-Asian Americans might assume it means Asian product, and indeed, AZN regularly airs films (subtitled) from Asia; likewise, advertisers might not be clear about how to market to Asian Americans as distinct from Asian immigrants; and Asian American viewers themselves are newly discovering what Asian American television is, simply for the fact that it has never existed before.

So does it come down to the producers and programmers at ethnic networks to define “ethnic programming?” Is carving out a niche for the vastly diverse Asian and Asian American populations viable? How might looking at other ethnic networks (BET, Univision) inform the development of Asian American television, in terms of content as well as business structure? There are philosophical questions too. Following the observation/criticism that the television landscape might be gaining in diversity but in a way that amounts to segregated programming, is racial programming like racial profiling?

It Speaks Your Language

I do believe that Asian American programs — and at the least, programs with rich Asian American characters — are important and needed. How such programs are programmed (i.e., on a niche channel, basic cable channel, or major network channel) is a separate though related question. The promo for the niche network, AZN, is a quickly-paced montage of images and personalities from shows on the network which announces in a hip, young, male voiceover:

“It’s television that speaks to you, by you, for you. It’s AZN prime, redefined. Prime-time programming in English, you know, your language. Every night starting at 7 p.m. … Only on AZN Television, the Network for Asian America.”

The “you” is clearly an Asian American person. The address and appeal are direct, forging an affirmation of Asian American viewers — as consumers and citizens. Moreover, it announces the concept of ‘Asian America’ (we haven’t heard the term African America, or Native America). This emphasizes a declaration of belonging, that Asians are located here, in America. The following are statements from the promo for the New York-based ImagineAsianTV, which also declares a sense of place (both promos can be viewed at the respective network’s website):

“What does it mean to have an all-Asian network?
It’s a place where I can relate, where I can call home. …
On general TV, there’s nothing I can relate to. We never get to see people like us on TV — unless it’s the computer geek, grocery owner, Chinese delivery boy. imagineasiantv has the potential to make us feel worthy and proud.”{emphasis mine}

The promo ends with actors repeating the name “imagineasiantv!” in a victorious tone. First, both names of networks are clever: “AZN” are like call letters, or a sorority/fraternity organization — a club — for those who identify as azn; “imagineasian” of course, sounds like “imagination,” connoting creative, innovative programming for those in the know. Second, both networks carry the theme of being able to ‘see myself’ — one’s reflection, or people like us — thus asserting a subjectivity for Asian Americans, one that hardly exists in mainstream film and television stories; these are stories about (and “for”) Asian Americans. Third, the programs are created “by you,” meaning by Asian Americans, in a way that does not humiliate or dismiss and instead makes you/us feel worthy and proud; there is a sense that trust is fostered based on authorship because the writers/producers know where the viewers are coming from — and visa-versa. And fourth, both networks indirectly express that the need for Asian American television networks stems from a deficiency in “general TV” which does not seem to be a hospitable realm where Asian Americans matter or register in any significant way. AZN and ImagineAsianTV give Asian Americans priority.

Roots

The AZN Network has its roots in the International Channel. The former, ichannel, has been re-branded as AZN Television. The channel now targets the fast-growing, young, affluent and English-speaking Asian American community with original programming produced in the U.S. I also read the following line in a recent article about ANZ being picked up by a large Houston cable operator:

“Programs are in various Asian languages, with many of them subtitled in English to accommodate more acculturated Asian American and non-Asian viewers.”

On one hand, part of the discourse surrounding AZN flatters Asian Americans as a desirable demographic. But another part of the discourse reminds Asian Americans of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) foreign status as some are more “acculturated” than others, and moreover, as they stand apart from the “non-Asian” viewer, i.e., American and white. Is this a schizophrenia linked to the larger social and discursive struggle to define Asian American — as ‘American’ or ‘Asian’? There are both Asian American (U.S. produced in English) and Asian programs (Asian-produced in other languages) on AZN and imagineasiantv. Why and how does this constitute Asian American programming?

The program line-ups on the AZN schedule are organized according to broad, somewhat loosely defined genres, and the days of the week: AZN MOVIES, ANIME, ORIGINALS (“Fresh, new original programs from leading Asian American talent”), which to me, is the most significant form of programming in that it unequivocally fits the category of Asian American television. Noticeably, many of the original shows are about Asian Americans in the media and popular culture. Programs such as POPCORN ZEN, CINEMA AZN, THE BRIDGE, and STIR TV feature Asian Americans working in the film, music, and fashion industries. Continuing during the week: DRAMAS, VARIETY, specifically music-related programs (“Asian recording artists are now among the creative forces in the worldwide music scene”), NEWS (the news programming that I saw was in Korean, and was not subtitled), and MASALA, a diverse mix of programming produced in India and/or geared towards a South Asian audience.

