Hybridity, Extratextuality and the Docudrama:
Re-evaluating ‘Spoilers’ in The Jinx

Laura Minor
 / Keele University

The Jinx

Andrew Jarecki’s HBO documentary mini-series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

In recent years, there has been an influx of documentaries that take dramatic, shocking turns because new information is presented during the filmmaking process. This is evident in Capturing the Friedmans (2003), My Kid Could Paint That (2007), Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008), The Queen of Versailles (2012) and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015), which are all structured around narrative surprise(s). As Tanya Horeck has also argued, “there has been an increase in documentaries that employ […] dramatic ‘tactics’ and structures in order to heighten the emotional viewing experience.” [ ((Horeck, Tanya. “‘A film that will rock you to your core’: Emotion and affect in Dear Zachary and the real crime documentary.” Crime Media Culture 10.2 (2014): 151-167. )) ] Andrew Jarecki is a particularly significant director in documenting the growth of affective and sensationalist documentaries in the contemporary climate. His first documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, focuses on the 1980s investigation of Arnold and Jesse Friedman for child molestation, and the film is structured around intimate family testimonies to “build suspense and provide ‘shocking’ revelations,” [ (( Arthur, Paul. “True confessions, sort of: Capturing the Friedmans and the dilemma of theatrical documentary.” Cineaste 22.4 (2003): 4–7. )) ] but simultaneously, such extreme intimacy inevitably arouses an emotional response in spectators. For this reason, “Capturing the Friedmans may also have functioned for some audiences as guarantors of veracity.” [ (( Austin, Thomas. Watching the World: Screen Documentary and Audiences. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2007. )) ]

The combination of audience astonishment and authenticity can also be seen in HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which is Jarecki’s newest crime documentary. However, The Jinx is somewhat unique in its sensationalism. It is not a film, but a mini-series that revolves around Robert Durst, a reclusive, real estate heir who has been accused and acquitted of dismembering his neighbour, Morris Black. This prompts an investigation into the 1982 disappearance of Robert’s wife, Kathie, as well as the execution of Robert’s best friend and confidant Susan Berman. The “coincidental” nature of these murders are shockingly built upon throughout the series, with there being no definitive proof that Robert has killed his wife and best friend, because of this, it seems as though the documentary will end on an ambiguous note until the sixth and final episode, “What the Hell Did I Do?” (1:6). This episode revolves around the filmmakers’ frustrating attempts to get Durst to meet them for a final interview, where they will present him with irrefutable evidence that he killed Susan Berman. After the interview (in which Durst is unable to defend himself), he goes to the bathroom and, seemingly unaware that his microphone is still recording, mutters to himself “There it is. You’re caught”, and goes onto say “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” For some, however, this narrative surprise was “ruined” as Robert Durst was arrested “just hours before the final episode was to be broadcast on HBO,” [ (( Renshaw, David, “The Jinx box set review: The utterly gripping true-life story of Robert Durst is stranger than any fiction.” The Guardian August 20, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/aug/20/jinx-robert-durst-murder-wealth-privilege-jarecki. )) ] and The New York Times revealed this before audiences were yet to view the last episode.

Jarecki and Durst

The Jinx director Andrew Jarecki (left) and Robert Durst (right).

It is therefore clear that extratextuality is particularly significant in influencing our perceptions of The Jinx. Although Ward has argued that “one of the most interesting things in studying the documentary field is the complex relationship between fiction, nonfiction and documentary as categories, and how they overlap,” [ (( Ward, Paul. Documentary: The Margins of Reality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. )) ] his textual focus overlooks the importance of the contemporary mediascape. Nowadays, it is online journalism that can affect how spectators view the sensational, serialized documentary. Indeed some articles have condemned Twitter users for complaining about The Jinx’s spoilers; Vulture writer Ben Williams has stated that “Robert Durst incriminated himself in three murders on The Jinx finale last night — immediately followed by complaints about spoiler alerts on Twitter,” [ (( McNutt, Myles. “With The Jinx Finale, Spoiler-Alert Culture Reaches Peak Absurdity”. Vulture March 16, 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/03/spoiler-alert-culture-reaches-peak-absurdity.html. )) ] whilst Rich McCormick of The Verge reveals “some even received push notifications, informing them both of the breaking news in a murder case that has run for 15 years, and ruining the ‘ending’ a TV show they’d spent several hours of their lives watching.” [ (( McCormick, Rick. “The New York Times spoiled the ending to HBO TV show The Jinx on Twitter”. The Verge March 15, 2015. http://www.theverge.com/2015/3/15/8221055/hbo-show-the-jinx-spoiled-on-twitter. )) ] Of course, The Verge and Vulture are passive-aggressively criticising audiences for wanting a real life murder case to remain spoiler free, because they are the outlets that have perpetuated these spoilers. Yet The Jinx, like the majority of contemporary documentaries, is a hybrid text, and multiple expectations/pleasures inevitably arise from its diverse modes. For Bill Nichols, these modes conceptualise codes and conventions of the documentary format. [ (( I refer here to Bill Nichols’ six modes of documentary filmmaking: ‘expository mode’, ‘observational mode’, ‘participatory mode’, ‘poetic mode’, ‘reflexive mode’ and ‘performative mode’. The Jinx is reflexive as it draws attention to the televisual apparatus, it is ‘participatory’, as it emphasises the interaction between Andrew Jarecki and Robert in one-on-one interviews, and it is also ‘performative’ because it highlights the subjective aspects of the filmmaker’s involvement (Jarecki recognises that he likes Robert and does not want the rumours about him to be true). )) ] However, it is not a mode but a sub-genre that arguably affects audience perceptions of The Jinx. Specifically, it is the docudrama that has significant aesthetic and formal concerns, as it “works as a mode of presentation in its fusion of documentary material (its ‘actual’ subject matter), and the structures and strategies of classical Hollywood narrative form, including character development, conflict, and closure.” [ (( Lipkin, Steven. Docudrama Performs the Past: Arenas of Argument in Films based on True Stories. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. 2. )) ]

Twitter 1

Twitter 2

Twitter users complain about push notifications spoiling the end of The Jinx

Whilst this is accurate for documentary films, The Jinx is a documentary series, and therefore has more in common with the American television (docu)drama than classical Hollywood cinema. The documentary’s title sequence is particularly emblematic of its dramatic flair. Stylistically and atmospherically, the opening is strikingly similar to True Detective’s, which is significant as both can broadly be perceived as crime dramas, and the latter is one of the most critically acclaimed dramas of 2014. Yet it is not only The Jinx’s aesthetics that are illustrative of its (docu)dramatic features. Like other contemporary, American (docu)dramas, The Jinx is also a product of seriality, as its re-enactments and documentary material interweave throughout, opening and closing narrative strands so that the plot unravels episode-by-episode. The director himself has argued that: “We’re living in a binge watching universe where people are watching 10 episodes at a time of things […] Let’s abandon the idea that this has to be a feature length film.” [ (( Zeitchick, Steven. “Is ‘The Jinx’ a threat to traditional feature documentaries?” Los Angeles Times March 18, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-the-jinx-series-documentary-hbo-20150318-story.html. )) ] Andrew Jarecki is clearly aware of the demands of modern television, as the televisual landscape is saturated with dramas. Inevitably, this affects the viewer’s perception of what they see on-screen, and is particularly applicable to how we view spoilers.

Jinx and True Detective

Stills from the title sequences of The Jinx (left) and True Detective (right)

Interestingly, academics have viewed spoilers in a positive light. Paul Booth argues that “spoilers exist as communal hypotheses of future events, built through interactivity and centered on narrative exposition. Spoilers are also a way for fans to actively construct meaning in the extant media object, and to refute the dominant interpretation of the media text.” [ (( Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2010. 110. )) ] Jonathan Bignell has also discussed the extratextual pleasures of spoilers in relation to J. J. Abrams’s Lost (2004-2010). [ (( See Gray, Jonathan, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press, 2010. )) ] Yet these analyses situate fandom as central to paratexts. While there are documentaries about fandom, there are rarely fandoms dedicated to specific documentaries; unlike fictional film and television, documentaries are not typically associated with sustained, spectatorial fervour, rather, certain auteurs are revered (such as Werner Herzog, David Attenborough and Ken Burns). Despite this, The Jinx is “made for the binge watcher,” [ (( Bauder, David. “The Jinx documentary is made for the binge watcher.” The Star February 6, 2015. http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2015/02/06/the-jinx-documentary-is-made-for-the-binge-watcher.html. )) ] which Robert Thompson believes is the optimal way to watch “new serialized, high-profile, high pedigree novelistic [shows] such as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Homeland, or Dexter.” [ (( Herbert, Geoff. “‘Arrested Development’: Why binge-watching and Netflix ‘cheating’ aren’t all bad.” Syracuse May 24, 2013. http://www.syracuse.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2013/05/arrested_development_binge_watching_netflix_cheating.html. )) ] Here we can see a tension between The Jinx as a documentary and The Jinx as a quality drama – but this is precisely why there is such outrage over its spoilers. We can recapture fiction; we cannot recapture the unfolding of real life drama in documentaries, especially real life drama that requires multiple viewings in rapid succession. It is this hybridity that complexly and poetically distorts audience expectations. The final still of The Jinx dramatizes these expectations – it is powerful, cinematic, televisual, and ultimately ambiguous in what will happen to Robert. For most people, looking up his name on Google after watching the series would provide a sense of pleasure through closure, and most importantly, this pleasure would arise from finding out these details for themselves. Yet it remains difficult to discern whether audiences should expect documentaries to be spoiler free. After all, can life be spoiler free? Perhaps the answer is not so simple in a culture that reveres the binge-watching of high-end dramas.

Image Credits:
1. The Jinx
2. Jarecki and Durst
3. Tweet #1
4. Tweet #2
5. The Jinx Opening Credits
6. True Detective Opening Credits




Fandom in Transition: Long Live the Landslide
Louisa Ellen Stein / Middlebury College

Behind the scenes footage of Lord of the Rings

Behind the scenes footage from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

“A love-letter to a fandom I’m not really in anymore”: That’s how Gwenfrankenstien describes her vid, “Long Live,” a Lord of the Rings fan video made from the Return of the King DVD extras, edited to Taylor Swift’s anthem of the same name.

I find Gwenfrankenstien’s description of her vid very evocative. “Long Live” captures the power and the transience of the fan experience, and I’m saying that as someone who is not really a Lord of the Rings fan by any definition. But I’m still moved by this vid every time I watch it. In part, I’m struck by its vision of the journey shared by media producers as they (re)create a fan-loved media text. The Taylor Swift song’s proclamation “long live the magic we made” helps amplify the vids’ vision of the producers and actors of Return of the King coming together, via technology, performance, and creative teamwork to transform a collective imagined fantasy into a filmed reality. The magic, it suggests, is in the lived process of that creation as much as (if not more than) in the final product, and thus cannot be fully contained in the form of a movie or even in DVD extras. “Long Live” celebrates the vision and determination of media producers, and (to me at least) in doing so likens their community experience to that shared by fans. Indeed, I can’t help but see fans not only as the recipient of this video’s love letter, but as represented by proxy in its images of producers, actors, interviews, and award shows.

