At the Scene of the Crime: Podcasting and Placemaking
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont


crime scene photo overlain with Serial's logo
Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.

…we have to drive back out to Woodlawn drive, turn onto Security Boulevard, which does have some big intersections you have to get through. Again, we’re trying to get to Best Buy, it’s still there today, in twenty-one minutes… We’re at seventeen minutes, we’re just crossing under the beltway… (Serial, Season 1, Episode 5: “Route Talk”)

Perhaps this quote reads familiar, if you, like me, are one of the 175 million listeners of the world’s most popular podcast, Serial. It is the episode where Sarah Koenig, Serial’s narrator, and her producer, Dana, drive the suspected route Adnan Syed drove on the day he supposedly murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah and Dana drive the route to determine if the state’s timeline is possible. As listeners, we move through Baltimore County along with them, listening to the sounds of traffic and the hum of the car’s engine, as they make the turns necessary to arrive at their final destination—a Best Buy parking lot where Syed is suspected of committing the murder. Although I have not personally driven the route, apparently lots of other people have, and not just on their daily commutes, but in a purposeful attempt to recreate the route themselves as amateur sleuths or as tourists looking for a Baltimore excursion off-the-beaten-path.


Best Buy parking lot
The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.

Like Serial, many podcasts, especially (but certainly not limited to) the true crime genre, have a strong sense of and connection to place. The Gimlet produced Crimetown podcast, for example, has dedicated its two seasons to Providence and Detroit respectively. Studio recordings are supplemented with on-location work that details in multisensory fashion not only the stories of the cities’ crime histories, but also the cultural and social geographies that provide the contexts for those crimes. In the Dark’s second season takes us to Winona, Mississippi to investigate the possible innocence of Curtis Flowers, exploring a racist and classist criminal justice system inasmuch as how race and class biases manifest in the places essential to life in small-town America.[ (( Interestingly, in Episode 2, listeners are enjoined to explore the route, much like in Serial, Flowers allegedly walked the morning of the murders. ))] Similarly, the wildly popular S-Town, from the makers of Serial and This American Life, is ostensibly a character study of John B. McLemore, but undoubtedly the “shit town” for which the podcast is named, Woodstock, Alabama, is as much under study as McLemore.

I could name many other podcasts, both within and beyond the true crime genre, that work to produce a very specific and intimate sense of place for listeners. Yet little scholarship has addressed podcasting’s production of place. Instead, most scholars emphasize the space- and time-shifting capabilities of the medium, as it enables listeners to download and listen when and where they want.[ (( See, for example, Berry, Richard. “Will the IPod Kill the Radio Star? Profiling Podcasting as Radio.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 12, no. 2 (May 2006): 143–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856506066522; Funk, Marcus. “Decoding the Podaissance: Identifying Community Journalism Practices in Newsroom and Avocational Podcasts.” International Symposium on Online Journalism 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 67–87; Llinares, Dario, Neil I. Fox, and Richard Berry. Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, 2018. Jan Lauren Boyles case study of how digital news in post-Katrina New Orleans created fields of care that facilitated urban attachment is an exception, as they explore various podcasts that connect people of New Orleans to each other and who use podcasting as a means of digitally connecting to place and constituting place identities. However, Boyles’ exploration is less about podcasting per se and more about digital journalism more broadly, though I am interested in how these insights about urban attachment might speak to the specificity of podcasting’s spatial practices. See  Boyles, Jan Lauren. “Building an Audience, Bonding a City: Digital News Production as a Field of Care.” Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 7 (October 2017): 945–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443716682073. ))] A core component of this discourse ties podcasting’s mobility to its potentially democratizing and empowering capabilities, as it “puts the onus on the listener, whose jurisdiction over the when, where and how of podcast engagement…suggests a highly liberated, even democratized consumer experience.”[ (( Llinares, Dario. “Podcasting as Limited Praxis: Aural Mediation, Sound Writing and Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 127. ))]

This understanding of podcasting’s relationship to space and place follows a well-trodden discourse of media space, which overwhelmingly theorizes media as a space-compressing or despatializing technology.[ (( See, for example, Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford [England]; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1989. ))] However, as I have argued elsewhere, this view obscures the ways media produces both symbolic and material spatialities. Although podcasting does produce space- and time-shifting, these shifts are less a matter of compressing space or evacuating place than they are a means of creating new relationships to place and new forms of emplacement.


maps of the locations in Baltimore Country central to Serial
Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.

Podcast emplacement is especially constituted through its sensorial, affective intimacy in conjunction with its multiplatform convergences. For example, while Serial’s popularity demonstrated some of the core aspects of the time- and space -shifting potentials of the medium, the podcast was also inconceivable without its deep ties to the spaces and places of Baltimore County, giving listeners an intimate feeling of “being there.” As Sarah and Dana drive the route, the on-location recording affectively connects the past of the crime to Sarah’s and Dana’s present through a soundscape that brings listeners to the site of the crime. Aural cues are accompanied by other sensibilities of place that can be accessed through multi-modal, interactive, and convergent media, whether through social media and endless Reddit threads that meticulously map and annotate the crime scene, Serial’s website’s maps and documents, YouTube videos of fans driving the infamous route, taking your own tour or following someone else who did, amongst many, many other intermediations of the podcast. Some scholars have argued that podcasting’s intimate and deep listening creates a detachment from the place of listening, arguing, for example, “It would be difficult to navigate city streets, or busy traffic, and not fall into ‘rabbit holes.’”[ (( Hancock, Danielle, and Leslie McMurtry. “‘I Know What a Podcast Is’: Post-Serial Fiction and Podcast Media Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 90. ))] But listening to the podcast at the place of production and at the site of the narrative—a kind of media pilgrimage[ (( Couldry, Nick. The Place of Media Power Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2001. ))] —can actually increase intensity in ways that further connect the listener to place, rather than disconnecting them. The podcast is the map that guides the listener’s navigation of the city street rather than the rabbit hole.

Although emplacement might be an unintended effect of most podcasts, there are also more explicit attempts to use the sensorial, affective, and convergent capabilities of podcasting as a purposeful means for connecting listeners to place. In the case of the performative podcast Wandercast, artist Robbie Z. Wilson “invites listeners to take it on a wander. It employs podcasts’ portability and aural intimacy to unearth playful affordances inherent in our surroundings and to encourage enaction of those affordances as a means of rediscovering one’s environment.”[ (( Wilson, Robbie Z. “Welcome to the World of Wandercast: Podcast as Participatory Performance and Environmental Exploration.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 274. There are numerous other examples of podcasts aiming to either connect listeners to their surroundings, direct them as tourists, or explore the idea of the sense of place. ))] This performative playfulness depends on a lack of site-specificity on the part of the narrator, but their displacement is aimed to provide an embodied and site-specific experience for the listener.


logo for Vermont Public Radio's Brave Little State podcast
Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.

