Preserving Tourism Imaginaries: Vacationers Urged to Visit Online Now, Travel IRL Later
Maria Skouras / University of Texas at Austin


Decline in Tourist Arrivals WTSO
Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO)

National tourism boards, hotels, airlines, travel companies, and other related businesses are struggling to survive as global tourism came to a halt during spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This downturn has considerable implications for the global economy; according to the World Economic Forum, the travel and tourism industry produced 10.4% of the world’s GDP and a similar percentage of jobs in 2018.[ (( Calderwood, L.U. & Soshkin, M. World Economic Forum. The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report. (2019). http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_TTCR_2019.pdf, 3. ))] While travel restrictions are beginning to ease in Europe and elsewhere, widespread lockdowns and quarantines have already caused drastic financial damage. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reported that international tourist arrivals declined 97% globally during April causing a loss of $195 billion in travel-related revenue when compared to the same period during 2019.[ (( United Nations World Tourism Organization [UNWTO]. (June 2020). World Tourism Barometer. Volume 18. Issue 3. ))]

In addition to enhancing a nation’s ability to be competitive in the global economy, the character of a country’s tourism sector is essential to the nation’s overall brand. Whether a country’s landscape features the rainforest, mountains, beaches, glaciers, or deserts, the commodification of the terrain into possibilities for tourism shapes perceptions of the place.[ (( Dinnie, K. (2016) Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice. Routledge, 115. ))] Likewise, the nation’s history, attractions, music, food, and culture contribute to the creation of such fantasies and “tourism imaginaries”.[ (( Salazar, N.B. (2011) Tourism Imaginaries: A Conceptual Approach. Annals of Tourism Research. doi:10/1016/j.annals.2011.10.004.))] As such, tourism marketing campaigns employ imagery that develop or reinforce positive mythologies to appeal to foreign visitors. To authenticate the narratives being constructed, local citizens are often instrumentalized to provide personal testimonials about the nation’s ability to provide extraordinary experiences.


#DreamNowTravelLater images
As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag

In response to global shelter-in-place orders, tourism boards have been presented with an unusual challenge. They need to artfully acknowledge the unprecedented situation we are living in and deter visitors for an unknown amount of time while still enticing privileged individuals with expendable income to consider future travel. Many have risen to the occasion by developing creative messaging, catchy hashtags, and participatory campaigns. For example, Switzerland’s tourism board has advised travelers to “Stay safe-stay home” and is credited with popularizing the #DreamNowTravelLater hashtag on social media platforms.


A message from Switzerland's Tourism Board to Tourists:
A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home”

On March 31st, the MySwitzerland
official Youtube account posted the video, “Dream now – travel later,”
in which would-be tourists are encouraged to use this time to plan for a
forthcoming trip to Switzerland while being inspired by aerial views of
the country that are fit for a postcard. As a soft acoustic guitar tune
plays in the background, the words “Dream now- travel later” arise over
a quintessential vision of Switzerland, a glowing town nestled amongst
the snow-covered Swiss Alps at sunset. Other images showcase
Switzerland’s versatility: awe-inspiring lake views fit for kayaking,
green hills perfect for a challenging run, and winding train rides that
conclude with warm embraces from friends all await visitors.


Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020

Greece’s tourism industry has taken a comparable, if not more abstract, approach. On June 5th, the Tourism Ministry and Marketing Greece released a video that proposed “Greek summer is a state of mind.” Acknowledging that travel is not advised or possible for all at this time, the video claims summer in Greece is more than an experience; it is a concept within itself. The narrator in the video philosophizes that as long as one is with loved ones, enjoying nature, and “feeling free,” they can achieve the essence of a Greek summer from wherever they are. However, the clear blue sea and empty, idyllic beach depicted is an invitation for viewers to picture themselves there in the future. Having welcomed a record-breaking number of tourists during 2018, summer tourism is a pillar of the Greek economy and thrives off its imaginary as a summer paradise.


“The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020

Two months earlier in April 2020, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched the #GreeceFromHome digital campaign, which invites viewers into the homes of nationally-known Greek citizens as they perform everyday activities from cooking traditional recipes like moussaka, a comfort food often likened to lasagna, to reciting monologues from Greek tragedies. Although international viewers may not be familiar with these personalities, they will learn more about the nation’s culture and talented people. At the same time, Greeks who are quarantining at home will enjoy the unique opportunity to hear from their favorite chefs, journalists, actors, and musicians in a more casual, unfiltered way. The simple, no-frills approach to filming and sharing personal stories in #GreeceFromHome furthers the revival of Greece’s narrative as a vibrant nation with friendly people, delicious food, picture-perfect islands, and a rich history, rather than one embroiled in financial and refugee crises.

Prior to the pandemic, in June of 2019, Tourism New Zealand launched a similar people-to-people campaign called #GoodMorningWorldNZ. As the first country to experience the daily sunrise, a different New Zealander wishes the world a good morning from a scenic location each day for a year, oftentimes incorporating words and sayings in the Māori language. Serving as national brand ambassadors and local guides, ordinary citizens describe their hobbies and active endeavors in a diversity of terrains, from mountain vistas to colorful urban landscapes. The #GoodMorningWorldNZ website provides directions for how any resident can film their own video by “selecting an epic spot” from which to say good morning, sharing what they are up to, and wishing the world a good day before uploading to a social media platform.


New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020

Although New Zealand detected and contained the virus early on, several of the campaign videos posted in the spring of 2020 reflect the changes precipitated by the pandemic while still presenting the natural beauty of the country. Brooke, a doctor sharing her greeting in front of the stunning Bay of Plenty, thanks nurses around the world for their care at a time when it might not be possible for individuals to be with their loved ones. Reporting from the lush, tree-lined river at the Whanganui National Park, Baldy and Tom explain the spiritual and life-sustaining significance of the river and encourage visitors to “come back” while assuring them “we will still be here.” The final video concludes with Lola, a young citizen reporting from the sea in Auckland. She relays that while it is not possible for the country to currently welcome visitors in its traditional way, “as whānau – or family,” they look forward to seeing everyone soon.

“Can’t Skip Hope,” a powerful video released by Portugal’s official tourism board in March, echoes the sentiment that this is a time to stop, dream, and plan for future travel. It begins with two caveats which explain that the footage was captured when “we could spend time outside” and that narration was recorded safely from home on a smartphone. Then it launches into a myriad of snapshots:  wild horses running in reverse, a passionate kiss, the release of a massive lantern in the night, a festive group dinner, and beach scenes amongst others. Like rewinding through fragmented memories or experiencing a dream-sequence, the video is equal parts reality and fantasy. For those who lack an image of what travel to Portugal might be like, the video shows a dynamic country full of life as well as contemplative moments. The voiceover stresses the importance of being apart so that we can be together again. It ends with the Visit Portugal logo and a series of hashtags including #cantskipyesterday, #cantskiptomorrow, and #cantskiphope.


Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020

Taking a more humorous approach, Iceland is using the hashtag #LetItOutIceland and encouraging bored, frustrated, and listless individuals to record a scream and select one of seven incredible outdoor locations to have it played from a loud-speaker. For those who are fortunate enough to be safe at home rather than on the frontlines of the pandemic, the video shows familiar situations: the monotony of doing another puzzle, a self-haircut gone wrong, the disappointment and loneliness of a quarantine birthday, and the near impossibility of simultaneously working and parenting. For citizens of countries who are being ravaged by COVID-19 and won’t be able to take advantage of borders starting to reopen for limited tourism, releasing a scream is a welcome opportunity. And if scream therapy is not your thing, online tourism campaigns featuring friendly faces and picturesque imagery can provide a little inspiration to #DreamNowTravelLater.