While I’m not part of the particular fandom represented here, I am part of a different sort of fandom that was also the intended audience for “Long Live,” the vidding fandom, that is, fans of fan-authored remix videos. This video was made for Festivids, an annual fannish vid exchange. Many festivids vidders also participate in Vividcon, an annual convention in which vidders submit premiering and recent videos, and host vid shows and panels on particular subjects of interest to vidders and vid-viewers. I saw “Long Live” for the first time in the “Nearly New” vidshow at Vividcon 2015. I was especially struck by how connected I felt to this video about a fandom I wasn’t in, which I was watching within a fan community that precisely brings together multiple, diverse fandoms, with participants connected together by their love for a particular form rather than a particular source text.

Although the multiplicity of fandom is a core feature of both Festivids and Vividcon, that multiplicity isn’t without its friction points, friction points that emerge from the power and transience of fandom highlighted in Gwenfrankenstien’s vid. The Vividcon vidding community has evolved over the decades across not only the rise and fall of multiple fandoms, but also over multiple interfaces held in tandem, built on prior histories of vidding and fan conventions. Francesca Coppa and Henry Jenkins have written about early years of vidding, the cultures of vidding collectives working with the technology of dual VCRs [ (( See Jenkins, Henry. “’Layers of Meaning’: Fan Music Video and the Poetics of Poaching.” Textual Poachers, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 2013. p. 223-249. And Coppa, Francesca, “Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding.” Transformative Works and Cultures 1 (2008). http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/44. doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0044 ))]. They and other scholars have argued that since its origins in the 1980s, through into the era of digital editing, vidding has fostered often-female communities of practice in which fans turn video authors, taking ownership of and speaking back to mainstream media, and in so doing developing alternative aesthetic traditions and perspectives.

Vividcon 2015

Vividcon 2015 logo, edited within Community

When I began to participate in vidding in 2006, vidders mostly shared their videos in locked communities or behind password protected servers. Even as YouTube grew in popularity and breadth, vidders were very tentative about sharing their work there for fear of copyright takedowns and IP issues. As Francesca Coppa has argued, this tentativeness threated to erase the creative work of the mostly female vidding community while the more often male remix artist were posting their work publicly on YouTube [ (( Coppa, 2008. ))].

But at the same time that Vividcon vidders were hesitant to post on YouTube and to share their work publicly, new fan video traditions were evolving on YouTube. There were and are many vidders and fan vidding communities on YouTube that did not necessarily emerge from or align themselves with the traditions of Vividcon and/or VCR vidding. The vids that these “YouTube vidders” (as they are sometimes called) created/create look significantly different from the still dominant aesthetic at Vividcon, one which highlights professional-feeling clean cuts, minimal special effects, music rather than dialogue for audio, and linear, legible narrative or analytic structure [ (( Katharina Freund, “I Thought I Made a Vid, But Then You Told Me That I Didn’t: Aesthetics and Boundary Work in the Fan Vidding Community,” in eds. Eduardo Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough, The Routledge Companion To Remix Studies (New York: Routledge, 2015). ))]. In contrast, many “YouTube vids” layer dialogue as well as image, and incorporate filters and overlays, sometimes/often in abundance.

At Vividcon, congoers have debated the relationship between the Vividcon community and other evolving fan vidding and remix traditions, aesthetics, and interfaces for sharing, in panels like the 2007 “Town Hall on Vidding and Visibility.” At the 2012 Vividcon panel entitled “Forever Reblog: Vid Audiences on Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.,” we talked about whether vidders should experiment, migrate, and embed these new interfaces and/or the aesthetics evolving on them. The overall tone was open and encouraging, with people giving tips about how to publicize, self brand, and link across interfaces.

Vividcon 2015

Vividcon 2015

Now, in 2015, Vividcon has grown in tremendous ways—most notably its streaming vidshows that have allowed greater access to those unable to attend the conference in person. Its panel and vid show topics continue also to encourage a diversity of approaches, perspectives, and fannish identification. And yet I fear that the vidding community might still be facing its own transience—that it might not live on if it does not enter more fully into conversation with evolving fan video and remix video cultures. Yes, Vividcon has a Tumblr and many vids circulate on Tumblr, and a fair amount of vidders post their work to YouTube as well as to Vimeo. But an us versus them/ours versus theirs mentality still lurks, not shared by all, but it’s there, arguably motivated by an understandable fear of loss—loss of the aesthetics, culture, and values specific to the vidding/Vividcon communities.

For me there was one vid at Vividcon 2015 that stood out, in part because it spoke to these issues and in part because it seemed to me a poignant counterpart to “Long Live”: Millylicious’ 2015 Vividcon premiere, “Landslide.” This Harry Potter vid conjures up the specifics of the passage of time for Harry Potter and its fandom, through the powerful conceit of a Hogwarts point of view (at least that’s how I read it). I find myself especially moved by this video, as I am currently re-engaging with Harry Potter through the eyes/ears of my eight year old daughter and thus am very aware of Harry Potter fandom as something past and present, continued yet fundamentally different from what it was. Harry Potter lives on but its initial fandom movement was specific to place, time, interface, and technology.

And yet I don’t read Milly’s “Landslide” as only about Harry Potter and HP fandom, to me it is about fandom’s evolutions and revolutions and changes more broadly, and now for me at least it is also inextricably about Vividcon specifically, the changing culture there, and the vidding cultures that are growing in other interfaces with other sets of aesthetic norms and expectations. Vividcon vidding and community is not what it was, even as many vidders still hold up strict lines to defend against the more diverse practices of vidding in YouTube, Tumblr, and fan culture(s). I don’t think that VVC and vidding should erase those boundaries from history, but if they/we don’t move forward in more open ways, I fear we may face endings rather than evolution, a practice tied to a moment and its technologies rather than one fluid enough to move into new but related traditions that stand on the backs of old ones.

I believe we must honor the specifics of communities and specific fan practices while acknowledging and embracing the larger cultural creative frameworks that contain diverse practices. Let’s not reify cultural divides in our self-definitions of media fans and fan practices.

Image Credits:

1. Lord of the Rings behind the scenes footage
2. 2015 VividCon Logo
3. Vividcon 2015

Please feel free to comment




Spinning off, crossing over
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

grey\'s/private practice

Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice

I would like to explore the applicability of the concept of diegesis to television drama through some speculations about the recent Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice crossover on ABC in February, 2009.

A difficult to pronounce word, Greek to some, the term diegesis became standardized in film studies through its usage in the Bordwell and Thompson Film Art textbook. Non-diegetic sound is sound whose source is outside the realm of the narrative. Diegesis , then, refers to whatever is inside the world of the narrative. I can recall a much earlier usage of the term by Peter Wollen. Writing about Godard, Wollen wanted to capture that which was expressly NOT classical Hollywood narrative and he used the term “multiple diegesis” to refer to the breaks from narrative realism in a film like Weekend. I borrowed Wollen’s term to describe dream sequences in musicals and also on TV. The word here evokes a particular strain of modernism, an attempt to dis-unify the smooth realism of the text. (This also at a time when references to Brecht and distanciation were everywhere).

I always thought we could learn a lot about television by thinking it through in terms of diegesis. The whole concept of flow– which is so definitional of TV that this journal takes it name from it– was used by Raymond Williams to capture a sense of the lack of the diegetic in television’s sequencing. And yet we’ve always gone on the assumption that there is a strong diegetic unity to a particular television series, as in the term “Buffyverse.” So we have come to regard television as a world in which the diegesis is porous but present. Intertextuality is the norm. And therefore the word “crossover” is somewhat redundant. Crossing over is a norm of American television, where an entire genre—the talk show—exists for the promotion of other forms of entertainment.

oprah interviews dempsey and pompeo

Another variation on the crossover: Grey’s stars on Oprah

Spinning off is the process by which a popular show gives birth to a newbie which may or may not resemble the parent. In the case of Private Practice, there is a strong family resemblance in content but not in tone. Both shows have the same author—Shonda Rhimes—yet the melodramatic excess that created pathos in the original show turns toward the ludicrous in the spinoff. As in all melodrama, the premise is likely to be ridiculous, in this case the idea that “conflict of interest” has no meaning. This is where the concept of diegesis comes in. Grey’s Anatomy—at least for its numerous fans—is able to counter its astonishing lack of realism through the strength of its fictional enclosure. The incestuous and multiple liasons among cast members can be sustained only through a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to take the ridiculously jumbled liaisons at a metaphoric level. This requires an attitude common to the acceptance of much television (melodrama), an “I know it’s silly but I’m moved nevertheless.” As a Grey’s fan, I often find myself drawn into the diegesis to the point where I become engulfed in its reality. I was even willing—with a healthy dose of irony—to accept the Denny’s- return –as- a -ghost storyline—for the reason that I liked the intensity that is provided for the two lovers to be together again. (How more or less ‘realist’ shows get us to accept the supernatural is another interesting topic.) Blogged opinions about Denny were mixed, but those who were willing to go with it seemed to agree with me that extra-diegetic reasons figured in their acceptance i.e. an opportunity to see Katherine Heigl display her movie-star luminosity.

Yet the bloggers also agree that Private Practice is not worthy of the talents of the Grey’s star whose move to LA spun it off. What succeeds as melodrama in the parent show comes across as a kind of bad taste in the mouth in the spinoff. The characters are equally intertwined but just not likeable. Bloggers frequently express the wish that Private Practice would collapse and allow Kate Walsh to return to the parent show. So the crossover was supposed to grant this wish, and in the process serve as a ratings stunt, which apparently it succeeded in doing.

crossover time

Fansite’s celebratory announcement of crossover

I would like to focus on the central episode of the crossover—the Feb. 12. 2009 episode of Grey’s Anatomy—as the most compelling instance of the diegetic clash occurring as Practice invades the parent show. For me the most fascinating element—other than the worm and cyst brain surgery—was the attempt to create a backstory involving the med school classmate-chums that span both shows: Addison, Derek, Naomi, Sam and Addison’s brother Archer, thus creating multiple groups of med school classmates ranging from the original cast of Grey’s to the current group of interns featured in a scavenger hunt on the crossover, not to mention the backstory involving the senior Dr. Grey and the Chief in earlier years. This makes the world of the hospital into a rich, multi-generational, deeply and incestuously interwoven diegesis that transcends any particular part of the whole. The hospital as diegesis functions similarly in many of the outstanding medical dramas of the past, from St. Elsewhere to ER. Television’s technique of continually adding backstory serves well in this type of inter-diegetic creation. In this episode there is a faux nostalgia about a past that is created almost entirely for the purpose of the crossover. The fact that Naomi is currently seeing Archer on Private Practice and that her ex-husband Sam shows up on the episode gives a modicum of believability to the idea that the whole group once attended Derek and Addison’s wedding for which Derek wrote an anatomically versed song. Indeed the central scene of the crossover episode occurs when the group adjourns to a bar after the surgery and nostalgically mines said tune. The diegesis thus created pulls the audience into a reunion of a past we’ve never witnessed but one that crosses over both shows, thus spanning the individual narrative world of each.

