Magical Girl as a Shōjo Genre and the Male Gaze
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

In my last column, I provided a brief overview of the extent to which the shōjo image has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary Japanese visual culture. I also suggested that this image is constructed to invite men to not only objectify her but also identify with/as her. I would like us to take a closer look now at the ways in which this dynamic is produced. When they look at these representations of girlhood, do girls and boys, men and women all see the same thing? How does a piece of shōjo media frame viewers to look at it a certain way, and what kind of gendered expectations and demands does it make on the viewer?

Although the shōjo character in anime and manga enables viewers of all genders to consume her as a commodity, she also embodies a kind of freedom from social constrictions by virtue of being non-reproductive. Focusing on this liberating aspect of being shōjo, by the late 1980s artists had begun to produce stories about shōjo subjects who are embedded in narratives around battle, adventure, and high technology.[ ((For instance, many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films adopt this very formula: Nausicaa (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) all centre around silly yet brave shōjo heroines on a mission. Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma ½ are also part of this trend.)) ] These anime/manga are consumed by audiences across the gender spectrum and feature a variety of shōjo representations. Narratives about the shōjo in 1990s pop culture thus appear to adopt male (shōnen)-associated elements, such as action, violence, and responsibility toward society.[ ((Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (2003).)) ]

Just as these depictions of shōjo repudiate earlier ones that signified irresponsibility, weakness, and passivity, these new images of “female empowerment” also contradict the social realities of Japanese women.[ ((Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” Journal of Asian Studies 73 (2014).))] Among all of the visual productions and practices that helped spread these shōjo images, I want to focus on a particular anime/manga genre, the Magical Girl (mahou shōjo), and argue that male viewership and subjectivity are deeply wedged into this genre that simultaneously targets a young female audience.

The mahou shōjo story is most commonly identified by transformativity, a central trope of the genre. The typical protagonist is an ordinary girl who is suddenly granted special powers, which she activates after performing a series of ritualized gestures, often involving a catchphrase and a personalized costume. This ability to transform, though also shared by various types of shōnen media (that which targets boys), is unique to the mahou shōjo in the sense that it is ontological in nature: while shōnen comics may include combat scenes in which the hero uses high-tech body armour to turn himself into a robot warrior, the Magical Girl’s transformation seems to originate internally.[ ((Orbaugh, “Busty Battlin’ Babes,” 215.)) ]

Consider Sailor Moon (1991) and Cardcaptor Sakura (1996), the most commonly cited mahou shōjo productions in the past two decades. We could identify elements of shōnen in both of these works, not only in their emphasis on combat and protecting society from evil, but also in their elaborate transformation sequences, in which the heroines transform by donning special fighting outfits.

Sailor Moon’s various transformation sequences.

While this transformation is sexualized, what ultimately makes the Magical Girl shōjo is the fact that she refuses to activate her sexual potential despite all her power. Whereas the antagonists in both series are often power-hungry seductresses with thick makeup, Sailor Moon and Sakura are marked by youthfulness and cuteness, signified by their frilly skirts and school uniforms. Despite her resistance to womanhood, the mahou shōjo is tasked with domestic obligations. Sailor Moon’s later series focuses heavily on the family relationship between Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their time-travelling daughter. Meanwhile, in Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, Sakura fulfills the cleaning and cooking duties assigned to her. The Magical Girl image is thus constituted by her social and communal usefulness.

We are beginning to see how these paradoxical messages may be useful for reproducing patriarchal gender relations. On one hand, the mahou shōjo is supposed to prepare herself for conventional womanhood, and on the other hand, she is told to stay shōjo, since her “power” is not only associated with cuteness, femininity, passivity, but also stems from those concepts of powerlessness. Another way in which mahou shōjo productions usher young children into adopting gender norms is through their business structure. As Japan’s production system of animation depends financially on the sales of copyrighted goods, the Magical Girl genre’s backbone consists of exploiting viewer interest specific to young female children, the targeted consumers of its merchandise. The same transformation sequences are often repeated every episode, recycling fragmented shots (of a magical staff, for example) to effectively show details of the toy, thereby making it attractive to potential buyers.[ ((Saito, “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis,” 154.)) ]

Cardcaptor Sakura's staff, which she uses to transform.

Cardcaptor Sakura’s staff

By carefully exploiting feminine ideals and consumer interest, mahou shōjo productions have thus become a site of contradictory and prescriptive ideas surrounding gender roles and identities. But how does the mahou shōjo traffic male subjectivity? For one, eroticization and objectification are inherent in the transformation sequences, as they not only portray commercial goods in fragmented shots but also spatially dissect the transforming female body. In addition to commodifying her, male viewers are also invited to identify with the mahou shōjo who, despite being secretly powerful, is carefree and disengaged from expectations of masculinity. Since her power is constituted by her shōjo identity, the mahou shōjo does not need outside forces in order to be powerful, which makes her an appealing object of consumption (and identification) for post-economic-collapse Japan.

At the same time, masculine ideals are reaffirmed by the glorification of violence—through action-driven plots and elaborate battle scenes—and by the relationships between Magical Girl characters, which simulate structures of male competition. Much like the way patriarchy creates solidarity among men at the expense of women, the world of mahou shōjo seems to exclude men so that Magical Girls could enjoy competing with each other as a way to build meaningful relationships. This type of rivalry also channels desire. [ ((Eve K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985).)) ] Subjected to the male gaze, battle scenes between Magical Girls are performed so that men could not only eroticize the relationships between the characters but also identify themselves in them. Should the practice of referring to these battle scenes as “fan service” be of any indication, male viewership is clearly taken into consideration in the production of mahou shōjo anime, if not prioritized.

The mahou shōjo thus generates and reconfirms gender norms and heteronormative relations, using the motif of magical transformation—masked as empowerment—to exploit its subjects and mediate feminine ideals. The visual conflation of a shōjo body with power also invites the male audience to both eroticize her and identify with her. Though this identification stems from anxieties about and resistance to traditional masculinity, it is ultimately enabled by patriarchal hegemony, the power structure against which the resistance is intended.

Image Credits:
1. Sailor Moon
2. Cardcaptor Sakura’s Staff

Please feel free to comment.