Iceland’s “Let It Out!” Video from 7/15/2020



Image Credits:

  1. Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO). Author’s screen grab from the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, Volume 18, Issue 3, Update June 2020.
  2. As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag. Author’s screen grab.
  3. A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home.” Author’s screen grab.
  4. Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020
  5. “The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020
  6. New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020
  7. Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020
  8. Iceland’s “Let It Out” Video Ad from 7/15/2020


References




Virtual Music Festivals and the Re-Valuation of Connection in a COVID-19 Live Music Marketplace
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin


Screenshot of the custom in-game structure built for Open Pit's Coalchella 2018.
Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival

As music industry revenues radically shift due to COVID-19 related cancellations and the rescheduling of live touring aspects of the business, musicians have taken advantage of this time to test out various co-production techniques, increase their digital fan engagement practices, and host virtual hangouts and dance-parties. The latest of these experiments deals explicitly with this gap in the live music sector of the industry. Dubbed “the age of the virtual music festival” by Dazed’s Dean Mayo Davies, these events are positioned as the new frontier of the concert-going experience as the promise of virtual reality immersion becomes increasingly accessible.[ (( Davies, Dean Mayo. “100 Gecs Are Ready for the Age of the Virtual Music Festival.” Dazed. April 20, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48794/1/100-gecs-laura-les-dylan-brady-minecraft-charli-xcx. ))] These virtual music festivals, however, did not begin as a reaction to COVID-19 distancing measures, with some of the earliest examples coming from Berlin underground music collective Boiler Room’s collaboration with Google’s Daydream VR in 2016.[ (( Second Life, an online virtual word, hosted a three-day music festival in collaboration with Intel in 2007. For the purpose of this article, I focus on later experiments in the live music space to be more specific to the structure of feeling that results from large contemporary music festivals. For more information on the early Second Life virtual festivals, check out this short piece in The Guardian from 2007. ))]


This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures.

The interactive potential of these virtual events has continued to expand, with festivals hosted within online video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite. Open Pit, a volunteer collective of marketing specialists, graphic designers, coders, and producers, are leaders in this new virtual event planning space. Their first two events were Coalchella in September 2018 and Fire Fest in January 2019. Riffing on the ill-fated ultra-exclusive Fyre Festival as well as Coachella, a decades-old event increasingly becoming an Instagram playground for celebrities, these titles illustrate Open Pit’s cheeky, yet critical, engagement with the inflated contemporary music festival market. Accessibly, inclusivity, creativity, and diversity define the mission statement of Open Pit’s free and open events that, instead of aiming for wide profit-margins, donate any money made from merchandise or VIP passes to various charities. The latest of these virtual festivals, Square Garden and #AETH3R, raised funds for COVID-relief organization Feeding America and the National Bail Fund Network. In a COVID music market where virtual reproductions of connection are the only remaining response to live music experiences, Open Pit shifts the exchange value of this affect to present both a critique of and alternative to the profit-based structures and systems of promotions that were integral to the inflated pre-COVID music festival economy. Open Pit’s events, therefore, operationalize dance music’s histories of co-productions of space and sound to reflect and address contemporary global precarities.


This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers.

Using dance music to form participatory structures aimed at strengthening and supporting collective politics is not a new phenomenon, as Open Pit is very much a part of a legacy of DIY innovators who used the affective and communal aspects of dance to create parties with a social and economic consciousness. Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-79 explores the pre-disco downtown party culture of New York City during the early 1970s. Detailing rise and fall cycle of iconic clubs such as the Loft, Sanctuary, Limelight, and Tenth Floor, Lawrence discusses the DIY roots of these early DJ cultures that utilized a “social and egalitarian model of making music in which the DJ played in relation to the crowd, leading and following in roughly equal measure.”[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 38. ))] Early innovators including David Mancuso, David Rodriguez, and Steve D’Aquisto understood the role of the DJ was to create a sonic and spatial conversation with the audience, “a synergistic alliance” built through a co-production of mutual and equal ownership of the dancefloor.[ (( ibid, 38. ))] This downtown party network quickly “formed a popular avant-garde that, in contrast to more insular cultural revolutionaries, wanted to spread their radical message rather than bask in their unpopularity.”[ (( ibid, 116. ))] These creative ideologies of organic and equitable co-production very much reflects the “punk-edged Warholian electro-pop” sonic aesthetic of these virtual festival lineups.[ (( Trapunski, Richard. “We Attended 100 Gecs Music Festival in Minecraft. Heres What It Was like.” NOW Magazine. April 28, 2020. https://nowtoronto.com/culture/gaming/minecraft-100-gecs-square-garden/. ))] With headlining acts like the “appreciate-everything-remix-anything” experimental pop duo 100 Gecs for their recent Square Garden festival, Open Pit’s lineups encompasses a new digital avant-garde that through their multi-valent job titles as DJ/artist/producer/promoter/event planner pays homage to the DIY ethos of dance music cultures of yesteryear.[ (( Horn, Leslie. “100 Gecs Explain the Weird World They Built for Their Minecraft Music Fest.” Vice. April 24, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/n7ja58/100-gecs-minecraft-music-festival-square-garden-tree-of-clues. ))]


This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event.

Connection within the context of these virtual music festivals operates as the organic product of the networked collaborations and creative co-productions echoed and enacted by Open Pit’s team. As the histories of early dance music illustrates however, these valuations of connection are also the social result of specific economic and cultural conditions that necessitate these spaces of bodily communion. Similar to how the popularization of discotheques in the mid 1970s were a reaction to “the conversion of industrial-based economies into neo-liberal markets,” the trend of virtual music festivals presents a framework of intersecting profit-based and creative ideologies of popular music industry in a society and economy depleted by a global pandemic.[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 183. ))] Just as “work hard play hard” became the mantra of mid-70s consumer capitalism that necessitated the overcrowded dance floor, the self-entrepreneurial spirit of neoliberal flexible labor largely contributes to the participatory structures of the jammed virtual server.[ (( ibid, 183. ))]

Recent political economy approaches to analyzing labor and commodity in the post-CD music industry provide generative frameworks to conceptualize the ideologies of capital implicit within Open Pit’s decidedly anti-capitalistic approach to music festival economies. Jeremy Wade Morris’s Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture tells a history of technologies that construct the new digital music commodity. Rather than streaming devaluing or dematerializing music or previous business practices, Morris argues that digitization “transformed digital music files into conflicted, networked, information-rich, traceable, and manipulable cybernetic commodities.”[ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade. Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture. Oakland, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 6. ))] These “micro-materials” define a cultural understanding of these music economies as “free” when in reality, this “vision of computing as an act of personal expression and self-actualization” comes at an exchange of personal data and compliance with corporate surveillance.[ (( ibid, 194. ))] Therefore, as these virtual music festivals are “free” in terms of monetary exchange, the cost of connection comes at a steep price for both the user and the artist-producer.[ (( Tim J. Anderson in his book, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry, more favorably describes this exchange as a dialogue between service providers and users, as users are now both producers and consumers of these new digital music commodities. Anderson, however, is keen to point out that digital music economies are now largely based in music-related experiences that places much higher monetary value on artists as brands. ))]

Specifically addressing the precarities of the contemporary artist-producer, Leslie M. Meier’s Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age explores the rise in “artist-brands” to examine the implicit economic logics of “360-degree monetization” of artists through sponsorship, licensing, and endorsement deals.[ (( Meier, Leslie M. Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2017, 75. ))] Meier argues as neoliberalist policies lead to greater privatization and deregulation, the flexible economies of post-Fordism only provide the record companies with greater mobility and profit, while enforcing precarious working conditions on artists. The promotional industries’ growing dominance over popular music illustrates that post-Fordism economic flexibility has constructed the artist-brand as a fiscal response to the digitization of music distribution under the guise of self-entrepreneurialism and customization, while Fordist industrial logics continue to reinforce rational utility of workers within this system of working artists’ commodification and exploitation.[ (( See: The fourth chapter of Meier’s book, “’Flexible’ Capitalism and Popular Music: Branding Culture, Designing ‘Difference’,” for a generative exploration of various economic ideologies that structure the contemporary music industry. ))]

The exchange value inherent in Open Pit’s organic, creative, and networked affect of connection, therefore, presents a contradictory battleground of meaning, consumption, and industry power. As the market continues to expand for virtual spaces of connection due to COVID-19, it will be interesting to watch as the bulky blocks and faulty servers of Minecraft’s customizable world-creation become increasingly professionalized in both the infrastructural complexity of coding and the promotional strategies like “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”. Only 24 hours prior to Open Pit’s Square Garden, this official partnership with the Epic Games coincided with the in-game premiere of Scott’s most recent single, “THE SCOTTS,” as well as spawned a Fortnite-inspired line of merchandise, action figures, and Nerf Guns. As Scott’s digital avatar reigns over the sea of users (1:30) with in-game structures that replicates Astroworld’s album cover (0:46), the power of “artist-brand” in the contemporary digital music economy is most literally illustrated.


Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”

As Vice’s Lewis Gordon discusses in his article, “The Best New Music Festival Is in ‘Minecraft,’” Open Pit festivals like Square Garden are also beholden to the platform regulations and user agreements of Minecraft’s owner Microsoft. Gordon aptly points out, “Minecraft—a platform in its own right—enables such events to take place but their existence is contingent on Microsoft’s continuing goodwill and, more importantly, the synchronisation of mutual interests, the benefits of which will always be weighted in favor of the platform provider.”[ (( Gordon, Lewis. “The Best New Music Festival Is in Minecraft.” Vice. January 17, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nexje8/the-best-new-music-festival-is-in-minecraft-fire-festival. ))] While the promotional logics of Scott and Fortnite’s collaboration are much more transparent, this type of industry partnership presents a successful profit-based alternative to Open Pit’s egalitarian and communal festival economies. In the current music marketplace, where record labels and event companies alike are figuring out ways to recuperate massive loses in live music revenue, the feeling of connection in these digital spaces is a commodity quickly rising in stock value.  

The latter-half of Lawrence’s history of early 70s dance
music cultures illustrates that as the industry recognizes the value of
connection within DJ-based co-productions of sound and space, the genre
category of disco enforces commodified logics in production, reproduction, and
circulation of these musical products. In connecting the trajectories of these
early DIY dance music cultures, the creative ideologies of virtual
co-production inherent in Square Garden and other virtual music festivals, and
contemporary political economic approaches to digital music economies, I illustrate
both the political power of DIY dance cultures throughout history while also
presenting a cautionary tale for future industry intervention into this virtual
music festival space.

As virtual music festivals are cost-efficient, immediately
global in reach, and an environmentally friendly alternative, Open Pit’s events
provide an inclusive and class-conscious reaction to the outpricing of fans
while also presenting an ethical response to the large carbon footprint of
these IRL festivals. In a way, this moment of collective understanding exposes
the various inflations of the current music festival marketplace and reorients
conversations around exchange values within the music industry. How talent
buyers, concert promoters, booking agents, and labels choose to react to this
cultural and economic moment of increasing concern for the collective will
forever change the trajectory of the live music sector; a fiscally critical
aspect of the contemporary music industry.



Image Credits:

  1. Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival
  2. This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures
  3. This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers
  4. This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event
  5. Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”


References:




NFL 2020: Football in the Time of Trump, COVID-19, and Mass Protests
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin


Kaepernick sign
A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign

While the NFL continues to occupy a dominant role in American popular culture, the contested social and political climate of the Trump era has threatened to destabilize a seemingly impervious brand. The league’s attempts to contain the fallout from player protests in particular provide a crucial space to examine the ideologies of White supremacy that undergird the Trump presidency and the MAGA movement more broadly. For a sport run by an overwhelming majority of White executives, owners, and coaches but played by 70% Black athletes, the NFL’s performative forays into social justice have thus far rung false, eliding the league’s crackdown on player activism and blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and unpunished murders of Black people.[ (( Adam Rugg, “Incorporating the Protests: The NFL, Social Justice, and the Constrained Activism of the ‘Inspire Change’ Campaign,” Communication & Sport (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479519896325. ))]

If the early years of the NFL/Trump relationship are best represented by the president’s outrage over the Take a Knee protests, then the latter years demand a discussion of COVID-19 and the widespread protests that followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While these events are still unfolding, it is worthwhile to pause and analyze this moment as an extension, and in many ways a culmination, of the past four years. As many have pointed out, we are grappling with two pandemics that disproportionately affect Black individuals and communities: the novel Coronavirus and the ongoing effects of systemic, institutionalized racism. Both are global in scope, yet the Trump administration’s response to each has created unique dangers and conditions for public outrage and uprising. Because the portrayal of the NFL as an exemplar of nationalism has been so profoundly challenged and complicated by Trump era politics, its response to this historical moment must be unpacked.[ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois Press, 2017). ))]


Trump speech
Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem

A symbolic arena that is constructed and imagined as a testament
to American ideals and values, the NFL is often celebrated as proof of a
post-racial meritocracy. Of course, these myths have been ruptured before, but
the dissonance between what the NFL says it stands for and what it actually
represents has rarely been so stark and significant. The strategies by which
America’s most powerful sports league contains resistance and neutralizes dissent
are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that 2020’s unprecedented
disruption of routine poses a threat and an opportunity.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders that kept much of the country confined to their homes, the 2020 NFL Draft offered an especially valuable chance to reach a rare and elusive mass audience. With the cancellation of seasons currently underway, media outlets no longer had a reliable stream of topical sports content, and despite the airing of the WNBA Draft only days earlier, the NFL Draft was presented and discussed as the first and only live sporting event worth mentioning since the virus took hold. Airing on ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network, the Draft broke records for ratings and advertising costs and allowed the NFL to capitalize on the sudden dearth of sports programming. Signifying the importance of this particular draft, the event began with a montage designed to speak to the historical moment and frame football’s central place within it.




The opening to the 2020 NFL Draft

Narrated by Peyton Manning, the intro transitions from black-and-white images of empty city streets and formerly bustling establishments to assorted clips of health care workers and patients bravely responding to the threat of the virus with courage and compassion. The NFL’s tribute to “Hope” positions sports, and especially football, as the ultimate goal, the light at the end of the tunnel, the reward for our “solidarity… sacrifice, and service to the greater good.” If the NFL Draft typically carries the hope of improved teams and future success, this NFL Draft offered hope that we could soon restore some semblance of normalcy to our interrupted lives. Enduring the virus as “one football family” thus conflates the containment of a public health crisis with the triumphant return of sports. Reclaiming the comfort and pleasures of our daily lives, as signified by the NFL season starting on time, is thus imagined as a victory for the American people. Indeed, Manning invokes a “future of full arenas, full voices, free reign to gather, to feel the power of football together, because that will mean life is back to normal for us all.”

Leading the charge in getting “back to normal,” Trump has been banking on the appearance of conquering the virus and saving the economy, however fallacious, as part of his reelection bid. The disconnect between the fear of a raging pandemic and the impulse to reopen America and “liberate” its citizens from the supposed tyranny of the quarantine is an underlying tension that national media events like the NFL Draft have sought to gloss over and resolve. Depending on the audience, the promise of football may serve as a justification for responsibly staying home and stopping the spread, or for resuming life as normal and accepting that many will die. In the weeks following the Draft, the discourse coming from many conservative commentators shifted firmly to the latter position, arguing that everyday dangers like the common flu never kept us locked up inside before, and insisting that the inevitable consequences of re-opening are worth the risk to exercise our rights as Americans. Because the economy—whether that translates to getting football back or even just getting a haircut—has been deemed more important than protecting human life, it is no wonder that Trump’s committee on re-opening the economy includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones. Pretending the virus is in the past and football is the future can be viewed as the latest strategy in making America “great again.”[ (( David J. Leonard, Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field, (University of Washington Press, 2017). ))]

If the NFL Draft offered an opportunity for the league to maintain the status quo and consolidate its unifying role in American popular culture, the eruption of nationwide protests in May and June illuminated once again the fragility of this project. In its first public statement, the league that made a concerted effort to steer its labor force “past kneeling” and resume business as usual predictably failed to grapple with its own complicity in perpetuating the injustices protestors have organized to expose and demolish. Apparently fearing the wrath of Trump-supporting owners and fans, the NFL’s initial response not only omitted any reference to race, racism, or police brutality (much less the murder of Black people by police); it also scrapped the phrase “Black Lives Matter” altogether. Vague calls to action evaded any specific language that could be mistaken for actually taking a stand, and perhaps the most glaring takeaway was the NFL’s unwillingness to engage with its own recent history of stifling peaceful protests against these very issues, along with its silencing—and in Kaepernick’s case, ousting—of the players involved.


