OVER*FLOW: The Oscar’s Slow Lurch Toward Relevance and Diversity
Shawna Kidman / University of California San Diego

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

Some have argued that a big Best Picture winner brings big ratings, but it’s hardly an exact science. What’s clear is that the audience is in serious decline. Final numbers for the 2019 telecast came in at 29.6 million viewers.

The Academy of Motion Pictures was on a mission to save the Oscars this year. First up was the awards’ well-established popularity problem. Ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low in 2018, with only 26.5 million viewers, down dramatically from 43.7 million just a few years earlier. But numbers weren’t the only issue; the Academy is increasingly perceived as being deeply out of touch with the moviegoing public. Nominees tend to be small films (low in budget, low in box office take) that few Americans have seen, or sometimes, even head of. The Academy has been trying to solve this problem since at least 2008, when they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films; Dark Knight Returns had failed to receive a nomination, and seemingly as a result, the ratings took a hit. This year, looking to further expand the range of films recognized, the Academy leadership floated the idea of a whole new category for best “popular” film. Like their other ill-conceived announcements, including pushing cinematography and editing awards into commercial breaks, the proposal was basically dead on arrival with exasperated Academy members. Also of concern for the last several years has been the Oscars’ considerable diversity problem. In response to #OscarsSoWhite campaigns in both 2015 and 2016 (when not a single non-white actor or actress was nominated) and steady criticism for its tendency to snub films made by or about people of color, the Academy invited nearly 1000 new members this year. The explicit goal was to open its doors to more diverse voters.

At first, these efforts seemed to be paying off. The list of nominees included some very popular films—
Bohemian Rapshody, A Star is Born, and Black Panther—as well as some very diverse films, including BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and again, Black Panther. And in the end, ratings went up, by 12%. But it remained the second-worst rated Oscars ever, and the Best Picture win went to Green Book, a film criticized for being a simplistic racial reconciliation tale. A throwback to prior disheartening winners (e.g. Crash or Driving Miss Daisy), the movie reminded everyone that the Oscars’ hoped-for-changes, if they come at all, are likely to materialize very slowly. There’s also the not-so-small fact that the Academy can only give Oscars to films that actually get made (and have enough support from their distributors to receive massive awards-season marketing campaigns).

Chadwick Boseman seems to speak for the whole room when he reacts to Green Book’s win for Best Picture. Meanwhile, and not caught on camera, Spike Lee tries to storm out the back of the theater.

For this reason, Black Panther stands out to me as a particularly intriguing Oscar contender. As an incredibly popular and genuinely diverse film, it was everything the Academy wanted and needed this year. But back in early 2016, when Disney, Marvel Studios, and producer Kevin Feige hired Ryan Coogler to direct the film, they likely weren’t thinking of racking up Oscars. They had plenty of other reasons to greenlight the project though, which had been in and out of development since the mid-1990s. Marvel was facing condemnation for, among other things, its failure to build a superhero film around anyone other than a white male; around the same time, DC responded to similar criticisms by finally prioritizing Wonder Woman, which also proved very successful both critically and financially.[ ((There are volumes of blog posts, comment sections, and online articles from 2014 and 2015 (and also before and after that window) that make these critiques as well as track Marvel and DC’s responses to them. See, for example, Jeet Heer, “Superhero Comics Have a Race Problem. Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Fix it?” The New Republic, Sept 22 2015 and Monika Bartyzel, “White Spider-Man and Marvel’s Diversity Deflection,” Forbes, Jun 23 2015. Marvel announced Chadwick Boseman’s attachment to the role in Oct 2014 and Ryan Coogler’s involvement in Jan 2016.))] As Marvel tells it then (or at least as their PR machine claims), this was a relatively easy decision on the part of producers. What’s more interesting and perhaps surprising, then, is the fact that the young and extremely talented Ryan Coogler agreed to sign onto the film. Ava DuVernay had already turned down the job (she decided instead to make A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney). And Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station became a Sundance darling, and whose critically acclaimed Creed had just passed the $100 million mark, had an enviable position in Hollywood and the power to pick his next project.

He chose Black Panther, a franchise film with blockbuster potential. Although tellingly, he did not approach it like a typical comic book film. Coogler selected a mostly African and African-American cast and a diverse creative production team with experience from the indie world. It included two women of color, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who ultimately won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in two of Oscar night’s most gratifying moments. As far as the film’s creative process, when Coogler describes its conception, it’s almost always in terms of his cultural identity, his background in Oakland, and his ancestral roots in Africa. Although we can assume he researched old comics before writing the film, in interviews, he always chooses instead to point to his more significant preparation, an exploratory trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped him better understand the region’s traditions, landscapes, and struggles. In the end, he made a political film, with a progressive message about colonialism and about black life in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, as a comic book movie, Black Panther is also action-packed, visually dazzling, and brimming with witty one-liners.

The first woman of color to win for Best Production Design, Hannah Beachler thanks other members of the crew (including Ruth E. Carter and Rachel Morrison), director Ryan Coogler, and producers at Marvel, with Kevin Feige (but not Coogler) featured in a cutaway. She ends on a heartwarming note: “I did my best and my best is good enough.”

In the past, we may have expected to see a creative team like Coogler’s—filmmakers with a distinct vision and clear message—assemble around a movie in a more traditionally respectable genre (perhaps a literary adaptation or a war film), or in other words, conventional Oscar-bait. But if they had, nobody (at least outside of LA or NY) would have seen their vision or heard its message. The serious-minded mid-range films of the past, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), that won both awards and audiences, have largely disappeared; they’ve become the exception instead of the rule. The studios gradually turned instead toward tentpoles. And then, beginning in the early 2000s, they doubled-down on the strategy, building up on private equity-funded slate financing, transmedia storytelling, and IP-based franchises. Comic book films moved to the center of a new multimedia mode of production in Hollywood and they remain there today.[ ((Jay Epstein, Thomas Schatz, and Harold Vogel all discuss facets of this structural transition. See Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012); Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Mcdonald and Janet Wasko (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 13-42; and Harold Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). I also discuss this transformation, and the rise of comic book films, in my forthcoming book, Comic Books Incorporated (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).))] Meanwhile, the awards shows have been left to lower-budget “indie” films, a space that’s been relatively easy for companies like Netflix and Amazon to break into (despite an ever-evasive Best Picture win). But if a filmmaker is interested in reaching big audiences and big buzz, Netflix cannot get them there. Comic books and franchises are the only way to access the masses, largely because they’re the only products Hollywood studios will put the full weight of their considerable machinery behind. That Black Panther was the very first comic book film nominated for Best Picture shows how out of touch the Academy is, not only with the American public, but with Hollywood itself, which, as an ecosystem, has come to depend on the lifeblood of superheroes.