I am not going to say whether the crossover was aesthetically successful or not. I just wanted to explore the complexity that a diegesis can achieve through perfectly normal TV narrative technique. It does not require anything special to achieve thickness and richness within the world of TV series narrative.

Image Credits:
1. Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice
2. Another variation on the crossover: Grey’s stars on Oprah
3. Fansite’s celebratory announcement of crossover

Please feel free to comment.




La telenovela mexicana en el ciberespacio

por: Claudia Benassini Félix / Tecnológico de Monterrey, State of Mexico

(for English, click here)

Los actores de Senda Prohibida

Los actores de “Senda Prohibida”

La telenovela mexicana es uno de los productos más exitosos de la televisión nacional. Desde 1958, año en que se inician las transmisiones de Senda Prohibida, el género fue posicionándose entre las audiencias nacionales. De aquí su inclusión gradual en la programación que desde sus comienzos ofrece la Spanish Internacional Network a partir de 1962, y que catorce años más adelante se convertiría en la Cadena Univisión. Y de ahí su inclusión en la oferta programática que Televisa — entonces Telesistema Mexicano — exportó a otros países vía Protele, empresa fundada por Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta para vender las producciones mexicanas a las televisoras extranjeras. En consecuencia, de manera gradual el género fue conquistando a las audiencias más allá de las fronteras nacionales.

Por tanto, tampoco fue casual que en 1988, cuando Televisa incursionó nuevamente en el mercado europeo a través de España y el sistema Galavisión[i], la telenovela fue incluida como parte de la programación. Y fue a través de Quinceañera, la telenovela mexicana entonces más popular en nuestro país, que las audiencias europeas, comenzando por las españolas, comenzaron a relacionarse con el género. De manera casi paralela, los logros continuaron en otros países, sobre todo los ubicados en la zona oriental del continente[ii]. De hecho, estos logros ocuparon espacios importantes en los espacios destinados al espectáculo en la prensa, radio y televisión nacionales e internacionales.

Victoria Ruffo de La Madrastra

Victoria Ruffo de “La Madrastra”

En este proceso, las producciones mexicanas han enfrentado a la competencia de otros países. Primero, Venezuela y Brasil; más adelante Colombia y Argentina; más recientemente, otros países que han incorporado el género a su oferta programática, en buena medida por la aceptación que ha tenido entre las audiencias, como España. Adicionalmente, si bien en sus inicios la telenovela mexicana fue producida por Televisa, en este momento se enfrenta a la competencia de Televisión Azteca, empresa que desde 1996 ingresó al género con producciones como Mirada de mujer, con las que ha buscado incursionar en el mercado internacional[iii]. Asimismo, en el contexto de la producción nacional y de la competencia entre países, es importante considerar que la telenovela mexicana ha pasado por altibajos, identificables por los estudiosos del género, la crítica especializada y las propias audiencias[iv].

Este panorama descrito apretadamente da cuenta de los espacios conquistados por la telenovela mexicana y del crecimiento de sus audiencias, cuantitativa y cualitativamente hablando. Es difícil hacer un estimado real del número de televidentes que cotidianamente se exponen al género; sin embargo, los estudios realizados por investigadores del tema dan cuenta de los procesos a través de los cuales las audiencias televisivas — y por tanto de la telenovela — se apropian de los contenidos del medio y los incorporan a sus prácticas cotidianas. Como muestra, basta ver el crecimiento de los espacios en Internet dedicados el tema, la mayoría diseñados y actualizados por sus aficionados[v]. El movimiento se inició en 1976, cuando la venezolana Jolette Nicholson, apoyada por el ruso Alexander Zhukov, lanzó al ciberespacio su página “Telenovelas-Internet”, en el que reconocía su afición por la telenovela mexicana[vi] y su interés por intercambiar materiales y opiniones con otros ciberaficionados.

Los actores de Rebelde

Los actores de “Rebelde”

Rápidamente el ejemplo de Jolette tuvo sus seguidores, como el mexicano Juan Carlos Alvarado y la chilena María Elena Venant, el español “Moisés”, el portorriqueño Rafael Ochoteco y muchos más ciberaficionados a la telenovela mexicana, ubicados en diversas partes del mundo[vii]. Más recientemente, las opciones abiertas por la blogósfera han incrementado los espacios[viii]. Asimismo, las consideradas “escenas importantes” del género –finales, entradas, temas musicales etc.- han comenzado a subirse a YouTube y pueden observarse y comentarse por los interesados.

Cabe señalar que cada vez resulta más complicado encontrar espacios dedicados específicamente a la telenovela mexicana, puesto que la internacionalización del género ha propiciado que los ciberaficionados se vuelquen en sus preferencias, más allá de sus orígenes. Aproximarse a la indagación, la exploración y la investigación de este espacio constituye una opción que da cuenta de una nueva modalidad de apropiación del género que da cuenta del interés de sus aficionados, mismo que se traduce en procesos tan diversos que van desde la construcción de espacios propios hasta el debate y la polémica sobre el tema. Adicionalmente, adentrarse en este ámbito supone utilizar metodologías tan variadas como la etnografía, el análisis conversacional y la etnometodología entre otras. Un campo, en suma, sobre el que todavía queda mucho por investigar.

Notas
Una primera incursión fue en 1975, básicamente a través de programas informativos. Sin embargo, en ese momento la aceptación de la programación mexicana en España fue mínima. En consecuencia, las oficinas de Televisa España se mantuvieron más bien como una suerte de corresponsalía informativa. La segunda incursión, en 1988 — a la que hacemos referencia–, se produjo en el contextoy del de la era de los satélites y de la televisión de paga.
Este proceso se inició a finales de 1989, en el contexto de la apertura regional iniciada por la entonces Unión Soviética durante el régimen de Mijail Gorbachov.
Sin embargo, revisiones periódicas a la programación de diversas televisoras latinoamericanas y europeas da cuenta de que las telenovelas de Televisa tienen más aceptación que las de TV Azteca.
En este momento, la crítica central es la poca presencia de argumentos originales. Si bien la telenovela mexicana continúa posicionada como uno de los géneros favoritos entre las audiencias nacionales e internacionales, se reconoce que sus argumentos son remakes de producciones locales exitosas, como Vivir un poco (1985), que veinte años después se convirtió en La Madrastra, o Rubí (1964), cuya nueva versión llegó a la pantalla casera cuatro décadas más tarde. Asimismo, Mirada de mujer fue primera una exitosa telenovela en Colombia, igual que Rebelde lo fue en Argentina.
Nos referimos específicamente a los espacios de aficionados que circulan a través de la red y no a las páginas institucionales diseñadas y mantenidas por las televisoras. También nos referimos en particular a los espacios destinados a discutir la telenovela mexicana.
Desde hace casi siete años, Jolette trabaja para Univisión y su sitio pionero Telenovelas-Internet.com fue absorbido por la televisora.
Por ejemplo, los sitios Telenovelas del Momento, Telenovelas online, en los que se da cuenta de otros muchos espacios dedicados al género.
Por ejemplo, La Coctelera/Rebelde, Las Telenovelas Mexicanas en EUA, entre muchas opciones.

“Comunidades virtuales: ¿espacios de convivencia pacífica?”, en Dia-logos de la Comunicación núm. 59-60, FELAFACS, Lima.

“Formación de comunidades virtuales a través de la televisión” en ISLAS, Octavio y Fernando GUTIERREZ (coord.) Internet: el medio inteligente, 2000, Edit. CECSA.

“El papel de la telenovela latinoamericana en la formación de comunidades virtuales: propuestas para su abordaje”, en Signo y Pensamiento núm. 36, 2000, Facultad de Comunicación y Lenguaje, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Santa Fe de Bogotá.

Imágenes
1. Los actores de “Senda Prohibida”
2. Victoria Ruffo de “La Madrastra”
3. Los actores de “Rebelde”

Claudia Benassini Félix es investigadora asociada, Cátedra de Investigación en Comunicación Estratégica y Cibercultura, ITESM Campus Estado de México.

Favor de comentar.




by: Claudia Benassini Félix / Tecnológico de Monterrey, State of Mexico

Telenovelas represent one of the most successful products to emerge from Mexico’s television industry. The genre positioned itself as an important alternative for audiences since 1958, when Senda Prohibida [Forbidden Path] was broadcasted. Thus, it was gradually incorporated into the programming offered by Spanish International Network from 1962 onwards; fourteen years later this entity would become Cadena Univisión. Therefore, it was included among the various programs exported by Televisa, then known as Telesistema Mexicano. The corporation exported the genre through Protele, a company created by Emilio Azcárraga to sell Mexican productions to foreign networks and television stations. Consequently, this genre slowly conquered foreign audiences.

Thus, it is not surprising that in 1988, when Televisa once again ventured into the European market through Spain and the Galavision system,[i] telenovelas were part of the overall programming. European audiences (particularly those from Spain) first began relating to this genre through Quinceañera [Fifteen-year old girl]. At the same time, Televisa achieved success in other countries, particularly those located in the Eastern part of the continent.[ii]

Throughout this process, Mexican productions have faced competition from other countries. First, Venezuela and Brazil; later on, Colombia and Argentina. More recently, other countries have incorporated the genre in their programming, mostly because of the positive response from audiences; Spanish television production exemplifies this model. Additionally, even though Mexican telenovelas were initially produced by Televisa, this corporation now faces competition from Televisión Azteca. The latter entered the playing field through productions such as Mirada de Mujer [A Woman’s Gaze]; it later entered the international market with the same product.[iii] Moreover, one must note that Mexican telenovelas have gone through various setbacks, identified by various scholars devoted to the genre, specialized critics, and audiences themselves.[iv]

This cursory overview describes the spaces conquered by Mexican telenovelas, even as it details the growth of audiences in a quantitative and qualitative fashion. It is difficult to determine the real number of television viewers that are regularly exposed to this genre. Nevertheless, researchers have noted how television audiences — and hence, telenovela viewers — appropriate the contents of the medium and incorporate them in their everyday practices. One can note the various internet sites devoted to the genre, most of them designed and updated by fans.[v] This process began in 1976, when Jolette Nicholson launched her cyberspace site, “Telenovelas-Internet” with the help of Alexander Zhukov from Russia. Through this site, she noted her devotion to Mexican telenovelas, and her wish to exchange materials and opinions with other cyberfans.[vi]

Jolette’s example was quickly followed by people such as Juan Carlos Alvarado (Mexico) and María Elenba Venant (Chile), “Moisés” (Spain), and Rafael Ochoteco (Puerto Rico); various other Mexican telenovela cyberfans also participated in this process.[vii] More recently, the options made available by the blogosphere have multiplied these sites.[viii] Moreover, the “most important scenes” from the genre — opening credits, endings, musical themes, and more — are being uploaded into YouTube, so that all those who are interested can watch them.