NFL statement
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism

The NFL was not alone in releasing a non-committal, tepid, and tone-deaf statement about the protests and the horrific murders that ignited them. However, because the league represents one of the most visible examples of stratified Black labor and White management in the United States, its decision to elide any acknowledgment of, or relationship to, systemic violence against Black people stands out. A handful of Black NFL players released a video in response to the league’s non-statement, proclaiming that any one of them could be the next George Floyd and imploring the NFL to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people.” Only after some of the league’s most popular players effectively forced the commissioner’s hand did Roger Goodell declare that “Black Lives Matter” and admit wrong in preventing players from peacefully protesting. While it is tempting to applaud Goodell and fellow “respect the flag” enthusiast Drew Brees for their changes of heart, it is also fair to deem such performances of solidarity-in-hindsight “too little too late,” especially when Colin Kaepernick’s name remains conspicuously absent from these public epiphanies.

We should be critical of the timing and motives of self-proclaimed allies coming out of the woodwork after quietly reaping the benefits of White supremacy for so long. However, the fact that NFL controversies have been deployed as political talking points for the duration of Trump’s presidency makes the recent rhetorical shift, however superficial and disingenuous it may seem, a significant moment. After Trump tweeted about Goodell’s video and Brees’ apology, Brees addressed the president in an Instagram post, stating: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.” That two of the more prominent supporters of Trump’s anti-kneeling agenda have appeared to jump ship indicates that the optics of not acknowledging White supremacy, anti-Black racism, and state-sanctioned police violence are starting to look riskier than engaging with these issues outright. The NFL has proven time and again that it would be more comfortable moving past kneeling, protesting, quarantining, or anything else that might put people over profits, and only time will tell if its actions will change alongside its words.



Image Credits:

  1. A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign
  2. Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem
  3. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism


References:




“You Can Still Do It”: Apple Watch Activity Notifications During COVID-19
Andy Fischer Wright / University of Texas At Austin


An ominous graphic from the Apple Watch Activity website that reads 'Close Your Rings'.
The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.”

The wristwatch is at its base level an intimate machine situated at the end of the arm and designed with the explicit purpose of keeping the user aware of a regimented system of ‘time.’ Like many people operating in capitalism I have used watches and clocks to regulate my labor and personal life, whether this was to coordinate beer deliveries for my former employer or simply to make sure I didn’t burn muffins at home. From a critical angle, timepieces are interesting because of how infrequently I interrogate their ubiquitous presence in my daily life; per Vincent Mosco, the “social impact” of technology is greatest when devices and systems become “banal” and “withdraw into the woodwork.”[ (( Mosco, Vincent. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004: 19.))] As I found myself beginning to work on a thesis project that critiqued push notifications in my daily life last year, I decided to invest in an Apple Watch Series 3 linked to my iPhone in order to see if a ‘smart watch’ that reached out to me would change the way I used this familiar machine to structure parts of my life. After an unsurprising period of collision as the rhythms of my daily life met the disruptive methodology of the Apple Watch, I soon found that the chimes on my wrist folded themselves into the fabric of life just as the vibrations in my pocket had after acquiring my first cell phone.

The most distinct new flavor that the Watch added beyond even my phone was notifications about my body. Stevens and Wernimont wrote in 2018 that wearable technologies in the 21st century first gained momentum from the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, whose adherents use smart devices like heart rate monitors “with the objective of noticing trends over time and optimizing based on their personal observations.”[ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] While the motivation for this movement was based on a utopic cyborg dream of perfectly optimized biology, the researchers note that “[wearable] digital technologies situate the body not as a self-contained, sovereign subject but as a leaking, commodified data-producing body.” [ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] Moreover, the notion of a device that appears to record bodily activity for my benefit is complicated by our ‘appified’ society where mobile apps are “embedded into the everyday routines and rituals of users” [ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade, and Sarah Murray, eds. Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2018: 7. ))] and large technology companies continually strive for what Couldry & Mejias call “the capitalization of life without limit.”[ (( Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. The Costs Of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019: 1-35. ))] So while Apple Watches seem to provide a consumer service of measuring and analyzing my body and fitness growth, a second look makes it clear that the data about how I live and move is a clear asset for information technology companies wishing to go from delivery of service to urban infrastructure control. A device that quantifies bodily function sutures (sometimes quite literally) external interest to my body, reducing my physiology to a numeric performance with each method of measurement determined by its potentiality to produce data.[ (( When these biometric data are sold to or shared with police organizations, the Watch presents some frightening possibilities. For a personal example, my ‘outdoor walk’ activity on 6/7/20 that corresponds with the timing of a protest march in Austin potentially marks me as ‘suspicious’ even before GPS data ‘puts me at the scene.’))]


The notification settings for my Activity app.
The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications.

It is at this point an open secret that my Apple Watch is a surveillance tool with neat features, but what if we consider the media produced by the Watch alongside the data harvested by it? The Activity app on my Watch is particularly insistent on reminding me of three daily goals: stand once an hour[ (( It should be noted that Apple Watches have the functionality to replace these with ‘Time to roll’ notifications for wheelchair users.))] for twelve separate hours (‘Stand’), elevate my heartrate for thirty separate minutes (‘Exercise’), and burn a user-determined number of calories (‘Move’). In the companion app on my iPhone (above) I am able to set which notifications are sent from the Activity app to my Watch face: Stand Reminders, Daily Coaching, Goal Completions, Special Challenges, and Activity Sharing Notifications. Though Special Challenges and Activity Sharing are rarer, I receive notifications from each other category on at least a daily basis. Each of these notifications lights up the screen, vibrates the Watch body, and emits an audible chime if I have the volume turned on; the fact that the Facebook Messenger, Gmail, and Activity apps all produce a similar sequence[ (( Though there is a difference in vibration by default, it is subtle.))] erases the sensory difference between a message from my partner, an email from my employer, and a reminder to stand up again.

The Activity app appears to ‘just work’ following the model of opaque computing, but anyone who owns an Apple Watch will tell you that in reality their Watch’s notificatory flow is not fused perfectly with the motions of their body. In my time with this device, I have had Stand Reminders regularly occur while standing, had my Move Ring nearly double my average on a day I spent fourteen hours driving across the country, and been commended for my exercise and elevated heartrate during an anxiety attack.[ (( The Move Ring is particularly nebulous to the point of my Watch recording anywhere between roughly 200 and 400 calories during my (previously) daily walking commute from my apartment to campus (a distance of 1.7 miles.) I have noticed that this number seems to be particularly affected by whether I have registered this as an “Outdoor Walk” in the Exercise app.))] It is also worth noting that a Goal Completion notification is symbolically simple and positive. In the middle of screen, a diagram of all the progress I have made on my various goals (represented by completed ‘rings’) that day is visible directly over bold text reading “Goal Achieved,” with smaller capitalized text underneath identifying that this message arrived courtesy of the “ACTIVITY” app. Taking this form both codifies and incentivizes the particular type of activity quantification that the Apple Watch is capable of, deigning all activity that what is essentially a wrist-mounted accelerometer and heartrate monitor cannot measure as both non-conforming and unrewardable. Given the tendency for surveillance technology more generally to mark as Other “virtually anything that aberrates from the norm,” this should be perhaps not be surprising.