Beyond DRM

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on February 6, 2007, calling for the eradication of digital rights management so that downloaded mp3 music files could be played on any listening devise, growing consumer dissatisfaction with DRM regimes had come to a head. The event was significant given the market dominance of Apple’s iPod and their success in getting the big five music labels to make their songs available for download on iTunes for 99 cents per song. But the manifesto was less than magnanimous as Apple faced opposition across Europe for tying its download service to its proprietary mobile mp3 player using its proprietary FairPlay DRM software. During the summer of 2006 consumer rights agencies in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany claimed that Apple’s DRM violated copyright law. In August 2006 France passed a law giving regulators the authority to require Apple to license FairPlay to other makers of MP3 players, which Apple called “state-sponsored piracy.” The Dutch consumer protection agency joined the opposition in January 2007 and advised consumers to stop buying iPods and quit downloading music from iTunes, and instead buy generic mp3 players and download music from DRM-free services such as eMusic, which does not carry the big five’s labels but offers a range of independent music. Recently Norway ruled that Apple’s DRM strategy was illegal and the Norwegian consumer protection agency called for Apple to make FairPlay available to competitors by October 1. Microsoft and Sony were not intimidated by this and created their own proprietary DRM-protected music services tied to their own music players. In his statement, Jobs said DRM licensing would be untenable because its secrets for protection would be leaked, though critics have pointed out that Microsoft has been successful in licensing its DRM system. The internet content innovator ZDNET, a network of CNET, produced a much watched video that lambasted all of these DRM strategies as CRAP, or Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection.

In addition to pressure from consumer advocates, Apple had incentive to scrap DRM because after nearly four years of selling songs on iTunes, only 3% of the music on users’ iPods was downloaded from iTunes. An independent study found that iTunes sells only 20 songs per iPod sold. Apple is therefore less dependent on iTunes to attract iPod buyers than the music conglomerates are in finding successful models for profiting from music downloads to offset losses in DVD sales. Research at Yahoo suggests that consumers would pay 20 percent more for music downloads if there were no DRM restrictions, indicating that DRM curtails demand for pay per downloads. In a different strategy, last year Microsoft agreed to share a portion of the sales price of its new Zune mp3 player with Universal Music. Warner is looking to cell phones as a potentially more secure network for copy protected music downloads. Ad-supported music downloading sites including Spiralfrog and Qtrax are developing new revenue models and have attracted the major labels. But the promises of these services were put in doubt at the recent Midemnet industry trade show in Cannes when these two services failed to announce launch dates and a panel of young music fans unanimously agreed that audio ads sucked.

Zune Squeeze

Zune Squeeze

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal advocate for “internet freedom,” has proposed “Voluntary Collective Licensing” for music distribution. This entails the music industry forming a collecting society that would allow music file-sharing for those who volunteer to pay $5 per month. These funds are then distributed proportionally to music artists based on the volume of downloads. Since 1914 similar licensing arrangements have been formed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) for radio and television broadcasts. Unlike “compulsory licensing” which legally enforces the universal collection of fees, such as those that cable and satellite carriers pay to carry over-the-air broadcast programs, the government-weary EFF counts on “market forces” and voluntary good citizenship on the part of file-sharers and corporate music labels. A more far reaching proposal came from the French parliament in December 2005 when it introduced a bill for compulsory licensing for music and video over the internet that included an 8 to12 Euro added fee to broadband service. While receiving strong support from the left, the Green Party, the center right UDF and consumer groups, the French government bowed to intense opposition from the powerful music labels and killed the bill. The Universal Music Group vigorously opposed the legislation, as one commentator explained, “When you’ve reached 30 per cent market share, when you’ve pulled off the last big merger, when you’ve built up the barriers, there’s not a lot of benefit from equalizing access.” Meanwhile, the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an association that represents Hollywood and the US software and publishing industries, has lobbied the US government to eliminate compulsory licensing in countries around the world.

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Despite Apple’s support for a DRM-free internet, the big music labels and Hollywood are not likely to dispense with DRM and their legal enforcement teams anytime soon. Yet the prospects for a post-DRM audiovisual economy and culture present a challenge to the neo-liberal frameworks that have largely guided internet regulation to date. Less an electronic frontier of market competition and consumer choice, DRM regimes expose the failed attempts of oligopoly capital to maintain market leverage over artists and consumers in an online environment. It is not the ethics of market competition and consumer choice that provides alternatives, but an ethics of collective bargaining where laboring artists and consumers share collective interests that require agreed upon mechanisms for user payments, creative compensation and electronic distribution. Collective societies in the US such as ASCAP provide precedents for collectively compensating creative content makers through blanket licensing agreements. The state consumer rights agencies in Europe demonstrate that internet music consumers benefit when collectively represented by independent government authorities. When consumers and laborers have organized representation through compulsory licensing arrangements they can negotiate with market players to develop innovative mechanisms and business plans for circulating audiovisual culture unencumbered by restrictive DRM regimes. This is far from the market evangelism and rugged individualism of the internet enthusiasts of Wired magazine or the cyber utopianism which grew out of a counter cultural movement that prognosticated the withering of corporate and government bureaucracies. Compulsory licensing requires representative organizations from the corporate, government and user sectors to set rates, apportion compensation and enforce compliance. Messy and bureaucratic? Perhaps, yes. A potential future for a more vibrant and just audiovisual internet culture? Perhaps, if we organize.

Image Credits:
1. Steve Jobs
2. Zune Squeeze
3. Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

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.




Redefining Indecency

Rolling Stones half-time show

Rolling Stones half-time show

Once again the organizers of the Super Bowl half-time show called upon British knighthood to rescue America’s premier global media event from the breast-baring moral depravities of half-time past. However, the transition from last year’s cautious Sir Paul McCartney pop to this year’s hip-swaggering Rolling Stones rock required a series of preemptive measures to ensure a “decent” performance. The Rolling Stones agreed to the NFL’s request that the half-time producers dampen the sound when Sir Mick uttered the lyrics “You make a dead man come” and “Am I just one of your cocks?,” though the censoring of these sexual connotations were a bit nullified when Jagger stripped down to his signature skin-tight t-shirt and mod pants as a gigantic stage tongue retracted during the performance. ABC, the network that broadcast the game, denied any involvement in censoring the lyrics, perhaps to distance themselves from validating the Federal Communication Commission’s recent crackdown on indecency and tenfold increase in fines for violations since breast-gate two years earlier. Nonetheless, ABC, perhaps jittery from the FCC’s retroactive fines against a fellow network’s stations for yet another rock star’s indiscrimination at a live event, instituted a five second broadcast delay as a failsafe to prevent naughtiness from traveling the airwaves, a standard industry practice for live shows since the infamous exposure and a way to show the FCC that self-regulation rather than government intervention could address the issue. As if to remind us of the legacies of rock-n-roll TV censorship of yore, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards impressed reporters with an Ed Sullivan impersonation in a pre-game press conference. And when the FCC and Congress turned its attention away from a broader critique of media conglomeration during the controversial biennial review of media ownership rules in 2002 to focus on dirty words and bare skin, we are yet reminded of the regulatory legacies that find lawmakers making loud public moral postures against distasteful graphic indecencies in lieu of finding structural solutions to the more broadly defined indecencies of race, gender, sexuality and class discriminations that commercial media propagate.