One must note that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sites specifically devoted to Mexican telenovelas, as the internationalization of the genre has altered the tastes and preferences of cyberfans, regardless of their country of origin. As one investigates, explores, and researches this space, one must note a new genre appropriation modality, one that speaks of the interest from fans, which in turn produces a diverse gamut of processes from these individuals. These processes veer from the construction of their own sites to a number of spirited debates and controversies around the telenovela genre. Additionally, in order to enter this body of knowledge, one must engage in various methodologies, such as ethnography, conversation analysis, and ethnomethodology, among others. In other words, much remains to be done within this field.

Notes
One early example took place in 1975 with news programming. At that moment, however, there was a limited acceptance of Mexican programming in Spain. Consequently, the Televisa España offices were mostly kept as news correspondents. The second attempt, taking place in 1988, was produced within the context and era of satellite and pay-per-view television.
This process began towards the end of 1989, as part of the historical and social processes developing throughout the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nevertheless, a periodic overview of programming in Latin American and European networks reveals that telenovelas by Televisa are still more popular than those produced by TV Azteca.
At this moment, a common complaint is the lack of original plots. Even though most people recognize that Mexican telenovelas are popular with national and international audiences, one must recognize that the plots are mostly remakes of successful local productions. For example, Vivir un poco [To Live a Little], from 1985, was later remade as La Madrasta [The Step-Mother]. Other productions include a 1964 telenovela, Rubí, which four decades later was “remade.” Similarly, Mirada de Mujer was first a successful Colombian telenovela, as well as Rebelde [Rebel].
I am specifically referring to the sites built and maintained by fans, not to the various websites designed and maintained by television networks. I am also referring specifically to those sites devoted to discuss Mexican telenovelas.
For over seven years, Jolette has been working for Univisión. Her pioneering website, Telenovelas-Internet.com was absorbed by the television network.
For instance, sites such as Telenovelas del Momento, Telenovelas online, which list various other websites devoted to the genre.
For instance, La Coctelera/Rebelde, Las Telenovelas Mexicanas en EUA, among various other options.

Click here to see the author’s publications in this area

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. The Cast of Senda Prohibida
2. Victoria Ruffo from La Madrastra
3. The Cast of Rebelde

Author: Claudia Benassini Félix is Associate Researcher, Tec de Monterrey, Campus State of Mexico.

Translator: Alberto McKelligan Hernandez is a Ph.D. Student in Art History at the City University of New York (CUNY).




Watching TV Without Pity

by: Mark Andrejevic / University of Iowa

VoteForTheWorst

VoteForTheWorst.com

Despite their threats and invective, it’s hard to take the folks at Fox seriously when they badmouth VoteForTheWorst.com, the Website that champions the underdogs on American Idol – not out of pity, but in order to have them to kick around a bit longer. Fox has reportedly slapped the site with cease-and-desist orders and dispatched its spokespeople to call it “hateful” and “mean-spirited,” but as is so often the case with Murdoch-style outrage, this reeks of a certain gleeful hypocrisy – as when the network turned suddenly penitent after Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and trumpeted its remorse all the way to the bank (www.votefortheworst.com). VoteForTheWorst.com is merely one more self-stoking symptom of American Idol’s daunting success. As the site’s founder put it, Fox needs to lighten up: “All we’re doing is getting people to watch their show…We’re [earning] you money for the sponsors!” (Elfman, 2007).

If it’s not already quietly negotiating a deal to buy the site, Fox should learn from Bravo, which recently purchased the well established, rip-on-your-favorite-show site, TelevisionWithoutPity.com (TWoP for short) (Peterson, 2007). For those who have been following its snarky antics since it changed its name from Mighty Big TV and attracted a loyal following of some 50,000 registered users with lots more visitors and lurkers, the sale might be somewhat bittersweet: the site that gleefully ripped on The Powers That Be (TPTB, in TWoPspeak) has officially been deputized by them (Kapica, 2006). All of which might threaten to take some of the satisfaction out of the snark…or not.

A few years ago, I posted an advertisement on the site (which was strapped for cash at the time, before its deal with Yahoo and its purchase by Bravo) inviting visitors to participate in an online survey. In keeping with the general tenor of the site, I received lots (almost 1,800, within a matter of days) of articulate, thoughtful, and highly self-reflexive answers to questions about how TWoPpers envisioned their role in the media food chain. Despite the interactive hype that has inundated the media environment since the start of the millennium, the people who wrote me were, in keeping with the upbeat cynicism that characterizes all but the most unabashedly fannish forums on the site, quite cautious about making any broad claims regarding audience empowerment or subversive consumption. As one respondent put it, “the producers are such prostitutes to advertisers and whatever other show may be popular that giving advice would be pointless. It is all about the Benjamins.”

This response was typical. Most of those who wrote me took pains to suggest that they didn’t have any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry. The recurring theme in the responses was that contributors post primarily for one another, and that if producers feel like paying attention, so much the better. Some respondents cautioned against the dangers of TWoPpers believing their own press coverage, which included accounts of show runners scurrying back to their computers to see how the boards were treating their shows. As one respondent put it, “Although the artistic personnel of some shows probably read TWOP, I think the posters on the forums think they have more influence than they probably do. If they write posts for the series creators, they are deluded as to their influence.”

Tubey

Tubey

Which is not to say TWoPpers were entirely without hope: the site’s snark is motivated in no small part by disappointment in the persistent inanity and unfulfilled potential of a medium for which contributors and founders alike maintain a perverse affection. As one of the site’s co-founders, Sarah Bunting put it, “We love television, and we want it to be better than it is. Because most of the time — 85 percent of the time — it’s crap” (Vogel, 2006). But improving TV via fan participation is not something they’re counting on: “If TV is watching us, that’s great,” Bunting said, “but it’s not what we set out to do” (Kapica, 2006).

TWoPpers are using a new medium – the Internet – to make an older one more entertaining for themselves and anyone else who wants to tag along or chip in. As one of the respondents to my survey put it, “I would like my TV to be smarter, better written, more intellectually stimulating, and more emotionally engaging. With TWoP, at least my watching of TV can be those things.”

This is the beauty of interactivity from the producers’ perspective: not only does it allow for the spontaneous formation of instant focus groups, but it also allows them to benefit from the free labor of smart people trying to make bad TV more entertaining.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was spending a fair amount of time in the official chat rooms for the first US version of Big Brother. Despite much hype, the show was often mind-numbingly boring, as were the round-the-clock live Internet video feeds. The chat rooms became, for at least some viewers, the only way to make the show interesting. While watching the cast members’ attempts to entertain themselves in a drab, media-free ranch house on a lot in studio city, online viewers similarly took upon themselves the task of amusing themselves by speculating on plot twists that might make the show more interesting, by sharing information about the various contestants, and by starting online debates.

TWoP has elevated the attempt to make bad TV more entertaining to a popular art form. In the TWoP world, the show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor – some paid, some free – of recappers and forum contributors. While TWoPpers benefit from the wit and wisdom of their fellow posters and their shared project, so do producers. Not only did roughly one-third of the respondents to my survey indicate that they watched more TV because of TWoP but a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps.

All of which suggests that it might be worth revisiting the Jenkinsian appropriation of de Certeau’s observation that, “ readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (as quoted in Jenkins, 1988; 86). The romantic appeal of this formulation is unmistakable: it refigures fans of all stripes as latter day Robin Hoods, bandits, and rebels – pirating the wealth of the Hollywood heavies. In the interactive era, the metaphor breaks down in the transition from fields to texts. As economists might put it, the consumption of crops is rival: if I make off in the night with the wheat you worked all season tending, you’ve been despoiled, stripped of your goods. If however, I devote my lunch hour and down time at work honing my wit on the grindstone of American Idol, my enjoyment only enhances the wealth of Century City.

It turns out that the despoilers aren’t tearing their way across the media landscape like rapacious rebels, but perhaps more like unpaid nomadic laborers, turning the soil and enriching it as they go. Fox needs to wake up and smell the fertilizer that’s being lavished on its fields for free.

References

Elfman, Doug. 2007. “Enjoying Their Worst: Suburban Web Site says Idol is ‘Giant Karaoke Contest.’” Chicago Sun Times, March 26.

Jenkins, Henry. 1988. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5: 85-107.

Kapica, Jack. 2006. Serious TV Web Forum Getting Serious Notice. The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 13, p. B11.

Peterson, Karla. 2007. “With TWoP in Bravo’s Pocket, Does This Mean the Party’s Over?” The San-Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, p. E9.

Vogel, Charity. 2006. “Living in TV Land.” The Buffalo News, December 10, p. G3.

VoteForTheWorst.com

Image Credits:
1. VoteForTheWorst.com
2. Tubey

Please feel free to comment.




Rating the Runway: Project Runway and New York Fashion Week

Project Runway

Project Runway cast

On February 10, the three finalists from Bravo’s Project Runway presented their Fall 2006 collections at New York Fashion Week. The shows were recorded for the season finale, scheduled for March 8. Given the secrecy usually associated with reality show finales, there seems something amiss, if not completely inept, about this timing. Yet it is clearly deliberate: this is the second season structured in this way, replete with a decoy finalist whose runway presence at once nods to this asynchrony and indicates careful advance planning. This elaborate strategy instead suggests an important shift in contemporary television textuality. That fourth decoy collection and the delayed transmission of the Bryant Park fashion shows reveal viewer responses to be as much a part of PR’s text as its broadcast events1

Jane Feuer has argued that both of contemporary broadcasting’s most paradigmatic forms–reality and quality television–largely depend on their discursive and interpretative communities to create meanings2. In the case of reality shows in particular, this results in a distinctive textuality that evokes a close and dynamic relationship with an offscreen “real,’ while at the same time asserting the show’s textual specificity. Shows like Project Runway maintain a distinct textual presence while they advocate viewer participation, play with the idea of permeable and non-permeable textual boundaries and highlight the different ways in which we can access ‘the real world.’