Speaking of masala and a mixing of elements, not only is there a dual address in terms of the U.S. produced-English and imported-Asian language programming, but also in terms of the shows’ making an appeal to young, hip viewers while the advertisements jump suddenly to topics of home equity loans and life insurance. Examples of the numerous 1800-ads that fill the commercial spots are for Ditech lenders, CreditGuard of America, SMC start-your-own-business, and dental insurance. Also consistent are the advertisements for the U.S. Army; along with the commercials for Devry, these could be seen as being aimed at twenty-something people of color and/or immigrants or children of immigrants. This, however, is a different path to upward-mobility than that which is connoted in AZN’s own advertisements.

From the Ford Fusion Website

From the Ford Fusion Website

The one sponsor that stands out as not discordant is Ford Fusion, whose style of advertisement is similar to the way-cool Mitsubishi ad campaign (you’d recognize the tune upon hearing it, and might even begin to bob your head in rhythm). Moreover, you can visit a special Ford Fusion website which features a kind of television show, with pseudo characters all of whom are Asian/Asian American. What is fascinating about this ad campaign and its employment of what I identify as ‘Asianess,’ is that the origin and location of these characters in their cool cars is transparent and moveable: when you enter the website, you choose a language — English, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese — and only the printed words change, all the images of faces, fashion, cityscapes, and streets remain the same. This signifies, literally and figuratively, the Pan-Asian disposition that I think AZN is taking. Moreover, it expands the notion of Pan-Asian beyond Asia, indicating a fluidity between Asia and the United States.

Brautwurst and Wasabi

So the “open signifier” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is filled with Pan-Asianess, which comes to signify Asian American television on AZN. One of AZN’s most frequently run promos reveals this message. In it, Eugene Lee the host of POPCORN ZEN says “when two things collide — like brautwurst and wasabi,” Holly who hosts XBYTES and is of mixed Asian heritage from Hawai’i, says, “if you have two different ideas,” an Asian American man adds, “two different things,” and an Indian American woman says, “bam! they come together”…”You’ve got to check this out.” The historical goal of cable television was to promote and enable diversity. Many agree that this hasn’t necessarily happened. AZN is filling at least one empty frequency on the (proverbial!) dial.

Some may criticize the existence of ethnic-specific cable channels that provide content “for and by” specific ethnic groups as essentialist, but at this racial-historical juncture, the need for ethnic-specific networks and programming is acute. A new African American cable channel has recently come on to the scene. TV One is a joint venture between Radio One, the nation’s largest black-oriented radio broadcaster, and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Kristal Brent Zook has written that TV One acknowledges an eclectic group of urban and upscale viewers, and “represents a welcome change for an industry plagued by UPN sitcoms like HOMEBOYS FROM OUTERSPACE.” While she argues that some in the industry “just don’t get it” that Black people are not monolithic, AZN seems to pitch its programming fare to a single Asian America. According to Nielsen estimates, Asian Americans represent 3.8% of all American TV households, though this number increases dramatically in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the figure is 11.4%, and San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 19.6% of the television audience. Whether ethnic niche cable networks like AZN have decided to acknowledge, affirm, and attract Asian Americans as a matter of politics or a matter of profit is inconsequential to the fact that it answers a similar call MTV viewers shouted out 20 years ago: I want my A(ZN)TV!

Links
YAO IN THE NBA
MTV Desi
MTV Chi

Image Credits:

1. AZN TV Logo

2. From the Ford Fusion Website

Please feel free to comment.




Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

Jerry Lewis famously stated that comedy is a man in trouble. Any fan of Jerry — not to mention Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, or even Gromit, in “The Wrong Trousers” would be hard-pressed to disagree. Many of the funniest comic performances center around men losing their pants, falling down staircases, and lacking control of their excretory functions. Unfortunately, if that’s what constitutes the best comedy, it doesn’t leave much room for women, who have (with some exceptions) found more success not in physical comedy but in sophisticated screwball comedies or dialogue-driven sit-coms like Roseanne. Roseanne shows us that women can succeed when they use their comedy deliberately to offend, but the general perception remains that clean humor is the most appropriate venue for women.

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock meant the title of their famous book on female artists, Old Mistresses, to be a saucy retort to traditional art historians’ focus on the “old masters.” The title was meant to disturb and offend by showing how completely women had been marginalized from the history of art: there was no proper language available even to describe them. Comedy is a woman in trouble may likewise sound strange to many. Jerry Lewis himself has stated that women can’t really be funny since they symbolize maternity so centrally: to laugh at a woman would, somehow, be to laugh at motherhood itself. For Lewis, a man in trouble may have slipped on a banana peel, but a woman in trouble is, well, knocked up.