A machine whose notifications rewarded ‘proper’ measurement of my body’s movement became especially problematic during the “Stay Home- Work Safe Order” that my county first implemented in mid-March of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when further restrictions “requiring individuals to stay at home or their place of residence” except in the case of essential work or activities were deemed necessary in mid-April. Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to do things that will register as Activity for my Apple Watch while I am under a legal order and moral imperative to stay inside of my small shared apartment whenever possible without access to gym equipment. Though it would be out of character for Apple to release hard data on their Activity users, a March 23rd blog post from rival smartwatch company and recent Alphabet acquisition Fitbit documented a global reduction in measured weekly step count from 2019-20, including peaks of -38% and -25% from heavily effected Spain and Italy respectively while the US averaged -12% with higher reductions in most metropoles. Though I have not been able to find any more recent studies or relevant external data, I can personally attest to the chilling effect of a pandemic on exercise; even after I lowered the threshold for my ‘Move’ goal, I completed all of the daily goals my Watch put before me twenty-six times in February, eighteen times in March, and nine combined times between April and May.

And yet, the frequency of notifications from the Activity app into my life as mediated by my Watch remain unchanged. Messages like “Keep it going” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/3, 6/9, 6/10, 6/11, 6/14, 6/16) in the morning, “You can still do it” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/10, 6/11) in the evening, and “[Check/Close] your rings” (documented 6/10,6/11, 6/12) on slow days continually drop into my daily life, encouraging behavior that is either logistically impractical or potentially hazardous to public health. My Watch asks me to return to the type of activity it can measure, and when I refuse to comply, it withholds praise and chides me. In encouraging data collection under the guise of exercise the Watch notifications discourage ‘safe'[ (( It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the rare times it is ‘unsafe’ for a young able-bodied white man like myself to be outside of my home, especially in a city like Austin, TX. Gentrification, redlining, white supremacy, and their intersections with the police state can potentially make outdoors exercise a dangerous activity for people of color, especially in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder while jogging this February.))] behavior and assigns notifiable value to breaking quarantine during a global pandemic. More simply, these notifications operate in daily life without taking into account its context.


Compiled tweets about Activity notifications during a pandemic.
Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place.

I have been continually asked in the course of my academic work with notifications, “why don’t you just turn them off?” While this is a valid question, just telling people to turn off a default feature is not an adequate fix especially when they are designed as “a simple and fun way to live a healthier day.” Though notifications are usually easy to opt out of, to set the expectation that individual users are the only party responsible for moderating the messages that arrive on their screens without taking into account the entities that generate notifications and the software that delivers them sets a dangerous precedent when these media are designed to give input in daily life. It is the duty of users, developers, and designers to hold the notification accountable for its potential societal repercussions, especially in these times.



Image Credits:

  1. The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications (author’s screen grab)
  3. Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place. (author’s screen grabs)


References:




Plandemic and the Spread of Misinformation
Madison Hill / Independent Scholar


Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic
Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic

Misinformation has plagued the public consciousness since the beginning of the written word; however, contemporary fake news has the opportunity to be far more damaging than its historical predecessors. Access to a global information superhighway allows unreliable images, articles, and videos to be shared to millions of people in one instantaneous click. Over the past five years, online platforms have been vessels for misinformation, but it has never felt more life-threatening than in the middle of a global pandemic. It takes a virus for fake news to spread like one.

A twenty-six-minute video, claiming to be an excerpt from the full-length documentary, Plandemic, was shared to YouTube on May 6th. The video contains an interview with controversial researcher Judy Mikovitz, who the narrator credits as an “accomplished scientist.” She proceeds to bolster dubious, politically motivated theories that vaccines damage your immune system, COVID-19 was manufactured in a laboratory, and face masks reactivate viruses. These sound like groundbreaking discoveries; however, the filmmakers provide almost no concrete evidence to support their claims. Scientists and fact-checking services have deemed all of Plandemic’s theories to be false. How can we trust a medium that prides itself on authenticity when misinformation can kill? Still, as of May 18th, Plandemic has resurfaced multiple times, reestablishing itself into the consciousness of millions.


An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto
An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto

You don’t need a Ph.D. to make a documentary about COVID-19; however, in this case, Judy Mikovitz does have one—in biochemistry. She has since worked as a researcher in various laboratories. This is precisely what makes Plandemic’s widespread fame so alarming. With audiences crediting a research scientist as their source, the film’s popularity soared past the speed at which those could fact check its claims. Before PolitiFact could even begin its analysis, Plandemic had already reached millions of viewers on YouTube. Only to be deleted, reuploaded, and shared again to a million more. People looking for answers in an unprecedented moment of uncertainty used this “banned” video to support their own radical ideologies. And understandably so. Since March, 36 million Americans have lost their jobs and have received very little relief. COVID-19 has been successful in exposing ill-prepared institutions whose purposes are to provide assistance in crises. Judy Mikovitz told the world that those systems never intended to help us in the first place. Who’s going to question a renowned scientist?

And if misinformation can kill, what are we to do about it? Twitter has flagged the video as harmful while YouTube and Facebook have outright banned the video. But who is YouTube to be a mediator of free speech? Online platforms should not have to censor content as a sort of moral authority. The importance of media literacy continues to grow in an era that prides itself on unregulated accessibility. As individuals, we have a personal responsibility to discern for ourselves whether the information presented before us is factual and free from bias. But what are we to do when, in such dire circumstances, this responsibility seems to have been forgotten?



Image Credits:

  1. Judy Mikovitz in Plandemic (author’s screengrab)
  2. An anti-vaccine protester in Toronto




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


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

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

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

BBC: Cups of Tea and Dua Lipa

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


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

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


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


image description
Safer at home BBC One brand ident


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

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


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

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

Channel 4: Buttocks and Personalities

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

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


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

ITV: Outsourcing Graphic Design to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

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

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


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

What Does this Mean for Public Service Broadcasting?

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

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

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

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

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



Image Credits:

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


References:




Air and Breath as Elemental Media, Masks, and Datasets
Aaron Tucker / York University


Vice President Mike Pence Visits the Mayo Clinic
Vice President Mike Pence visits the Mayo Clinic.

As Yiğit Soncul and Jussi Parikka contend in “Masks: The Face between Bodies and Networks,” masks have become particularly symbolically freighted, with recent imagery of their use emerging from the Australian wildfires, protest movements, and the COVID-19 global pandemic. The authors’ following exploration “argues that it is through contexts of immunity and air—breathability—that we come to understand the broader political stakes of the present as well as the histories in which the mask sits.”[ (( Yiğit Soncul & Jussi Parikka, “Masks: The Face between Bodies and Networks,” Paletten, April 28, 2020, https://paletten.net/journal/masks-between-bodies-and-networks. ))] The focus on air and “breathability” recalls John Durham Peters’ work on elemental media in which he contends that media are vessels and environments that both anchor our existence and open up imaginaries and future possibilities. From within such a framework, air, clouds, and fires have “meaning” in that they are forms of data and processes; too, we might consider how air acts as conduit materials for technologies like radio, satellite signals, and wifi. If air and breath are media, what role does the mask play in relation to those media? How might masks fit into future versions of media?


A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume, 17th century
A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume, 17th century

The answers to that question must consider the politically and biologically-defined life that is protected, shielded, and/or hidden by masks. While Soncul and Parikka reference the works of Roberto Esposito and Achilles Mbembe, the discussion can be expanded into further considerations of masks’ biopolitical impact and tactical use in conversation with the recent collection of brief essays “Coronavirus and Philosophers.” Taking these arguments into account, the mask is central to various biopolitical strategies, from their production to their distribution to certain populations over others, to the adoption of masks, and the refusal to wear a mask becoming central to the current culture wars in America. This raises the question: how might masks, located within larger ecologies of media, as well as biopolitical strategies and tactics, be useful sites of analysis and media archaeology?