Project Runway is currently the highest rated cable show on Wednesday nights among 18-49s–and given the prevalence of PR reruns and mini-marathons, it’s arguably easier to see it than miss it. It’s also one of the most discussed shows on television. Viewers can also extend their participation by purchasing assorted t-shirts, bags and pins from the official site and a tie-in magazine is available from Banana Republic with a purchase. If that’s not enough, they can buy clothing from the designers’ own collections, bid on the actual garments from the show, get the tie-in Banana Republic outfit or the PR Barbie.

Santino Rice

Santino Rice

PR is not about making couture accessible; instead, it explores this gap in cultural power through the vehicle of fashion. Although premised on finding “the next great American designer,” PR presents the more mundane world of mass-market retail (L’Oreal, Banana Republic, Mattell, Toys R Us). Unlike most high profile reality shows, it has no desert islands, boardrooms or elaborate stages but instead embraces the everyday while ostensibly focusing on the elite world of high fashion. Unlike American Idol, the judges alone decide who advances on PR, and the inconsistency and elitism of their criteria is the primary discussion topic on official and fan sites. Polls on the Bravo site allow viewers to correct these seemingly awry and capricious verdicts immediately after the show. In both seasons a fan favorite was eliminated just before the Bryant Park shows while a free pass was seemingly given to its “villains” (first the style-challenged Wendy Pepper, then the arrogant and outspoken Santino Rice). Viewers respond by ensuring that their favorites–season 1’s Austin Scarlett and Season 2’s Nick Verreos–win almost every challenge (at least online), regardless of the quality of their designs, blasting the judges/producers for elevating character over accomplishments.

Bravo’s site also offers commentaries from Tim Gunn, Chair of Fashion Design at Parsons, that encourage viewers to mount a counter critique of the show. These elaborate upon events we didn’t see, suggesting that the show–as broadcast–is incomplete. Viewers are implicitly invited to seal up these gaps–or rent them further apart–in order to finish the show. Websites and internet posters point to clumsy devices–voice-overs that do not match the image and obvious temporal ellipses–and offer their own interpretations of what really happened. This allows them to correct perceived errors in judgment–a bad overdub meant that the producers really sent Nick home on episode 10, favoring outsized character over good design.

Jay McCarroll

Jay McCarroll

Many PR posters admit to knowing little about fashion, however, allowing the show to mobilize another gap that exists in the real world: the gulf between the populist feelings/tastes of the masses and the elitism of those in the fashion industry. Jay McCarroll, last season’s popular winner has now been reinvented as a villain: as an outsider (contestant) he was funny and offbeat, but as an industry insider, he is just bitchy and mean spirited. On the other hand, viewers like Tim Gunn, not just because he is the paradigmatic witty and debonair gay man, but also because he is a teacher and thus occupies a liminal position between the industry and those of us permanently on the other side of the velvet ropes. During Fashion Week, he eschewed a front row seat, instead remaining backstage to support the designers. Tim thus foregrounds the distance between the viewers and the elite worlds of fashion and television while acting as a conduit for further commentary.

PR’s most obvious gap–the four weeks between its finale and the Bryant Park shows–thus not only stimulates discussion and displays the multifaceted registers of this text, but makes a statement on social status and expertise. Although initially intended as a trade event, Fashion Week is now effectively part of celebrity culture, and, as such, more about access and social status than talent or knowledge. The hierarchies of access–admission to the tent, viewing the collections on the internet (still photos that cannot display the way garments move) and watching them on television (with a four week wait)–enact the discrepancies in power that are part of high fashion and the social sphere it embodies. By stimulating viewer discussion and arguably stoking critique of its judges (celebrities and fashion world insiders alike), Bravo reiterates television’s status as ostensibly popular medium. By forsaking the conventional secrecy, shock and suspense of most reality television, PR instead offers a network-sanctioned utopian vision of a more interactive and democratic text–albeit a form of populism designed more to placate advertisers and sponsors than truly disturb hierarchies of power.

1Airing the season finale a month after the show sacrifices novelty and suspense, but as the Banana Republic magazine exposed designs and challenges before the show even aired, PR would seem to be one reality show where suspense–and with it, a concentration on the text as text–was not the point.

2Jane Feuer, “The Shifting Meaning of Quality TV: 1950s-Present,” presented at American Quality TV, An International Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, April 2004.

Image Credits:

1. Project Runway Cast

2. Santino Rice

3. Jay McCarroll

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

Please feel free to comment.




Stripping (Part 2)

DeVito

DeVito

In my last column, I began to discuss the practice of stripping — placing reruns of a series in the same daily slot five times a week on a local station or cable channel. I argued that series that offer dollops of quotidian delights do particularly well when stripped, as their subtle qualities become more visible with the increased exposure of daily presentation. I would like to continue by discussing another source of heightened appreciation of stripped series, our changing views of characters and actors in reruns, before comparing stripping to DVD bingeing, and wrapping up with a programming note.

Watching a weekly show on a daily basis changes our exposure to actors and the characters they play. Secondary characters sometimes rise to the fore once syndication begins, as watching material that is already familiar affords us the chance to focus on less central elements of the show. Characters who may appear briefly on a weekly basis become more familiar when watched daily, and their cumulative impact intensifies once freed from the seven-day break between performances. Even important secondary characters can gain more attention in stripped series, as patterns of narrative become more obvious. A classic example comes from Taxi, the late ’70s-early ’80s sitcom that became a syndication favorite. When introduced in its first run, cast members Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy Kaufman attracted press attention, and their characters were certainly important to the show. In syndication, however, fan attention turned more toward Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim and Danny DeVito as Louie. Reverend Jim rarely had a large role in the narrative, but regularly offered one or two observations or scenes per episode that got big laughs. Daily viewing reduced the isolated quality of his non sequitur-based humor, and the details of his bizarre personality could be gathered by viewers trying to understand his hippie-burn-out-street-preacher persona. His cumulative impact was much greater in syndication than in the original run.

Watching the show on a daily (or nightly) basis also made clear the importance of Danny DeVito’s character to the series. Louie the dispatcher was often the main catalyst of story lines, despite the fact that he was usually stuck in a cage to the side of the main action. Louie also got some of the best dialogue in his role as the main comic foil on the show. The Taxi writers clearly fell in love with the characters of Reverend Jim and Louie, whose comic styles were more extreme than the rather mild tone that was sustained by most of the other regulars. (Carol Kane’s Simka, another outlandish personality, also benefited, but she was not featured as regularly). The writers may also have fallen in love with Lloyd and DeVito’s comic talents. It is no coincidence that these two actors have had the strongest film careers among the cast since the series ended. Did the two’s heightened visibility in syndication lead to better roles in later productions? Or did their success in film make them seem more important in the Taxi reruns? Probably both, but their impact in reruns preceded their leaps to major film success in the mid-1980s.

Views of primary characters can also change through stripping. In the last column, I mentioned the popularity of James Garner in The Rockford Files and Jerry Orbach in Law and Order as the product of daily exposure. Even a performer as attention-getting as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be seen in new ways once the series went into syndication. Personally, I became much more impressed with Gellar’s performance once stripping brought into relief her range in moving between comedy, romance, and action (once she learned how to stake with conviction). The series was already known for its mixture of modes, but the daily juxtaposition of episodes that required Gellar to constantly switch performative gears made her ability to do so seem more central to the success of the show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Stripping became more prevalent with the proliferation of cable channels, but that may soon change. Syndicators once thought successful stripping required five or six seasons of an original run, but the great maw of the multichannel universe will now settle for fewer episodes, allowing more series to be stripped. The advent of DVD versions of television series, however, poses new questions for syndicators and programmers. Will the DVD market drive down demand for stripped series? Will the appeal of a ritualistic daily visitation of a series withstand the easy availability of the same material on demand? Will we see an era of DIY stripping, when viewers can schedule their own viewing preferences? Or do DVD box set owners skip DIY stripping and go straight to video bingeing, watching as many episodes as personal schedules will allow (and then some), in the shortest amount of time? Perhaps some genres, such as sitcoms, are amenable to DIY stripping, while others, such as thrillers with strong narrative arcs, lead to bingeing. Friends of mine who recently disappeared for nights and weekends at a time to obsessively watch 24 attest to the power of suspense, even when the show is “bad, but compelling,” as those in its clutches agreed. If once seen as a symbol of plenty compared to the weekly presentation schedule of an original run, the measured charms of stripping’s daily discipline may appear inadequate to a society bent toward bingeing. Does binge viewing offer different dynamics to the appreciation of small touches, secondary characters, and narrative patterns? Binge viewers of the FLOW community, what say ye?

Finally, I would like to end my cycle of articles this year by noting another sort of prevalence on cable television of late. I am referring to the David Mamet film Spartan, which plays repeatedly on HBO virtually every month, and pops up on TNT and other channels from time to time. Some Mamet-scripted films have been common cable fare before — Glengarry Glen Ross was often screened throughout the ’90s, and Ronin, which he co-wrote under a pseudonym, can still be seen regularly. The prevalence of Spartan, however, is astonishing, given its lack of success in its theatrical run in 2004. A cloak and dagger story of the search for the kidnapped daughter of a President, the film is replete with themes of the management of the news, White House sexual peccadilloes, duplicitous Presidential aides, the use of torture and other extralegal methods during a security emergency, Arab treatment of women, shadowy involvement by Israelis, and the protection of the powerful at the expense of working-class, African-American, and Latina populations. Has it become a cult favorite? Is this merely a case of the studio — Warner Bros. — milking its property by using its affiliated television channels? Or, given that the film is the clearest echo in contemporary American film of the hyperparanoiac thrillers of the Watergate era (The Parallax View, The Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation), is somebody (other than Mamet, who most assuredly is) trying to tell us something?

Image Credits:

1. DeVito

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Please feel free to comment.




Producers, Publics, and Podcasts: Where Does Television Happen?

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

The distance between television creators and television viewers has always seemed to me to be exaggerated, in mainstream as well as academic conceptions. “The industry,” that mysterious source of texts, is put over in one corner, and the “audience,” endlessly receiving (actively, passively, or otherwise), is parked in the other. We scholars look into each side fairly well, but rarely do we examine what happens when they meet. John Fiske once wrote about “moments of television,” where television “happens” in the interaction of text and audience.1 I’ve always liked this conception, but would suggest that we scale it back beyond only the text (which always matters, of course), to the institutions and people who made it. “Television” happens somewhere in this meeting of people, institutions, ideas, and technology.