In the future, we’re likely to see more comic book movies on Oscar night. But this won’t be because the Academy itself is transforming (even if it does, ever so slowly, lurch toward the future). It will be because more gifted and capable filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins will choose audiences over awards, bringing their significant talents to big IP-based franchises—movies too big for the Academy to ignore. It’s a little ironic actually. Despite its blockbuster status, Black Panther was Coogler’s first significant showing at the Oscars; both Fruitvale and Creed were overlooked, with only the latter receiving a nomination, for the performance of Sylvester Stallone. I wonder how much that 2016 snub impacted Coogler’s decision not to chase a traditional awards film as his next project. It’s yet another reminder that if the Academy fails to fully transform and recognize diverse talent, it will make itself and the kinds of films it has historically supported even more irrelevant.

Image Credits:
1. The Hollywood Reporter on Oscars’ Declining Ratings
2. Twitter Reacts to Chadwick Boseman Reacting
3. Hannah Beachler’s Lovely Acceptance Speech on ABC

From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women, Pt. 2
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

This is the second part of a series. For part one, click here.

The televised awards ceremony creates its own form of melodrama: nominees’ faces filled with anxious hope, from the ingenue to the seasoned star, the surprised delight (or disappointed congratulations to the victor), and of course, the tearful often protracted narrative of the artist’s rise to this celebratory moment. At the Golden Globes this year, Regina King’s speech for Best Supporting Actress started as an alternately misty-eyed and revelatory listing of her collaborators for If Beale Street Could Talk. But then her speech took a turn as she self-reflexively noted that this was her chance to talk about issues larger than her personal experience—namely, the Time’s Up Movement. The “wrap it up” music began to play, but nevertheless, she persisted. And rather than raising the volume and cutting away from her, the song quieted and the camera remained fixed on her, allowing her to finish. The industry—at least those producing the show that night—is finally listening. They broke their time-honored policy to amplify a powerful voice that demanded to be heard.

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Changing production cultures is no easy task. And it takes not just a voice, but a vision. To want to do this work is only a small step in a complicated process. And few companies in the industry appreciate the challenges of executing systemic change better than the Lifetime Network. Lifetime’s bold executive move toward equity in its production—arguably its savviest executive decision since the creation of the Lifetime movie—brought about just such transformational change. In Spring of 2015, Lifetime launched Broad Focus, a sweeping employment strategy that aims to establish gender parity in above-the-line talent across the network’s original programming. What has made the program distinctive is that its goal has been not just to hire, but also to support and develop, the work of female writers, producers, and directors. Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Lifetime, conceived of Broad Focus as a way of doubling down on Lifetime’s mission of making television by and for women. [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))] As part of the initiative, Lifetime started scouting for talent, partnering with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and the Bentonville Film Festival, to usher at least one project a year from each through the network’s development pipeline. (Lifetime has also committed to airing one winning film from each of the festivals annually). At the time, A&E Networks’ (Lifetime’s parent company) president and CEO, Nancy Dubuc, celebrated Broad Focus as a challenge, not just for the network but to the industry. “In this day [and] age, it’s hard to believe as an industry we still struggle to fully recognize women’s talents in behind-the-camera roles, especially as directors… Broad Focus will inspire us to look deeper and in nontraditional places to discover women among those storytellers. I’m proud we are challenging ourselves and our friends in the industry to do more to support them.” [ (( Zumberge, M. 2015. “Lifetime’s Broad Focus Hopes to Find Jobs for Women in Hollywood.” Variety. May 6, 2015. ))]

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

A month after the Broad Focus announcement, Lifetime premiered UnREAL, a series in which the network went meta on itself, chronicling the scripting of a reality dating series. The idea struck a chord with audiences, garnering record ratings for the network and abundant critical praise for the show. UnREAL both parodied and fueled the wish-fulfillment storytelling formula, historically so vital to Lifetime’s own success. Up until then, the network’s track record with original scripted programming had been decidedly uneven, with only six series lasting beyond two seasons. [ (( Newman, E.L. and E. Witsell. “Introduction.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 1-17. Newman and Witsell include Any Day Now (1998 to 2002, four seasons), Strong Medicine (2000 and 2006, six seasons), The Division (2001 to 2004, four seasons), Army Wives (2007 to 2013, seven seasons), and Drop Dead Diva (2009 2014, six seasons). We also include here Devious Maids (2013-2016, four seasons) and UnREAL (2015-present, three seasons). ))]

Partnering with the Broad Focus’ initiative, UnREAL‘s creative team ensured not only the hiring, but the financial support of women working on the series—including those at the bottom. Stacy Rukeyser, co-executive producer and later executive producer of UnREAL, noted the impact of subsidizing typical pay rates for assistants on the series. Doing this diversified their pool of job candidates to include those who could not normally work at such low rates without going into debt. (Assistant jobs, which often put novice talent in the same room as people who might one day help them get staff jobs, often pay little. Typically only those people who have saved up funds, or who have family members willing to support them while they take these jobs, are the only ones able to capitalize on these opportunities.) As Rukeyser said, “Paying just a couple more hundred dollars a week opens doors.” [ (( Bennett, A. “Hollywood Harassment: Best Fight ‘Is to Have Inclusion’ — Produced By.” Deadline. June 10, 2018. ))]

In January 2019, Lifetime aired the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. The series extended the promise of the network brand, moving from revealing the drama behind the melodrama of reality television to making a haunting documentary about sexual predation that amplified Lifetime’s commitment to telling more inclusive stories by women and for women. Where other networks passed on Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime believed that the series fit within their brand: this time not as a scripted biopic, but rather as a documentary told through the voices of the young black women who were survivors. But others needed convincing—including filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton, whom Lifetime approached to executive produce the series. “I didn’t want to get involved… And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story [Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B]. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly’… The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” [ (( Lockett, D. “Why Didn’t Surviving R. Kelly Happen Before Lifetime Entered the Picture?” Vulture. January 18, 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/why-surviving-r-kelly-aired-on-lifetime.html. ))]

The trailer itself moves from centering the infamous star to bearing witness to survivors’ stories.

With this move, Lifetime stepped more securely into the realm of making television that matters, with integrity, by women and for women—without going off-brand. Lifetime achieved this by greenlighting the story, enlisting Hampton to serve as Executive Producer, and relying on more than 50 interviews to chronicle Kelly’s trail of abuse and bring the stories of his survivors to light compellingly, journalistically, and respectfully. The focus of the series is bearing witness to the women, not sensationalizing the fall of the infamous star, and thus the frames shift as well, making for novel, nuanced television about the entitlements of fame and the hazards and horrors of comparative invisibility. Where other networks said no, Lifetime said yes. By opting to tell an in-progress story about justice for wronged women–rather than offering a safer, post-facto dramatization—Lifetime has expanded its portfolio of meanings to include words like bold, daring, and activist.