Sample image from Mask Classifier Dataset
Sample image from Mask Classifier Dataset

Further, it is urgent that current developments linking masks and masked faces to existing surveilling technologies, such as facial recognition software (FRS), be met with calls for transparency and regulations. It is a reality that there will be a massive wealth of datasets generated that showcase people wearing masks; this data can then be used to advance existing FRS systems to better detect and identify the faces previously hidden by masks. This has larger implications in relation to political dissidents and protesters but also has the potential to leach into other uses, like the tracking of workers and their productivity in industrial settings that require concealing safety equipment, while building on previous work such as the American National Institute of Standards and Technology’s FIVE project aimed at the facial recognition of “non-cooperative subjects.” While the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to generate whole new surveilling systems, it is likely that it will provide the rationales and justifications to exponentially expand existing programs.



Image Credits:

  1. Vice President Mike Pence visits the Mayo Clinic.
  2. A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume, 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)
  3. Sample image from Mask Classifier Dataset


References:




COVID-19 Credibility Memes
LaKesha N. Anderson / Johns Hopkins University


Anti-COVID-19 Smoothie Meme
Meme featuring an “Anti-COVID-19 Smoothie”

On April 24, 2020, social media responded to a comment made by US President Donald Trump during a press conference to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In that press conference, the president suggested that injecting disinfectants might be a potential cure for the illness. The White House issued transcript quotes the President as saying, “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute.  One minute.  And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning.

News organizations spent significant time discussing Trump’s suggestion. So much so that the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the media attention was “distracting” from the communication needed around COVID-19. Manufacturers of cleaning products and health care agencies were quick to denounce the president’s suggestion. However, news anchors, manufacturing leaders, and health care officials were not the only ones responding to Trump’s statement. Social media users quickly responded by lamenting the president’s intelligence and generating memes that questioned his credibility.


Clorox K-Cup Meme
Meme featuring “Clorox K-Cups”

Memes are primarily meant to be funny and are often used as a way to publicly ridicule people or their behaviors. The hashtags #trumpmemes and #dontdrinkbleach were trending on Twitter after Trump’s press conference. Memes associated with these hashtags ranged from ridicule of the president to presenting new disinfectant products like Clorox Chewables and Lysol smoothies to political memes that depicted Democratic foes laughing over Trump’s statement or using it for political leverage in an election year.

But, why does this matter?

While President Trump is not a medical doctor, he is the primary speaker at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings. Trump often appears at these briefings with medical staff, including Dr. Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who have long-standing credibility in the medical community. Dr. Fauci and Birx’s earned credibility may make Trump overconfident, and may cause the public to afford him credibility over a topic that he is not medically qualified to address. On the day Trump made this statement, he was joined by Dr. Birx, whose demeanor during Trump’s comments became a meme, with social media users suggesting she did not support his comments.


Dr. Birx speaking at a COVID-19 press briefing
Meme featuring Dr. Birx speaking at a COVID-19 press briefing

While a recent poll found that only 23% of Americans have a high level of trust in Trump’s public communication, there remain serious implications for Trump’s medical musings. After he touted the drugs chloroquine and hydroxycloroquine as potential treatments for COVID-19, Americans began hoarding and even consuming the medications, often causing more harm. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan reported that hundreds of people called an emergency health hotline with questions on whether they should drink disinfectants.

Credibility, whether low or high, deserved or not, is afforded to government officials. This comes with a special responsibility to the public to get the facts right. As current memes indicate, however, Trump’s credibility is in question. These memes may serve as more than an attempt at humor. They may save lives.



Image Credits:

  1. Meme featuring an “Anti-COVID-19 Smoothie” (author’s screengrab)
  2. Meme featuring “Clorox K-Cups” (author’s screengrab)
  3. Meme featuring Dr. Birx speaking at a COVID-19 press briefing




COVID-19: Teaching Solidarity
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University


Black frame with SOLIDARITY written in white text
Solidarity

This column was supposed to be about life insurance. It was meant to be a short introduction to an early-stage project looking at how the life insurance industry used varied media to make life insurance meaningful to prospective dealers and their potential customers over the course of the 20th century. Analyzing my chosen film—a sleepy training film called “Human Life Values” produced by the Institute of Insurance Marketing, c1960s—relied on archival materials held by the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware some 1,700 miles away. Given the nature of the research and questions of expense, I chose to hire an independent researcher to pull the records that interested me. On March 14th, she emailed me to let me know that the Hagley was closed due to COVID-19. As the evidence I hoped to use for my column is no longer available, I see two choices before me. Of course, I could still write about “Human Life Values,” offering a less-developed analysis. This would allow me to finish my series on “teaching” media as a vector of institutional power and governmentality. I think this is important work, and the question of how we quantify life has rarely had more currency than it does in the time of COVID-19.

My other option is to take this opportunity to think differently about my scholarly commitments. While I’ve enjoyed using this column to think about institutional pedagogies, the heart of my research agenda pursues questions about how work becomes meaningful and, in turn, how it structures our lives. My book examines 20th century private industry; the events above have made it impossible to ignore 21st century academia.

As Francis Eanes and Eleni Schirmer point out in a recent Jacobin article, academia was in crisis well before COVID-19 struck. Decades of public defunding have resulted in a wholesale turn to precarious working conditions for faculty, staff, and students as well as ballooning tuition costs and a concomitant student loan crisis. Faculty research is sold by private publishers at exorbitant rates, even to the very institutions that pay those researchers’ salaries. Anemic budgets at major granting institutions like the NIH invite private interests to fund and even at times shape academic research priorities. Athletics programs subsidize the billion-dollar profits of the NCAA almost exclusively at a loss to university budgets while student athletes receive no pay for sometimes life-threatening work.

We might think of this laundry list as a set of “higher
education” problems. We should think of them as labor problems.

Who is “essential”?

The battle over determining what industries and job descriptions count as “essential” has revealed the extent to which our society is built on the backs of low-wage, taxing labor: people in the service sector, retail, logistics, cleaning, and delivery (not to mention childcare, K-12 teaching, nursing and elder care). However, the overdue recognition bestowed by the label “essential” is ultimately cruel—a means of legitimizing life-threatening demands that people report to work whatever their personal risk of infection. It has become yet another way to treat working-class members of our society, many of them women and people of color, as disposable.

In the university, the language of essential is also being
used to describe certain types of research. Fortunately, this is being used to
make sure that participants in human trials are not adversely harmed by
disruption. Moving forward, however, we might reimagine our understanding of
who and what is essential to research, and even what essential research looks
like and does.

When I inventory those my own research relies on, the list
is long: librarians, archivists, mentors, freelance researchers, graduate
students, peer reviewers, journal editors, and the central office staff of
several institutions. While I (like many) tried to use my book’s acknowledgements
to signal the profound debt my work owes to these people, I’m embarrassed to
admit that I’ve only recently understood the many I left out. The same
“essential” employees who enable our basic survival also enable our work: mail
carriers provide access to scholarly monographs (whether through ILL or private
purchase) while facilities personnel ensure clean and healthy work
environments.

This recognition is not, in and of itself, enough. Nor is
gratitude. Maybe I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, but I’m tired of being thanked by
bosses, trade magazine articles, and form letters sent by textbook presses and
private learning management software companies. As I write in Television at Work, precarity and
worsening working conditions are often accompanied by superficial praise and
efforts to boost morale without changing material conditions.


Meme depicting the uselessness of meaningless gestures from employers who refuse to give actual help to their struggling employees
Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…

Gratitude is literally useless. We can do nothing with it. Worse, it puts the receiver in a position to say “you’re welcome,” an implicit confirmation that things are ok and that any service given is freely rendered rather than coerced. We don’t need gratitude. What we need is solidarity.

If we think on a solidarity model, we can begin to truly
reimagine what work looks like and how to make good on our ethical commitments
to each other—from our immediate colleagues to the staff who sustain
universities’ daily operation. Writing from within cultural studies, this
mutual recognition and fight for justice is ultimately the point. However, I’ve
been thinking too much about what the end product—the book, the article—can
accomplish and too little about how the research process itself should be
designed to meet these ends.