In addition to performance art, community journalism is an area ripe with podcasts whose explicit aim is to connect listeners with place-based communities. Brave Little State, a podcast produced by Vermont Public Radio in my own place in the state of Vermont, enjoins listeners to pose topics related to Vermont that they are interested in investigating, and all listeners get to vote on what topic they want the podcast to explore.[ (( Brave Little State was influenced by a very similar podcast out of Chicago, titled Curious City. ))] The listener who posted the question then joins with the host to investigate, on-location, the answers to their question. Topics include questions like “Why is Vermont so white?” and “Those aging hippies who moved to Vermont…where are they now?”

I contend podcasting produces a kind of “atlas of emotion,” what Guiliana Bruno refers to as a haptic mapping and a “phantasmatic structure of lived space and lived narrative; a narrativized space that is intersubjective.”[ (( Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2011, 65. ))] Bruno is referring to cinematic mapping, but there is much to be gleaned about podcasting from her groundbreaking work on cinematic history and its production of new forms of “emotive, embodied and visceral engagement with space.”[ (( Mazumdar, Ranjani. “The Mumbai Slum: Aerial Views and Embodied Memories,” Mediapolis, Vol 4(3), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2019/11/the-mumbai-slum/. ))] While podcasting’s intimacy and connectivity is often theorized as an effect of its space compressing or mobile practices that collapse distances between producer and listener, I suggest we might instead consider how podcasting’s connectivities and intimacies are forged out of the production of emplacement in a variety of forms. We then might explore how podcasts, in their multisensorial, convergent engagements produce new forms of interacting with, embodying, living, understanding, and navigating the spaces and places of our everyday, mediated lives.



Image Credits:

  1. Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.
  2. The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.
  3. Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.
  4. Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.


References:




Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/theater/american-son-kerry-washington-netflix.html.))] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/theater/broadway-league-theater-audience-demographics.html.))] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-low-income-price-hike-1202918302/.))] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/theater/theater-streaming-services-cennarium-broadwayhd.html.))]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-broadway-musical-crisis/))] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/movies/if-it-s-a-musical-it-was-probably-a-movie.html.))] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

Please feel free to comment.




Comics to Film (And Halfway Back Again): A DVD Essay

by: Drew Morton / UCLA

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY FEATURE COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW REGULARLY ACCEPT SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE VISIT OUR “CALLS” PAGE FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

Superman

Superman

Being an avid reader of comic books and graphic novels and taking a closer look at cinematic adaptations of such materials, two aspects struck me like a good old Superman punch to the face. First, when and how had comic book adaptations began to take on the aesthetics of its source? Looking back at the 70s and 80s, most specifically Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), adaptations commonly took the source material (Bruce Wayne=Batman, rich millionaire, dark side, parents killed by criminal) while leaving the formal characteristics (panels, splash pages, spatial direction) at the wayside. Contrast these adaptations to films like Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007), both of which have been touted as being the cinematic equivalent to the original, both in terms of style and content.

Secondly, why had few scholars within cinema and media studies taken a closer look at comics? As Erwin Panofsky once wrote, “The comic strips–a most important root of cinematic art.” Regardless of this similarity, aside from pieces comparing comic books to storyboards and discussions of fan culture, critical study of the medium has almost exclusively come from workers within the industry: Art Spiegelman toured various college campuses on a lecture tour entitled “Comix 101,” graphic artist Scott McCloud published two books of theory between 1993 and 2000, and Chris Ware guest edited a volume of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern focusing solely on graphic art in 2004. Are comic books so similar to storyboards and film that they can be dismissed? Taking a cue from Art Spiegelman who quipped “Comics are not storyboards for movies at their best,” I would argue not.

Catwoman

Catwoman

I do not believe this oversight stems from an issue of high/low culture but rather the a lack of a theoretical vocabulary. After all, it’s not that comics have been ignored by those within the academy. Aside from the fan studies and comics as storyboards, Henry Jenkins has looked extensively at comic books as a form of trans-media storytelling and the last three annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies conferences have all featured panels regarding comic books. No, this isn’t an issue of high/low culture or complete ignorance but rather a redirection.

Taking these two thoughts, I began working on a paper for a seminar on media convergence I was enrolled in. During this time, I was also enrolled in a workshop with the end goal of producing a DVD essay. I had begun by segregating the two pieces. While I was working on the comic book adaptation paper for the convergence seminar, the DVD essay was going to be my visual crutch for my SCMS paper on American independent film and Steven Soderbergh.

However, this is not the path this project ended up on. My comic book paper was becoming far too visual to just throw a couple of still images into the blocks of text and, conversely, my indie film essay was perfectly fine on paper. Moreover, while I was researching the comic book project, I came across Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I had been familiar with but never completely engulfed myself in. I found McCloud’s approach, to ground a working theory of comic books into the medium itself, the main source of inspiration, creating a large, explosive, thought bubble over my head.

As the project progressed, I realized that it would be ideal if the two projects would supplement one another. The visuals of the DVD could fully exemplify what I was attempting to describe, rather poorly, on paper while the analysis of the paper could elaborate on a utility belt full of topics that time and technological constraints had forced me to cast aside in favor of the viewer’s ability to audibly sort through much of the theory and quirks of the comic book medium (hence my attempt to make the visuals of the essay re-enforce the audio track). While both pieces function rather well on their own after extensive re-working, they both buckle to the constraints of their respective mediums, which one can only expect.

After the essay was completed, I had a lively discussion with my cohort (fellow Flow-ite Adam Fish included) regarding the reception of such pieces. While much of this discussion circled around issues of fair use, many of us shared the lament that, aside from an interactive conference paper, there lacks a venue for visual essays. While media studies publications often pride themselves at being ahead of the curve by diving into popular culture and new technologies, the only magazine to come out with a DVD of visual essays and short films (to my knowledge) has been Wholphin, the quarterly DVD magazine from Dave Eggers and the crew at McSweeney’s. However, if YouTube and the nickelodeons of the internet have shown us anything it is that there is a outlet for anything: be it Channel 101’s Yacht Rock or the video diaries from Iraqi soldiers. Why shouldn’t those within cinema and media studies throw their hats into the A/V ring as well?

