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

Please feel free to comment.




Hegemony on a Hard Drive

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Apple Logo

Apple Logo

The big sucking sound I had just heard was my Canon i9900 printer swallowing a 19×13 inch piece of photo paper. It then proceeded to dedicate its eight ink cartridges to printing only half of the image down the right hand side of the sheet. Damn, damn, damn! Apple + . Apple + . Cancel, Cancel! Abort! Abort! Aoougah! Aoougah! Dive, dive, dive!

I hate it when that happens.

I had printed images this size at the office, no problem. Well, OK, slight problem. The printer wouldn’t accept a “print landscape” orientation, so you had to get Photoshop to rotate the image 90 degrees and print in portrait aspect. Other than that – piece of cake. So I glared balefully at the printer, blinking and burping away there on the side table in my home workspace. I began to run through the variables that might be dorking around with my image. One of these solved the problem: moving the image from a remote hard drive to the laptop hard drive and printing from there, or switching the printer from the USB port to the Firewire port that was now free since I didn’t need the remote hard drive, or using a standard paper size setting instead of a custom size. I don’t know which did the job because I did them all simultaneously and the image printed. Maybe I needed all three.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought. “Art and my computer should be better friends.” And it’s not just visual material; life doesn’t get any easier when we consider audio. Singing, poetry, anything better heard than read; they are all part of that “digital trunk in the attic” I wrote about. Trying to create those messages in the digital environment runs us into more tool concerns:

I have a pretty small, pretty awful, USB microphone. I play no instrument – assuming we do not count the kazoo. Garageband sits gathering nanodust on my hard drive. Yes, I have a friend who is an excellent keyboardist and vocalist who has offered to share her skills, her keyboard, and her high end USB microphone if I teach her how to use Garageband. But I don’t know how to use Garageband, yet. And my office tech guru tells me that “If spend another 80 bucks in software, and get a mumbo-jumbo yadda yadda 100 dollar interface, you will have really excellent sound. Plus processor speed isn’t an issue because the CPU will either choke or it won’t. Probably won’t. And the interface is clean – just like Garageband!” Whew, I feel a lot better now!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

But there is a bigger issue than my personal frustration. Before the expressive digital genie has even wriggled her way out of the bottle, we are lopping off appendages, willy-nilly. The intricacies of hardware and software are selectively marginalizing various communicative modalities, and particular voices. In my classes, I call it communicative hegemony. We tend to think of hegemonic inclinations as advantaging a specific worldview. I’d take that particular paranoia a step further. The communicative technologies that come to dominate any point in history advantage some modes of expression over others, and those advantaged expressive modes are uniquely inclined to favor a construction of reality that carries embedded assertions about the nature of existence and expression.

There are two primary areas of ware dominance – the communicative hegemony made possible a convergence of software and hardware – that concern me. The concern can be framed thusly: What expressive ware enables and advantages particular constructions of messages, particular groups of message makers, and hence specific perceptions of reality/truth/value?

Garage Band

Garage Band

The tradition in expressive message software – visual processing packages such as Photoshop and Illustrator and audio packages like ProTools and Cakewalk Sonar – is to create powerful, full-featured applications for “media” professionals. I have two significant objections to that tradition. First, it unduly influences the whole area of what is the “allowable” structure of an expression. And second, it nudges the creative impulse toward the slippery slope of commodification.

Let’s address the “allowable structure” notion first. I have two friends who are “real artists.” He is primarily a sculptor, she a painter. Both refuse to use Photoshop any longer. They quit early in the version 2.0 years. She originally used it to do a variety of “color treatments,” experimenting with various color schemes on a preliminary sketch without using reams of paper or pots of paint. She quit because the software became too complex; it got in the way of her painting. He used it for similar reasons, to look at various glaze ranges and do some manipulation of digital images of “pieces in progress.” But he stopped using it for a very different reason. A computer-science professor in his previous professional life, he walked away because Photoshop got “Way too cool. I was afraid I’d never go back to the studio.” Those are two sides of the same coin – the software began to assert its own agenda into the creative process. By foregrounding certain processes – sometimes literally in the tools palette, sometimes figuratively as in the abundance of filters and effects available in drop down menus – the software advocates certain expressions more than others.

The software designers would be quick to point out that they use “feedback from their customers” to decide which tools to foreground and which features to provide. Which takes us directly to the issue of commodification. Expressive software packages – graphics, music, sound – that sell for $500.00 to $10,000.00 are not designed for the personal expression budget. They are designed for professionals. Folks who do work for profit or for hire. And those are the customers the software designers ask what features to foreground or include. Hence, the software packages advantage techniques and tools designed for commercial products, and in doing so, further establish the artistic language of the commercial artist as the accepted language for any artist wishing to employ that particular medium. And, if that weren’t enough, the software advantages output in forms that are particularly salient to the marketplace. Jpegs for websites and online stores, “save as html” to provide the “copy,” .ram files for your PC Real One Player – click here to upgrade! “It’s easier to build an online business than you ever thought!” Again, product for profit, not process for expression.

Now, my friends over at IT tell me that there are plenty of freeware, shareware, cheapware, options I can use. A few even work on my Mac, a few I can get up and running in less than 12 or 15 hours, and some will actually output sound or video or images to a format I can print, play or display. Some I might be able to figure out myself. That is significant progress. I can still remember when they didn’t want to talk to me if I wasn’t using a UNIX box and couldn’t program is C++. Still –

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Apple is making an honest effort – I think. Their iLife suite tries to walk the thin line between commerce and creativity. But it is a very difficult razor on which to balance. Look at GarageBand, for example, which I have played with more since starting this essay. Version 1.0 leaves you at the mercy of your own skills with an instrument or the loops and samples provided with the software. Version 2.0 – just out – seems to move further along the road toward enabling the consumer; but the price is a significant leap in the complexity of the software. And it still exports to iTunes, which shows an uncomfortable inclination to shuffle me off to the iTunes Store.

Jef Raskin, who died about a month ago, was largely responsible for the original Macintosh user-friendly interface/mouse tandem. He wouldn’t like that. He always asserted that computers should serve people – not the other way around. He ALWAYS thought it shouldn’t be this hard.

And it is our fault. When I say “our,” I mean those of us in universities. Our love affair with technology has led to tools of awesome power, wonderful capabilities. Our research, our fascination with what might be possible, has created the electronic phantasm that is the 21st century. But in acquiescing to the “off the shelf” ware solutions provided by our graduates in the industry, we have unwittingly added a new deep trench to the digital divide. We have allowed our genie to build walls instead of bridges between the creative impulse and the digital environment. The tool now dominates both the process and the nature of the product. It is time to wrap our academic robes more firmly around us and figure out how to reverse that paradigm, because — all together now – It shouldn’t be this hard!