An example. The recent push towards “slow scholarship” speaks to academics’ recognition that the acceleration of work demands is unmanageable and unnecessary, feeding neoliberal emphases on market competition and easily quantifiable productivity. These concerns over employers’ control of employees’ time is not new. It is one of the chief emphases of the labor movement, expressed in the fight for the 8-hour day and its attendant slogan: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.” This makes it an ideal locus of collective action.

Today, 40 hours is largely inaccessible, no matter where you get your check. For white collar workers (including faculty and graduate students), email and other connectivity technologies stretch the workday into the evening and weekends (a strategy, as I note in my book, pursued by employers with videotape some 40 years ago). Others (including many adjuncts) find themselves cobbling together two or more part-time jobs due to employers’ desires to avoid the cost of providing legally-mandated benefits for full-time employees. Not that 40 hours is the acme of work arrangements (we might ask whether it is reasonable to relinquish half of our waking time to an employer), however working hours is a potential rallying point across industries and job titles. Recognizing that everyone’s time is equally valuable—no matter how capitalist systems of pay suggest the opposite—is a means to securing more humane working conditions for all.

Human life values redefined

Solidarity enables us to recognize our shared
positionality as wage laborers (whatever white/blue/pink collar distinctions
attempt to divide us) as well as the debt we owe those who help make the world
we inhabit (mail carriers, facilities workers, childcare and eldercare workers,
not to mention student athletes, science R&D researchers, and the many others
invoked above). Solidarity would ask us to respond to the crises before us
(both COVID-19 and the pre-existing troubles in academia) by committing to
aiding all of those who are essential
to our research (which turns out to be, well, everyone)—both in its basic undertaking
and, for those of us who claim cultural studies as home, in its political
commitments.

While the latter part of this equation will be as diverse
as researcher interest allows, the former demands collective action along a
number of avenues, for example:

  • The fight for a living wage, both for TAs and contingent faculty, as well as the many others this crisis has declared ‘essential’ to our leisure and work worlds.
  • Disarticulating healthcare from employment. We are human beings who exist outside of work, and work should not define our access to health.
  • Refusing to acquire research materials from companies like Amazon that disregard worker health and safety.
  • Lowering productivity expectations as part of the fight to reclaim personal time. The path to this in the academy is especially murky. One of the locations of this acceleration is in graduate school where faculty, myself included, coach students to perform at an early assistant prof level out of (what at least feels like) compassion and a desire to see them succeed on a tight market. Working against increased productivity demands would require rethinking the organization of graduate education on a system level.
  • Returning to the matter of time, fighting for paid medical and parental leave, as well as paid vacation—again, for all workers.
  • Working across job titles, across institutions, and with students to ensure that the response to the budgetary crises exacerbated by COVID-19 equitably balances everyone’s livelihoods (with emphasis on the term’s invocation of work, health, and survival). There is no way forward that doesn’t start with restoring public funding for education to pre-austerity levels. The false scarcity established by current tax codes and the consumer model of education are twin poisons that rely on dividing theses groups to stave off structural change.

I completed my graduate education at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and now teach at Colorado State. Both universities are land
grants, a public commitment invoked most eloquently by the Wisconsin Idea: “the
boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Reconsidering
our debt to our communities demands a better understanding of how labor—paid
and unpaid—unites us. Many of the things that cultural studies and television
studies are devoted to—understanding identity, power, culture; pushing for
inclusion, for pleasure, for information, for justice—cannot be realized if we
don’t also pursue working class
politics.

Nothing I’ve written here is particularly original. It won’t
count toward my research profile. And maybe we don’t need more COVID reflection
pieces. But, as any student of ideology knows, repetition naturalizes. Workers
of the world, unite.  



Image Credits:

  1. Solidarity (author’s graphic)
  2. Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…




Minimum Viable Cinema (Criticism)
Alexandra Juhasz / Brooklyn College, CUNY


ROOM H.264 sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image
ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 was sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image.

“Is cinema becoming a dead language — an art form which is already in decline?” (Wim Wenders, Room 666, 1982; Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Damon Smith, ROOM H.264, 2020)

On April 20, 2020, I was an “audience member” in ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020, an Online Premier & Live Event sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image. The “film” was cobbled together by way of Skype by its “filmmakers.” Given the constrictions of COVID 19, the three “directors” had generously invented a workaround to the already stripped-bare cinematic method that had organized three of their previous films. Their “interviewees” would answer the question above, in a new “cinematic” language: speaking alone in a room and into a 10-minute Skype screen. The responses were edited into their fourth “film” in the series, which premiered on Vimeo.

They call the project a “21st-century update on Wim Wenders’ feature-length documentary Room 666 … [where] filmmakers attending the Cannes Film Festival in 1982” also answer a single question related to the future of cinema. In CoronaWorld (CW, as opposed to BCW, Before CoronaWorld, as defined by my journalist boyfriend in his daily Plague Journal), the three artist/critics quickly modified their 21st-century process—BCW—to muster a bit of deserved attention for more than 20 international filmmakers, many of whom had lost film premiers to CW.


ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page
ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page.

A little on all my scare quotes, and the word generously, will set stage for my final (fast) reveal. Oh, plus an observation on “(fast).” For, this piece of “cinema” “criticism” will see none of my usual rigor, attention, or even humor because that seems hard to muster. (I wrote a more energetic critique of Wenders in 2011, “Men Shooting Films in Caves,” to which in other circumstances I might have referred.) In CW, for the “critic,” the “interviewees,” and “film” “directors,” time, energy, motivation have become absurd, unanchored, and unmeasurable. So I won’t wax on about how dusty, stubborn filmmakers are at long last being forced to become YouTubers; or how beautifully these “filmmakers” resist this putsch even so. I write this (fast) because my colleague Carol Vernallis asked me to. The effort at once enervates and enlivens. I’m happy to help. Be human. Last night I lay in bed and watched many respected “filmmakers” do pretty much the same: engage in a gutted form of and about a beloved enterprise; do what we can even so. Scare quotes everywhere because the once recognizable motivations, flourishes, roles, systems, technologies, and industries of cinema (albeit already in decline, again and again) are perverted, illegible, and reinvented in CW, to which so many of the “interviewees” and the “film” itself spoke. And this is all movingly, even hopefully, generous: each and every act of “cinema” in a moment of erasure.

The reveal.

On March 28, 2020, the FemTechNet collective published a white paper, Feminist Pedagogy in a Time of Coronavirus Pandemic. Working fast ourselves because we were motivated by or own fears that the roles, technologies, and industries of our beloved—teaching—were becoming a dead language, we offered insight from years of collective feminist work BCW. Our first 3:

  • We encourage “minimum viable courses.” By this we do not mean less; it’s an opportunity to rethink what a class is and could be. For now, simpler is better (see Dr. Feng-Mei Heberer on scaling down teaching at NYU Cinema Studies in CW).
  • Migrating a class into domestic space changes all interactions.
  • Foster skepticism about techno-solutionism and the visibility of corporations who are promising a new normal.

In this, my own short piece of Minimum Viable Cinema Criticism, I do my best, tipping my hat to those who are also engaging newly from our domestic spaces while staying skeptical and generous about and with the forms and tools at our disposal.



Image Credits:

  1. ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 was sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image. (author’s screengrab)
  2. ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page. (author’s screengrab)




Locked Down Listening / Communal Re-imagination
Holly Rogers / Goldsmiths, University of London


Singing from the balconies in Spain
Singing from the balconies in Spain.

Today we are listening harder than ever. But to what? Social distancing and isolation have reduced the noise of everyday life. As cities retreat indoors and transport comes to a standstill, the world has become a quieter place. But while a hush has settled over the outside world, our virtual spaces have exploded into a cacophony of communal and participatory noisemaking as the sounds of quarantine have been circulated and used creatively online by musicians eager to understand and engage with recent events.


The Rotterdam Philharmonic give a Skype performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
The Rotterdam Philharmonic give a Skype performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

As the world retreats indoors during Covid-19, cyberculture has become a significant tool for creative expression, collaboration and inclusion. During lockdown, online music has become a vital tool for maintaining and developing community, visible in the numerous clips of apartment block singsongs and singing doctors.