But to capitalize on powerful brand meanings and intentions, companies must continue to invest in talent at all levels. In an interview, we asked Carrig about the importance of economic investment to the bolstering of these initiatives. She responded: “We have to start talking about money and the flow of money and making sure women are in that path of the flow of money. It’s okay to start to talk about money. We’ve thought it’s like this dirty thing that women need to be in that line. If their time is being used—even if it is, in part, a learning experience—I believe in compensating for time.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))]

The network has continued to imagine modes of expanding its reach globally and programmatically. As the network expanded its international reach—with 122% growth in global audience from 2012-2015—executives elected to extend Broad Focus to Lifetime’s worldwide brand through investment in micro-budget content development and in engagement with female talent and audiences through local festivals and markets. Amanda Hill, Chief Creative Officer, International for A+E Networks, said at the unveiling of this plan: “[i]t’s imperative that we use the power of our reach as a media brand to break down the barriers of entry for talented women storytellers.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2015. “A+E Networks’ Lifetime Takes Broad Focus Initiative Global,” Press Release. A+E Networks. October 5, 2015. http://www.aenetworks.com/article/ae-networks-lifetime-takes-broad-focus-initiative-global. ))] In terms of sports programming, while Lifetime was an early supporter of the WNBA, it recently deepened its investment in women’s sports, acquiring an equity stake in the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, and broadcasting games starting in the 2017 season. [ (( Hagey, K. 2017. “A+E Networks Buys Stake in National Women’s Soccer League.” Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2017. ))] Then by building a nightly block around “women who pursue justice and display courage as a routine part of their work,” [ (( Littleton, C. 2018. “Gretchen Carlson to Host Lifetime’s ‘Justice for Women’ Monday Night Block.” Variety. June 4, 2018. ))] the network embraced cultural momentum related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, rebranding its Monday night programming block as “Justice for Women with Gretchen Carlson.” Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who successfully sued Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, uses her voice on Lifetime to continue her campaign—and that of the network’s—to be a strong voice for gender parity.

With Broad Focus, Lifetime made its commitment to equity, care, and corporate responsibility clear internally and externally, improving its chances of achieving employee buy-in and industry success. As Colin Mitchell notes in the Harvard Business Review: “Turning points are ideal opportunities for an internal branding campaign; managers can direct people’s energy in a positive direction by clearly and vividly articulating what makes the company special.”[ (( Mitchell, C. 2002. “Selling the Brand Inside.” Harvard Business Review. January, 2002. ))] Lifetime is now poised to become more relevant than ever as it delivers on its brand promise of making television by and for women with as much responsibility, care, and equity as it can. With this recently refocused mandate, Lifetime can ensure that a wide range of women get to tell a wide range of stories, broadening and deepening representation on its network, and validating the diversity among makers and audiences in the process.

Neither one person, nor one company, can undo long-held entitlements and the unchecked privilege of those who have dominated the media industries. To ensure that well-intentioned individual efforts are not made in vain, they must be coordinated and supported by institutional measures focused on impact and longevity. Many individuals working autonomously can make many other individuals feel cared for, but this approach results in duplicative effort, wasted time, and burnout. Lasting change is possible, but only if Lifetime and its network peers operationalize their values by integrating them into every conceivable level of their organizations and brands, investing in and supporting relevant initiatives, using more inclusive labor practices, and establishing how they will more thoughtfully and comprehensively measure success—and justice.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot from Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (author’s screen grab)
2. Lifetime’s Broad Focus

From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards


A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ NJ.com. January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Comics ⟷ Media: What’s a Comic Book Fan Worth?
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

Sea Monkeys

Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina)

In our age of massively marketed transmedial mega-franchises, fans are routinely portrayed as holders of uniquely valuable symbolic capital. Entertainment reporters cover the Comic Con beat and trawl social media for some indication of whether “the fans” will bestow their blessing on the latest round of blockbusters. As both reliable consumers and enthusiastic brand ambassadors, they are no longer poachers stealing textual pleasures out from under producers’ noses: they are the quarry.

Given the vital role intellectual property derived from comic books plays in Hollywood today, we might well expect their fans to be the most prized game of all. But, while superhero characters are more central to popular culture than perhaps ever before, comic books themselves and the practices that make up comic-book fandom clearly haven’t been mainstream for a long time. As a result, it is not clear how valuable comics fans actually are to the media conglomerates.

When I returned to reading periodical comic books after a long time as a trade-waiter, I was struck by the advertising, which is routinely cut from collected editions. There was so much of it and to so little purpose. I perceived a contradiction between how we talk about the value of fans and how companies talk to us through these promotional paratexts.

According to surveys conducted when comic books were still “new media,” virtually all children read comic books regularly. [ ((Zorbaugh, Harvey. 1944. “The Comics—There They Stand!” Journal of Educational Sociology 18: 197-98.))] Sales peaked in 1952, the year when American comic-book publishers sold a billion issues, [ ((Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. 2010. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.))] and we know anecdotally that a single copy would likely circulate among multiple young readers. This was all prior to marketers’ recognition of children’s influence on household product choices, and now-classic ads for Charles Atlas’s physical culture program, x-ray glasses, and the like point towards an understanding of comic book readers as a massive audience of children who were able to exercise some agency in the marketplace but had very little individual purchasing power—the perfect consumers, in other words, for a packet of freeze-dried brine shrimp and a cheap, plastic aquarium.

Compared with the children of the 1940s and ’50s, the average comic book reader of today is older and has more disposable income. Internal research on DC Comics buyers conducted in 2011 found most were white men between the ages of 25 and 44 who made an above-average income. This ought to be a highly desirable demographic, but an exploratory examination of the ads in one year’s worth of an ordinary DC Comics series suggests otherwise.

New Super-Man

Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics

New Super-Man (re-titled New Super-Man and the Justice League of China with issue 20) was created and is written by the award-winning cartoonist, former Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and MacArthur “Genius,” Gene Luen Yang, who is best-known for the graphic novel American Born Chinese. The series stars Kong Kenan, a brash Shanghainese teenager who receives powers thanks to a qi-transplant from Superman. He and his compatriots in the Justice League of China eventually break with their government sponsors and strike out as independent heroes.

Although significant as an American comic series foregrounding Asian characters, New Super-Man is unremarkable in terms of sales. I just so happened to have a complete run to hand for this exercise. The January 2018 issue sold just over 10,000 copies to comic book stores according to John Jackson Miller’s monthly sales estimates at Comichron.com. Thirteen other DC series were in that ten to nineteen thousand sales band that month. I counted the pages of advertising, including “editorial” paratexts that were obviously promotional in nature, over the series’ most recent twelve issues (nos. 11–22):


Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me)

There were, in total, 178 pages of advertising, or slightly less than fifteen pages per issue. For context, a typical DC comic book costs US$3.99 (I pay about $6 in Canada after taxes) and contains a twenty-page story. As we can see, the single largest category is the eighty pages of advertising (just over six per issue, on average) devoted to promoting other comic books and graphic novels. Of course, this is almost exclusively for comics published by DC and its imprints—the one exception being an all-ages graphic novel from Scholastic.

Just under two pages in the average issue were used to advertise adaptations of DC Comics characters and properties in other media, including films like Justice League, video games like Injustice 2, and even novelizations of the CW television series The Flash and Supergirl. Slightly less space was devoted to selling character merchandise, including action figures and statuettes produced by DC Collectibles and t-shirts produced under licence by Graffiti Designs. Slightly less again promoted comics-related goods and services such as back-issue dealers, conventions, and the Kubert School; these ads typically use a comic book–inspired aesthetic, and several actually feature art of DC characters.