While such a format may be dismissed on the grounds that only technophiles are able to grapple with the interfaces of programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, the technology, while frustrating at times, isn’t that fickle. Moreover, one could easily use iMovie or the standard Windows equivalent to cut together an essay. The only advantage to using a higher-end product lies in the bells and whistles and there volumes of “How-To” guides filling bookshelves at Borders that explain how to master these techniques much more eloquently than yours truly.

All aspects considered, perhaps the most beneficial is that by constructing visual essays, cinema and media studies scholars dip their hands into processes they think and write so much about. Why should theory and criticism be separate from filmmaking? As Sergi Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard have demonstrated, there is much to gain from the pairing of theory and praxis.

Useful Links:
1. Download Free Golden Age Comics
2. IGN: “300 in Film.”
3. IGN: “Best & Worst Comic Book Movies.”
4. IGN: “Building the Ultimate Bookshelf.”
5. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Comics Jump to the Screen.”
6. Scott McCloud’s Webpage
7. Time Magazine’s Comix
8. UWM Post: “High and Low.”
9. Wholphin
10. Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” Short

Useful Image Links:
1. 300
2. American Splendor
3. Batman Animated
4. Hulk
5. Sin City
6. Superman Returns

Image Credits:
1. Superman
2. Catwoman

Please feel free to comment.




Network Television’s Ongoing Struggle with Web-based Television

by: Ray Cha / Independent Scholar

Television

Television

As television continues to evolve, we see changes occurring, in terms of its content, delivery and reception, and distribution. In the area of web delivered television, traditional broadcasters have been slowly figuring out ways to deliver television onto the Internet. As more people are viewing and posting video onto the web, they are finally admitting that watching television on the web is a matter of when and how, rather than if.

When discussing web delivery of television, it is easy to focus on YouTube, especially with its well publicized purchase by Google and constant demands of content providers to remove illegally posted material (most recently seen by the Oscars.) Of course, YouTube was able to show the great potential of video that does not clog email inboxes, require web authoring skills, or get lost due to unstable links. However, its success now drives the fragmentation of web-based television with competing services, which make the landscape all the more complicated.

Joost recently signed a major distribution deal with Viacom to host content from its various outlets including Comedy Central, VH1 and MTV. Ironically, the owners of Joost were also behind the often sued second generation P2P network, Kazaa. This deal shows how these once fringe services are now moving towards the center. YouTube added a BBC channel to go along with NBC, PBS, the NBA, and others. US television networks, NBC and ABC (and their cable partners) host full episodes or clips on their sites and sells them on iTunes.

Television networks continue to struggle with finding ways to deliver content without losing their tight control over their content. NBC and their relationship with Saturday Night Live clips is telling. Because they have been lagging behind the other three major US networks, they were often leaders with experimenting with several different vehicles including YouTube, iTunes and their own site with varying effectiveness and understanding.

YouTube logo

YouTube logo

In one case, Fishbowl NY, a New York focused media blog, posted about a Saturday Night Live segment parody of Hillary Clinton. By the time I tried to watch the clip, it has been removed by request from NBC, which of course, is their right. The clip has not been posted to the official NBC YouTube channel, or on the SNL video page on the NBC site. While NBC may have a strategy behind which clips they post, it does seem that they are missing the advantages of the long tail, which capitalizes on niche tastes. While many more people download their rap parodies than watch the show on tv sets, they still feel the need to be gatekeepers. They lose relevance by locking up their content. Therefore, insight from fan YouTube postings and the discussion on the blogosphere is left untapped. Appreciating remix culture is even more distant and beyond the scope of this column.

Based on the experiences of NBC as well as other television networks, three areas that they will need to grasp soon are the longtail, search, and access. Traditional television programming is the polar opposite of long tail principles, which explains their reluctance to adapt. The success of Netflix and Amazon show the benefits of making entire archives available for sharing content and gaining insight on their viewers. The long tail allows them to maintain relevancy in an era of shrinking audiences and one in which viewers are increasingly selective and expect their well- defined preferences to be satisfied.

Along with the principles of the longtail, search will become crucial for people to find their desired media. Useful video search requires conventions in tagging, which is notoriously difficult for time-based media. Quality control for large-scale crowd sourcing tagging efforts, as seen in YouTube, is especially challenging. Formats such as Quicktime, have time-based tagging functionality in place, however the conventions are still unformed. Formal systems to dictate the tagging overall themes versus specific objects on screen is one simple examplethat needs to be addressed.

On a recent trip to Asia, I was surprised to find that ABC and NBC blocked their streaming content outside the US. Further, the BBCs Creative Archive pilot program uploaded 500 clips for people in the UK to download. Granted, UK citizens pay the BBC. (The 36 clips that BBC provides on its YouTube helps, but is not a replacement.) In both cases, the lack of access highlights the complicated issue of access to knowledge and culture (both high and low) that will only becoming more important in the future.

We are now in the adolescence, and no longer the infancy, of web delivered television. There are a number of services and models, some of which are bound to fail, before we settle upon standard outlets. In the transitional period of a disruptive technology, it is important to have experimental models and methods.

As the landscape continues to evolve, we are at the point of slowing speculation. Television networks need to shed many of their older conventions in order to maintain their relevance.

Notes

Jeremy W. Peters, “Kazaa’s Creators Do Latest Venture by the
Book,” New York Times, February 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/

Joshua Chaffin and Francesco Guerrera, “NBC’s Zucker lashes
out at YouTube,” Financial Times, February 6 2007. www.ft.com

Image Credits:
1. Television
2. YouTube logo

Please feel free to comment.




Speaking to Each Other at Last? The Ghost of TV Past, Present and To Come…

This is my fifth and last Flow column, all of which I have enjoyed writing – I hope you have caught one or two of them. If by some oversight you’ve missed them, they are archived here:

1. Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?
2. Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?
3. To Have and Have Not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)
4. Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows? Television as History

There’s not that much space for pleasurable discourse among peers these days. So it was instantly appealing when co-founder Avi Santo (along with Christopher Lucas) offered me a chance not only to write about my own specialist field again, but to engage with the comments of others. The Flow journal wanted us to ‘engage with television at the pace of the medium,’ he said.