Image Credits:
1. Apple Logo
2. Garage Band

Link
Apple

Please feel free to comment.




Reinventing Public Media

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

PBS Logo

PBS Logo

Previous columns on media reform have generated a good deal of comment, as well as some thoughtful and even playful criticisms of reform advocates as a ponderous crowd of self-interested mandarins who simply hate what everyone else loves — television. Quite correctly, John Hartley describes the medium as curious, mischievous, adventurous, licentious, and more. Its sheer unruliness is one of its great attractions, and John is right to contend that this unruly aspect more than any other is what makes TV a popular medium.

On the other hand, television is also serious business, offering up its audiences for exchange in the marketplace. Whether those audiences can in fact be enumerated, graded, and delivered to advertisers is the subject of much debate, but nevertheless the organization of television as a meaning-making institution is very much influenced by this second aspect of television. As a result, we get to see some things, but not others, and what we do get to see is presented to us as if it sprouted from the earth barely tainted by commercial calculation. Most viewers understand the games being played, but their influence over the institution remains limited.

Which brings me to a third aspect of television: politics. Although I’m well aware that as good postmodern critics we must acknowledge the personal as political, it’s nevertheless important to recall another rather old-fashioned notion of politics as an arena of contest and deliberation over the disposition of social resources. So even though I agree with John that political pugilism on TV talks shows and news coverage of the US politics is largely comic opera, I nevertheless think it important to hold television responsible for this second notion of politics as much as the first.

Why, for example, has the debate over Social Security spiraled into a predictable cycle of tired sound bites and political one-upsmanship, when in fact this is an issue of epochal importance? Is it due to the cold calculation of political operatives or is it due to the fact even well-intentioned politicians and activists realize they can’t get a fair hearing for effective alternatives, since it would require discussing interlinked issues regarding Medicaid, private medicine, and our regressive tax structure? The current media system would simply melt down in the face of such complexity, and consequently we’re likely to muddle along with comic opera when in fact the fate of the social welfare system is at stake.

So even though one might agree that television is an unruly and popular medium, it is also a medium of exclusions. It excludes deliberation on important social issues and it marginalizes activists whose ideas are hard to capture in six-second sound bites. It furthermore excludes programs for audiences that fall outside of its key demographics, preferring to speak to viewers with significant purchasing power. The exclusions built into US broadcasting operate in the realm of entertainment as well as information, as network executives slavishly follow programming trends in pursuit of relatively similar audiences, so that police procedurals and reality programs now saturate the airwaves, making a program like Desperate Housewives seem like a daring departure from the norm, at least for the moment. Cable programming is likewise redundant with only occasional exceptions. This is not to say that all or even most commercial broadcasting is bad, but it is undeniable that American television demands very specific styles of creativity, so that it is all too common to hear people like Dave Chapelle, Ben Karlin, or Steven Bochco fantasizing about other media venues where they might ply their trade. Thus, it’s not simply audiences that deserve alternatives; it’s the creative community as well.

As one considers television reform, it therefore makes sense to think across genres and to imagine multiple channels that might serve diverse audiences and artists. One of PBS’ great shortcomings has been its status as a lightning rod for criticism because it is assumed that any single program it telecasts is common property, an expression and/or representation of the people. As we consider prospects for reform, why not advocate four or five public TV channels and a similar number of radio channels, so that we might shed the illusion of a people in favor of a country with many voices?

Although such an agenda seems ambitious, Allison Perlman suggests that reformers go even further, pressing for reform of commercial television, and Anna McCarthy urges us to consider the appalling condition of print journalism as well. While I sympathize with both positions, I worry that debates regarding the former would become entangled with capitalist ownership issues and that the latter would invariably get bogged down in free speech issues. Public broadcasting seems a practical place to begin, in large part because it is an undeniably underdeveloped resource with tremendous potential. Moreover, it’s a propitious moment for genuine reform, since over the next decade, the transition to digital television will yield a windfall of tens of billions of dollars as the federal government auctions off spectrum space that used to belong to analogue broadcast stations. Many dreams are being hatched about how the money might be used, yet it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that this windfall should be applied to improvements of the very medium from which it derives. Combine this with a modest tax on broadcasters and one could establish an array of public channels with substantial and ongoing funding that would be relatively insulated from political pressure groups. Public media reform therefore seems a practical objective, and given widespread discontent with commercial television, it might have political legs, but it will only have legs if it is a truly popular alternative, as Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis have insightfully argued.[1] That will require breaking beyond the cultural and class biases of the current public system and transcending the exclusions of the commercial broadcasting, so that we might begin to invent new approaches to diverse genres and audiences.

Note
Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis. “Moving Beyond the ‘Vast Wasteland’: Cultural Policy and Television in the United States.” Television and New Media 1.1 (2000): 95-115.

Image Credits:
1. PBS Logo

Links
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Free Press… media is the issue
“Turning Back the Tidycans,” a previous Flow article from Volume I, Issue 9.

Please feel free to comment.




The Credibility of Reality TV and Its Lineage with other Photographic Arts

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Recently, I was asked to comment on the credibility of reality television as compared to the credibility of street photography by artists like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Cindy Sherman. In the “Street Credibility” exhibit, curated by artist Mike Kelley, the photographs are staged, interpretations of people in their lives. Like reality TV, some of the photographs are exploitative and sensational. Thinking about reality TV and street photography lead me to explore the lineage that reality TV shares with other photographic arts. This assumption places reality TV in the company of seemingly strange bedfellows, photographic arts that merge interpretation with real lived existence, such as Italian neorealist film and 1930s US social documentaries. While other photographic arts may draw upon dramatic modes (posed subjects, casting through typage, associational editing), the central factor that affects credibility and separates reality TV from other realist-based photographic arts is “entertainment.”

In their introduction to Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette describe reality TV as “an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real” (3). Reality TV does not have the same credibility as photography or documentary film, neither as a record of lived existence nor as art. It is television, show business, entertainment. Caption on a magnet found in my used office desk: “Theater is life. Film is art. TV is furniture.” Would there be a bumper sticker with the caption: “kill your photographs” instead of “kill your television?”