The second-largest category is a catch-all for “other” products, which comprised forty pages of advertising. Notably, most were for Warner Bros. media products, including TV networks and programs, films, and video games produced by other units within the Warners family. A further nine ads (in red in the figure above) had some kind of tie-in to DC Comics, such as a Snickers campaign featuring an apparent attack by the homicidal Gorilla Grodd that turns out to just be a hangry teenager or a curious Green Lantern / Colonel Sanders team-up comic. Across the twelve issues of New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China I examined, only a handful—a campaign for Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin and a single page of advertising for Schick razors—weren’t to some extent in-house ads.


Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins

So, while comic book fans seem to be very useful subjects within the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate in much the way Eileen Meehan argued Star Trek fans served as backstop consumers for Paramount, DC does not seem able to convince advertisers of their value. [ ((Meehan, Eileen R. 2000. “Leisure or Labor?: Fan Ethnography and Political Economy.” In Consuming Audiences? Production and Reception in Media Research, edited by Ingunn Hagen and Janet Wasko, 71–92. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.))] Of course, advertising is in crisis across virtually all media, but it is nonetheless striking that comic book fans, constructed by so much industry discourse as the ideal consumer of convergence culture, garner so little attention from major retailers, car companies, telecommunications providers, and other top advertisers. While much more research is obviously needed on the financial arrangements that result in this situation, it seems to lend credence to the hypothesis that comic book publishers are principally “licence farms” for transmedia IP. [ ((Rogers, Mark C. 1999. “Licensing Farming and the American Comic Book Industry.” International Journal of Comic Art 1 (2): 132–42.))] The comic books themselves are, at the level of corporate strategy, almost an afterthought, and their readers are worth about $3.99.

As this is my final column for Flow this year, I want to take a moment to thank the editors for the invitation to contribute. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to bring comics studies and media studies into dialogue in this venue. In particular, Maggie Steinhauer has been helpful throughout the process, sending me due-date reminders, catching embarrassing typos, and running down alternate sources for images when they disappeared from the web. 🙏

Image Credits:
1. Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina),”
2. Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics
3. Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me) (author’s screen grab)
4. Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins scanned by the author (scan from author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.

What is a Soundtrack Album? Or, Spot the Soundtrack Album
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

If It Comes with a Soundtrack Album, Is It Innovative? Or Threatening?

Soundtrack albums are having a moment. A member of indie rock royalty has admitted to being a soundtrack album devotee. An article analyzed a 2002 iPod as a time capsule featuring the era’s soundtrack albums. 2017 saw soundtrack albums drive vinyl and cassette sales. The Black Panther soundtrack albums are receiving extensive praise (and some of this mentions Prince’s earlier interventions). Moulin Rouge! (2001) was the sound(track) of Olympic figure skating. Variety has declared a “soundtrack renaissance.” And a media analyst, while noting the robust sales of soundtrack albums, wrote: “Video kills radio stars, but it may well be the film industry that leads the way in preserving the album as an artistic medium.” [ (( Zach Fuller, “With Black Panther: The Album At Number One In The US, Are We Witnessing A Soundtrack Renaissance?” , February 20, 2018. ))]

If the soundtrack album can preserve anything, it is fair to ask: What is a soundtrack album? Last year the sacred definitions of “film” and “television” were under assault from scholars, critics and upstart media providers. SCMS moved to change the name of its journal (causing some bemusement). A TV show was called a (great) film. And a (less-than-great) made-for-TV movie threatened the very idea of cinema. Yet through it all, soundtrack albums continued to refuse to acknowledge any difference between “film” and “TV.”

Second Verse, Same as the First

At the end of 2017, major film journals anointed Twin Peaks: The Return among the best, if not the best, film of the year. [ (( Of course, the Twin Peaks property, long before it was rebooted / revived / picked-up by Showtime, already bridged the porous divide between film and television since it consisted of a TV series and a prequel film. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is also a hybrid text of material made for television and material made for cinema theaters. ))] And there was much gnashing of teeth. Rather than celebrating the text’s ascension to the mountaintop of transmedia [ (( Just when you thought The Matrix texts required homework, welcome to Twin Peaks. To process The Return apparently required reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town, screening Fire Walk with Me (1992) and studying that film’s extensive deleted scenes, and of course reading the two new David Frost books (The Secret History and The Final Dossier). The nostalgia for Twin Peaks season 1 is not unlike the nostalgia for the first Matrix film. Neither is an unreasonable response. ))], scholars fought over the text’s “home.” Twin Peakscute marketing wisely taps into the work’s always fascinating internet presence and embraces the era of streaming media. There are also two distinct soundtrack albums (including a Target “exclusive”). Whatever the preferred label—auteur TV, “peak” TV, or film—Twin Peaks pedaled music using conventional methods.

The Netflix movie Bright was also a flashpoint in media circles. The critical drubbing at times felt like a defense of traditional (theater-based) cinema. Bright first entered popular culture through “innovative” marketing, and unsurprisingly, with the release of singles and an album. Netflix clearly regards soundtrack albums as a useful, even essential, tool in their empire. Like Amazon, Netflix is in the music business, but we knew that already. Bright, like Twin Peaks, is an (expensive) advertisement for music.

Spot the Soundtrack (Album)

Soundtrack albums ignore and extend well beyond the film-TV binary. And if soundtrack albums are at, or near, the heart of audio-visual media, the parameters of the category should be defined. We might, therefore, play a brief game of “spot the soundtrack album.”

description of imagedescription of image
Spot the Soundtrack Album #1 (Answer: the left)

I use the term “soundtrack album” here, as in my first Flow column, to designate a grouping of songs, whether collected on a physical medium or not. This phrase risks redundancy because the term “soundtrack” is often used to describe these objects. But “soundtrack” is used just as often to describe the audio portion of audio-visual media.

On the left is (one) soundtrack album for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a film that strove to bring “classical” music to the masses by turning movie theatres into concert halls (that still showcased Mickey Mouse). On the right is the character “soundtrack” within the film, described as “shy” and at times looking very much like an optical soundtrack. Both of these can be called a soundtrack, but only one is a soundtrack album. The advantage of “soundtrack album” is to formally—but not permanently—separate these texts from the audio address of audio-visual media.

Spot the Soundtrack Album #2 (Answer: the right?)

The 1978 Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its soundtrack album, directly feed into the belief that the Beatles’ 1967 album of the same name is the first “concept” record, or even itself a soundtrack album, rather than (merely) an intricately produced collection of songs without a unifying idea or sound. An essay accompanying the fiftieth anniversary edition of the album states: “If Revolver is like a photo album—fourteen exquisite, self-contained vignettes showcasing the talents of each Beatle in under three minutes each—Sgt. Pepper is like a film: not a passive record of life, but a moving picture of it.” [ (( Howard Goodall, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017): 97-98. ))]

The album on the right is clearly a soundtrack album. And a doozy. But might the film retroactively turn the Beatles’ release into a soundtrack album too?