Outside of the domestic sitcom, what role might there be for women in trouble on TV? Would female viewers be drawn to such comedy? And can programmers even conceive of female viewers as having a sense of humor that is not satisfied by reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime? In hopes of scratching at the surface of these big questions, I’d like devote the rest of this column to discussing Comedy Central and the channel’s operating premise that its demographic is male. I’m specifically interested not in what men and women actually find to be funny on TV but in industrial perceptions of what kind of humor is for men and what kind of humor is for women. If Comedy Central is really for men, does that mean that the smart political commentary of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and sometimes South Park) offers nothing to female viewers? And since much Comedy Central humor is of the gross-out variety, is it possible that the channel’s programming is not so much “for men” as it is not for ladies? Women may vary somewhat in their tastes, but ladies are ostensibly immune to the appeal of a good fart joke.

It is common, of course, for TV to acknowledge openly its gendered address. In a Thanksgiving episode of The Gilmore Girls, Sookie allows her husband Jackson to take charge of making the turkey. He procures an enormous deep-fryer, and by the end of the night he and his drunken buddies have fried to a crisp not only a turkey but also everything else they can get their hands on. As the men-folk cheer, and Jackson drops shoes into the cooker, Sookie drowns her sorrows in margaritas, moaning that Jackson is shamelessly catering to his demographic. The Gilmore Girls is relentlessly character-driven and organized around romance and family melodramas. It is itself, in other words, a program that caters shamelessly to its own female demographic. The program is often quite funny, mostly when the caffeinated dialogue spins out of control. (The machine-gun banter often recalls Preston Sturges. Think of Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story chirping, “What’s knittin’, kittens?”) What strikes me in particular about the deep-fryer scene is the open acknowledgment that stupid drunk guys don’t really belong on this show. For that stuff, go to Spike TV or Comedy Central.

There’s no doubt that Spike TV is all-male, all-the-time. Comedy Central’s contention that it serves a male demographic is more problematic, though not wholly untrue. Certainly, Too Late with Adam Carolla is designed exclusively for men-or, to be more accurate, for anyone who hates women. It is also one of the least funny shows ever on television, and it has the ratings to prove it. This hardly means, though, that Comedy Channel viewers don’t like anti-woman humor. Indeed, Carolla only has a career because of the success of The Man Show, which embodied what I like to call the new misogyny: it’s OK to be a misogynist, as long as you are simultaneously ironic, with your sexism always in quotation marks, as if to ask, Aren’t I a terrible jerk? Do you think I really mean it? On his own show, Carolla’s smarminess is unfettered by irony; given his pitiful performance thus far, one can only assume that his cancellation is imminent.

Of course, the hottest show on Comedy Central right now — since Dave Chappelle has left his program floating in limbo — is The Daily Show, which features the smartest political commentary on TV. Nobody socks it to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Pat Robertson, or the war (Mess-o-potamia) like The Daily Show. How disturbing it is, though, to watch Lewis Black mercilessly skewer the Christian Right, and then to cut to a commercial for Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break. It is galling to hear repeatedly that Comedy Central’s primary demographic is young men-and to often see the ads confirm this — when the Channel’s single most popular program largely lacks machismo.

Though The Daily Show avoids the sexism one commonly finds on Comedy Central, all of its writers and producers are male, and its only female correspondent, Samantha Bee, has taken some time to grow into her role. (She may have finally arrived, with her hilarious story on attempts to pass laws against truck drivers tossing bottles full of urine out their windows.) Still, pretty much everyone with power in America is a rich white guy, and these are the corrupt bastards that the show attacks. The Daily Show is eager to lampoon anyone in American politics who is a stupid jerk. Can they help it if three-out-of-four such people happen to be male? Though this hardly makes the show feminist, per se, feminists cannot help but applaud the program’s assault on America’s power elite.