Horace Newcomb

Horace Newcomb

It was then that I began to hear the rustle of the Ghost of TV Past. Actually it wasn’t a ghost, it was the Spirit of Horace Newcomb. Here he was, large-as-life, not exactly rustling in those Texan boots, taking me back to 1984 or thereabouts.

I see a big drill-hall of a conference venue somewhere in Michigan, or is it Illinois, where it seems Horace has invited me and another British guy to join with himself and plenty of others – American media academics and a sprinkling of media professionals – to talk about TV.

They’re calling me Fiskan; Fiskan Hartley I was in those days.1 There was a deep chime. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was the very ‘moment’ of High Theory. A shudder went through me, as if from a Ferment in the Field. Everyone began speaking in tongues: I spoke Althusserian, Fiske was babbling away in Certeauvian, young Docrock2 was there too I think, talking in a Birmingham accent. Two giant but shadowy figures – Charlie and Percy – lurked in the background as they Measured our Meanings, muttering:

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
3

Then the Genial Spirit politely rounded us up, I think there was some embarrassed hanging back and a general feeling that we were stepping out of our comfort zones. He wants us to do what? To sit up on the podium; to watch a pilot episode of an as-yet-unseen TV sitcom called 227; and he wants us to review it? There and then, in public, no rehearsals … oh and 227‘s proud producers are sitting there too in the drill hall, waiting with the usual grad-student crowd to hear what Media Academics had to say.

Hell, this vision is turning into a nightmare, surely? But no – it was Horace Newcomb, quietly trying to do what he has never stopped attempting, which is to get the worlds of professional media production and criticism to talk to each other. It has proved to be an uphill struggle.

We got through our ordeal-by-criticism on that night, but I wasn’t very impressed with us. There was just not enough common understanding of what TV criticism in an academic context might be for. So as each of us took our turn on the podium, what came out of our mouths told the audience much more about us than it did about the hapless 227 – which however survived our critique and went on to five successful seasons.

227 was an ordinary product of the network dream factory, with no particular critical, avant garde or oppositional merits to recommend it to the assembled Young (well, mostly older) Turks. Its merits were that it was funny in a sitcommy way, and it proposed to put a predominantly African-American cast, playing working-class characters, in front of Americans each Saturday night. Everyone could think about neighbourliness while they laughed at the vicissitudes of apartment-block life. Check it out.

But someone on the podium thought it was too much like the Cosby Show; someone else thought it had its class analysis all wrong; a third (it might’ve been me) thought it reeked of network values rather than those of the culture it purported to portray.

This was the last time I ever heard media academics doing ‘live’ TV criticism, in sync with the rhythm of TV itself. In fact criticism itself became a nearly forgotten art after that painful night in the wilds of East Lansing (or Urbana-Champaign).

During the long slog through Ideological Critique and the posts- (structuralism, modernism, colonialism etc.), it was hard to get a judgement in edgeways. It seemed that criticism had had its day. It was either an oppressive discourse imposing DWEM [dead white European male] values, or it was self-deluding infantile wish-fulfilment universalising the self of the critic, or both. Just then the Bennett & Miller gang, the tough guys of Cultural Policy Studies, rode into town, shot the place up with their Foucault-45s and declared the unattached universal intellectual dead.

Criticism became the love that dare not speak its name. Those of us trained (as unattached universal intellectuals) to make skilled judgements, both aesthetic and moral, about texts, in order to provide expert guidance in matters of culture and value to the public at large, with due understanding of the context of class, you know, like Richard Hoggart, learnt to keep our big mouths shut.

Until Flow. And suddenly all the memories came flooding back, because Flow has Horace Newcomb written all over it. It is tolerant, open, polite, passionately interested in connecting the industry with the academy and both with the audience, and of course it comes from Austin-Texas.

TV Present

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me

And all of a sudden I hear an eerie clanking again. This time it’s none other than Toby Miller … oh and I can make out other figures in the modernist gloom … Anna McCarthy, Michael Curtin, Mimi White, Tom Streeter, Sharon Ross, Henry Jenkins … no wonder there’s a big noise.

These are collectively the Ghost of TV Present, and there’s a hell of a lot more of them crowded around. Their ghostly words surround you now, as you read this. Go on, check the archive (it’s one of Flow‘s attractions); read their stuff, it’s terrific.

Indeed this is the other thing that appeals to me about Flow. I like the idea of an interactive but asynchronous and global medium – a useful conversational tool for those of us living and working in Australia.

I especially like the idea of the comments that can be pasted under each column. This had been my own introduction to the site – I’d posted an irreverent comment on a piece by Michael Curtin.

Flow‘s comments are by an interesting mix of senior figures and grad-students, and they often bring some entirely new insight to the column in question, or else they race off at a tangent on some new line of thought entirely, forgetting the poor columnist altogether.

According to Avi Santo, each issue gets about 8000 hits, although as yet there’s no way to tell which columns they’re reading.

But as time has gone on on, it has been interesting to observe how many comments a given column attracted – a sort of beauty contest or instant poll that might tell us who or what topic was hot. Eventually Henry Jenkins won, with a column on the humour of Sarah Silverman that at last count had attracted 58 comments.

The fact that Henry is one of the best and most thought-provoking writers in our field has a lot to do with that. But so, it seems, do extra credits. Someone had had the bright idea of getting a class to post comments as part of a class assignment. Not a bad idea: it made the students think, write, and communicate in public about sexism and racism on TV; a good outcome for everyone and an absorbing read for any educator.

But there is a whiff of ‘insider trading’ about this particular manifestation of conversational democracy. Was it true, as Horace Newcomb had claimed in his own column, that the audience for Flow is ‘predetermined’? Perhaps. Despite the global reach of the Internet we still live in tight little demographic villages, and judging by the traffic on Flow, one type of community simply doesn’t interact with another.

So I thought I’d try to write a column that would speak directly to TV audience-members, about the experience of watching a show that I really liked, which was Dead Like Me. Imagine my delight when comments starting appearing from actual fans. They do read Flow! Posts are still trickling in, five months later. To date there are 22 of them. Not a patch on Henry’s score and of course nothing like what you can find on the comments pages of IMDb, Amazon.com, petitiononline.com and myriad fansites. But here they are – and every one of them shares my feelings about DLM. Welcome, TV fans!

The only fly in the ointment, or clank in the chain, is that there was not a single post from a ‘Flower’ (regular contributor to Flow), or even from another media academic (apart from the obligatory editor’s comment). There were posts from Australia, the USA, Croatia and four from Canada. But from my peers, silence.