Spot the Soundtrack Album #3 (Answer: both)

On the left is the West Side Story (1961) film soundtrack album, while on the right is the play’s 1957 soundtrack album, more commonly called the “original cast recording.” Both of these are soundtrack albums, and both sold very well. The latter allows us to acknowledge the importance of theatre soundtrack albums and their importance to the growth of the long-playing album as a format. Soundtrack albums helped create the medium they are now asked to preserve.

By some accounts, cast albums—first Oklahoma! (as a set of 78 rpm discs and later an LP) and then My Fair Lady—dominated early album sales. These audio versions of Broadway shows allowed audiences physically and/or temporally separated from the New York City run to experience these works. When South Pacific (1958) and The Sound of Music (1965) each became the top-selling album a few years after release, the film soundtrack album symbolically and economically replaced the Broadway album as the default soundtrack album. Of course, Broadway soundtrack albums continue to deliver sound outside theatres.

The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack (from LaserDisc)

There is one, or two, more variations on the term and concept of soundtrack album that deserve some brief discussion. The phrase “visual album” has seen a recent resurgence, most obviously in connection with work by Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Fergie. Using this term rejects the subordinate position that “soundtrack album” tends to impose on audio material vis-à-vis audio-visual media. This effort to rethink, and reframe, the relationship between these texts is fair and justified (if not exactly new). But “visual album” flirts with redundancy just as much as “soundtrack album” (see above where Revolver is labeled a photo album). And rather than signaling a different relationship between texts, it might simply reverse the hierarchy between audio-visual media and soundtrack album. At least it encourages a conscious address of terminology.

The “visual soundtrack” above is a fascinating iteration. Created for Japanese audiences (the subtitles are a feature and not a bug), the LaserDisc release joins new images with the show’s famous music. It is official but not undertaken by Twin Peaks’ creators. Unlike other “visual albums,” it appeared after, rather than alongside, the audio text. The work (re)visualizes the music, surveys the show’s locations, and functions as TV tourism (even revealing the inside of a certain train car).

What is a Soundtrack Album?

A workable definition of “soundtrack album” must encompass works connected to film, television, streaming content, video games, books, and perhaps even the diverse range of texts circulating as “visual albums.” A soundtrack album is not an adjunct text; a soundtrack album is a text whose relationship to one or more other texts is fluid and where meaning flows in all directions. These relationships are never simple.

For example, there are three Don Johnson texts called “Heartbeat”: a song, an album, and an album-length video. Which is the center? Johnny Thunders would likely vote for the song. [ (( Cheetah Chrome, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2010): 307. ))] Others would probably favor whichever text they encountered first (a frequent concern in adaptation studies). [ (( Peter Brooker, “Postmodern Adaptation: Pastiche, Intertextuality and Re-functioning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2007): 107-120. ))]

Are these texts the soundtrack of Johnson’s career? (Kerouac may have one). Is the video a “visual album” or “visual soundtrack”? And does calling the album a soundtrack stifle Johnson’s vision or restrict our interpretive options? Not if we view soundtrack albums as always the center of their own universe of texts and whose meanings and relationships await consideration.

Image credits:
1. Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack
2. Bright: The Album
3. Fantasia soundtrack
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
6. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack
7. West Side Story soundtrack
8. West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)
9. Playlist for The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack

Please feel free to comment.

:30 Spot on Life Support?: Considering Media Advertising Options
Justin Wyatt / University of Rhode Island

:30 Spot on Life Support?

When viewers are asked about their sources of awareness for a new TV show, almost without fail, ‘television commercials on the network’ emerge as the leading response. Intuitively, it makes sense: viewers of a particular network are ‘captive audiences’ to be exposed to promos for new shows, and, with any luck, the like-minded show being advertised fits with the show being watched. In 2014, reviewing results from an audience questionnaire, I found that ‘social media’ had supplanted TV promos as the key source of awareness for a particular new show. Suddenly even one of the most trusted adages of television marketing needed to be thrown out the window. Of course, the exciting – and terrifying – aspect of the period was how many other truisms of television marketing were being revised, reformed, and sometimes simply rejected by the new variety of options for TV consumption. I want to consider one specific battleground from this arena: the role of digital vs. television advertising. [ ((Brian Steinberg, “Do TV and Advertising Belong Together,” Variety, September 18, 2014,
http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/do-tv-and-advertising-still-belong-together-1201308758/.))] Rather than push to conclusions on the relative merits and liabilities of each, I am interested in the ways through which the media industries have negotiated a dialogue over these advertising forms. This dialogue enacts certain strategies of resistance against the encroachment of digital advertising, but, over time, even this resistance has become frayed. More recently, some industry leaders have made a larger argument that is probably more relevant: what role does advertising play at all for consumers, viewers, and audience members?

Markers in the Timeline

Going back to 2007, Ryan McConnell’s Advertising Age article, ‘How the Ad World Is Dealing with the Decline of the :30,’ focuses on the financial accommodations being made in TV advertising to create spots at a lower cost. [ (( Ryan McConnell, “How the Ad World’s Dealing with the Decline of the :30,” Advertising Age, 78.45, November 12, 2007: 14.))] This shift toward online video and alternate platforms paralleled the economic downturn at that time to privilege more cost effective ways to connect with consumers. Digital ad spending grew year-by-year until, by 2017, it finally outstripped TV advertising ($209 billion for digital and $178 billion for TV). [ (( Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, “2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV,” Recode, December 4, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/12/4/16733460/2017-digital-ad-spend-advertising-beat-tv. ))] Looking solely at the US market, eMarketer forecast that the percentage of TV ad spend would be topped by digital ad spend in 2017, with increases leading to a 12% gap by 2020. [ (( “Digital Ad Spending to Surpass TV Next Year,” eMarketer.com, https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Digital-Ad-Spending-Surpass-TV-Next-Year/1013671.))] The death knell for television advertising is confounded by the simple fact that TV advertising is still, in fact, slowly growing. Brian Steinberg reported that the 2017 network ‘upfronts’ demonstrated a 3-4% gain for advanced advertising commitments compared to 2016. [ (( Brian Steinberg, “How TV Tuned in More Ad Dollars: Digital Doubts, Drugs and Desperation,” Variety, July 13, 2017, http://Variety.com/2017/tv/news/2017-tv-upfront-advertising-measurement-1202494620/.))] Further, the pace of digital advertising growth has slowed, making the ‘threat’ less of an immediate concern.

US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total) — Projection

Strategies of Resistance

The trajectory of revenues for digital and television ads is only so interesting. In our consumer society, goods are there to be sold and bolstering awareness, image, and consideration through advertising and communication, of any form, remains absolutely central. More thought-provoking are the ways through which the industry has attempted to shape the image for TV vs. digital advertising. The model of television advertising has been crucial to commercial television since the days of single show sponsorships. It is hardly surprising that the industry has marshaled a robust ‘campaign’ on multiple fronts to protect TV advertising as a form.