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

While the NFL and ABC’s layered precautions preempted any verbal or wardrobe malfunctions, other more heinous indecencies were certainly on display. Most egregious of these was the NFL’s decision to include Detroit’s legendary Motown artists in the event only after Bowl organizers received a barrage of complaints from Motown fans and artists for dissing the host city’s musical heritage. After dismissing a proposal made a year earlier to include the music from Detroit’s past and present (from Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger to Kid Rock and Eminem), the NFL hastily added a 12-minute pre-game show that included Stevie Wonder leading a medley of Motown classics and invited Aretha Franklin, New Orleans singer Aaron Neville, keyboardist Dr. John and a 150-member Detroit-based gospel choir to perform the national anthem. For those who missed the pre-game performance (that is, the 65 million viewers who saw Mick’s midriff at half-time but missed the pre-game Motown tribute), Wonder called for a coming together before “we annihilate each other,” stating that the global threat was not about our “religion” but rather about our “relationship.” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy defended this marginalization of Detroit’s musical legacies in stating that the “Super Bowl transcends the host city and even the country,” as if Motown music, and the global hip-hop it inspired, had little relevance outside the city limits. Even within this city’s borders which has experienced a history of marginalizing African American life and culture (most tragically evident in the race riots of July 1967), the historic Motown Center building which gave birth to this famous record label was torn down to create more parking for the big game. The building had been abandoned for 30 years, leaving precious documents that archived the careers of Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder for waste. Local amateur historians scrambled to collect documents before and after the demolition while the Detroit Metro Host Committee spent $10 million to insure that the Super Bowl fans, media and corporate sponsors enjoyed their stay. These abandoned cityscapes also remind us of the global dynamics that have put downward pressures on the wage and pension benefits of local autoworkers.

Motown Center demolished

Motown Center demolished

This marginalization of America’s African-American music heritage resonated as US citizens mourned the passing of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King just days before. Just as the NFL and ABC prevented Stevie Wonder’s anti-war plea from airing on the half-time center stage, the television coverage of King’s funeral three days after the Super Bowl dampened the anti-war messages that resonated in the eulogies. The Rev. Joseph Lowry received negative media attention when he stated that, “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there” [followed by a 23 second standing ovation], “but Coretta knew, and we knew, there were weapons of misdirection right here.” Much of the news coverage focused on whether this was “tasteful” or “appropriate” for a funeral, especially because George W. was in attendance – CNN even edited out 18 seconds of Lowry’s standing ovation in its coverage. Even fewer news reports repeated Lowry’s comments that linked the costs of the war to class discriminations at home: “Millions without health insurance, poverty abound. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.”

While the news media dwelled on the indecencies of breaking funeral decorum with political protests rather than honoring the work of civil rights leaders who fought to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination, the Marketing to Moms Coalition, a market research firm, conducted a recent survey revealing that 80% of America’s mothers feel snubbed by Super Bowl advertisers even though women make up nearly half of the audience. Confirming the history of this marketing bias was the special attention given to the commercial for Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” as the first Super Bowl commercial pitched specifically to women. But the ongoing assumption among advertisers that men are harder to reach than women continues to ensure that advertising pitches, especially in sports programming, will consider their male viewers first, as was evident in the nine Anheuser-Busch ads that played during the game. Typical of the masculinity on display was their “magic fridge” ad which won a USA Today poll for best ad featuring a man hiding his Bud Light from friends in a fridge that disappeared behind a revolving wall, only to reappear in the adjacent apartment to the gleeful worship of a room full of 20 something guys. Yet, while Anheuser-Busch and other advertisers reinforced this all-about-sports-and-beer construct of masculinity to pitch their wares, Shonda Rimes exploited this masculine discourse to promote her hit hospital TV drama Grey’s Anatomy which immediately followed the game. Though the series offers a reprieve from the shock-and-awe spectacles of Michael Crichton’s ER by focusing on the relationship dynamics of its racially diverse cast, Rimes tapped into the testosterone-charged environment with promotions promising an ER-esque emergency “code black” and opening the episode with a male fantasy scene depicting three women cast members sudsing-up in the shower.

Fortunately for ABC no breasts or nasty words were exposed in the scene, but there may be signs that the FCC has cooled its policing of indecency because after awarding a record $7,928,080 in fines in 2004, no fines were proposed in 2005. Perhaps they are satisfied that the networks have curbed live TV spontaneity with broadcast delays, that viewers will be shielded from the indecencies of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps they are just eager to distance themselves from the image of the sexually repressed (crazed?) old white male regulators that the internet domain registry Go Daddy parodies in their ad campaigns. For many of us who think that this narrow focus on censoring indecencies of the flesh and tongue does not address the broader injustices of racial, class, gender and sex discriminations that the structures of commercial media propagate, perhaps we can spark debate and activism by redefining the indecencies of this year’s Super Bowl, including:

1. As the live events that bring the nation together for collective viewing become less common in a fragmented digital media environment, we should care more about what the legacies of civil rights activism can tell us about ongoing racial discrimination (as evidenced by the war’s accentuation of racial and class injustices at home, the global outsourcing dynamics that impact access to living wages, the racial and class politics of the Katrina disaster, and the dismissing of America’s musical heritage steeped in these struggles) than protecting the young against foul mouths and bare skin. Let’s inoculate our youth through engaged discussion about what they might find on TV and the internet, as well as what they will not find, rather than censoring our collective viewing spaces on their behalf.
2. Address the gender discriminations in advertising-sponsored television sports that not only privilege male viewers during coverage of male-only sporting events but also limit financial support for women’s sporting events. Also, in witnessing Shonda Rime’s counter narratives to those of Michael Crichton, Paul Tagliabue and August Busch III, we should reinforce our commitment to equal opportunity rules for those who labor before and behind the cameras.
3. As more broadcast programming migrates away from over-the-air broadcasting to cable/satellite subscription services (such as Monday Night Football’s migration to ESPN), broadcast radio’s migration to pay-radio, and audio-visual migrations to the internet (which has seen threats to network neutrality principles as service providers offer faster broadband access for premium subscribers), issues of equitable access to a broad array of content should matter more than censoring what remains of our most accessible broadcast programming.