So it remained true – we don’t really interact across the demographic boundaries. Academics and audiences can appear on the same site, but academics talk about one thing; audiences another. Professionals are nowhere to be seen (and students are seen but not heard).

Now I see again the lowering bulk of the Ghost of TV Present. I hear the doom-laden voice … of Toby Miller:

Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ …

Things are even worse on TV itself, he intones:

There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities.

Hell’s bells! What are we going to do about that?

TV To Come

TV Future

Is the promise of Flow – for technologically and critically enabled steps towards an interactive consumer co-created ‘conversational democracy’ – a mere illusion?

Well maybe; certainly the symptoms diagnosed by Miller suggest that the ‘imagined community’ of modernity is in a pretty sick condition, if broadcast news in the USA is the thermometer.

And maybe that’s true – maybe we are nearing the end of the modernist paradigm when public intellectuals, whether critical or universal, could aspire to speak to entire nations. Maybe nations themselves, or big ones like the USA, are evolving past the point where even network broadcasters can hope to address them as a unified whole – the ‘unum’ has gone out of the ‘pluribus.’

And so perhaps we’re reaching the end of the paradigm in which anyone thinks television itself is targeted at ‘the still-extant mass audience,’ whether they despise universities or not.

There’s a whispering breeze at the window; a trail of indeterminate smokey haze slides into the room, across the computer terminal … it’s the Ghost of TV to Come.

I can’t tell you what it looks like, since I have never met Jason Mittell, who in any case keeps morphing into Jonathan Gray … now it’s John McMurria, now Avi Santo … these guys, oh dear, are they really all early-adopter boy-toy guys? … no, here’s Tara McPherson … these guys seem to have got this thing licked.

They reckon TV will evolve from universal broadcasting to customised consumption. Jason Mittell writes:

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience … awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. … By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see.

If they’re right, we no longer have to assume that all television needs to be directed towards something as wide (and anti-critical) as ‘Americans.’ It just won’t matter whether or not ‘most people’ despise intellectuals or foolishly refuse to recognise the things that we like. Good TV shows – such as Dead Like Me, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development – won’t have to be cancelled if they ‘fail’ in the Neilsen lottery.

This new generation of scholars is putting together the case for a television ecology that can exploit the Internet (‘Web2’ McMurria calls it), BitTorrent, TiVo, video-iPods and DVD. It is becoming possible for passionate fans to support their favourite shows directly, without relying on network providers.

Not only that, but fans can use digital equipment and software to make their own TV. In fact I’ve done it myself with ‘digital storytelling.’ Out there now are tribute versions of sci-fi shows, local documentaries, digital storytelling, or even full-length feature films. Some of these will attract their own audiences, driving new distribution options.

And so, alongside, underneath and (at least as far as IP goes) in defiance of the closed expert system of broadcast television, will develop a new open innovation network. You can already inhabit it. Actually Flow already does.

This brave new world does have a couple of dystopian elements. One is that no-one knows how to fund non-universal TV production. Another is that any future ‘imagined community’ will have to get used to the fact that most people aren’t inside it. There will no longer be one technology of communication that combines broadcast television’s universal access, affordability and appeal with content that – at least in principle – addresses everyone from time to time; from the top of society to the bottom.

Instead, different groups can just ignore each other. Television will become more like publishing, and as is already the case in that medium, no-one will be able to claim any longer that their particular audience equates with a universal subject or with ‘the nation.’

Mind you, it does seem – if Miller is right about the fate of the critical intellectual on American TV news – that the broadcast era hasn’t got much to shout about in this regard anyway. Entire demographics co-exist but ignore or bad-mouth each other.

TV claims a universal subject but viewers increasingly resent that. Flow columnists like Mittell and Jonathan Gray are rebelling against the Neilsen ratings, the ‘representative’ apparatus that levels out national taste.

Back to the Future?

Conversational democracy still seems a long way off. But in fact we do need to recognise that the apparently simple act of ‘speaking to each other’ is quite hard work – it’s not a natural outcome of any technology or ideology.

Luckily, the future-facing folks at Flow are onto this simple truth, and they’re doing something about it. Avi Santo tells me they’re planning a Flow conference later this year (2006).

But it won’t be the usual academic thing. There’ll be no papers, panels or plenaries. Instead, there’ll be conversation. Why?

  • There are too few television and media conferences.
  • Traditional conferences provide too little time for discussion.
  • Wider conversation and the circulation of ideas can promote collegiality, a less polarized discipline, and the promise of engaging real publics with our ideas.
  • Critical media studies will be more effective if it grapples openly with the immediacy and breadth of its object of study.

Says Santo:
The roundtable would be open to the public. … In this manner, we hope to ensure a lively conversation … Our goal is to spark a conversation that is both immediate and consequential.

Presumably it’ll be at Austin-Texas, a place whose drill halls I’ve never had the happiness to visit. But I would love to go – if only to search for the spirit of Horace, for clearly he stalks the corridors still.

It is to their credit that ‘the Flowers’ are looking for more effective means by which we can continue ‘speaking to each other.’ But it is right to recall that this is exactly where cultural studies first came in. ‘Speaking to each other’ is the title of two books by ‘our founder,’ Richard Hoggart.

Notes
1 Fiskan Hartley is a reference to Reading Television (1978) by John Fiske and John Hartley,which enjoyed a moment of academic celebrity in the 1980s.

2 Docrock is Larry Grossberg. Docrock is his email alias.
3 Charlie and Percy are (were) Charles Osgood, inventor of the sematic differential, and Percy Tannenbaum (who co-authored a book called, from memory, The Measurement of Meaning, with Osgood, in about 1967). Both were still around when cultural studies hit America, and neither of them approved!

Image Credits:

1. Horace Newcomb

2. Dead Like Me

3. TV Future

Please feel free to comment.




Broadcasting Is Dead, Long Live Broadcasting

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

The Pondering Primate

The Pondering Primate

Internet pundits say we are witnessing the Web’s second coming. While overly exuberant venture capitalists burst the bubble in 2000 before the Internet was ready for profitable business, now it seems that conditions for the sustainable growth of a more prosperous “Web 2.0” have been established. A critical mass of Internet users now have broadband access, open-source software and cheap bandwidth that have reduced startup costs; additionally search tools have made advertising a big business. This second coming has also reconfigured the conceptual articulations of “old” and “new” media. “Web 1.0” established its revolutionary promise by constructing a binary between an old media defined by the passive, feminized viewers of a dumbed-down, TV executive-produced mass culture and a new media defined by personal choice and masculine interactivity (Caldwell; Parks; Boddy). However, in recent months “Web 2.0” has increasingly embraced the old medium of television to transition from principally a text, image and audio-based medium to a video-based one.