While other shows for men on Comedy Central take sex as their focus, The Daily Show is relatively sex-free. (Notwithstanding the undisputable fact that correspondent Stephen Colbert is hot. Oops, the cat’s out of the bag: I’m a geek.1) Disturbingly, Comedy Central has started to refer to the programming block of The Daily Show and its Colbert Report spin-off as a network within the network.” These shows, which do not quite match the channel’s masculinist profile, are thus marked as different, and perhaps more high-class than the rest of the schedule. To recognize that women enjoy some Comedy Central programming as much as men would imperil the network’s whole identity, thus imperiling its advertising profile. Instead, Comedy Central simply pretends that its highest rated shows somehow stand above the low-brow fray of programs like South Park. That way, they can sell ads for a few high-end products, but still hang on to the Girls Gone Wild account.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Comedy Central first made its reputation on South Park, and the show does seem to wallow in its own boy humor. The episode in which little Jimmy takes a fat, slobby hooker to a Ho-Tel to fix his persistent boner problem represents the show at its most immature and grotesque extreme. But if South Park is sometimes misogynist, it is more often simply misanthropic. And despite its frequent retreat to stupid and nihilistic cynicism, when the show is smart, it is on a par with The Daily Show, its address not exclusively male. To say that the show’s address is purely masculine is insulting to women, as if they could not appreciate the program’s satirical insights because of a natural aversion to poo jokes. Is there a TV show that did a better job attacking The Passion of the Christ? And what about its send up of Paris Hilton, who comes to South Park to open a new store, Stupid Spoiled Whore, for 8-year-old girls who want to look like tramps? South Park not only attacks the trend of little girls dressing like porn stars but also puts Paris Hilton in her place, because compared to Mr. Slave, she is not really much of a whore at all. There is no reason to believe that only a male audience could properly appreciate this satirical attack on Hilton and the “whorification” of girl culture.

Of course, the very use of the word whore might make the episode seem geared to male viewers. Women are supposed to be offended by dirty words, which is probably why female comedians are less likely to use them. Since comedy is at its best when it challenges cultural taboos, this puts female comedians at a clear disadvantage, though clearly not all are intimidated. In The Aristocrats (Jillette and Provenza, 2005), raunchy stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli explains that, if comedy is a guy thing, fine, I’ll strap it on. To be really funny, Lampanelli’s statement would seem to imply, is to be like a man, since women are inherently unfunny. (How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ONE and that’s not funny!) If Sarah Silverman is any indication, women who work blue are not only as funny as men, they are often funnier. But there is only one Sarah Silverman, and even her presence was not enough to counter-balance the creepy tone of Comedy Central’s Pamela Anderson Roast, one of their highest rated shows ever. Most jokes centered on how huge and stretched out Pam’s vagina was, which was not only dispiriting but also rather dull.

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Oddly enough, hearing Pam Anderson witlessly called a slut over andover and over again, I could not help but recall an episode of the Gilmore Girls in which Lorelei and Rory make fun of Donna Reed for being an impossibly perfect housewife. Rory’s boyfriend Dean, whose mom is a housewife, takes offense at the girls attack on Donna Reed, which prompts Rory (who is much too smart to be in love with this dull boy) to do some research. It turns out that Reed was actually producer of her own show; she was an astute and accomplished businesswoman. For better or for worse, Pam Anderson is the Donna Reed of our time, as much the stereotypical bimbo as Donna was the stereotypical mom. Pam’s great at playing her top-heavy, dumb-blonde role, but she owns and produces her own programs and is the undisputed mistress of syndication. This dumb blonde is no dummy.

The Comedy Central boys had a good time making cheap jokes about Pam’s sex video with Tommy Lee, confirming that, notwithstanding The Daily Show, boy humor is Comedy Central’s home-base. It’s tough for female viewers; even gals who like crude jokes can only take so many feeble attacks on the female anatomy. Thank god the Roast included a break from the testosterone when Bea Arthur gave an interpretive reading of selected passages about anal sex from Pam’s roman a clef. Right on, Maude! In any case, if you’ve seen Pam’s new Fox sitcom, Stacked, you probably agree with me that Pam is not much of a comedienne. But she does know how to cater shamelessly to her demographic, and she’s got the global syndication rights to prove it. This woman in trouble is laughing all the way to the bank.

Note
But as The Man himself notes on the premiere of The Colbert Report, “The geeks will inherit the earth!”

See Also:
Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter”

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.




When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Boy: Transgeneration‘s Meditation on the “Real”

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TransGeneration

TransGeneration

I was sitting on a 42nd street window ledge at the end of a hot New York August afternoon when I looked up and discovered I’d hit the big time. I was on the phone, and my conversation stopped short when I saw the words “Sex Change” on the side of an MTA bus. The ad was in three parts. The middle section was dominated by a simulated sheet of notebook paper featuring a list with three items, “sex change” was accompanied by “financial aid” and “buy books.” A to do list. I looked left, and in bold collegiate type I saw the word TRANS, with the much smaller “generation” below, followed by the tagline: “This fall four students are switching more than their majors.” When I looked to the right, it all came together. The Sundance Channel, in partnership with Logo, MTV’s and Viacom’s new gay-themed cable network, were premiering a documentary series about people (sort-of) like me. The big time.