The idea of credibility suggests trust and truth, both in the representation and in its interpretation. There is an assumption that the representation faithfully captures its analogue in the world and that the interpretation in the work, even if exploitative, offers valued commentary or social analysis of the subject of the work. The conventions of television entertainment trouble interpretation, reducing the social utility of reality TV when compared to its more respected progenitors that combined fact and fiction, such as street photography, 1930s social documentary and post-WWII neo-realist film.

Photographs are placed in an artistic environment, on a gallery wall or in a coffee table book, positioned for and inviting contemplation and study. In a photograph, there are many layers of intervention by the photographer: the photograph may be posed and is certainly framed; the photographer manipulates the image in the dark room. In the gallery and in books, labels near the photographs may identify the process used to print the image (chemicals and paper) and perhaps the camera that was used. Some gallery exhibits display cameras, which can be massive and heavy, with complex dials and lenses. Does this awareness of a photograph’s construction cause photography to lose credibility? The street photograph retains credibility even though (and because) the photographer selected, framed and interpreted to imbue the image with truth.

In some ways, reality TV and Italian neo-realism are two sides of the same coin. Reality TV does not spring to mind when reading the words of theorist Cesare Zavattini: “neo-realism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions coming between it and myself — facing it without preconceptions, looking at it in an honest way — whatever reality is, not just social reality but all that there is within a man” (quoted in Bondanella, 32). Yet, reality TV shares some concerns with neo-realism.

Both prefer improvisation within a structure. Both eschew stars, with their pre-existing meanings, and use typage to generate drama through casting. Neo-realism favors non-professionals or actors who resemble real people (such as a man who shines shoes); ensemble reality TV shows try to bring together an array of personalities and/or social-cultural roles/stereotypes (see L.S. Kim, “Race and Reality … TV” in Flow). Both edit to highlight the drama of decisive moments in the story. Both invite audiences to be moved emotionally by characters (neo-realism) or personalities (reality TV). Neo-realism and reality TV both appear to be forms of what reality TV producer Mark Burnett has labeled “dramality”: drama + reality.

Yet, reality TV gravitates toward the conventions of Hollywood entertainment that neorealist theory critiqued. Neo-realism presented ordinary life and gained authenticity from locations; reality TV creates imaginary situations in locations that are produced and designed for the show’s particular reality genre (the board room, the remote island, the romance, etc.). Rather than interpret a profilmic “life on the street,” reality TV creates its own “life” and its own “street.” Neorealist stories were situated in the aftermath of World War II (a stolen bicycle ruins a man’s chances to work in Bicycle Thieves); the problems of some reality TV shows can seem superficial (the strongbox of fire sinks to the bottom of the sea when a wave capsizes the castaways’ boat on Survivor: Palau). These losses are both decisive moments for their respective stories (Antonio will spend the film searching desperately for transportation that will allow him to work; the castaways will spend upcoming episodes diving to retrieve the strongbox that will allow them to boil drinking water, to be warm, to cook food). There are parallel emotional effects on the characters and dramatic effects on the story.

However, the social utility of these situations are vastly different. The heroes of neo-realism were not heroic figures, but ordinary people dealing with life in the aftermath of World War II. The personalities of reality TV emerge from interactions generated by fabricated environments and situations. The reality is imbedded in story and suspense structures like games (who will stay the course), auditions (simulations and role-playing) and romance (who will win the heart). In neo-realism, life is complex, downbeat, unhappy and maybe tragic. Reality TV enjoys sentimentality, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, tragedy, victory. Life in the neorealist film will go on after the film’s story has ended. Reality TV shows try for a gripping finale that can be “event television,” a live broadcast so exciting that maybe the audience will watch in real time and not fast-forward through commercials.

Do the conventions of entertainment inevitably cause a loss of credibility and truth in interpretation? In his history of 1930s social documentary, Chuck Wolfe writes, “documentary cinema was valued for its capacity to render dramatic the social trauma of unemployment, labor violence, and the erosion of the American farmland and to offer explanations for these disturbances and disasters” (353). Drama was important to the effort of documentary makers to reach and communicate with audiences. Although they combined drama and reality, 1930s social documentaries and neorealist films did not reach large audiences and were not commercially successful. However, their techniques were picked up by Hollywood and merged with story, stars and entertainment (such as the post-war semi-documentary and film noir). In her analysis of reality-documentary hybrids, Susan Murray explores how reality TV shares aesthetic conventions (such as the hand-held camera) with “high-minded, and if not fully educational, then at least informative” observational documentaries (43). She concludes “the distinctions we make between forms of nonfictional television are … largely contained in the evaluative connotations that insist on separating information from entertainment, liberalism from sensationalism, and public service from commercialism” (54). In this continuum of hybrid photographic arts, the connotations of entertainment-sensationalism-commercialism separate reality TV from 1930s documentary and neo-realism.

To return to the working definition of credibility above, the world that reality TV presents is fabricated (therefore not an analogue). One can understand and take pleasure in the structures of games, auditions and romance and still find reality TV to be a credible (that is, accurate yet entertaining) record of what happened. Reality TV’s interpretation of events may not summon contemplation of lived existence or social analysis. Instead, it goes for emotional identification with the people on the screen and social interactions with other audience members in blogs, websites and around the water cooler. Thus, television can be life, art and also …… furniture.

Note
An earlier draft of this essay explored the necessity of work for Antonio and Bruno v. Nicole and Paris. Henry Jenkins IV pointed out the parallels between losing the bicycle and losing the fire.

Please feel free to comment.




Why Media Scholars Should Write Corporate Histories

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

Several trade publications have received notices that last month was the tenth anniversary of the launch of WB and UPN, the fifth and sixth broadcast TV networks, dubbed by the trades in their argot as “weblets.” My quick check of Lexis-Nexis showed no mention of the anniversary by major newspapers. Why should they mention the date? No compelling news reason. UPN and WB have not amounted to much. Indeed, reading their histories showed that they were not conceived to do much either. But it is precisely this lack of performance that should draw the attention of media historians if only because no one else will write their histories. Certainly corporate historians and trade journals write for an audience who are constantly worried only about the next new thing. They neither ask the right questions nor can afford the perspective of a historian. Despite this I should pause to praise trade journals such as Variety for often having a critical analytical eye particularly when the late A.D. Murphy was still writing for them. But we cannot hope that they should do our work for us, only that they provide the data with which we can ask our questions.