One of the fronts for this resistance has been quantification. The standards for evaluating and counting the experience of watching an online video ad have been in process, with several purveyors offering ways to understand volume, sentiment and engagement with online video. Given that Nielsen ratings are the accepted currency for TV ratings among content providers, agencies, and consumer brands, this monopolization makes for an easy and reliable way to understand audience, even if there are serious and ongoing debates on how Nielsen has accounted for quantifying cross-screen viewing. The multiple options for online measurement, with Nielsen just one of many players at the table, encourage questions on the efficacy of digital advertising: how long do people watch? What’s the context of their viewing? How does engagement differ compared to encountering :30 spots on TV?

These question underline a recurring theme of resistance: to suggest that the online video ad experience is qualitatively different than the TV ad experience. In 2016, Geri Wang, then ABC Sales President, offered a vigorous examination of digital advertising. [ (( David Lieberman, “ ABC Tells Advertisers That TV Spots Sell Better Than Digital Ones,” Deadline, May 17, 2016, http://deadline.com/2016/05/abc-tv-ads-sell-better-than-digital-1201758341/.))] Her position was that the concept of prime time equals a ‘promise of quality.’ So, in effect, the television advertising experience is bolstered by this preferential screen. The pitch was accompanied by a report from Accenture, a high-profile consulting and strategy firm. The benefits of multiplatform advertising were proclaimed, with the distinct ‘halo effect’ of television spots over the rest of the advertising package. For digital, marginal rates declined quickly and the value of long-form (=TV) vs. short-form (=online) video were identified. The bottom line was that ‘TV drives sales,’ digital was seen as a useful, but secondary, augment. Separate from the ABC position, a variety of limitations have been leveled against digital advertising: click fraud, ad blocking, and the placement of video next to objectionable content to name just a few of the complaints.

Steve Whittington (Executive Director, Consumer Data & Analytics, Disney/ABC TV Group) Discusses the Accenture Study

The other broadcast networks also have made a spirited defense of TV advertising. NBCUniversal Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Chairman Linda Yaccarino presented evidence that premium video delivers 4 times the brand awareness as social media and 11 times more than short-form video. The message is that premium video is essentially a different product than digital advertising. The value and engagement levels make digital a much less appealing prospect. [ (( David Lieberman, “NBCU Ad Chief Blasts Digital Platforms For Links To “Objectionable” Content,” Deadline, May 15, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/05/nbcu-ad-chief-blasts-digital-platforms-links-objectionable-content-upfront-1202093635/.))] CBS Research chief David Poltrack in December 2017 offered an even stronger position by asserting that TV is in a growth period, arguing for the health of TV advertising. [ (( Dade Hayes, “CBS Research Guru David Poltrack Sees “Bright Future Ahead” For Broadcast TV,” Deadline, December 4, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/12/cbs-research-guru-david-poltrack-sees-bright-future-ahead-for-broadcast-tv-1202219492/.))] Admitting that measuring audience is still a challenge, Poltrack argued that ‘digital powerhouses’ (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix) are still placing their marketing money in television. [ (( Jeanine Poggi, “CBS Has a Much Different Forecast for TV Advertising Than Agencies Do,” AdAge, December 4, 2017, http://adage.com/article/media/tv-ad-sales/311508/.))] Vouching for the value of TV advertising, Poltrack commented, “Why would you fund your new experimental work with money from the element of your marketing program that has proven to lift return on investment higher than other parts?” [ (( Brian Steinberg, “CBS Makes Pitch To Keep TV Advertising Dollars From Moving To Digital,” Variety, December 8, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cbs-makes-pitch-to-keep-tv-advertising-dollars-from-moving-to-digital-1201373770/.))] The point is a valid one, but swipes aside a set of other issues: how has cross platform viewing impacted engagement and brand recall of TV advertising? What are the demographic differences (especially among millennials) present in consuming TV advertising? How do ‘cord nevers’ even expect TV advertising to be part of their entertainment equation?

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television

‘That’s (TV Advertising) Entertainment!’

Being loyal to their company or optimistic about the future of a medium which has shaped multiple generations is, of course, entirely acceptable. And perhaps the issues surrounding digital advertising are warranted. The real argument may not be digital vs. television advertising, but rather how our contemporary society engages with advertising as part of their media consumption. The days of considering how DVRs impact ad recall and viewership seem quaint in comparison. Speaking at a forum in December 2017, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt offered a harsher assessment of television advertising: “Consumers hate advertising. People are running away from advertising in droves, and so that, to me, is the crux of the problem. How do we stop that from happening?…We have to figure out a ways to make those interruptions a lot more palatable, a lot more entertaining, a lot more relational, or they’re going to keep going. And going and going and going.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt: “People Are Running Away From Advertising In Droves,” Deadline, November 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/11/nbcs-bob-greenblatt-people-are-running-away-from-advertising-in-droves-1202215615/.))]

NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Greenblatt’s call-to-action is inspiring since it renews the proposition that advertising, television or digital, needs to have an entertainment quotient as well as a communicative one. What are the implications of this? Clearly, advertising should be compelling on the level of storytelling and emotional engagement. Those are just points of entry for any advertising. Even more persuasive are those moments when advertising can break free of the formal qualities, TV or digital. Experimenting with single show sponsorships, in-show sponsor-related content, and limited commercial interruptions illustrate the ways through which a network can balance internal brand building and alignment of the entertainment brand with the commercial brand. These kinds of formal experiments with program, advertising, and venue may at least lead toward shifting the model of viewer, advertiser, and program content. Perhaps they will also enhance advertising effectiveness beyond the silos of television and digital advertising.

In some limited ways, these experiments in the model of viewer, advertiser and program are already ongoing. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, for instance, focuses on the long-term brand building of network through its shows rather than on Nielsen ratings. As Landgraf comments on his strategy, “I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “FX Chief John Landgraf: ‘I Remain Skeptical About Social Media’ Driving TV Viewing,” Deadline, September 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/09/fx-landgraf-skeptical-about-social-media-1202178980-1202178980/.))] FX launched FX+, through Comcast, in September 2017 allowing viewers to watch commercial free versions of FX shows at the same time the shows are airing on FX. In addition, FX’s past series are also available as part of the service. [ (( Josef Adalian, “FX’s Subscription Service FX+ Is a Big Step Toward TV’s Unbundled Future,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/fx-announces-streaming-subscription-service-fx.html.))] Following an earlier experiment by AMC (AMC Premium), FX+ offers consumers an alternative to commercial entertainment without any delays or dilution to the brand. The FX/FX+ example is offered not as a prescription to solve the issues with advertising consumption, but just as one strategy to reconsider how viewers interact with content and advertising within media. Further trials in the form and structure of advertising are needed to ensure the development of media advertising. The scuffle of television vs. digital advertising should not replace the more global issue of how advertising will function in the context of mass media entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. eMarketer’s Projection: US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total)
2. BeetTV: Project By ABC, Accenture Sees Understatement Of Multiplatform TV ROI
3. David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television
4. NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Please feel free to comment.