Willard D. Rowland, Jr. “The Television Violence Debates (The V-Chip). The Television History Book. Ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI Publishing, 2003. 132-6.
Anna McCarthy. “Media Effects (CBS and Stanley Milgram)” Television Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. London: BFI Publishing, 2002. 74-78.

Image Credits:

1. Rolling Stones half-time show

2. Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

3. Motown Center demolished

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

Links:
Official Bravo site Project Runway
Also see Blogging Project Runway

Please feel free to comment.




Truth and Beauty

Medical Visuals

Medical Visuals

Over the past decade I have become a most reluctant television star. The camera, as they say, is drawn to me. I only wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed the attention. If you’ve seen my work, you may be surprised to know that I’m actually extremely shy, and still uncomfortable in front of a camera. In fact, judging by the latest round of auditions for American Idol, I’ve come to think that I may be the last surviving American who can imagine living a full life without once appearing on television. And yet it seems to be my destiny to be hounded by people who will go to any lengths — sparing no expense — to see me appear on their TV screens.

Perhaps you’ve seen my work. I don’t like to boast, but I’ve appeared on TV screens from coast to coast, and I’ve been responsible for some truly memorable on-screen moments. It all began with the MRI scan of my lower abdomen in the mid-’90s — an immature work, I’ll admit, but it was early in my career. In fact, I hadn’t really pursued a career at all; like Lana Turner, I was plucked from obscurity by an eagle-eyed talent scout who spotted me slumped on a plastic chair in a San Francisco emergency room. How was I to guess that one day I would be recognized as the most accomplished medical imaging performer of my generation?

I gained confidence slowly — a CT scan of my skull, a couple chest X-rays, a few more casual MRIs. Sure, I was flattered when doctors and technicians praised these early efforts — who wouldn’t be? But I was something of a dilettante, a dabbler in the world of medical imaging. I didn’t really begin to sense my gift until my first encounter with nuclear medical imaging, when I was asked to swallow a “contrast media.” I enjoyed the vaguely Videodrome-esque possibilities in being allowed to eat the media, but quickly learned that barium and radioactive isotopes are not my medium. Still, it wasn’t long until the cameras were inside my body, instead of hovering around me, and I had discovered my calling. In the past ten years my internal organs have logged more screen time than Dr. Phil.

I don’t know what the object of television studies is these days, but my experience with the profession of medical imaging has brought me into contact with an entire world of digital video technology and imagery that is barely mentioned in the literature of television and media studies. Of course, this apparently invisible screen culture hides in plain sight, where it is taken for granted by millions upon millions of people who encounter it every day. Perhaps it’s time to focus a bit more of our attention on the technology, industry, and visualization strategies of medical imaging.

The NBC television network is the most visible face of General Electric, and, like all television networks, its principal task is to create wealth for the company by making and circulating images to a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for images. But NBC is not the only business in the GE corporate empire that trades in images, nor is it even the most valuable. The GE Healthcare division generates twice the annual revenue of NBC, largely by facilitating the production of images that circulate only within the halls and computer networks of the health care industry, where GE is the industry leader in diagnostic medical imaging.

Inside the body, on your TV

Inside the body, on your TV

Medical imaging doesn’t hold the glamour of network TV, but its images are vastly more profitable. Since many of these technologies employ proprietary high-tech hardware and software under exclusive patent to GE, the images carry a hefty price tag even though they have no value in an economy of images recognized by the general public. Instead, images made by scanning and fluoroscopic technologies have a singular, functional value for medical practitioners. When interpreted by a trained specialist, they serve as evidence in an investigation; their value increases along with their proven accuracy. The expense of creating and interpreting these images, while contributing to the skyrocketing cost of health care, makes this a lucrative business for GE, which hopes to maintain its dominance in an industry that appears to be poised for limitless growth, particularly considering the future health care needs of aging, relatively affluent populations.

A recent television commercial in GE’s “imagination at work” campaign portrays GE medical imaging technology not only as one of the company’s many innovative products, but also as an essential contribution to the history of western civilization. The commercial takes just thirty seconds to present a sweeping history of human techniques for making images. The rapidly-edited sequence mixes images of instantly recognizable icons with the technologies used to record them: paintings from a prehistoric cave and an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Renaissance portrait, an image produced by a camera obscura, galloping horses frozen in stride by Edweard Muybridge, an early motion picture camera and the Edison company’s famous filmed “Kiss,” an x-ray of a human hand, a shot of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface, ultra-slow-motion footage of a hummingbird in flight, time-lapse footage of a flower in bloom, and a distant galaxy revealed by the Hubble space telescope.

As the images cascade, a narrator makes the case for GE: “To the list of the most extraordinary images ever captured, GE humbly submits … the beating human heart.” The screen fills with a startling, lovely image: a living human heart isolated against a black background, rendered in real-time as a three-dimensional image. Unlike an x-ray or a conventional MRI, this scanned image doesn’t require a leap of imagination or a consultation with a specialist to be legible to the untrained eye; it has the precision and clarity of a motion picture, but also an undeniable beauty – a hint of poetic hyperrealism in the emotionally and symbolically resonant image of a beating heart.

Science fiction has promised a chance to peer inside the human body without the need to penetrate flesh, and in this advertisement GE fulfils the promise. In the commercial for GE imaging technology, the physical characteristics of the body — the flesh and bone that are seen as obstacles to diagnosis and treatment — disappear before the penetrating gaze of GE technology. By transforming the body into an image, technology facilitates treatment. What’s striking about the GE commercial, however, is not the instrumental argument in favor of imaging technologies, but that fact that GE makes an essentially aesthetic claim for its new technology: GE has transformed a real human heart into a beautiful image. The question is: why? Why promote diagnostic medical technology by insisting that beauty is truth?

Image Credits:

1. Medical Visuals

2. Inside the body, on your TV

Please feel free to comment.




Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.




“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CHECK OUT OUR LATEST SUGGESTED CALLS FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

More and more frequently the networks are scheduling encore presentations of certain television programs on nights other than when they are normally scheduled. Although it makes some sense to do this with heavily serialized programs that require repetitive viewing patterns so that the overriding story arcs can become coherent, this phenomenon is not relegated to these types of programs. In fact, it seems more common to implement this strategy with programs that are not serialized.