Data has become increasingly hard to come by since the days of dealing with companies that do just one thing are long gone. Indeed the big headline about UPN and WB, that neither network had a profitable year, was ignored or obscured by the various tenth anniversary notices. No profits! This is in complete contrast to the fourth network, Fox, which reached profits within five years of its launch in 1987. Nonetheless it took a phone call to a former weblet topper to confirm the hints I had gathered from the reports that these networks do not earn profits. Indeed he stated that they never will which I will discuss below. Why are such basic facts hard to come by? John Sinclair reported in a previous issue of this journal, that one unintended consequence of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act was to obscure advertising revenue trends. In general, the last two decades have been bad for watching financial trends in TV and film. When the cosmic media mergers of the 1980s occurred, the annual reports became increasingly useless since the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require revenue reports on individual divisions and does not standardize the way corporations break down their divisions into filmed entertainment, broadcast and cable operations, and foreign and domestic revenue sources. The annual reports rarely divide revenue sources into royalties and distribution, which, of course, would help both insiders and outsiders to see what is really going on.

WB is a division of Time-Warner and UPN is controlled (not always owned) by Viacom. So we are left with estimates and rumors for these weblets that are not stand alone companies but are owned by shifting partnerships and conglomerates, none of whom need to break out figures for one division in their annual reports. One can read Electronic Media carefully and note estimates of losses ranging from $93 million for WB in 1999/2000 and $200 million for UPN the next year. But it is suspect to construct a year-to-year chart of estimates and rumors and therefore tracking trends in earnings becomes a matter of opinion, the bane of scholarship. The trades glossed over a failed and unprofitable record by noting the few successes. They also rationalized the lack of profits by noting that the weblets work as launching pads for the successful syndication of shows ranging from the Star Trek spin-offs to Smallville. Other media companies have benefited. For example, The News Corporation very successfully syndicated Buffy, The Vampire Slayer to both weblets and back again to its own cable channel; FX. World Wrestling Federation does well with its Smackdown series on UPN. Success for other companies is not necessarily a bad thing for the networks since they are part of an oligopolistic industry that has many interlocking relationships.

The oligopoly of co-productions, of networks having affiliations with stations that are owned by conglomerates that own other divisions that compete with the networks, and other dizzy co-relationships, is perhaps the greatest challenge to the media scholar. The language of cutthroat competitive capitalism still permeates the entertainment industry. The trades still take it seriously as do the writers of the numerous executive biographies that take space away from us poor academics in the media section of Barnes and Noble. But read carefully, competition rarely is little more than a kind of ego game that motivates executives to keep score. It rarely matters to the bottom line anymore. Time Warner and Viacom are too big to worry whether the weblets make money in their primary business. They did not even create them to make money but to merely protect themselves in the syndication market as the federal government rescinded the Finance and Syndication rules in 1993. These rules were put into effect in 1970 to keep production and distribution separate and to enhance competition. They may not have had the desired effect but their elimination certainly has not improved diversity.

It is perhaps a sign of how little vision the companies had in creating the weblets that they hired the executives trained by Barry Diller in his truly pioneering creation of Fox, the fourth network in 1987. Fox Broadcasting Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of The News Corporation, which also owns the production company, Twentieth Century Fox, pushed the legal bounds on every front, particularly in blurring the line between the network and the syndication business. A compliant federal government accommodated them as they coyly avoided the technical definition of being a network, and as the NewsCorp. CEO Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen to skirt rules on foreign nationals owning American broadcast stations. In turn, it is argued that Fox actually did create new original programming and competed with the big three networks forcing them into a different line of programming. But Fox’s originality was limited to parody and paranoia, and arguably did not extend to creating new genres or new ways of using TV.

Thus it seems purely defensive for corporations to hire Diller protégés to merely do what Diller had already done in a landscape that no longer had room for copycats. Perhaps the weblets are proof that media based solely on advertising as the single revenue stream has reached a limit. But do we know without good numbers? Do we know how to maximize the possibilities of broadcast television? There is no policy pressure for new businesses and new ideas. Diversity through the fake “competition” of late capitalism has proven to be a policy joke. There is little hope for new policies, not only because we have a regressive administration, but also because there is little analysis to support new policies. Certainly the trades and the journalists remain bound to the frames provided by the media conglomerates. It is only the academics who can provide such analyses. While the situation was profoundly different, let us remember that at the same time Fox was being created, Great Britain was creating Channel Four with guidance from academics and media historians. Of course they had the numbers and the understanding of a far more transparent broadcast system.

It is probably at this point that you are asking what about all that good stuff on American cable. Maybe there is some good stuff here and there as there was in the heyday of the big three networks. Still it is not enough to stop reflecting that on the tenth anniversary of UPN and WB, there must be a better way to allocate resources for our media. There must be some way to stop paying for “going through all these things twice.” Let’s begin the analysis.

Sources

Greppi, Michele. (2001, June 18th). “It’s Nervous Time for UPN Execs.” Electronic Media. P.3.

Freeman, Michael. (2000, July 31st). “Mergers Prove it’s a Small World.” Electronic Media. P. 3.

Littleton, Cynthia. (2005, January 11th). “A Tale of Two Networks.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.24-25, 32.

Littleton, Cynthia, and Kimberly Speight. (2005, January 11th). “Supply Line.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.26, 32.

Sinclair, John. (2005, January 21st). “Global Advertising Data SOX-ed Up.” Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1.8.

Wallenstein, Andrew. (2005, January 11th). “Creative Outlet.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.28, 32. Interview with Dean Valentine, February 8th, 2005.

Links
UPN Homepage
WB Homepage
FOX

Please feel free to comment.




At Last, TV for People Just Like Me

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demography is destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

Ingredients:
1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,

Anna

Links
Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
FDA
International Cooking Links

Please feel free to comment.




Turning Back the Tidycans

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most evenings my octogenarian, cigar-chomping, father-in-law likes to crank up the TV to full volume, pour a tall one, and settle into his easy chair where he methodically scans the news and talk channels, riding herd on the world from his perch in coastal Georgia. Sometimes he comments upon topics and pundits, while other times he immerses himself in Spanish-language newspapers from Miami or more recently in weighty tomes about Islamic history, culture, and politics. Yet whenever George Bush swaggers onscreen he casts a steely glance at the tube and unleashes a hailstorm of expletives at America’s worst nightmare — an evangelical, right-to-life President who at once seems oblivious to budgetary discipline and complicit with corrupt corporados. My father-in-law, Bob, is not a happy camper these days. Indeed, for the very first time in his life, he contemplated the loathsome prospect of voting for a Democratic Presidential candidate… but then John Kerry was nominated and that was the last we heard of that.