Unfortunately, while the various parties of this relationship are generally analyzed on their own, they’re rarely brought together. The industry is all too often viewed as either a monolith or a set of fiefdoms, with transparent intents and machinations (i.e., to make lots of money). While this conception is valid, if banal, it lacks an analysis of the complex workings of the television industry, its components, and its people. The pursuit of profit alone doesn’t explain the prevalence of hand-held camerawork in single-camera shows, the explosion of procedural dramas, or even how Ashton Kutcher became a reality show mogul. Meanwhile, textual analysis, while invaluable, still separates process from product. This isn’t the place to ruminate on the interpretive role of the critic, but surely, as Keith Negus detailed in his study of genre in the music industry, the motivations, calculations, and judgments of creators and other industry personnel “matter,” at least in principle.2 Finally, while the audience has received the lion’s share of critical attention (whether categorized as viewers or fans), their documented encounters with television generally begin and end with the text, or with the texts they create. Television creative personnel rarely factor into such studies. However, many television creators today (writers in particular) consider themselves fans, and actively foster relationships with fans. These “fan-professionals,” including creators like Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon, present significant opportunities for connecting the dots between producers, texts, and viewers.

While fans have long contacted series producers and writers (dating back to radio), the growth of organized fandom over the past forty years has provided producers of particular genres with ready-made, eager and receptive, if often difficult, audiences for their work. An array of media and fora, ranging from magazines to conventions, have developed over this period to facilitate (and, yes, exploit) this connection. Over the last dozen or so years, the internet has greatly expanded the range and volume of these creator-fan encounters. Engaged creators can now obtain instantaneous feedback on their work from their most enthusiastic viewers. Some writers and producers (and in a few rare cases, actors) even directly engage with fans on their own turf, posting on fan-run message boards and blogs. Most recently, however, creators have taken an even more active role in this relationship, offering up extensive online commentary and discussion about their work.3

The producers of the new Battlestar Galactica didn’t have to put blogs (text and video), galleries of production art, or weekly podcasts online, but they did. This material has gone beyond the usual staid promotional package you’d expect on official websites, to include frank discussions about the series’ production, and salty on-set actualities. In his unprecedented podcast episode commentaries, executive producer Ron Moore is mostly concerned with explaining the “whys” of televisual storytelling, justifying narrative elements, detailing rewrites, lamenting production difficulties, and even regretting some choices. As a grizzled veteran of the rise and fall of Star Trek in the 1990s, Moore is keenly aware of the demands of fans, of networks and studios, and of commercial television itself. He effectively communicates the exhausting process of pleasing all of these masters, and yet can still gush with unapologetic fannish glee at an actor’s performance, at a shot sequence, or at his series’ much-noted moral ambiguity.

Although Galactica’s official web presence is certainly robust, Lost arguably represents the most extensive online interaction between creators and fans on American television right now. As with Battlestar Galactica, a weekly podcast enables series producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to talk directly about their work, discussing that week’s episode, and answering a few fan questions about the narrative each week. Unlike Moore and Eick, however, Cuse and Lindelof focus primarily on teasing the narrative rather than explaining how things were done. This approach runs parallel with both the dominant treatment of the series (as unfolding puzzle) and the other components of its online footprint (e.g., cryptic websites for Oceanic Air and the Hanso Foundation). Their fannish enthusiasm comes across in anticipation of “what happens next,” rather than in Moore’s “here’s how we did it.” In addition, each Lost podcast also includes an interview with a cast member. Thus far, these interviews have served as fairly standard publicity fodder, although as the podcast form becomes more established, perhaps they will evolve into something more substantial as well.

Lost

Lost

Like their fan-produced counterparts (which number in the dozens), these official blogs and podcasts offer new spaces for analysis, interpretation, and creator-fan interaction. That said, these practices shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their face value. They still function primarily as promotion material, drawing fans not only to the programs, but to ad-supported websites and other media. Moreover, significant cultural and social power differentials still remain between creators and fans, no matter how sincere the formers’ intents may be. Still, though, creators like Moore and Lindelof are clearly enthusiastic about their work, and about talking about their work with other enthusiasts. There’s something in these exchanges that needs to be acknowledged and studied, rather than ignored or written off.

Thankfully, there are precedents in television studies for “connecting the dots.”4 These works trace the connections over time, revealing how creators sometimes rely upon viewers for creative acknowledgement and even political support, and how viewers communicate their perspectives and concerns to creators. What emerges in these accounts is an understanding of how television texts (and even institutions) are ongoing collaborations of expectations and possibilities between creators, networks, advertisers, viewers, fans, and technology. In other words, television isn’t just what happens in the proverbial living room between eyeballs and screens.

The mushrooming of content (online and otherwise) related to series — what used to be called “extratextual”–presents not only further avenues of interpretation, but also alternative conceptions of what “television” is, or can be, or was. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere in Flow, the rapidly shifting distribution of television adds to this redefinition, and arguably enhances the importance of creator-viewer interaction. The distance between the dots is shrinking, and has been for years. It’s high time to connect them.

Notes
1John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987).
2Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1999).
3The prevalence of commentary tracks and other “behind-the-scenes” features on DVD releases is another signficant incarnation of this phenomenon.
4A few examples: Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham, NC: Duke, 2001), Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina, 1994), Laurie Ouellette’s Viewers Like You?: How Pulbic TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia, 2002), and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Methuen, 1983).

Image Credits
1. Battlestar Galactica

2. Lost

Please feel free to comment.




Speculation with Spoilers

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

Ana Lucia

Lost‘s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
(on TV, 11/23/05; online 11/01/05)

As a result of the research conducted for this column, I now have super powers. I can see into the future of television, telling you who will win The Amazing Race, what will happen in January on Lost, and how Arrested Development plans to leave Fox in a blaze of self-reflexive glory. (I promise, though, not to divulge details).

In my last column, I wrote of the previews and hype about shows circulated by the television industry, discussing how we interact with programs before even watching them due to these industry-designed pre-texts. However, it’s not just Hollywood who gets to play this game, as viewers too are releasing information gleaned from leaks from cast or crew; reports from the set by passersby, fan pilgrimages, and sleuthing trips; and sheer textual detective work. This is the world of the “spoiler.”

Many fansites on the Internet have sections for spoilers. Usually carefully cordoned off with threats such as “Spoiler Warning!!!! Do NOT go further if you do not want to know what happens,” these areas grandiosely announce their Pandora’s Box nature. Meanwhile, standard etiquette dictates that outside of these sections, all spoilers must be gratuitously labeled, followed by numerous blank lines, so that the eye cannot betray its owner by glancing down the screen, hence “spoiling” the narrative to come. Indeed, there appears something very pornographic about spoilers, and such rules and etiquette show the degree to which they are similarly seen as holding significant power to corrupt on mere contact and the degree to which many consumers are still guiltily smitten by and drawn to spoilers.

Spoilers may not ultimately attract as many online viewers as does pornography, but spoiler discussion forms a major portion of many popular fan sites. Television Without Pity’s Lost board hosts a spoiler thread (from which I get my title) with, at last count, 316 pages of text; TWoP’s Amazing Race board has a 300-page spoiler thread; while other sites, such as Lost-TV, have literally thousands of posts and boast hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Certain programs attract more spoilers, notably, those that thrive on keeping their readers in the dark, such as Lost, Veronica Mars, and competition reality shows, but even sitcoms and quiz shows have their spoilers.

Part of the appeal behind the consumption and production of spoilers would seem to be play with the narrative delivery system. To put it simply, this system posits an Author who knows, and a group of readers who don’t. Those who hate being spoilt are quite often those who are happy with this relationship; but clearly the system irks the spoilt. Spoiling is all about knowing. To some spoilers, the experience would seem akin to the pleasures felt by video game players who find cheat codes that allow them, for instance, unlimited ammunition. Video games can be devilishly hard, their puzzles irritatingly addictive, and cheat codes allow early gratification, and a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing how to solve the problem. Similarly, spoilers offer a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing what will happen next, what the Hanso Foundation is, or who wins next week’s leg of the race. To know what happens is a small victory, and a pat on the back.

As the size of some spoiler sites suggests, there is clearly a huge social element to this knowing too. Rather than exploring the text alone, thumbing it on all sides for the secret latch, spoiler sites allow what Henry Jenkins, following, Levy, calls “collective knowledge” (2002). Moreover, cultural capital can be earned or lost by knowing more or less, whether online, or in the smug contentment of the living room. As such, this need to know is both collaborative and competitive.

SpoilerFix.com

SpoilerFix.com

Beyond analyzing their appeals, though, I am fascinated by what spoilers tell us about the individual’s or group’s interaction with the text. After all, spoilers effectively allow viewers to read, decode, and interpret a text before it’s even got to them. Spoilt viewers can experience a text’s effects before broadcast, and can also, therefore, profoundly muddle up the phenomenology of the text, especially a well-written serial text. Good writers often “trick” their audiences, calling on us to react in one way, then adding new information that changes the ground rules. Spoilt viewers, though, can immunize themselves to such strategies.

Meanwhile, there is also the case of the false spoiler. For example, last year, a poster by the name of Old Scooter Dude began leaking information about Lost‘s season finale at Lost‘s spoiler board. Old Scooter Dude became something of a cult figure for a while, with some posters even speculating as to whether he was Lost star Jorge Garcia. But come season finale, he was proven a sham (resulting in his immediate expulsion, per community rules, from the board). Pre-excommunication, though, Old Man Scooter managed to throw the narrative off significantly for his (truly) spoilt subjects: using his bogus facts, they decoded all manner of events, characters, and themes in the lead up to the fateful revelation, only to have these all thrown into disarray. Instead of being episodes ahead, then, they were episodes behind.

Or in another instance at the same site, it was revealed what the show’s mysterious “French Lady,” Rousseau, was on the island to study. By all accounts, the spoiler came from an actually shot scene, and thus was completely legit — but the scene was then cut, with no subsequent allusion to the research. How is the spoilt viewer to make sense of this? Does this mean simply that writers Abrams and Lindelof decided to withhold that information for the time being, or does it mean that they changed their minds? Clearly, such examples show how spoilers can confuse the viewer. But they also show how the text has truly moved beyond its textual body, existing across all sorts of media. John Fiske called such intertexts “secondary textuality” (1989), while Will Brooker (2001) dubs them “overflow,” and although both terms are helpful, spoilers such as this offer something quite primary, and would seem to start the flow as much as they continue it. This one cut scene potentially answers many of the island’s, and hence the show’s, mysteries, allowing us not only to go back and make sense of past episodes, but to make significant sense of episodes-to-come.

Spoilers, therefore, also suggest something not only about our capacities to interact with and interpret texts before we actually receive them, but also about the significant pleasures in doing so. Much work into textual pleasure (logically enough) focuses on pleasures during or after the encounter, but the pleasures of anticipation, and pre-decoding can prove themselves just as strong to many. Certainly, reading through spoiler sites, it is hard not to conclude that many spoilt fans enjoy the experience of the text at the level of the spoiler significantly more than they claim to enjoy it when it is actually on the television in front of them.