Audiences as Subscribers and Netflix’s Notions of Success
Lane Mann / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix audience

Audiences as Netflix Subscribers

Exploring how mainstream subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) companies consider and construct their audiences is vital when researching how SVOD platforms – Netflix specifically – brand their popularity. Surveying Netflix’s public discourse reveals a few themes prioritized in the contemporary SVOD industry: engagement, a new understanding of ratings, and brand building techniques.

In Desperately Seeking the Audience, Ien Ang discusses two primary ways the TV industry – as of 1991 – imagines audiences: audience-as-market (connected to commercial service) and audience-as-public (connected to public service). [ (( Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1991), 28. ))] With changing cultures and technologies, legacy TV companies and premium cable channels have imagined audiences in other, distinct ways since Ang’s theorization. An understanding of how SVODs construct audiences both diverges from and overlaps with legacy TV and cable’s new imaginings. Through a focus of SVODs, I have targeted three ways dominant SVOD players imagine audiences: audiences as subscribers, as data, and as promotional partners.

SVOD industry’s interactions with these three imagined audience groups allows for an insight into larger business plans, brand strategies, and notions of ideal viewing practices. Further, these audience categories address culturally shifting ideas of audiences within the ever-changing TV industry. SVOD platforms carefully guard ratings data, thus audiences are constructed differently from network and cable TV audiences, which are inherently shrouded in Nielsen ratings rhetoric. SVOD-produced audience discourse can help divulge how these companies quantify people, imagine user actions, envision their platform, define success, and forecast how their programming is watched. While these are the strengths in examining SVOD audience constructions, it is important to remember that audiences are commodities. As Dallas Smythe theorized, “Audience power is produced, sold, purchased, and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity.” [ (( Dallas W. Smythe, “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981), 233. ))] The imagined audience employed by SVODs and their stakeholders is reductive, utilized for the perception of greater consumer choice and personalization.

Netflix subscribers

Netflix Subscription Data

For the sake of this post, I focus on just one of the SVOD imagined audience groups listed above: audiences as subscribers. Also, I use Netflix as a test case and example, since their subscription service is the most publicly known and utilized, with 83 million members in June 2016 – though most major SVODs employ similar rhetoric. Netflix uses subscriber statistics as a proxy for audiences. The company is interested in subscriber data because subscribers drive revenue and appease stakeholders, content creators, and advertisers. While subscriptions statistics do not figure prominently in mainstream press coverage or widespread marketing, the statistics are contained within quarterly reports. These statistics, however, do not give information about audience engagement and viewership (what people actually watch). Put simply, subscriber numbers only detail the amount sold rather than the amount used. [ (( Nielsen data is arguably trying to encompass viewership data (amount used/TV viewed). But, just because a TV is on a particular channel does not mean anyone is watching. Though, Nielsen ratings are more relevant to viewership than SVOD subscription numbers. ))] Comparatively, insights into Netflix algorithms and their data collection process convey more information about actual consumption patterns and usage, but Netflix relies on subscription figures in reports. Subscriber numbers are invoked, foremost, for intra-industry stakeholders. The idea of “audiences as subscribers” feeds into a larger, industry-held idea that a monthly monetary exchange – your automatic subscription payment – proves success. However, this data does not prove engagement, which is a key asset for modern media brand strategy. And, it doesn’t show how particular viewers regard the platform. Audiences as subscribers is primarily valuable within the industry itself.

Further defining SVOD success through subscribers is challenging. Without access to internal corporate documents or audience engagement data, their performance is difficult to assess. The only available option is raw subscription numbers and, as of 2015, Netflix dominated the market. To survive within the larger TV industry, streaming platforms must cultivate a sense of superiority and active audience engagement to remain competitive and relevant. Subscription numbers only go so far for the platforms, primarily circulating to tout income and challenge rivals.

Quantifying success

Netflix Brands Success

Netflix in particular, much like legacy TV channels, still relies on imagined audiences to promote and define their perceived success. But Netflix’s conception of ratings is different from legacy TV. As television scholar Jason Mittell writes in The Atlantic, “Netflix simply doesn’t care about ratings – at least not in the way other television providers do.” [ (( Jason Mittell, “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/netflix-ratings/462447/. ))] Netflix still cares about ratings, to be sure, but this is a new conception of ratings. Such a new conception must be considered in future SVOD studies and by TV studies scholars more generally. The “new ratings,” or, the common ways Netflix has defined success without sharing ratings, have been disclosed through award nominations/wins (an appeal to taste cultures), occasional PR releases including viewer and subscriber data (quantifying success), and by marketing high levels of cultural relevance (success measured by engagement). Other TV companies frequently use these metrics too, though as a complement alongside Nielsen ratings.

From examples above, as Netflix shows off to the public in order to demonstrate success, it is clear that the company values people as both a mass of subscribers for monetary purposes and as a mass of engaged viewers, and these two ideas are symbiotic for the company. Building hype by remaining a relevant brand, winning awards, and being included on year-end lists potential creates a beneficial cycle for Netflix: subscribers that become engaged viewers that generate hype and continue subscribing. I agree with Mittell’s claim that, for Netflix, at least externally, “actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity.” [ (( Ibid. ))] Netflix’s marketing strategies strongly construct and promote perceived popularity. Nonetheless, actual popularity is still important when it comes to appeasing shareholders and content producers, because actual popularity translates into income (and loss of churn). Netflix envisions its product as more successful the more people that subscribe, tweet, and share Netflix experiences. This is a different type of popularity than tuning in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday for Nielsen ratings. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, outlines his criteria for success when he asks, “Is [the show] drawing an audience? … Is it getting positive reception from fans, from you guys, from the critical reception…Is the show positive to Netflix?” [ (( Alan Sepinwall, “Ted Talk: State of the Netflix Union Discussion with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos,” Hitfix, January 26, 2016, http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/ted-talk-state-of-the-netflix-union-discussion-with-chief-content-officer-ted-sarandos. ))] There is clearly a balance of numerical popularity, critical acclaim, and brand building happening in the company’s discussion of success – all emerging from Netflix’s imagined audience.

Image Credits:

1. Audiences as Netflix Subscribers
2. Netflix Subscription Data
3. Netflix Brands Success

Please feel free to comment.

Wicked Games, Part 2: Blood, Sex, and Pixels
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon


Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings

Case Study #2: The Birth of the ESRB
In our last column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. Crucial to our argument was the notion of control: what happened to D&D when its creators no longer controlled how the game was perceived by the public? And, even more alarming, what happened once D&D was thought to be an actual danger to that public and therefore in need of juridical oversight?

In this column, we explore another crucial moment in the history of games and their control; namely, the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994. This story is a predictable one in many ways. It begins with relatively simple concerns about children’s play, which escalate to moral panic status replete with a legislative response, culminating with the formation of an industry’s self-regulation mechanism designed to keep the government away and the cash registers ringing and game machines chinging.