Like other conservatives, Bob is unhappy with American media, politics, and the Republican Party, and he is not alone. Speaking for the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Christine Todd Whitman, in It’s My Party Too, laments the hijacking of the GOP by a small circle of interests who frame politics with a narrow “either/or” logic. This is perhaps what Jon Stewart so clumsily tried to challenge on Crossfire with his seemingly innocent appeal for an end to the pugilistic political talk shows. “You’re huuurting us,” Stewart intoned repeatedly. You’re squandering an opportunity, he implied. But an opportunity for what?

Tom Streeter in an earlier issue of Flow, pushed the question further, asking what specifically might improve television and politics in the US? Truth-based reporting? Stricter regulation of media conglomerates? A structural reform of the media industry? While each of these has merit, Streeter suggested that media reformers must be more explicit in their critique of ideology — that is, little “i” ideology, as in a cultural studies approach to the interrogation of the structures of feeling and knowing at work in American politics.

To that I would add another layer, since as Streeter points out, corporate media tends to obscure the workings of ideology so successfully. I would suggest that strategically, media reform should be organized around a central aspiration that seems to transcend ideological difference, an aspiration that has long festered among viewers across the political spectrum, but which now seems ever so urgent. Put simply, we aspire to be treated like adults — by the media and by our politicians.

Instead, our experience for more than fifty years has been that the paedocratic regime of television, as John Hartley refers to it, tends to treat audiences like children by withholding the explicit and the sexual along with the explicitly political and intellectual. In other words, US television institutions prefer to present the world to audiences in tidy “either/or” packages because they assume it’s all we can handle. This presumption was furthermore exploited by the Reagan administration and has been even more zealously embraced by the current administration. Yet with the Reaganauts tidiness was a political tactic, whereas the Bushies have turned it into an ideological screening device that both shapes the nature of political discourse and swaddles the public in a false sense of solipsistic security. The tidycans organize the political universe like bad television programs organize the moral universe — if it doesn’t fit, it’s simply not there. (And why bother to look for it?)

In contrast, Streeter yearns for a more honest engagement with political and cultural difference on screen. “I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of “Faith Under Fire,” a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour‘s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.”

One could hardly disagree, but even more, I think we — right, left, and center — yearn for media that seem genuinely engaged with ideas and curious about the world. In part, that may mean, as Toby Miller suggests, journalists and news organizations need to slap their ideologies on the table and get on with the business of actual reporting, rather than endless commentating. But it furthermore seems important to make the case for curiosity, complexity, serendipity, and generosity. It seems important to valorize the hard-won wisdom of maturity, a wisdom that is accepting of one’s limitations and therefore more willing to listen and explore. In essence we need media that don’t deliver ideas and events in tidy packages, media that instead blur boundaries and paint issues in shades of gray rather than black and white. Such a turn would require the expansion and reinvention of public media, creating new services, formats, and protocols that proceed from the assumption that audiences and citizens deserve to be treated as adults. It might furthermore exempt these non-commercial media from copyright and censorship restrictions, establishing intellectual free zones, where quotation, critique, and satire might flourish.

Such a suggestion is not based on a utopian ideal, but rather on the cold calculation that reforming commercial media is a heroic, but ultimately ill-fated venture. Instead reformers should promote the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy. For the only way to encourage genuine political dialog, avoid political gridlock, and turn back the tidycans is to find common ground for John and Bob and Chris and Tom. Where might that ground be? In public media shaped by the same spirit as critical and reflexive scholarship: “I begin here, but if I don’t end up somewhere else, then the journey wasn’t worth it.”

Links
Media Reform Information Center
Free Press
MediaChannel

Please feel free to comment.




Global Advertising Data SOX-ed up

by: John Sinclair / Victoria University, Melbourne

Those of us with an orientation towards political economy and an interest in how the advertising industry propels media development have lost a lot of wind from our sails with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was passed by U.S. Congress in July, 2002. The purpose of the Act is to protect investors from financial scams in the wake of Enron, Worldcom and other scandals, by considerably tightening the rules regarding the disclosure and verification of financial information (and especially claims of revenues or profitability) by publicly-listed companies.

In particular, the Act requires the CEO and CFO of such companies to prepare a statement accompanying their audit report to certify the ‘appropriateness of the financial statements and disclosures contained in the periodic report, and that those financial statements and disclosures fairly present, in all material respects, the operations and financial condition of the issuer’. In other words, the company’s principal executives personally have to verify declared figures.

The implications this has had for the advertising industry is that it has put an end to the various annual rankings which, until Sarbanes-Oxley, or ‘SOX’ as it has been dubbed, would be published by trade journals and professional bodies, not just in the US, but internationally. In the US, the annual league tables would be compiled and made widely available, most notably in Advertising Age; in Australia, it was done by AdNews and B&T Weekly; in the UK, income tables were produced by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA); and in Europe, by the Research Reports on Agency Media Networks service (RECMA).

For once, critical political economists and large corporate advertisers have found an interest in common that has been affected by the new law, as neither group has a comprehensive league table of advertising agencies’ annual performance any more. Not that anyone in the past took the rankings as an accurate measure. Advertising agency income is made up of ‘billings’, the amount of their clients’ money that agencies spend on buying advertising time and space in the media, as well as fee-for-service activities. Billings figures always were rubbery, because they would necessarily include estimates from shared accounts and from subsidiaries, as well as income earned but not yet secured. Therefore they could easily be inflated to give the impression an agency was doing better than it actually was. So, they always had to be taken with a grain of salt anyhow.

However, since SOX, agency principals do not dare to put their name to a dubious set of figures, and some CEOs even seem to be relieved to be able to shelter behind the new law, after having risked exposure for so many years. As one senior advertising executive in Australia commented, ‘Once upon a time, the release of the rankings was the great event of the year. It was quite good sport and everyone treated it with the humour it deserved. It’s a shame it got abused’.

OK, so the game’s over. But how is it that the effects of a US Act of Congress are being felt in Australia, the UK, Europe and elsewhere? Because of the globalization of the advertising industry, and the integration of US-based agencies within the largest agencies of all the major nations that have a commercial mass media system. Although some US agencies had already opened up offices outside of the US before World War II, the 1960s saw a wave of expansion into Europe, Australia and other former British dominions, and also the newly independent developing nations. The agencies were following the prior expansion of their clients to a large extent, the new ‘transnational corporations’, but also the dynamics of an emergent international manufacturing–marketing–media complex. They had enjoyed growth in the US, thanks to the first decade of television, and this gave them expertise (‘American know-how’ is a phrase of the era) that was advantageous in other national markets where television was more recently introduced. The bulk of the Australian advertising business was taken over in the 1960s by US agencies, that either set up their own subsidiaries or entered into various arrangements with Australian agencies.