In order to illustrate this claim, a quick survey of the scheduling grid from epguides.com shows us that the networks have largely abandoned Saturday night programming. NBC has scheduled a repeat of each of the three variations of its Law & Order series. CBS responds by counterprogramming repeats of Cold Case and Numb3rs. ABC shows a movie of the week and FOX has relegated itself to providing Cops and America’s Most Wanted–two shows that are very inexpensive to create. In terms of content, this night of television viewing seems to share crime and justice as a common semantic thread. Furthermore, these shows are not heavily serialized. In fact, the Law & Orders are arguably some of the least complex shows — at least in terms of a serialized narrative structure — currently on the air. Viewers do not need to concern themselves with missing episodes because they can always revisit them later in syndication. Furthermore, they simply do not need to keep up with an ongoing storyline in order to comprehend them.

More importantly, the Saturday night programming grid illustrates the networks’ unwillingness to invest in this night of the week. This unwillingness emphasizes the industry’s reliance on a specific demographic category of viewers — 18-35 year-olds. These viewers are presumed to be involved in other activities on Saturday nights. This also indicates that the industry prefers urban viewers who have more options for Saturday night activities than their rural counterparts. In short, the networks’ nearly complete abandonment of Saturday night is a strong indicator of the disappearance of the mass audience in favor of niche audiences. Cable television’s wide acceptance and presence has permanently altered the televisual landscape signaling the end of the networks’ Golden Age. The networks are quickly becoming just one more channel option among cable and satellite television’s much larger complex of offerings.

Law and Order

Law and Order

Are increased channel and program offerings enough to cause this programming strategy? The short answer is no. Commercial television always has been and will be about the commercials not the shows. It seems logical to assume that the program offerings on Saturday night are more indicative of a lack of advertising dollars than a change in programming strategies. In other words, the advertising is the cause to the programming’s effect. If this were a matter of programming, then the networks would have chosen to schedule serialized shows during these times. This would make logical sense because then the networks could help to ensure that they continue attracting a stable and consistent audience to shows that require more dedication from the viewing public than those they have chosen. The networks’ choices to not do this may also tell us something about the changing technological landscape and viewing behaviors.

Beginning with video-cassette recorders and extending with the fairly rapid acceptance of black box technologies, like TiVo, viewers have begun to wield more control over their individual or even family viewing situations. The viewers have always been in control of the vertical axis of the programming grid (schedule) with their abilities to change channels on a moment’s notice, but these newer technologies have allowed viewers to step into the domain once controlled by the industry — the horizontal axis of the grid. In short, the viewer can alter time by skipping commercials or recording programs for viewing at more convenient times. This may be particularly important to families living in time zones that have been often ignored by programmers. Shows, like CSI or My Name Is Earl, that parents might have avoided in the past because their kids were in the room at 7 or 8 p.m. CST can now easily be shifted to later in the evening when the kids have been put to bed.

This level of viewer control represents a double-edged sword for the networks. Although these technologies may allow an increase in the cumulative audience size, they also allow viewers to avoid the networks’ primary revenue source — the commercials. In effect the potential advertisers must consider whether the various ratings reports they are presented by advertising sales people actually equate to increased viewers for the spots they purchase.

This means that other advertising opportunities, like product placement or outright program sponsorship, may become more enticing opportunities for advertisers, both now and in the future. We do not have to look much further than the overt sponsorships of programs like Extreme Home Makeover and The Apprentice to see this tactic coming to fruition. If the programs that rely heavily on these tactics begin to pop up on the Saturday night schedule in the near future, then we will begin to realize that time slots for programming, like most everything else on commercial television, can easily be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. More than anything, Saturday night programming can be used as a barometer for the industry — even if it seems unimportant or currently ignored. The bottom line for critics is that we should regularly emphasize the commercial in commercial television. This is aspect that steers the industrial ship. The scheduling grid is the destination to where we, as critics and audience members, were driven to in the process.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

Please feel free to comment.




Why Accurate Audience Measurement is Worth the Trouble

Arbitron\'s Portable People Meter

Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas drove home a point that has been made repeatedly in the pages of Flow — the way we engage media is undergoing radical changes. The prospect of online distribution of programs created for TV has come to pass, with more portable video players and video downloading programs emerging to compete with the Video IPod and ITunes. These developments are likely to make the Nielsens, an already woefully inaccurate audience measurement system as detailed by Jason Mittell in the previous issue of Flow, even less accurate. It may no longer make sense to track an audience without looking across media — from television broadcasts, to video-on-demand, to downloads. But changing the method of audience measurement for TV programs won’t be easy. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it might not be possible at all.

What’s clear is that there is a lot at stake. As John Gertner noted in a New York Times article last April, changing the method of audience measurement could change the entire culture industry, an industry that, for reasons both economic and ideological, doesn’t like to be changed. Indeed, these statistics hold so much sway over those shaping the American collective consciousness that it’s easy to suspect their custodians of having something other than the accurate depiction of audience desire as their MO. However, if we adopt such a distrustful view of audience measurement, if any centralized system for the measurement of audience preference is inherently susceptible to corruption, then what would be the incentive to develop a more accurate system?

There is a certain amount of faith one must have to engage in the campaign for more accurate audience data. One has to acknowledge that what is being measured — the audience for certain programs — has social and political implications that go beyond dollars and cents. While every consumer decision made by citizens impacts these spheres, its easy to see how ratings for a progressive-minded talk show might be more indicative of its consumers’ values than, say, their decision to buy Crest toothpaste instead of Colgate. Creators, distributors, advertisers and audience researchers all have socio-political agendas of one sort or another. Nevertheless, they (particularly the distributors) are motivated foremost by profit, and if people are willing to pay for a certain program, or tolerate ten minutes of advertising to watch a show, then they would like to know about it. If it really is “all about the money,” then the networks would want to know exactly what the audience wants so that they don’t miss the boat on a series that ends up being a hit on DVD or, god forbid, another network.

We have to believe that while a totally accurate picture of audience desire may never be achievable, it is an ideal that can and should be aspired to, as much for the sake of the scholar seeking a greater knowledge of how individuals engage media as for the sake of the fan crusading to keep a soon-to-be-cancelled show from going under.

Assuming that the system is broken, and that it is worth fixing, is there anything outsiders like us can do to affect change? Individual arguments for a show’s potential, no matter how well founded or articulate, can only do so much. A financial catalyst is needed, and we might just have that in the form of a la carte availability of TV episodes courtesy of ITunes. If a show with horrible ratings gets downloaded enough times, the creators, distributors and advertisers will get the message — something is seriously wrong with the way audience desire is measured. The “tipping point” referred to by Derek Kompare in his response to Jason Mittell’s article may take this form.

Just how resistant is the current audience tracking system to change? Is this stubbornness due to an inability to keep up with new distribution technology? Is it part of a concerted attempt to marginalize certain values put forth in certain programs, or is it simply a case of a large system with many players that cannot change quickly? Perhaps we’ll never have totally accurate answers to any of these questions, but that doesn’t make the search for these answers any less worthwhile.