In the past decade or so, television has slowly embraced a few things gay and, to a much lesser extent, lesbian. By now we are familiar with the rise of Will and Grace, the requisite gay boy and occasional queer girl on The Real World, the fall of Ellen, the pay-cable men and women of Queer as Folk and the L-Word, and the ubiquitous Carson, the blond fashion maven from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I raise this short and somewhat narrow legacy of queers on television in order to highlight a looming claim: that being on TV — being represented as a character, fictional or otherwise — brings marginalized people into the mainstream and can be a pathway to some larger, non-TVland, “acceptance.” Was Transgeneration indicative of an extension of this to things transgender?

Transgeneration follows four college students in the United States over the course of a school year: Raci and Gabbie identify as male to female transsexuals, and T.J. and Lucas were born into female bodies and identify as male. They come from different places and socio-economic backgrounds, a fact of which we are reminded each episode, and attend different colleges — Cal State Los Angeles, University of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan State, and Smith College — but according to the show’s opening sequence, they share “one life-changing transition.” This transition — the focal story of Transgeneration — is rendered a matter of genes and hormones, bodies and minds, the movement from one place on a gender binary to the other, opposite place. The series promo features close-ups of one young person after another addressing the viewer: “When I grow up I want to be a (insert profession),” until the last two — a white person who appears to be male ends the sentence “a girl,” and a white person who appears female and wants to be “a boy.” This is presented as both the show’s captivating oddity, and its primary conceit — that being transgender is no more and no less than being anything else, a doctor, a lawyer, a man, a woman.

Characters from TransGeneration

Characters from TransGeneration

This, of course, presumes that “man” and “woman” are relatively stable categories, even within the expansive picture of who-counts-as-what that is central to Transgeneration’s theme. It also presumes that viewers will know how to identify what is male and female when they see it, thereby allowing them to see the man in Lucas and T.J., or the woman in Raci and Gabbie. This stability of already understood and accepted gender categories may be in part a strategy for making the characters’ movement between them normalized and OK. In the show’s opening episode, Lucas is featured early on in his messy on-campus apartment. The camera scans piles of clothes, scattered papers, and copies of Hustler and Penthouse — twice. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate the ways in which Lucas is constituting his masculinity. Perhaps it is meant to convey his maleness to a larger, likely non-trans, audience. Maybe it’s a little of both. But it all goes without saying — straight guy porn is, for whatever it’s worth, a sure sign of manhood.

Lucas’ maleness as demonstrated through his mainstream straight porn consumption — and other moments of gendered “realness” established through recognizable gestures, behaviors, and codes — should raise some basic questions: why, how, and for whom do these signs operate? If the four people at the core of Transgeneration are made real in their identities — for themselves, but maybe more strikingly for the show’s cable-TV audience — through acceptable, and thereby legible, gender cues, is it because that’s what it takes for Raci, Gabbie, Lucas, and T.J. themselves to be “accepted,” to be understood as some kind of normal? And how is it that the very power structures which define gender expression, gender roles, and gender policing escape notice almost entirely in the episode by episode establishment of these empathetic and representative trans personalities?

In the spirit of the gay-TV revolution, it seems Transgeneration — backed by the alterna-commercial interests of Sundance and Logo — aims to bring the lives of transgender people to a mainstream public, both queer and straight, in an effort to humanize and make real not only its four main players, but some larger affected community. And while there is no question that many trans-identified people experience exactly the kind of linear narrative proposed by Transgeneration — being born into the wrong body and seeking out a transition that will allow them to live their rest of their lives in the sex or gender with which they identify — many of us do not. In light of this, at least two questions remain (on this topic). If Transgeneration and its promoters are seeking to use television representation in its already questionable role as a means to construct a queerness that is straight-friendly, highly consumable, and a path to social approval, what might that cost trans people, like me, whose realities are not represented in the quest to create a viable “normal” transgender person? What might it take away from other possibilities for change — ones that rely not on normalization and acceptance, but on an expansion of ideas of gender and sexuality beyond the framework of, let’s say, Will and Grace — or Happy Days?

Links:
Transgeneration
The Sundance Channel
LOGO

Image Credits:

1. TransGeneration

2. Characters from TransGeneration

Please feel free to comment.




Television’s Gated Communities

by: Megan Mullen / University of Wisconsin-Parkside

WealthTV Logo
WealthTV Logo

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

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

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

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

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

WealthTV
WealthTV

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

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

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

Image Credit
1. WealthTV Logo
2. WealthTV

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

Please feel free to comment.