Thus began the present era, in which the largest advertisers, mainly transnational, or more accurately now, global corporations, do their business with the largest agencies, and television takes an ever greater share of revenue. The largest agencies are also global, though US ownership and control has been greatly attenuated, not just in Australia but in comparable markets, by significant participation from UK, French, and to a lesser extent now, Japanese agencies.

One crucially important global trend of recent decades has been that in which several large international agencies — transnational corporations in their own right — form what the trade press calls ‘supergroups’ or ‘megagroups’. These groups do not operate as unified advertising agencies, but as holding companies which have a management and financial coordination function at a stratospheric level around the planet: this integrates the activities of the group’s member companies in marketing communications (such as market research and public relations) with the advertising agencies and their clients on a global basis.

A notable case is the British group WPP, which in the last decade has acquired agencies that had long been identified with the US, notably Young & Rubicam and J. Walter Thompson. Similarly, the French-based Publicis Groupe has Leo Burnett from the US as well as one-time British star agency Saatchi & Saatchi in its stable. The largest three agencies in Australia are all Australian-controlled, but they all have some minority ownership from the US or UK, so they cannot be said to be Australian-owned. The point is not so much that US capital is being replaced by British and French in the advertising industry, but rather, as in most truly global industries, the nation of origin is becoming irrelevant.

The passage of SOX will make global trends so much harder to track. As well as the WPP and Publicis agencies mentioned above, other major agencies in Australia which no longer cooperate with the trade journals’ annual rankings include Grey Global Group and those in the US-based Omnicom Group (e.g. DDB) and Interpublic Group (McCann-Erickson). So, while SOX might give protection to US investors, this has been achieved at the expense of the public interest on a global scale.

Links:
Guide to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Latest on trial of former Worldcom chief executive Bernie Ebbers
The Sarbanes-Oxley compliance kit

Please feel free to comment.




Media Left Out?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Never has the need for media reform been more obvious, more urgent, or — judging by everything from Moveon.org surveys[1] to downloads of the Jon Stewart Crossfire clip — more popular. But what, exactly, are we asking for? What kind of media are we trying to create?

The demand for a media that simply “tells the truth” has a lot of bite right now. A “truth-based” journalism would certainly be an improvement over the journalistic habit of getting a quote from a Democrat and a Republican and calling it a day. And it’s horrifyingly plausible that, if the New York Times, with all its agenda-setting power, simply had gotten the facts straight about Iraqi WMDs, the US may never have gone to war in Iraq and the world would not now be facing an escalating cycle of violence, a globalized version of the nightmare of the West Bank.

But over the long term, factual failures are better understood as symptoms than as causes. It would be convenient if left positions and a self-evident “truth” were identical, but it’s more complicated. The power of, say, the anti-abortion movement can not be fully explained in terms of false facts, and even the astonishing persistence in the polls of the belief in a Saddam-9/11 link cannot be simply attributed to media falsehoods or silences. Face it: a few more CNN segments explaining the lack of a Saddam-9/11 link would not automatically have caused the scales to fall from the eyes of Bush supporters. If you think about it a little (and if you know something about the complexities of how people answer questions from pollsters), the persistent belief in a Saddam-9/11 link is probably a product of people trying to account for their world from within a system of belief; in this case, the misunderstanding about the link is a clue about underlying patterns of belief, not just an inaccurate data point that, if corrected, could change hearts and minds. Those interested in democratic social change are stuck, like it or not, with what Stuart Hall aptly called the “problem of ideology,” where the concept of ideology works, not as “false consciousness” or as an all-purpose excuse for why people disagree with us, but as a way into the slippery terrain of contest among implicit belief systems, belief systems that are as much about values as they are about facts.[2]

So is this is a straightforward right vs. left issue, where the right wants a media that reflects their ideology — more Fox, less NPR — and the left wants the opposite? That also can’t be right. First, if the left position is simply that media needs be more “leftish,” then what does that say about our relationship to our fellow citizens who voted for Bush — that we are simply smarter than they are, that we can see through the biased media and they can’t? Second, speaking as though it’s about left vs. right too easily plays into the hands of those powerful media interests who imagine themselves as “centrists” (e.g., the New York Times and big TV news operations), who smugly point to the fact that they are regularly lambasted by both Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky as proof that they are “neutral” and “objective.” So accusing the main agenda-setting organs of the American news media of being “right wing” or “conservative” doesn’t really get at the root of the problem.

Calling them “corporate” media is a little closer to the point, perhaps, in the sense that they present a picture of the world congruent with a multinational capitalist system with giant, coordinated, transnational multi-unit enterprises at is core. But you have to read The Economist to find a news outlet that actually makes the argument for corporate capitalism. NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN may be congruent with corporate capitalism, but they do not come out and say so. The problem is not just one of explicit political point of view; it’s a trickier one about the relation of media to power.

The fact is, as a leftist there are right-wing media that strike me as more honest than certain “liberal” media. I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of Faith Under Fire, a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour’s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.

Perhaps the core of the problem is simply that which was laid out by media sociologists beginning in the 1970s: whether you take the analysis of Todd Gitlin’s Whole World is Watching, Gaye Tuchman’s Making News, or Hebert Gans’ Deciding What’s News, the general idea is that the media cannot simply present a picture of reality to the public, that news operations operate under constraints of time, money, and belief and so fall back on shared routines and a kind of “groupthink” that defines news as whatever other reporters say is news. This creates a kind of news that follows a standardized “master narrative” generated by the interaction of reporters with private and public bureaucratic power (“reliable sources”), and from that flows all those annoying journalistic traditions that we have all become accustomed to, such as substance-free strategy — and horse-race coverage of political campaigns that focus on trivia (swift boats) and that promulgate questionable underlying assumptions (Kerry is electable and Howard Dean is not). Or remember when Ahmed Chalabi was considered a reliable source, and Scott Ritter was an irrelevant ideologue? Jon Stewart’s Crossfire interview just made popularly available something that media sociologists have been arguing for decades.

But if we know this is the problem, what are we to do about it? The scholarly community reached a rather solid consensus on these problems in the early 1980s, yet the journalistic profession remains for the most part oblivious. Columbia professor Jay Rosen‘s heroic efforts in the 1990s to promote “public journalism,” to present things in a way that might simply persuade working journalists and news editors to behave differently, did not save us from WMDs or swift boats or over-playing of the Dean scream.