Chris Mann’s parody of Adele
Chris Mann’s parody of Adele.

While these forms have allowed locked-down residents to join together and to transmit their sonic communality to the world, other forms have embraced the online opportunities for live collaborations—from Lady Gaga’s One World: Together at Home concert to the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th—and pedagogy—with many university music classes moving online and opening access to the public. Other musical opportunities have seen a relay of sonic re-imaginings from remediations in the form of parody songs (like Chris Mann’s “Hello (From the Inside)”), to remixable content found on TikTok and Instagram’s “pass-it-on” covers game. Such collaborative events have harnessed the participatory potential of cybermedia to create and develop new forms of communal musicmaking and expression.


Calm Office: An interactive sound generator that simulates a typical office soundscape
Calm Office: An interactive sound generator that simulates a typical office soundscape.

Unplugged versions, duets, parodies, games. Although these forms existed before, our currently isolated lives have made the interactive opportunities of new media more important than ever. But one form of interactive musicmaking that has become vitally significant is the creative manipulation of real-world sounds. As quarantined life has seen cities and workplaces become increasingly quiet, there has been a surge of hits on websites that provide natural sounds and background noise generating apps have emerged that pipe in familiar sounds of office life into your home to help form a productive working environment. These common sounds fill the silence of isolation with some normalcy, helping to reduce the anxiety of sonic omission.


Cities And Memories collect and remix sounds
Cities And Memories collect and remix sounds.

Other online events that have embraced the new sonic ambiences of quarantine in more creative ways. Although there have been examples of musical produsage and democratised creativity in the past, the current pandemic has given sonic experimentation a peculiar resonance. Electronic musicians Matmos, for example, have asked people from all over the world to “sit together from afar” by recording their “ambient sounds of isolation” to be used as compositional material for a new work. Such crowd-sourced soundscapes enable cybercommunities to bridge geographical and cultural distances through distributed creativity. This process—which I call sonic elongation—allows participants to not only document our current sonic landscapes, but also to use cyberspace to imagine ways in which they can be shared, challenged and interpreted. The result is a simultaneous snapshot and remediation of our current auditory worlds and a glimpse into the possibilities of online creativity and its increasing entanglement with real-life.



Image Credits:

  1. Singing from the balconies in Spain. (author’s screengrab)
  2. The Rotterdam Philharmonic give a Skype performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. (author’s screengrab)
  3. Chris Mann’s parody of Adele. (author’s screengrab)
  4. Calm Office: An interactive sound generator that simulates a typical office soundscape. (author’s screengrab)
  5. Cities And Memories collect and remix sounds. (author’s screengrab)




Over*Flow: Coronavirus: How Hollywood Studios and Online Video Platforms Are Responding
Roderik Smits / Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF


Online Streaming Platforms
With theaters closed during the current Covid-19 health crisis, streaming platforms have seen an increase in commercial performance and Hollywood Studios have experimented with early VOD releases.

The Coronavirus has a damaging effect on many businesses, but Netflix, Amazon and other online video platforms are among the few businesses that have seen an increase in their commercial performance.

With cinemas closed and attention taken away from theatrical releases, online video platforms have never played such a dominant role in our lives. This is a temporary moment in time in which video platforms put themselves firmly in the spotlight as content providers of new film releases.

But while the majority of new film releases would normally enjoy an exclusive run in cinemas, how do video platforms take over the work of cinema exhibitors and release those films online? And what role do distributors play? I analysed how Hollywood studios have responded to current developments in the cinema exhibition market, focusing on their release strategies in the US, the UK and Germany.


What has changed?

The cinema release for many films distributed by Hollywood studios has been pushed back or cancelled completely. As a result, they have started to develop early release strategies on video platforms for some of their films.

Universal Pictures was among the first studios that decided to respond to changing circumstances. They released films such as The Invisible Man and Emma in cinemas in the US, the UK and Germany just before the Coronavirus began to spread internationally. But when cinemas closed by mid-March 2020, they developed an early release strategy for both films on video platforms.

Similarly, films from other Hollywood studios, such as Sony Pictures’ Bloodshot, Warner Bros’ Birds of Prey, and Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, were given an early release on video platforms in the US, the UK and Germany.

The table below demonstrates when these various films were originally released in cinemas. They were scheduled to remain in cinemas for the length of the standard theatrical release window, which is three months in the US, four months in the UK and six months in Germany. However, they have been on show for a period of between one and five weeks before they became available online.


Table 1: Theatrical Release Dates (Source: IMDB)

Studio Film US
 
UK Germany
 
Warner Bros Birds of Prey 7 Feb. 2020 7 Feb. 2020 6 Feb. 2020
Paramount Sonic the Hedgehog 14 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 13 Feb. 2020
Universal Pictures Emma 21 Feb. 2020 14 Feb. 2020 5 March 2020
Universal Pictures The Invisible Man 28 Feb. 2020 28 Feb. 2020 27 Feb. 2020
Sony Pictures Bloodshot 13 March 2020 11 March 2020 5 March 2020

Such films will now remain available on video platforms only for a period of at least several weeks. The release will subsequently open up to the DVD/Blu-ray market, the television market and potentially a re-release in the theatrical cinema market.

Hollywood studios are also developing new release strategies for films that have not yet been shown in cinemas. Some of their films are rescheduled for a conventional release in cinemas in the Autumn, while others are currently released on video platforms. Universal Pictures, for instance, organised a straight-to-VOD release for Trolls World Tour in the US and the UK earlier this month, and the same strategy is developed for the release in Germany later this month.


How have video platforms responded to changes?

New film releases are not yet available on subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but on a range of transactional services, where audiences can rent (for 48 hours) or buy them for a premium price, usually $19.99. In the US, they are available on transactional services such as Amazon (TVOD), iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Sony PlayStation and Vudu.

Some of those video platforms have also responded to the new situation, whereby they operate as exclusive content providers of new film releases. Amazon, for instance, created the category ‘Prime Video Cinema’ for their transactional platform, where audiences have access to the ‘home premiere’ of the various films described above. Other platforms have developed similar strategies by creating special categories for such films: for instance, Google Play has ‘Home premieres & more.


Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S.
Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020)


What are the wider implications for transactional platforms?

Commentators foresee that release patterns for Hollywood films will revert after the global health crisis, with films being released in cinemas before they will be available online. But this is also a moment in time in which transactional video platforms can demonstrate to Hollywood studios that they can generate economic value for their films.

While growth in the market for online viewing is often associated with the popularity of subscription platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, transactional platforms have yet to prove that they can generate significant economic value for films.

The current situation offers opportunities for transactional platforms to put pressure on conventional release strategies. It will therefore be interesting to follow how their release strategies for home premieres develop in the next months.


Can they learn lessons from Netflix?

Netflix has for several years developed exclusive premieres on their platform for most of their original productions. Their programming strategies are designed to make their own productions visible on the homepage.

Big-budget productions often appear prominently, in large format, at the top of the Netflix homepage for one or several days. But they also appear visibly in the various categories through which audiences browse on the homepage. For instance, I observed that they often appear in special categories such as Netflix Originals, New Releases, Popular on Netflix and/or Trending Now. In some cases, they appeared prominently in three or more special categories at the same time.


The Netflix Homepage
The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions

Transactional platforms have of course also developed programming strategies to make some productions more visible than others. However, home premieres do not always have the same prominent position on those platforms. I observed, for instance, that the category of films for home premieres is often placed below other special categories. In addition, home premieres appear less frequently in other categories on transactional platforms.

What this suggests is that transactional platforms prioritise visibility for other types of film content over home premieres. That might be temporary if they need to commit to pre-arranged terms for the placement of other types of films. But if this situation isn’t temporary but structural, they might miss an important opportunity because they will benefit from changing film release patterns in the long run.



Image Credits:

  1. Online streaming platforms
  2. Cinema releases on Amazon in the U.S. (April 17, 2020) (Author’s Screen Grab)
  3. The Netflix Homepage often privileges new release big-budget productions