Personally, I prefer not to be spoilt. But (and frustratingly so), many of those close to me love to be spoilt. And it is sometimes odd, therefore, to watch an episode with such creatures. While I am entranced by the narrative, waiting to see what’s next, they are either watching me for their enjoyment, or searching the text for other things: for character complexity, for cinematography, for minutiae. Much the same way that a repeat viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons allows that layered reading, spoilt viewers can make end-runs, so as to experience those aspects of the text in the first reading, while covering the narrative in the pre-reading.

Perhaps it is ultimately fittingly ironic that with the industry saturating everyday life with hype and overflow, many viewers are interacting as (or more) meaningfully with rumors of the text as with the text itself.

Sources:
Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence and Television Overflow,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, 456-72.

Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry (2002). “Interactive Viewers,” In Dan Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: BFI.

Image Credits:

1. Lost’s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed

2. SpoilerFix.com

Please feel free to comment.




Editorial: Why The Amazing Race: Family Edition Doesn’t Suck

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

I must begin with a word of thanks to my oldest brother Chris, for without him I might never have watched The Amazing Race (TAR), let alone become a fan. You see, about a year and a half ago he started telling me about this great reality show where people travel all over the world and that I simply must watch it. Given that my brother is a world traveler himself (at time of writing he’s been to over fifty countries and more than 700 airports), I could understand why he’d want to watch such a show, but I just wasn’t that interested, and so ignored his recommendation the first time, and the second time (and the third, and so on). But eventually I grew weary of hearing “So have you watched it yet?” every time I talked to him, and finally gave the series a try with the premiere episode of the sixth season. I haven’t missed a show since, and caught up on the rest of the series thanks to GSN reruns.

So yes, I’ll admit it, my brother was right. I am now an avowed fan of the show, though I’m not typically one for gamedocs or competitive shows, and view most reality series as guilty pleasures rather than quality television. Accepting this reluctant path to fandom prompted me to consider just what it is about TAR that makes it so compelling, and why I’ve become just as annoying as my brother in urging others to watch it. Formal innovation has been one key to the series’ critical and commercial success, but without pre-related teams, the show could have ended up as some bastard child of Survivor and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of an Emmy-collecting powerhouse. I address formal elements and teams in turn.

The Amazing Race skillfully melds gamedoc, docusoap and travelogue. Its premise is, as with most gamedocs, delightfully simple — whoever gets there first, wins. Along the way are the requisite arbitrary challenges and regionally-themed roadblocks, end-of-leg rituals, and elimination twists. The series is shot in a docusoap/day-in-the-life style, where cameras are always present but rarely if ever acknowledged. Breaks in the otherwise invisible, mobile surveillance endemic to reality series shot in uncontrolled environments do crop up in TAR from time to time (most notably in shots of crowds and passers-by understandably gawking or smiling at the camera), but for the most part the show is masterfully edited down to what appears to be a seamless retelling of the race. These gamedoc and docusoap elements are then situated within a travelogue visual style that offers viewers every kind of voyeuristic perspective imaginable, from the air to the sea, from the street to the tops of skyscrapers, from static pre-shot sequences to the real-time teams’ views of the passing landscape. The cohesive amalgamation of these varied formal elements, each present in equal measures, allows for numerous points of entry into the series.

That said, what ultimately makes TAR such great TV are the teams and the team dynamic. Instead of individuals, TAR pits teams (of two) against each other. The significance of this construction of competitors emerges not from number, but rather from familiarity — the team members are all closely related in some way, whether they are friends, couples, siblings, or parent and child. The importance of these bonds cannot be overstated, as these pre-constituted alliances elicit far more drama than ones that are arbitrarily or “organically” crafted in front of the camera as on numerous other reality shows. It is one thing to see people who have known each other for days cohabit, argue and bond, but quite another to see the same from people who have known each other for years or even decades, and to witness it all happening while they are on a manic race around the world, plopped down in unfamiliar locales and situations and chasing the unknown on a daily basis. When situated within the formal context described earlier, the processes of relationship strengthening and breakdown constantly on display serve to create a more believable constructed reality narrative than in most other series, one that has more in common with serial drama than game show. The relationships between team members (as well as between teams themselves) produce a number of intertwining plots and sub-plots, as well as a host of identificatory scenarios.

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

It is these sorts of scenarios that I find even more fascinating in The Amazing Race: Family Edition (TAR: FE), and unlike many critics and fans, I think the introduction of a four-member, “family” team dynamic proves a nice twist on the series’ format. As a fan, I too lament the preponderance of race legs within the United States, and the contestants themselves have seemed annoyed by the amount of time spent in America this season — as matriarch Marian of the recently-eliminated Paolo family put it, “What the hell are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!” Still, even without the exotic locales, TAR: FE still has much to offer in the forms of interpersonal drama and viewer identifications. It does for me, anyway. For example, from the comparative lack of travel has emerged uncomfortably accurate portrayals of family excursions in America, such as of the ubiquitous road trip replete with missed exits, pointed bickering, random discussions, and instances of utter boredom. As I’ve traveled through and to nearly thirty states on road trips with various family members over the years, I found myself alternately laughing and cringing at the automotive escapades that dominated the first part of this season. Resonant scenes abounded – getting lost in New York, angry driver switches, knowing button-pushing, even coping with loss.

TAR: FE also successfully articulates the multiplicity of relationships within families (father-mother, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, big sis-little sis, big bro-little bro, brother-sister, sister-brother, father-son-in-law) and their often-uneasy coexistences. As the youngest of seven, I am all but too aware of these, but never have I seen so many of them represented on one show! This season offers up myriad examples of the imperfect nature of familial relationships, of power struggles and favorite-playing, of how conflicts between two family members still impact those not involved. Occasionally these types of direct conflicts — such as the scream-fights between Marian Paolo and her son DJ — are quite difficult to watch, but they speak a mediated truth about the frustrations of blood relations. Thankfully, what also emerges from these representations of family dynamics is a curiously inevitable solidarity. No matter what transpired during a particular leg, all of the families come together on the mat at the end, appraise their performances, and reaffirm their bonds in an earnest, upbeat coda. Of course, this is a false, televisual coda, since the race is not yet over and the next episode will surely produce yet more conflict and interpersonal drama. Yet each episode’s progression from one end of the family love-hate continuum to the other satisfyingly mimics the repetitive nature of familial relationships.

I find pleasure in other aspects of this season’s race, such as how teams have fashioned snarky, televisual nicknames for each other (Cleavers, Desperate Housewives). (I also find myself annoyed by the Weavers’ tiresome invocations, some suspect clue-box site choices (the World’s Largest Office Chair?!?), and increasing numbers of product tie-ins.) I initially got hooked on The Amazing Race by the competition and the travelogue, but while I would like to see the families cross one of the oceans sometime soon, I’ve realized that I no longer care who wins. What has kept me glued to CBS on Tuesday nights this time around is not the race at all, but the cacophony of familial dynamics and their, well, familiarity. Each week I am reminded of one or more of my many, many family members and various situations we’ve muddled through, and I inevitably end up thinking about and honoring those in my life and in my heart long after the credits have rolled. All that just from a silly reality TV show.

Links
The Amazing Race: Family Edition
The TARFiles
Television Without Pity: The Amazing Race

Image Credits:

1. The Amazing Race: Family Edition

2. The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

Please feel free to comment.




I WANT MY GEEK TV!

The Cast of Global Frequency

The Cast of Global Frequency

Many of us who study fan cultures have marveled at how quickly fan communities mobilize around new television series. Fan websites such as Ain’t It Cool News get early information about new series, especially those which are prone to develop cult followings. Many fans start registering domain names and forming web circles based on the first news of a fan-friendly series. And producers are becoming more adept at tapping into fan networks from the get-go. By the time the first episode airs, fans start generating fan fiction and commentary if they like what they see. We will see this scenario play out several times as the new shows hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.

Pushing this trend to its logical extreme, an active, committed fandom has now emerged around an unaired pilot. The series in question is Global Frequency. From a fan’s perspective, Global Frequency was too good to be true. Based on a successful comic book series by the wicked and wonderful Warren Ellis, adapted for television by a creative team which at various points in the process included Mark Burnett (Survivor), Bed Edlund (Angel, The Tick), Nelson McCormick (Alias), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the science fiction/action/adventure series dealt with a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who agree to pool their resources and respond as needed to a series of crises caused by the collapse of the nation states and the emergence of global capitalism. The original comic series had tapped growing interests in adhocracies, flash mobs, and collective intelligence among the most wired segments of the television viewing public.

The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights to what many thought was a really hot property, considered it for Fall 2004, before announcing it would hit the air in Spring 2005. The network was ready to make an initial 13 episode commitment when there was a shift in the network management and as so often happens, the new execs were reluctant to risk their careers on properties generated by their predecessors. Global Frequency got dumped.

Then, somehow, an unauthorized copy of series pilot began circulating on Bittorrent, where it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production. John Rogers, the show’s head writer and producer, said that the massive response to the never-aired series was giving the producers leverage to push for the pilot’s distribution on DVD and potentially to sell the series to another network. Rogers wrote about his encounters with the Global Frequency fans in his blog, “It changes the way I’ll do my next project…. I would put my pilot out on the internet in a heartbeat. Want five more? Come buy the boxed set.”

Already we can see a bunch of ways that the new media landscape is altering how traditional broadcasting operates. For starters, we can see the walls breaking down between program producers and consumers, as they make common cause against the networks. After all, the only way that pilot could have made it onto Bittorrent was that someone involved in the production leaked it and Rogers certainly was encouraging fans to rally behind his pet project.

Second, we can see large scale fan communities operating as collective bargaining units trying to make the networks more responsive to their demands. To be sure, there’s a long history of letter-writing campaigns going back at least to the original effort to save Star Trek, and most of them have failed. Yet, as the internet has enabled more rapid and widespread mobilization, fans are starting to win more and more battles. Consider, for example, the ways that the so-called “Brown-Coats,” fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, rallied behind the franchise, resulting in a new feature film extension, Serenity, which is due to hit the multiplexes later this month. Or take the case of The Family Guy, a series put back in production because of unexpectedly high DVD sales.

All of this leads to Rogers’s fantasy of media producers selling cult tv
shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the
picture altogether. From a producer’s perspective, such a scheme would
be attractive since television series are made at a loss for the first
several seasons until the production company accumulates enough
episodes to sell a syndication package. DVD lowers that risk by
allowing producers to sell the series one season at a time and even to
package and sell unaired episodes (as occurred with Firefly). Selling directly to the consumer would allow producers to recoup their costs even earlier in the production cycle. If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing — especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had “cult” written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.