Let’s consider four of these recent initiatives in Internet/TV convergence. Rather than predict future developments, let’s look back to the core principles of broadcasting to see how these nascent Internet TV initiatives hold up to what we might call a broadcast ethic of TV citizenship. Despite the significant differences between public and advertising-sponsored television, each tradition shares the following goals: 1) universal affordable access, 2) universal appeal that promotes encounters across diverse groups, and 3) fair use rights to watch when and where one likes (Alvarado; Murdock; Lessig).

Ipod Lounge

Ipod Lounge

Case #1. Disney/ABC has teamed with Apple’s iTunes to offer episodes of 6 current television series for playback on a newly released video iPod. Episodes of series including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven” are available for $1.99 per episode the day after they air. The iPod provides nifty portability but is far from universally accessible and affordable, as users must have high-speed Internet service, buy Apple’s proprietary portable audio/visual devise for $300-$400, and pay for each episode. Universal appeal is limited, as only a few hit Disney/ABC shows are available. TiVo, the personal video recording service, will soon make recorded programs available for download to the iPod (and other Microsoft mobile video formats) for those who can afford the additional costs of the conversion software, the TiVo player ($50-200), and TiVo’s $12.95 monthly service charge in addition to cable/satellite subscription fees. Fair use is restricted to the iPod and 5 computers – no DVD transfers allowed. In linking proprietary content to proprietary hardware at significant costs, the video iPod is a minimal service for a privileged few.

Case #2. Warner Brothers and AOL have heavily promoted their IN2TV which early next year will offer free online episodes of old TV shows that are not currently in syndication. In its first year Warner says it will draw from over 100 of the 800 series in its vault including “Maverick,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Alice,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Babylon 5.” Episodes are organized into 6 themed “channels,” each episode includes 1 to 2 minutes of commercials. This offer is part of AOL’s broader strategy to transition from primarily an Internet Service Provider to a web portal with a particular emphasis on television, including AOL’s free live streaming of the Live 8 music concerts against world poverty held on July 2nd, 2005 in cities around the world; AOL’s coverage drew praise from those who grew irritated with MTV’s edited coverage and ABC’s limited two-hour broadcast, and scorn from those who found the unedited performances offensive. AOL and Time Warner are exploiting further synergies with an online video service that offers celebrity news and gossip produced by Warner’s Telepictures division. Regarding issues of access, just as AOL’s Live 8 coverage offered far more than broadcast and cable television for those with access to broadband, the In2TV will provide free access to TV shows that are otherwise unavailable. However, the service limits viewing to certain episodes, stratifies audiences through offering high quality resolution only to AOL broadband subscribers and provides only content owned by the corporate conglomerate. Concerning universal appeal, the vintage TV programs bring with them the contested representational politics of their time, but this look back reminds us of a time before the broadcast networks spun off their multiethnic casts and working class characters to minor broadcast networks and niche cable channels (Gray). Users can watch when they want to, but fair use is curtailed in that users cannot skip commercials or copy episodes to other devises – only excerpts can be emailed to friends and potentially transferred to cell phones. While less expensive and more extensive than the video iPod, In2TV’s linking corporate content to its Web portal creates promotional synergies rather than accessible platforms for TV distribution.

Case #3. The BBC is using file-sharing technology to test a service for 5,000 users which offers BBC programs online for up to 7 days after they air. While the BBC says it will offer 500 shows each week, only BBC-owned programs and those with secured transmission rights will be available. While this far surpasses the commercial initiatives in the US, there are limitations. In using Microsoft’s digital rights management system, users are prevented from e-mailing or copying programs to other devises. It is not clear why time-shifting is limited to 7 days. System capacity might be a reason for the limited test, but the BBC’s public broadcasting goal of providing a national service to create a sense of shared culture might also motivate a design that encourages a shared weekly viewing experience. The service is also limited to those with UK e-mail addresses, which protects the BBC’s commercial business of selling international rights to programs. (However, those outside the UK can access live streaming of some BBC channels and other international broadcast channels over free services such as Beeline TV and TV4All or subscription services such as NeepTV and Netspan TV – none of these offer time or space shifting.) While the BBC test case demonstrates the importance of public ownership for making programs available free online, critics have argued that citizens would be better served if all public and commercial broadcasts were available online through a single Web site.

NerdTV

NerdTV

Case #4. PBS has been slow to make their programming available online but it has recently initiated a series of Web-exclusive one-on-one video interviews with technology gurus including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Because the appropriately named NerdTV is distributed under a Creative Commons license, viewers can legally copy episodes to other devises, email them to friends and edit their own versions. Public ownership under open source licensing clearly surpasses the other cases in realizing our broadcast principles. However, the racial and gender politics of geek TV were manifest when in the 9th episode the program’s host admitted that viewers had criticized the series for interviewing only white males on its first 8 episodes – the show interviewed the tech savvy fashion model Anina in the 9th episode.

Considering these 4 cases of Internet/TV convergence, if Web 2.0 no longer frames the Internet’s video potential in opposition to the old medium of television, these nascent examples reveal that the promises of television over the Internet could learn much from the ethics of television’s broadcasting past. Rather than as an old medium that breeds passivity and low uniformity, let’s embrace television for its ethics of universal access and broad appeal, and for its ideals of commonly held resources and spirit of cross-cultural encounter. Web 1.0 hailed from a neo-liberal ethics of venture capital speculation, government deregulation and a spirit of individual choice and personalization widely encapsulated in the classical economic speak of “video on demand.” Web 2.0 frames Internet TV very differently, as is exemplified in the words of this journalist: “[c]onsumers are rushing to hook up high-speed broadband connections like it is a vital new utility. And in many ways it is – a sight, sound and motion utility becoming as important to consumers as electricity or as TV” (Oser and Klasseen). Broadband, electricity and TV are the public utilities of the Web 2.0 age. Let’s treat them as such and continue to advocate for universal access to broadband, fair use in audio/video, and the public initiatives to ensure this –from continued support for public broadcasting to municipal-run broadband systems. One of the reasons for Web 1.0’s demise is that the internet provided so much free content that users were loath to pay for it. In that spirit let’s all just say no to the video iPod, even if your favorite TV show is “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives.”