Image Credits:

1. Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Please feel free to comment.




Exchanges of Value

Veronica Mars DVD

Veronica Mars DVD

In my previous two FlowTV columns, I discussed the aesthetic value of television programming; in this column, I’ll turn to a value that is more commonly considered within media studies: the exchange value of TV programs. We all know that in the U.S., and increasingly the entire world, television is a relentlessly commercial system in which the primary goal is profit. So what is a television program actually worth?

I began to reconsider this question over the summer, as I engaged in a different type of exchange with TV programs. As last year’s television season progressed, I began to hear positive buzz about the new program Veronica Mars, both from friends and TV critics, with the tantalizing tag of “the new Buffy.” Alas I hadn’t watched the show from the beginning — it’s on UPN after all! — and one of the show’s reputed strengths was its season-long story arc. So I was faced with a choice: start the show midstream and miss out on the long-term arc, continue in ignorance of a potential TV gem, wait until the show is released on DVD (it just was on October 11), or find another way to access the show.

This other way was through the black market realm of online file swapping — in case you haven’t heard, people use the internet to trade files, often in potential violation of copyright laws. While much of the legal and moralistic hoopla around online file-trading has focused on music and film titles, TV shows enjoy a robust circulation via peer-to-peer software, and provoke a more complicated reflection on what is actually being exchanged and/or “pirated” through these unauthorized swaps.

The most interesting — if you’re a techie interested in networking protocols, if you’re a media exec looking for new distribution strategies, or if you’re a communication theorist — of these file-trading protocols is BitTorrent, a free open-source program that offers a radically different approach to online distribution. Typically if you download a file, the more popular it is, the slower the download — as every download stream competes for finite bandwidth from the originating server. With BitTorrent, every downloader is simultaneously uploading the portions of the file they’ve received to other downloaders, creating a “swarming” cooperative distribution system in which the more popular a file is, the faster it downloads and the less burden is placed on the original “seed” file. Thus unlike typical economic systems in which increased demand results in scarcity of supply, within BitTorrent demand directly creates abundant availability. When cyber-theorists extolled the utopian collaborative model of a decentralized internet, this is close to what they had in mind.

So what does this have to do with television’s exchange value or me wanting to watch Veronica Mars? In May, I downloaded the entire season of Veronica Mars via BitTorrent, and proceeded to binge on the series over a week spent in Los Angeles. (And to briefly return to aesthetic value, it was as good as the hype, so watch the Season 1 DVDs if you haven’t seen the show.) This would certainly be viewed by the industry as an act of copyright violation, as I had no permission from either distributor UPN or producer Warner Brothers to copy the program — although I vigorously and publicly assert my fair use rights as an educator and critic to access and use material for educational purposes.

I do think there’s a reason why we’ve heard little about the television industry pursuing file traders though. The economic model of the TV industry suggests far less lost exchange value than for music or film. First off, there was simply no sanctioned way for me to watch the season from beginning to end starting in May, as UPN’s rerun strategy was non-chronological and the DVDs were not released until after season 2 started (dumb move, as new episodes refer directly to the web of mysteries solved in season 1, thereby spoiling many pleasures for late-adopters). Thus it is not as if me downloading an episode was a choice that circumvented a legitimate way of watching the episode: it was either black market or no market.

Veronica Mars on UPN

Veronica Mars on UPN

If I had been on the ball and started watching Veronica Mars from the beginning on UPN, what value would have been gained by the industry? If it’s not offered on a premium channel like HBO or a pay-per-view system, there is no direct cost incurred by watching a television program. Since I have never been a Nielsen family, my viewing habits do not factor into the elaborate exchange of audiences between networks and advertisers via the currency of ratings. The only way (at least that I know of) that I ever “count” in TV economics is via the aggregate numbers that TiVo sells to the industry on its subscribers viewing habits, and since I’ve already created a Season Pass for Veronica Mars, I’m registered within that fuzzy system. Throughout television history, broadcasters have employed the rhetoric of “free TV” to stave off competition from film, cable, and satellite industries; it is hard to see how this can be spun into an effective argument (rhetorical, not legal) against acquiring “free television” from another “free” source.

I would argue that my black-market binge actually offered more value to the industry than had I followed UPN’s schedule. Since I watch via TiVo, I don’t watch ads via either broadcast or downloaded television, so that’s a wash. Through my marathon viewing, I became a bit fanatic about the program, raving about it to everyone I could and often encouraging friends to watch an episode with me. I sat through the entire series again in midsummer, to hook my wife into the show’s numerous pleasures. And I was inspired to take advantage of my academically-sponsored role as (admittedly marginal) tastemaker, by using the show in future teaching, requesting my college’s library to purchase the DVDs, and of course writing this column.

The protocols of BitTorrent also suggest a different type of exchange value. Since download speed and availability improves with increased demand, the system encourages taste hierarchies through the practice of digital exchange. These hierarchies do not match the rankings offered by Nielsen — as reported in Wired, some of the most popular BitTorrent series also receive high broadcast ratings (like Lost, American Idol, and ), but other shows are far more popular online than on air (like The O.C., Smallville, Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, and The Daily Show). It is not surprising that download popularity also often matches success in the DVD market, as these are programs that offer rewatchability, and that viewers feel sufficiently passionate about to risk lawsuits and navigate technical difficulties. By downloading (and simultaneously uploading) Veronica Mars, I am participating in an exchange that adds value to the program through active consumption.

As Lawrence Lessig convincingly argues in Free Culture, illicit downloading may reduce revenue from those potential consumers who illicitly download rather than purchase content, but it also creates new consumers by enabling them to discover and try new content before purchasing. When applied to television, the question becomes what “purchases” might be lost by downloading television rather than watching it over the air? And might the TV industry look at purchases gained by viewers who discover and sample content online, leading to future viewers and DVD sales (a point Henry Jenkins discusses in his last Flow column)? We’re clearly in the midst of a series of transformations in the television medium and its industrial structures — personally I think the peer-to-peer distribution of programming should be viewed as part of the solution to rather than a cause of broadcast television’s potential demise.

Despite weak ratings, UPN renewed Veronica Mars for this season and Warner released the DVDs (which I’m happy to note has cracked Amazon’s top 20 for DVD purchases!). This was seen mostly as a response to strong critical responses to the show and an active online fan presence building word-of-mouth. Illicit exchange of television is part of this process, whether it’s via the efficient online distribution of BitTorrent or the older but still vibrant tape-trading community. Fans of the show hope that a summer of buzz, including from Buffy guru Joss Whedon and Clerks auteur Kevin Smith (who both seem to have seen the show through endorsed “illicit” advanced promo DVDs), can result in increased official exchange value in the form of higher ratings and strong DVD sales.