The problem is structural, a system of constraints that no amount of pleading with reporters will change. “Media monopoly” is the left’s favored buzzword for that structure, but that term has serious limitations: there are problems of definition (what level of ownership concentration is not a monopoly?) and the phrase simplifies the nature of the problem and its solution. As The Nation‘s Katha Politt once put it,

Would less megacorporate ownership mean more “democracy”? …the implication is that breaking up the media monopolies would mean more diversity of voices and views, more “progressive” politics in the media and in life. That chain of logic strikes me as questionable. . . If conglomeratization is the problem, how come Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post, is like a dumbed-down, hyped-up version of Time, and not the other way around? Was Time a more uplifting publication when it was run and owned by Henry Luce? Hasn’t mainstream journalism, for well over a hundred years, been in the business of delivering readers to advertisers and ratifying the status quo? The attack on conglomeratization veers uncomfortably close to a celebration of the nonexistent good old days.[3]

I’m trying to start a discussion here, rather than end it. So I’ll conclude with a series of perhaps provocative principles, in the hope that discussing them might lead us in the direction of a more effective progressive media politics. So, if we are to achieve a media that will encourage a more democratic world:

1) “Truth based” reporting is a necessary but insufficient criteria.
2) Efforts must focus on media structure, not merely the behavior of individual reporters and news outlets.
3) “Media monopoly” is at best shorthand for a much more complicated set of problems, and by itself the phrase does not point to solutions.
4) Something like the concept of “ideology” — in its cultural studies, not orthodox Marxist, sense — needs to become central to progressive media reform efforts.

Recent Flow articles of interest:

Toby Miller, “Why Fox News is a Good Thing.”
Frederick Wasser, “Fairness Doctrine Now, Will it Really Hush Rush?”

Notes
On Nov. 21 evening house parties across the country, MoveOn members were asked to determine “which issues were most important…to pursue together in the next four years.” The results:
1. Election reform — 5691 votes
2. Media reform — 4529 votes
3. The Iraq war — 4488 votes
4. The environment — 3581 votes
5. The Supreme Court — 3031 votes
6. Civil liberties — 3018 votes
“The Problem of Ideology – Marxism without Guarantees,” in B.Matthews (ed.), Marx 100 Years On. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.
Katha Pollitt, “Their Press and Ours,” The Nation, November 10, 1997, No. 15, Vol. 265; Pg. 9.

Links
Move On
Jon Stewart Crossfire clip
New York Times
Fox
NPR
Rush Limbaugh
Noam Chomsky
Faith Under Fire

Please feel free to comment.




Apology

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

Some people do different things. Not saying that my wife would allow me to do that, but it’s just something that was done, and you move on.
–Donovan McNabb

I thought it hit at a lot of stereotypes toward athletes — black athletes in particular. I thought it was very insensitive on the heels of the Kobe Bryant situation, and I just don’t know that the Eagles PR people or the NFL would have let it go had it been a different player or a coach or an owner.
–Tony Dungy

Personally, I didn’t think it would have offended anyone, and if it did, I apologize.
–Terrell Owens

Apologizing is an art. And apologizing for tv is something else. Typically, tv apologies are designed to appease a public fury, as in the cases of Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. Sometimes they’re poorly conceived (“I’m so sorry, my band started playing the wrong song!”), sometimes preemptive (Jim McGreevey), and sometimes liberating (Natalie Maines). But they’re always performative and strangely sensational.

Consider the recent rush of apologies surrounding Terrell Owens’ cross-promotional appearance with Desperate Housewives’ Nicollette Sheridan. At first, no one seemed to notice the causal event: in a skit preceding Monday Night Football, T.O. acted like he was distracted from his manly duty (to the Philadelphia Eagles) when Sheridan dropped her towel. Within 24 hours, however, the FCC reported a flood of complaints — 50,000 is the given number, even as, Frank Rich noted in the New York Times (28 November 2004), it’s likely that these were generated, or at least encouraged, by conservative action groups.

Such upset could not go unaddressed. And so crusader Michael Powell leaped into the public fray, announcing that the Commission would investigate whether the image of the white woman’s naked back wrapped in a black man’s arms constitutes “obscenity.” In the meantime, nearly everyone involved was told to be sorry, though each party involved found a way to pass blame. An NFL spokesman called the sketch “inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience”; ABC Sports said, “We agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize”; and the Eagles announced, “It is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn’t aired.” We can only imagine how much they wish.

Amid this scramble to re-comport, no one expects Sheridan to say she’s sorry, because she was, after all, only playing a role — Edie, the campy tramp she plays each Sunday night, to the delight of some 24 million viewers. Owens, however, is always playing T.O., the celebrity wide receiver who has earned praise for his excellent game and censure for his spectacular end zone showmanship. These two responses typically collide in a kind of explosion of expectations. For one thing, as Tony Dungy points out, Owens is a black athlete in a hyper-mediated world, and he needs to be aware of that chaos and deal with it responsibly. That doesn’t make Owens or any other celebrity responsible for the chaos. It only makes him a likely target within its perpetual swirl.

Owens is, after all, a black man paid a lot of money for appealing, for the most part, to white male tv viewers. No matter how terrific his performance might be on a given Sunday, his audience — voracious consumers of images and icons, heroes and playmakers — still presumes he owes something. And so, while his partnership with quarterback Donovan McNabb has resulted in 13 touchdown receptions so far in 2004 (the best in the league) and put him in line to challenge Jerry Rice’s single-year record (22), both his fans and detractors want more. More points, more TD gyrations, more outrages.

While such anticipation isn’t specific to T.O., his particular affinity for tv cameras makes him an ideal star. Youngish (30) and cocky, beautiful and clever, he repeatedly delivers on the handheld camera’s promise of notoriety and desire. He’s more than willing to play the role of thrilling victor, utterly available and indestructible. He makes his emotions visible for cameras, by yelling at teammates or coaches on the sidelines, tearfully expressing his
gratitude for the new position. And he boasts for any reporter with a mic in his face, as when he guarantees wins or mouths off on Raven Ray Lewis’s “double murder case,” a brief, admittedly brash comment that hardly compares to the exploitative hay made of the story by cable news just a couple of years ago, it was poor taste and so, he was punished for it — by sports journalists, colleagues, and fans.