Bibliography

Alvarado, Manuel. “Public Service Television: Challenge, Adaptation and Survival.” Contemporary World Television. John Sinclair ed. London: BFI Publishing, 2004. 7-9.

Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caldwell, John. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 41-74.

Gray, Herman S. Culture Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 77-130.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Murdock, Graham. “Rights and Representations: Pubic Discourse and Cultural Citizenship.” Television and Common Knowledge. Jostein Gripsrud ed. London: Routledge, 1999. 7-17.

Osser, Kris and Abbey Klaassen. “Cable Ledaing Long-awaited convergence of Internet and TV; Web ‘Arrives’ as Medium for Content Delivery as Viacom, Scripps, Others Put Shows Online.” Advertising Age (25 July 2005), 48.

Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 133-61.

Image Credits

1. The Pondering Primate

2. Ipod Lounge

3. NerdTV

Please feel free to comment.




P.S. An Idol’s Pace

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

This column is something of a postscript to the last one I wrote, concerning the differential paces of television. My comments then were triggered in part by the way American television series circulate (at least officially) beyond the borders of the U.S., often with a lag of at least six months, or even one or two whole seasons behind their initial U.S. airing. Sometimes, the DVD versions may be available before the programs appear on television. In this context, I at least implied that this was the case with all American television series.

Meanwhile, American Idol is currently showing on Finnish television. This is hardly surprising since so many American television programs, including American reality programs, are available on Finnish TV: America’s Next Top Model, Playing It Straight, The Apprentice (U.S.), Survivor (U.S.), and The Amazing Race have all been shown here. Even Cheaters is shown on Finnish TV. What is distinctive in the case of American Idol is that the version currently showing in Finland is the same one currently showing in the U.S., with only a one to two week lag.

Given the prevalent distribution pattern for U.S. television in Finland, the airing of American Idol 4 struck me as somewhat surprising. At first I thought it might be related to the Internet and the ease with which one can learn about who has been cut from competition by recourse to websites, official and otherwise; ready access to this information might undercut viewership. I quickly came to my senses and realized that the same sort of information would be available for any competitive reality program, even for any television show that had episode summaries posted on some website, which means that this would be the case for virtually any American television show. But only American Idol is showing the current season. The other U.S. reality programs on Finnish broadcast or cable stations (indeed all the other U.S. series that show here) are older programs.

Finland, along with some 20-plus other countries, has also had its own version of the show, Idols Finland, which started in the fall of 2003 and concluded in January 2004. The final results episode was the third highest rated television program in Finland in 2004, with some 1.6 million viewers (in a country with a population of about 5 million people). The highest rated television program of 2004 was the same one that typically draws the largest audience every year: the live broadcast of the Finnish President’s reception on Finnish Independence Day. Given the interest elicited by the Finnish national Idols, it isn’t automatically clear that the American variant would necessarily draw the same kind of audience or interest.

It seems that the differential pace of distribution for American Idol has less to do with television per se, or with television-internet relations, than with the pace of the music industry. American Idol can best maximize global sales for the release of the already scheduled, anticipated music CDs following the televised competition if the global audience can follow the show more or less at its American television pace. It isn’t of much use to the music label if audiences outside the U.S. only decide they are interested in the music a year after its initial release, when the CDs may already be in the cut-outs bin. In Finland, at least, this reduces the programming time lag to a matter of mere weeks rather than the typical months or years. This raises a host of issues not only about the ways television intersects with other media industries, but also about television’s narrative and dramatic structures, and how they coincide (or not) with other media.

American Idol logo

Unlike dramatic series, most reality series are planned with a finite number of episodes. In this they function like mini-series or limited run programs, although successful programs can generate multiple seasons based on duplicating the basic structure of the initial limited-run design with a new array of participants. The dramatic arc is defined from the outset, based on the number of episodes, programming plan, and structure of elimination. Viewers obviously care about the outcome of these programs — in large numbers for successful shows. For American Idol the extent of this interest is registered, among other places, in the weekly voting. The competitive structure, culminating in a final outcome, clearly provides one structure of ongoing engagement and pleasure. But the ending shares these functions of engagement and pleasure with the ongoing vicissitudes of the program; as such, the process is as important as the outcome. (If the conclusion was the primary or overriding source of interest and pleasure, DVD sales of competitive reality series would be beside the point.)

As a mode of production, programming format, and even as a “genre” (using the word in a loose sense), reality programs offer an elegant balance between series and seriality, and capitalize on attracting and sustaining audiences across similarity and difference. In terms of narrative and dramatic structures, this includes a fine calibration that embraces process and outcome, peripatetic events and conclusions, the unknown and certitude, continuity and closure. Reality programs fit into television flow in these terms. While this is the case for all television series, a successful reality format — a sequence of self-contained series — makes the structure even more explicit and scaleable. But these narrative and dramatic strategies, and the resultant modes of engagement they foster, don’t necessarily directly carry over into the economies of other media. And in the case of American Idol, designed around the coalescing of television and the music industry (and digital telecommunications), it apparently results in a shift in the pacing of distribution.

Links
Mimi White, “Going Through the Paces”
American Idol
International Idols
Idols Finland on MTV3
Idols History
World Idol

Image Credits:

American Idol

Please feel free to comment.




Putting the ‘Syn’ into Synergy

by: Eileen R. Meehan / Louisiana State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
Viacom
Nickelodeon
Rugrats on Nick
Paramount Home Entertainment

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.




The Invasion of the Screen People

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

It was late summer in the Heartland. A simpler time, with only vague fears of Y2K troubling my anticipation of brisk breezes and the deepening color of autumn. Thunderstorms decorated Iowa’s western horizon. I had pulled into a mega-gas station at the intersection of I-80 and I-29. Scores of semis towered above the SUVs and sedans, all swilling diesel, ethanol and high test before easing out to follow the blacktop’s broken white line through the gathering dusk and into the night. I faced the sleek screen embedded in a wall-sized pump; touched the credit payment icon, swiped my card, tapped “no receipt,” lifted the hose and jammed the nozzle into the side of my pickup. Gasoline fumes opened my nostrils and hit the roof of my mouth, mingling with the sweet perfume of distant rain. My eyes slide across the ranks of pumps to the unbroken cornfields that surrounded the incongruous concrete intrusion. And Peter Jennings spoke to me: “Tensions heightened in the Middle East today . . . .