Personally, I have “gone legit,” shifting Veronica Mars off my computer and onto my TV (of course through another computer, my TiVo). But by me watching the show via more conventional broadcast methods, I have reduced the exchange value of the program — I count neither as a member of UPN’s commodity audience, nor as an uploader increasing access to other viewers. In a strange twist of logic, the exchange value of my consumption decreases by accessing the show on the industry’s desired terms, suggesting a potentially fatal flaw in today’s broadcast model.

Update:

In the brief gap between writing this column and putting it on Flow, Apple announced its Video iPod, clearly answering my question: a TV episode is worth $1.99. Further thoughts to follow.

Image Credits:

1. Veronica Mars DVD

2. Veronica Mars in UPN

Please feel free to comment.




The “Popular Culture and Philosophy” Books and Philosophy: Philosophy, You’ve Officially Been Pimped

The D’Oh! of Homer

The D’Oh! of Homer

Introduction: Ridiculously Obvious Observations

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past four years, you’ve no doubt seen or heard of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books published by Open Court. Titles such as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All litter the shelves of local bookstores, where they can apparently be purchased in bulk. Turns out that popular culture is — well, “popular” — with young people. Philosophy? Not so much. But the Popular Culture and Philosophy books have managed to bridge this gap by exploiting the commercial success of recent cultural artifacts and releasing a new title dedicated to that artifact every couple of weeks.

Indeed, one might compellingly argue that the books themselves have become a popular cultural phenomenon. In the unselfish interest of bringing philosophy to even more young people, this book examines the philosophical importance of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books. Specifically, it suggests that their importance is “not much.” Like the fleeting character of the texts to which they pay tribute, these books will not have a lasting influence on philosophy. But in the meantime, there’s profit to be made. So, without further delay, let us examine these books before they, too, become passe.

Chapter 1: Plato: Philosophical Whore or Does This Guy Really Just Apply to Everything?
By Richard Fish, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McBeal State University

Plato was a hip-cat who lived a long, long time ago. In his writings, which mainly took the form of dialogues, he pursued the notion of “the good,” which was rooted in his theory of forms. This theory proposed the existence of ideal, moral forms that were absolute and eternal. They were also conveniently accessible only to Philosopher-Kings, who were especially knowledgeable. Everyone else essentially lived their lives in a cave, albeit an allegorical cave. In perhaps his most famous work, The Republic, Plato suggests that most people are chained deep in the cave, where they see mere shadows of the “real” world projected onto the walls by the sunlight of the true world outside. This allegory is useful for thinking about the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, which feature shadow philosophy (i.e., poor approximations of real philosophy). So, yes, if you ascribe to perfect forms, Plato can apply to everything.

Maybe Logic Academy

Maybe Logic Academy

Chapter 2: You Want Kant to Do What?! That’ll Be $16.95

By Victor Ehrlich, Professor and Chair of Philosophy, St. Eligius College

With his famous claim that the “Mind is the law-giver to nature,” Immanuel Kant married empiricist and rationalist views of knowledge, suggesting that knowledge was a composite of both sensory experience and the structures of the rational mind. Simply put, indeed overly simply put, the object is, according to Kant, inevitably created to some extent by the subject. Thus, if we take as the object of our investigation the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, sensorily we are dealing with printed text on paper. But this printed text is meaningful only to the extent that the faculty of the human mind supplies it with form. This chapter argues that that form is perhaps best labeled, “philosophy as entertainment.” By severely bastardizing Kantian philosophy, we can rationally conclude that Popular Culture and Philosophy books are “pure fun” and that fans of popular culture will buy anything that mentions what they’re fans of.

Chapter 3: Philosophy as Cash Cow: A Marxist Primer
By Beverly Crusher, Visiting Professor, The University at Farpoint

Adopting the perspective of historical materialism, Karl Marx argued that the underlying conditions, forces, and relations of production shape the superstructure of ideas in society. In other words, the economic base or foundation in any given society conditions the realm of culture. To understand specific elements of culture, then, such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, we must examine the modes of production. These books — with their flashy covers and populist promotions, targeting of mass tastes, standardized, formulaic content, and relentless release — reflect a capitalistic profit-motive. As such, these books reproduce the economic interests of the ruling class, thereby exploiting and enslaving the working class of readers. Fortunately, according to Marx, the oppressed class will at some point rise up, stop buying these books, and will determine their own modes of production and thus forms of thought.

Chapter 4: Taking the “Pop” Out of Popular Culture: Philosophy Without Fun-House Mirrors
By Cordell Walker, Assistant Professor of English, Texas Ranger University

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty critiques the tradition of foundationalist, metaphysical philosophy, arguing that far from being absolute and universal, knowledge is local, constructed, and contingent. For Rorty, a philosophy without mirrors begins with the recognition that philosophers possess no special method for accurately representing reality. In this chapter, I contend that the authors of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books posses no special method for accurately representing the reality of popular cultural representations of reality. What they do possess is a shared disinterest in the communication technologies they analyze. Apparently, the fact that television shows are actually televised has no bearing on their philosophical messages. This chapter infuses the books in this series with deep philosophical meanings, while ignoring their status as literature targeted to a mass audience.

Chapter 5: Habermas Reads Popular Culture and Philosophy Books and Confirms Disintegration of the Public Sphere
By Jessica Lovejoy, Lecturer in Theology, Springfield University

While many scholars have declared the failure of Enlightenment reason, others such as J. Habermas have defended the project of modernity, claiming that intersubjective recognition and mutual understanding through communication can still lead to emancipation (i.e., egalitarian politics). For this to happen, however, the systematic impediments to understanding must be demolished. Informed by the Frankfurt critique of the “culture industry,” Habermas argues that the mass media is chief among these impediments, for it leads to passivity. Thus, mass media or popular culture such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books impedes the development of an alternative, progressive public sphere by making readers the passive recipients of commercial philosophical messages. This chapter contends that Habermas would urge serious political and philosophical conversation outside of popular culture.

Chapter 6: Pop Philosophy and Postmodernism: Lyotard Asks, “Tenure Case or Just Language Game?”
By William Truman, Professor Emeritus, College of Connecticut, Metro Campus

Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard is perhaps best known for his definition of the postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” A metanarrative, according to Lyotard, is simply a story that provides a credible purpose for action. In the postmodern condition, however, such stories and the grand narratives they legitimate have lost credulity because of the recognition that they lack any universal basis for grounding their claims. Social institutions, then, are constructed on little more than language games or self-legitimating discourses that follow internal rules. Drawing on Lyotard, this chapter examines the language game of tenure, and explores how the rules of this language game have been rewritten by philosophers to legitimate chapters in the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series as serious scholarship.