People in the entertainment industry are talking a lot these days about what Wired reporter Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail.” Anderson argues that as distribution costs lower, as companies can keep more and more backlist titles in circulation, and as niche communities can use the web to mobilize around titles which satisfy their particular interests, then the greatest profit will be made by those companies which generate the most diverse content and keep it available at the most reasonable prices. If Anderson is right, then niche-content stands a much better chance of turning a profit than ever before. If you were offered a package of episodes of a televison series with an interesting concept by a reliable group of creators, would you take a chance on including it on your next Netflix order? I know I would.

Imagine a subscription based model where viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband. A pilot could be produced to test the waters and if the response looks positive, they could sell subscription which company had gotten enough subscribers to defer the initial production costs. Early subscribers would get a package price, others would pay more on a pay per view would cover the next phase of production. Others could buy access to individual episodes once the basis. Distribution could be on a dvd mailed directly to your home or via streaming media.

Keep in mind that when you use the web as your distribution channel, your market goes global. How many Americans would have paid to see the latest episodes of the new Doctor Who series, for example? And how many fans in Asia or Australia might pay to see episodes of American series as they aired rather than waiting for them in syndication?? Anime fans world wide already go through contorted means to get access to the latest Japanese series.

The first signs of such a system emerging will come when networks offer reruns on demand, a plan which would be relatively low cost and high yield in today’s media markets. Indeed, BBC Director General Mark Thompson announced a few weeks ago that starting next year, all BBC-aired programs (150 hours worth) will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. What they are calling MyBBCPlayer, is part of a larger vision for the future of British television announced by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, in October 2003: “Future TV may be unrecognizable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programs, and our viewer’s contributions. At the simplest level — audiences will want to organize and re-organize content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help.”

BBC Director Mark Thompson

BBC Director Mark Thompson

The BBC as a state-sponsored broadcaster is obviously in a good position to take some risks here. Yet, one can imagine similar services supporting distribution of media content from many other parts of the world or from independent and alternative media producers. Web-based services like Netflix are already broadening the circulation of foreign films, independent movies, and documentaries. As this system takes shape, one can imagine original content start to emerge until in the end, the primary reason that a producer would need a network would be to initially publicize the pilot. And here’s where fans might enter the picture.

In such a world, the fans will play an important role as niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments. The BBC has already announced a contest to encourage consumers and interest groups to develop their own alternative program guides using BBC programme meta-data. As they move more content on line, one can imagine bloggers making links directly to relevant segments in BBC programs. People are already experimenting with using closed captions as a means to index television content and Yahoo has recently opened a lab focused on making streaming media more searchable. All of that will make it easier for fan communities to share the love.

In fact, if such programs were successful, producers could begin offering funds back to active fans if they direct sufficient traffic to their sites, much the way Amazon’s Associates program rewards webmasters who promote specific books through their sites and link to the online retailer. There would be even greater incentives for producers to actively court key opinion leaders within the fan community since they could make or break a new series.

Ok, I can hear some of the other columnists reminding us of the blue sky promises of diversity and plentitude which surrounded other technological innovations. Technological innovations may hold potentials for change but social, cultural, economic, and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur.

It’s time to wake back up and see what has happened to Global Frequency. Was the WB delighted to discover that they still had the right of first refusal on a series which was already generating a cult following before it even reached the air? Were they willing to take some baby steps towards the viewer-supported model I have outlined above?

Of course not! They did the same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’s computers. As one network executive told Hotwired, “Whether the pilot was picked up or not, it is still the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment and we take the protection of all of our intellectual property seriously…. While Warner Bros. Entertainment values feedback from consumers, copyright infringement is not a productive way to try to influence a corporate decision.” A few weeks later, Warren Ellis announced via his blog, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of Global Frequency has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series. It seems that people in high places did not take kindly to the leak.” For the moment, the WB is more interested in policing its intellectual property than finding out what people want to watch.

Oh well — It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Global Frequency

2. BBC Director Mark Thompson

Please feel free to comment.




Martha Stewart: Free but Still in Chains?

by: Melissa Click / University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Martha Stewart Living

Martha Stewart Living

One story dominated the US print and electronic media over the weekend of March 4-6: Martha Stewart’s release from Alderson Federal Prison. We saw Stewart leave the prison in her SUV and board the private jet that would fly her to her home in Bedford, New York, where she will serve five months of house arrest. Reporters camped out at Stewart’s Bedford estate and followed her as she walked her property, greeted her horses, and emerged from her greenhouse with her arms full of lemons. Since then, journalists have filed story after story suggesting that Americans love a comeback tale, trying to convince us that we ultimately want Martha Stewart to succeed. Reality-TV producer Mark Burnett figures prominently in these accounts, which give special attention to the plans Burnett has for making Stewart more “human.”

These claims about Stewart’s supposed new image trouble me partly because in Stewart’s case, success (read: approval) is attainable only by walking the narrow path we have constructed — and accepted — as a public woman’s role. I am not convinced that prison is the best thing that ever happened to Stewart, and explored my suspicions in February by interviewing some of the hundreds of people who auditioned for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

The US fascination with Martha Stewart has been the focus of my research since just before the ImClone scandal broke in January 2002. What intrigues me about Stewart as a public figure is that since her rise in popularity in the mid-1990s, the public simultaneously loves her and loves to hate her. My work has focused on Stewart’s audience; I have spoken to Stewart’s most devoted fans as well as those who despise her. Since Stewart reported to Alderson in October 2004, public opinion seems to have swung to the “love” side of the spectrum, captivating even the most strident of Stewart’s detractors. I question whether this will last.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart

Oddly enough, this newfound love for Stewart follows a two-year legal battle in which everything from Stewart’s lack of admission of guilt (and lack of apology) to her clothing and accessories was scrutinized daily. The media coverage of the indictment and trial seemed to reiterate and confirm a popular characterization of Stewart as a rich bitch who gets her way, no matter the cost. Many followed the daily news of the trial with glee.

Even before the ImClone scandal Stewart was a polarizing figure who raised questions about the roles in which we are comfortable seeing women. Tabloids, tell-all biographies and made-for-TV movies offered to reveal the “truth” about Stewart — she had a strained relationship with her family, she intimidated her staff, and she became successful by stealing others’ ideas. Underneath many of these critiques lay the ways in which Martha Stewart’s public persona confused gender norms. Stewart was an expert in the business of domesticity, yet her public persona as a successful businesswoman eschewed all that is feminine. Caught in a culture holding tightly to strict gender norms, Stewart became one in a long line of bitches whom Americans have sought to publicly discipline.

Stewart’s indictment and conviction raised the stakes for those on both sides of the love-hate fence — and pushed many who would have been otherwise unwilling to support Stewart in the past to call attention to the ways in which the public treatment of Stewart may have been more about the fact that she is a woman and a celebrity than about her crimes. As Stewart’s trial began in January 2004, questions were raised about the fairness of Stewart’s legal trouble. Stewart’s case was compared to the crimes of the Enron, Worldcom and Tyco CEOs; many believed Stewart’s case paled in comparison. Even Ms. Magazine’s Elaine Lafferty, who readily admits that Stewart “never made the short list for Ms. Woman of the Year,” came to Stewart’s defense, calling the indictment and conviction a “bitch hunt.”

Stewart’s September 2004 announcement that she would like to serve her jail time before she knew the outcome of her appeal seemed part of a well-crafted plan to revitalize Stewart’s public image and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which lost $60 million in 2004. In February 2005, Mark Burnett announced that Stewart’s daytime show would be rejuvenated by putting Stewart in front of a live studio audience and that a new prime-time program would follow the format of The Apprentice. Burnett’s strategy is to use these formats to display Stewart’s supposed sense of humor and spontaneity to the viewing public. Burnett’s approach acknowledges that Stewart’s troubles stem in part from the construction of her public persona–we expect certain behaviors from public women and Stewart had been breaking the rules.

Auditions in twenty-seven cities for The Apprentice: Martha Stewart began in February 2005. I attended the Kansas City, Missouri, audition on February 26 and spoke to some of the five hundred people who stood in line for hours to get the chance to work for Stewart. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the format of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart may revive some of the previously dislikable stereotypes of Stewart. For example, how will Stewart’s audience evaluate her when she pushes candidates through challenging tasks? What about when she will need to evaluate candidates’ performance, personality, and credentials? And how about when candidates are eliminated? While Burnett has suggested that Stewart’s version of the show will differ from Trump’s, the lavish displays of wealth, control and business savvy that bring respect to Trump are exactly what fueled hatred of Stewart before and during the ImClone scandal.

Many of the applicants at the Kansas City auditions confirmed my suspicions — while they had sympathy for Stewart’s legal troubles, negative opinions of Stewart as a businesswoman persist. Many of the people I interviewed felt that Stewart and Trump possessed several of the same characteristics: they both make good mentors and both are business savvy. A few indicated that Stewart would be a tougher boss than Trump, but believed that Stewart had to be tough in order to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. One respondent suggested that Stewart is like many other women who “have been turned so cold by an industry and [a] society where white males lead.”

Many respondents were critical of Stewart’s potential leadership abilities. To these folks, Stewart was “shrewd” and inflexible, “not a very nice person,” “cut-throat,” and “a bitch.” One respondent candidly told me that he believes Stewart would be an “absolute bitch to work with.” He stumbled a bit to describe the reason behind his belief: “I don’t take demands very well, demands from a, I don’t want to say this but, from a female.”

While Stewart is riding high on a wave of popularity since her release from prison, it will not be long until the pendulum swings. The suggestion that Stewart was convicted because she is a woman does not clearly illuminate the public reaction to Stewart’s legal troubles; Enron’s Andrew Fastow, ImClone’s Sam Waksal, Credit Suisse’s Frank Quattrone, Adelphia’s John and Timothy Rigas, and WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers have been found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused — with much less fanfare. Stewart, on the other hand, had been convicted in the public eye long before she sold her ImClone stock — her punishment was repeated ridicule for not performing the narrow role she was expected to play. Stewart’s treatment in the media was not about the fact that she is a woman, it was about the kind of woman that she is.

Stewart may have been rehabilitated, but over the course of her five-month stay at Alderson, the public has not changed. Entwined in the media coverage of Stewart’s release from prison is a perceived humility and a reverence for her ability to make lemonade of lemons — we broke her, she relented, and now we will let her rebuild if she will learn from her “mistakes.” All eyes are on Stewart, watching and waiting for her to misstep. As she rebuilds her company and reconstructs her image, Stewart will no doubt land squarely in the middle of controversy, unless, of course, she can find a way to teach us that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive — that would truly be “a good thing.”

Image Credits:
1. Martha Stewart Living
2. Martha Stewart

Links
A CNN reporter’s experience at the New York casting call
Details about the upcoming series, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
The New Yorker interviews Stewart
Newsweek article
Ms. Magazine open letter

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