Like so many other adept tv performers — say, the President of the United States — Owens is not the sorry sort. He’s proud of his end-zone parties and weekly thinks up new ones, as pleasing to his fans as the antics on Wisteria Lane are to Desperate Housewives viewers. He’s also willing to discuss any new umbrage for camera crews. And so he decided, 18 November, to follow the leads of ABC and the NFL: he apologized for tv. Like Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson have performed their tv apologies, so too has T.O. On 18 November, he took up the optimum position, pronouncing the words in an order that allowed him to appear sorry for the ruckus but retain his dignity and sense of righteousness: “I felt like it was clean, the organization felt like it was a clean skit, and I think it just really got taken out of context with a lot of people and I apologize for that.” While he doesn’t quite concede the offense to those who assumed it (and thus reveals their sense of profound injury to be overreaction, given all the other misbehaviors on the planet that might offend them), he also offers just enough contrition to allow viewers to move on if they so desire.

This possibility of moving on was simultaneously compounded and complicated by the Motown Meltdown on Friday (19 November). Suddenly, Owens and Ron Artest became poster boys for the same problem. And no matter how this problem is parsed — sex and violence, misbehaving black men, egotistical sports stars — all of it is on tv and so demands suitably public penitence. As of this writing, Artest scheduled and then cancelled an apology press conference last week. As moving on is so plainly impossible, with or without the tv apology, caution seems a sane response.

Links
iFilm video
ABC Sports
National Football League
Philadelphia Eagles

Please feel free to comment.




Want to Hear a Scary Story?

by: Eileen R Meehan / Lousiana State University

May is always hectic for folks in higher education. Last May brought the usual round of exams, term papers, graduations, and conferences as well as the last episode of Friends and an intense promotional campaign saturating television with ads for Van Helsing. Promising that “adventure has a new name,” the ads featured moody landscapes, a scary and scantily clad CGI vampire, and a moody Hugh Jackman shown variously with his gun, cross-bow, and a set of whirling blades reminiscent of power tools. The ad’s quick cutting made the film look like a romp through Dracula-land — exactly the kind of movie to wrap up a tough semester.

Despite good box office on its opening weekend, Van Helsing tanked. Even in Baton Rouge, where I live, the film was in trouble. A few weeks into the run, only two theaters listed Van Helsing in their newspaper ads: one screening at midnight, the other at 11:30 a.m. When I went to buy tickets for the morning show, I was told that Van Helsing was no longer on the schedule. Costing $200 million to produce and promote, Van Helsing was nowhere to be seen.

Such failures are not news and Van Helsing’s failure provided no fodder for the news. A $200 million flop is no big deal when everybody knows that the real money isn’t earned at the box office but through the licensing, tie ins, merchandising, and corporate synergy that attend every expensive title. But behind Van Helsing lurked a scary tale waiting to be told: General Electric’s purchase of Vivendi’s Universal Vivendi Entertainment unit, which made and released Van Helsing. On 11 May 2004, after 11 months of negotiation, GE finalized that $134 billion deal.

Much of the deal’s print coverage focused on NBC, not on its owner GE. Stories emphasized that NBC’s acquisition of Universal Studios would give it some parity with its rivals — Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom — which owned studios and networks. The attitude can be paraphrased thus: “Nice to see that little NBC is joining the Big Boys at long last!” But NBC was already part of one of the biggest of the big corporations that operates out of the United States. And that story deserved telling.

Since 1892, General Electric has essentially manufactured patents that have industrial, military, and consumer applications. Recruited by the Navy Department as a member of the Radio Patent Pool during World War I, GE became a major player in wireless technology. In 1919, it founded RCA and its subsidiary NBC with the hope of monopolizing wireless. Although it maintained connections to the military throughout the 20th century, GE lost control of RCA in 1931 and regained it in 1986. Then GE sold off most of RCA, but kept and started expanding NBC. By 2002, as number five in the Fortune 500, GE was a sprawling conglomerate with vertically and horizontally integrated operations in the manufacturing, finance, services, and entertainment-information sectors of the global economy. In that year, GE had total sales of $15.1 billion according to its annual report. According to Hoover’s Online, nearly half of GE’s sales came from insurance, power systems, and commercial finance with NBC contributing only 5.4%.

Consider the context of NBC’s slight contribution. In finance, GE offers property insurance, specialized financial services, commercial finance, casualty insurance, and consumer finance. For manufacturers, GE makes materials like plastics, silicones, resins, laminates, and abrasives. All of these figure in its own manufacturing operations and products: aircraft engines, centrifugal compressors, gas turbines, industrial automation products, equipment to control and distribute electricity, locomotives, nuclear reactors, steam turbine generators, transportation system products, and household appliances bearing the GE, Hotpoint, Monogram, Profile, or Profile Performance brands. Finally, GE provides service for commercial aircraft, medical and network-based information services, technical services, and equipment management.

As a highly diversified conglomerate that vertically and horizontally integrates basic industries, GE’s presence in the global economy is far greater than that of Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Time Warner. But make no mistake, GE’s media empire is considerable indeed.

Unlike its four rivals in television, GE has infrastructural interests in satellites. Until 2002, GE owned satellites and tracking stations. In that year, GE traded them for a 31% stake in the world’s largest provider of satellite services, SES Global. Primary customers include governments and owners of television networks, cable channels, and radio networks. Today, GE owns 54 television stations and has access to 250 stations through network affiliation contracts. GE split those holdings between NBC (29 stations, 220 affiliates) and Telemundo (25 stations, 30 affiliates).

In cable channels, GE owns Bravo, Telemundo Internacional, and MUN2. Through joint ventures, GE intertwined its interests with various firms including Dow Jones, Microsoft, Disney, News Corporation, and Viacom. Specifically, GE held interests in A&E and A&E International (with Disney); American, European and Japanese versions of CNBC (Dow Jones); History and History International (Disney and Viacom); MSNBC (Microsoft); National Geographic and National Geographic International (News Corporation and the National Geographic Society); and ShopNBC (Value Vision Media).

Programming built further alliances. Since 2001, GE has leased three hours of NBC’s Saturday morning schedule to the Discovery Channel, owned by Liberty Media, Cox Cable, and Advance/Newhouse Communications — all owners of cable systems. GE and Time Warner share the rights to NASCAR races from 2001-2006. GE has consistently licensed programming from other network owners and co-produced shows with them. In 2002, GE licensed ER, Friends, Good Morning Miami, Third Watch, and West Wing from Time Warner and Frasier from Viacom. Viacom and GE produced Ed and In-Laws. These alliance-building practices persist.

Placing NBC in the context of GE’s other properties, corporate alliances, and vested interests changes our understanding of the NBC/Universal merger. Backed by GE, NBC is far from a weakling. Given GE’s military and governmental connections, its building of NBC into a multi-media giant raises questions about how NBC’s media serves GE. I’m betting that the answers are lots scarier than Van Helsing!

Links
Media Channel
GE
RCA
NBC

Please feel free to comment.