Forthcoming Titles in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series from Open Court:

  • Volume 845

Maxim and Philosophy: Being and Toplessness

  • Volume 846

Paris Hilton and Philosophy: “Existentialism, That’s Hot!”

  • Volume 847

T-Shirts with Pithy Sayings and Philosophy: Hemlock Is So Last Season

  • Volume 848

Edible Underwear and Philosophy: Mmmmm, Tastes Like Neo-Pragmatism

  • Volume 849

Brad and Jen’s Breakup and Philosophy: Mr. & Mrs. Ubermench

Image Credits:
1. The D’Oh! of Homer

2. Maybe Logic Academy

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Sim City or Dream City? Computer Imaging in the Reconstruction of Iraq

3D City

3D City

A couple of days after checking into the Hotel Erbil in Hawler (the name preferred by the Kurds for their city), I noticed a display of cityscapes mounted on boards on the mezzanine across the lobby. But my mind was on other things so at first I didn’t check it out. I was to meet Slí­man Faiq Taki, the Dean of the Cinema Department of the University of Salahaddin, to talk about a media department curriculum. The interim head of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Buland Dizayi, an environmental engineer pressed into service while another Dean was scouted up, drove me across town to the building which temporarily housed his office. He was worried that we hadn’t been able to reach Dr. Slí­man on the phone, but as luck would have it, we encountered him trudging across a parking lot in the scorching heat. He joined us in Dizayi’s office so we could talk. It turned out Slí­man Taki wasn’t much interested in a media department with its vertical silos of journalism, electronic media, media studies, and cinema studies. He was, however, very interested in building up a cinema department. But first, he had to find a building.

The university here has 17,000 students (including night classes) but not enough facilities. So facilities are being reclaimed from government buildings abandoned by Saddam’s regime. Buland Dizayi mentioned with a dark streak of Kurdish irony, that some classes now were held in the same buildings where Saddam’s troops used to torture Kurds. The building in which we were meeting was a former dormitory with chipped linoleum floors and intermittent electric power.

Dr. Slí­man Taki’s department consisted of a staff, basically his sons and his wife, who are artists or technicians. He had 25 students, but no equipment, and no building. He had spotted another government building that no one was using on a nearby lake and was planning on talking with the President of the University, Dr. Mohammed Sadik, about the possibility of claiming it. He outlined his own vision for his department, starting with scriptwriting and directing areas in which he specialized, acting, make-up, costume, (his wife’s speciality), cinematography and 3D design (the interest of his sons). He was clear about how he wanted to proceed.

But finding a building and getting his department up and running was only the first tier of a long term plan. He telephoned his son, Safin S. Taki, who arrived wearing an Euro cut black jacket over a grey T-shirt and carrying a laptop. They talked about their lives as part of the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden and Dr. Slí­man Taki’s own interest in producing a 3-script fictional narrative about the dislocations of life for Kurdish young adults into a film. They spoke of their frustration with finding backers. When they came to Iraq and spoke with Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish autonomous region, however, they found an interested party. He pledged some funds toward the film department and encouraged them to stay in Kurdistan.

They said that Barzani understood the power of film. They had visions even beyond building a department and producing their film. They wanted to build a studio and already had plans simulated in a hyperreal space of 3-D animation. Safin flipped open the laptop to demonstrate a DVD they had created showing their vision for a new northern Iraqi (i.e. Kurdish) studio.

The DVD simulated the studio using the programs that an architect’s office might use. The opening shot of the building helicoptered in an arc in the approach of the building. The lobby was suitably grand. A John Williams type score swelled as background music. (Iraq is not a nation adhering to copyrights just yet.) Classrooms, edit rooms, make up rooms, and a foley studio, complete with SFX of glass shattering, demonstrated the future technical capabilities of the studio. A screening auditorium capable of holding hundreds of patrons was the final location that we cycled through. I asked where the studio would be built. Slí­man Taki is an expansive man. He suggested somewhere out in the countryside near streams and mountains. He is excited by his vision and sees no reason why Kurdistan cannot have a studio one day. He pointed out that the early Hollywood studios were developed simply because filmmakers thought the location was better than New Jersey or San Antonio. (And who would have thought a Mid-East rival to CNN, Al Jazeera, could be constructed in the middle of Qatar?) For now, at least, the simulation technology and his son’s expertise on a laptop are all he has.

That experience propelled me back to the lobby to examine the architectural renderings with similar computerized programs of a new Dream City (the actual name) being constructed outside of Hawler. Various models of homes were available, with floor plans. Some were designs of Turkish, UAE, Egyptian, Iranian style houses. Prices ranged from $160,000 US though most are closer to half a million in US dollars. The blow ups of computerized housing were complete with virtual families consisted of images of smiling mothers, fathers, and children, although closer examination showed some of them to be disproportionate in size from one another, some European appearing — images pirated from some other web site or scanned from a publication and pasted into the computerized simulation of the model.

The Dream City houses also appear in televised ads here. In reality, a drive just outside of Hawler reveals Dream City to be miles of empty acres elaborately walled and gated, with bricked sidewalks. According to the spokesmen, only the central fountain and a few houses have begun construction. A supermarket along the lines of a MaziMart (a Dohuk-based enterprise similar to Target or WalMart) has broken ground next as a part of the development as well. In fact, another Dream City has already been constructed in Dohuk. While the acres appear empty now, the power of computerized imaging has fleshed out the dream for Iraqis and made it virtual reality at least. A fellow academic who traveled with me from the U.S. also came to talk with University President Dr. Sadik about new architectural design for a system of primary and secondary schools. Despite his moorings in the high-tech US, he carried only architectural drawings on paper. Meanwhile, the energetic Kurds have already picked up their laptops and started imaging and designing their own future.

A haze of the dust of reconstruction hangs in the air over this city of over a million and everywhere houses are under construction. New retail facilities, offices and streets are torn up as plumbing and electricity is upgraded or installed. Iraq is a nation that is in the middle of reconstruction at least in the relative calm of the Kurdish north. But the visions of a possible prosperous future for a “Kurdistan” — within Iraq or outside it– are everywhere on laptops, on television, pointing to a dream, which, though simulated for the moment, seems to propel energy, hope, and, if the Kurds are lucky enough, investment.

Image Credits:
1. 3D City

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