I spun around to locate the celebrity anchor, stunned that he would join me out here on the road. He was nestled – as serene and composed as ever – on the touch screen perched above three grades of Texaco. I stared in disbelief as he inserted the news of the world between the bass rumble of Kenworths and the soprano squeal of travel-tired children. It was a macabre moment, like encountering a chimpanzee in top hat and tails, dining in a posh Manhattan tearoom. But my disorientation was swiftly banished by an unbidden thought: “I wonder if you can change the channel?”

That was when I realized that The Screen People had successfully infiltrated Earth. The last six years have only affirmed that realization. Screens have become the primary communication interface in the industrialized world. As I write these words, several screens assist me. The iBook’s screen reflects the words of the essay, and allows me to toggle to internet maps that refresh the memory of my Iowa trip. The TV screen gleams off to my left, enabling me to keep an eye on both the Olympics and a line of thunderstorms moving through the area. My cell phone screen identifies callers, making it possible to accept vital calls while relegating others to voice mail. Last night I watched a film projected on a large screen overlooking the lawn of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Earlier today I shot photographs, composing the images on the LCD screen of my digital camera. “They” are everywhere.

This ascendancy of the screens raises a number of questions for those of us who study the intersection of technology and communication. Consider, for example, the notion that people maintain four essential communicative guises in relationship to mediated messages: creator, consumer, assessor, and facilitator.

Creator is the active guise; participating in the making of a message. The process can be an individual crafting a personal expression for another individual, a group, or an audience of millions. It can be a group effort. It can range from purely presentational to dialogic; a transactional negotiated process between creator and audience.

Consumer is predominantly an individual, passive guise; one person chooses to consume a message or experience created by another – reading, listening, or observing. Consumption can be interactive. Interactive consumption ranges from performing works authored by another, to participating in virtual space constructed by, and dependant upon, another.

Assessor embodies the observational, analytical, reflective guise. Assessment is the individual’s reasoned, supported evaluation of the impacts, effects, implications and relative merit of messages structured by others. Assessments are often delineated by objective, medium, area of social or political influence, academic heritage, inclination or method.

Facilitators provide the interventionist guise: an individual or team utilizing specialized knowledge, skills and/or tools to aid other individuals in the realization of perceived communication objectives. Intervention ranges from interpersonal through organizational to international. It encompasses both technical training and conceptual exploration.

The predominance of screens in contemporary culture will significantly redefine each of those relationships. While their influence is still unfolding; clearly two paths diverge in this technological wood. We can either accept a traditional passive evolution, or bestir ourselves to – perhaps for the first time in history – plan the course of our own social evolution. Let me explain.

The evolution of communication technology has been more serendipitous syncopation than measured march. From speech to mime to music to writing to printing to painting to film to telegraph to telephone to radio to television to computer to Internet, the relationship between society and the tools we use to communicate has been a bartered negotiation. We, the members of continuously evolving cultures, are faced with similarly evolving communicative, expressive needs. Technology morphs to meet those needs. We fill the technologies with content, and in the process discover new needs, which in turn beget new technologies, and so on and so on. It is a negotiation because neither side of the equation determines the final path of evolution. It is a bartered negotiation because each side demands value from the process; society demands better communicative, expressive tools, while the industries that provide the technologies demand profit.

Negotiation implies compromise, and compromise rarely yields the exquisite. More often the result has been merely the mutually acceptable. And so it has been in the bartered negotiation of media evolution. Papyrus wasn’t perfect, but it was better than clay tablets. The printing press had flaws but also advantages over the scribe, the telegraph bartered speed over linguistic complexity, cells phones offered mobility at the cost of fidelity – and all yielded profit to industry and power to government.

Bartered negotiation in the world of the screen people has been the same – only different. When we examine the tools that drive the converged environment of the screen people – whether the special effects in Lord of the Rings or three-way calling on our cell phone – we find ourselves confronting computers, networks and software. And in that world we find a strange confrontation between complexity and elegance. The post-modern world often seems immersed in a love affair with complexity, a celebration of fragmentation. And nowhere is that worldview more manifest than in the design of software intended to facilitate expression. New versions of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Office, proliferate features that regularly relegate former experts to the status of “newbie.” The irony is apparently unintentional, lost in the marketing realization that “more features sell new releases.”

Any experience with an audience – singular or mass – reveals that rampant complexity confuses, while precise elegance empowers the depiction of the most intricate message. As we face the 21st century, the inclination is to allow the marketplace to drive the development of the communicative palette. “It has always ‘worked’ before.” But “before” was never in the hands of so few. Bertelsmann, Newscorp, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, Sony, Vivendi and Reed-Elsevier control most of the content distributed in the world today – from print to the internet. Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia decide the nature of the tools we use to express ourselves. The clout of huge profits in a concentrated marketplace makes quality secondary to popularity for all those companies.

Before was never like now, and the stakes have never been so high. We are not talking about cornering the market on widgets. The issue concerns a few colossal companies that control the communicative content of our world, and who also shape the very languages we use to express the truth and beauty of that world. To date the palette they have provided is flawed in three dimensions: Intricacy – the excessive inclusion of features in software that excludes all but the specialist from fluency. Discreteness – the inclination to provide tools and messages devoted to, and hence restricted to, a single medium, and, Commercialism – the hegemonic power of the marketplace that decrees that whatever the other characteristics of medium or message, significant profit must be among them.

In the film Dead Poets Society, John Keating exhorts his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day.” He challenges them to “do something extraordinary.” It is time for the academy to do something extraordinary. We must reclaim the expressive imperative; we must define the palette. Certainly, the expressive tools provided by the media cartels are fatally flawed. But so are some cherished models from the “teach and publish” world of the academy. We linger in the solid predictability of prose upon the printed page. We are comfortable with formulae unfolding neatly across the board. We treasure heads bent over bluebooks as sunbeams dance with dust motes, reminiscent of chalk dust from bygone years. That world is gone. Yet many of our forays into “courseware” seek to recreate it.

Screens encompass a new world. It is our responsibility to create, to use, and to teach new, powerful, transparent languages and tools for elegant expression in the converged digital environment of that reality. Carpe Diem.

Links of Interest:

1. Roger Chartier on the role of on-screen texts

2. United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force

3. MIT’s web magazine on information technologies

Please feel free to comment.