But what is often lost in popular tellings of the ESRB’s origin story is how this particular flashpoint was, in large part, a self-inflicted wound; a by-product of an industrial arms race that sought to capture players’ hearts and dollars. In their zeal to better identify and pitch their wares to an aging community of gamers for the fourth generation of home consoles (e.g., the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Neo Geo) — to say nothing of trying to control that lucrative marketplace for themselves — Sega and Nintendo were blinded to how their games and marketing efforts were being perceived by an increasingly wary public. Game publishers knew their consumers were growing in numbers and aging in years. Gamers were not putting down controllers as they exited adolescence. The American public, however, was less cognizant of this demographic trend, and without a regulatory body that promised commercial transparency to parents and cultural watchdogs (or at least its veneer), the very idea of a video game containing sex and violence was anathema. After all, video games were still deemed to be children’s toys, and gameplay still unfolded primarily in private spaces, be they dimly-lit arcades at the local mall or a neighbor’s rec room. What follows is an all-too-brief historical narrative of the commercial battle for the 16-bit home console marketplace of the early 1990s and the controversy that followed. This flashpoint illustrates demonstrably that while the cocktail of blood, sex, and pixels made for good business, the resulting commercial success invited the sort of headlines and popular scrutiny that threatened a nascent but growing cultural industry with the real specter of censorship.

ROUND #1 (1985-1990)
The contentious console wars waged between Sega and Nintendo spanned three generations of home consoles (4th-6th), and lasted nearly two decades. Sega’s first entrant in the 8-bit console market, the Master System (known as the Sega Mark III in Japan), was released in North America in 1986, a year after its main competitor, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in the United States. Although the Master System was armed with better hardware, Nintendo’s powerful marketing efforts, its expansive library of exclusive titles produced by third-party publishers, and its head-start in the marketplace ultimately proved too powerful. Sega never caught up to Nintendo during the 1980s, with sales of the NES far outpacing that of the Master System.[ (( Sega did have better success in Europe, where the Master System outsold the NES. ))] Indeed, at the height of its dominance, Nintendo controlled a whopping 83% of the home market.[ (( Douglas C. McGill, “Nintendo Scores Big,” New York Times, 4 December 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/04/business/nintendo-scores-big.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2. ))]


The Sega Master System, circa 1985


Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd

Nintendo’s dominance over Sega during the 1980s is evident even today in the comparative celebrity status of their respective 8-bit mascots. Sega’s monkey-like Alex Kidd, who saw his debut in 1986’s Miracle World, proved to be no competition for Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario. The plumber and his brother, Luigi, have since appeared on countless pieces of licensed merchandise while Alex Kidd has languished in relative obscurity. Sega was down but it was not out. More importantly, it learned its lessons quickly as it readied itself for the next round of competition.

ROUND #1 WINNER: Nintendo

ROUND #2 (1988-1998)
Sega wanted to beat Nintendo to the punch by being the first to release a 16-bit home console (5th generation). It also saw an opportunity to lay claim to an aging gamer demographic by appealing to teenage boys and young adults; the Genesis was something you graduated to after you were done with Nintendo’s “toys.” By specializing in sports titles (which included forging an important relationship with Electronic Arts) and by licensing popular culture properties, Sega differentiated itself from Nintendo’s more family-friendly fare. Or, as their marketing campaign memorably put it: “Sega does what Nintendon’t.” The following multi-page ad appearing in Sega Visions, the company’s response to the popular Nintendo Power magazine, illustrates the company’s thoroughgoing focus on sports and pop culture icons: Joe Montana, Buster Douglas, and Michael Jackson (to name a few).

Sega Does

What Nintendon't

Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign

Sega also cultivated the sense of a pronounced production culture divide between the firms. The following ad, for example, takes aim at Nintendo’s “nerdy” developers. (It is worth noting that the game being advertised is the controversial Night Trap, described in “Round #3” below).

Cool Guy

Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers

Also central to Sega’s re-branding effort for their 16-bit lineup was their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. This speedy blue critter was a far cry from Sega’s previous standard-bearer, Alex Kidd, or Nintendo’s more famous Mario brothers. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was a platformer; but it was a platformer with an attitude.

Sonic Menu Screen

Sonic tapping his foot

Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.

Although the 16-bit Super NES sales figures would eventually crest and surpass that of the Sega Genesis (49 million to 29 million units sold, respectively[ (( IGN, “Genesis vs. SNES: By the Numbers,” 20 March 2009, http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/03/20/genesis-vs-snes-by-the-numbers. ))]) no other company came close to dethroning the reigning video game giant during these years. Moreover, Sega’s steadfast effort to expand the content boundaries of home console titles put them in direct opposition to Nintendo in the marketplace and, eventually, in opposition in the halls of congress.


Older gamer

Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo

ROUND 3: Sega vs. Nintendo … vs. Congress
Hoping to press their momentary advantage, Sega released the Sega CD in 1992, a CD-Rom peripheral for the Genesis. With the CD’s additional storage space, game producers could package far more material into a game including full motion video (FMV) starring human actors. The pursuit of “realism” quickly became the center of attention. Among the early “interactive movie” games was Night Trap (1992), a schlocky horror title where players save young women at a slumber party from a group of fangless vampires. Of particular interest to panicked cultural critics was a scene depicting a woman in a nightgown being captured in a bathroom. Despite such apparently scandalous subject matter, the game, while moderately popular (especially in the UK), was not necessarily a smash hit. At least, not until it became the one half of an ensuing moral panic around sex, blood, and video games.


Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)


Night Trap’s preview complete with dripping blood

The other half of the panic was Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat, also released in 1992, which was designed to compete for gamers’ quarters against Capcom’s wildly successful 2D brawler, Street Fighter II (1991). But whereas Street Fighter II was stocked with cartoonish combatants, Mortal Kombat starred digitized human fighters who bled and did grave bodily injury to one another. The game was a smash hit, and both Nintendo and Sega desperately wanted the game for their 16-bit consoles and portable devices (i.e., the Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear). Following a tremendously successful “Mortal Monday” release event preceded by a $10 million marketing effort that included primetime TV spots, magazine advertisements, promotional trailers in 1,600 movie theaters, Mortal Kombat made millions of dollars and became a cultural phenomenon.[ (( Lindsey Gruson, “Video Violence: It’s Hot! It’s Mortal! It’s Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent,” New York Times, 16 September 1993, B8. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/16/nyregion/video-violence-it-s-hot-it-s-mortal-it-s-kombat-teen-agers-eagerly-await.html ))]


“Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

Despite their different degrees of success, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap did share one common feature: the capacity of their increased “realism” to inspire cultural panic. In June 1993 Sega, sensing the rising anxiety surrounding the games, assembled experts in education, psychology, and sociology into a “Videogame Rating Council” (VRC). The company’s games were slotted into one of three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for mature audiences, and MA-17 for adults. The move, which only rated Sega’s games, did little to quell the growing panic that the screen violence would somehow inspire worldly violence. By late in the year, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) initiated legislation that would force the game industry to implement a ratings system within one year or face government intervention.

Hearings on the bill were ugly: Lieberman showed clips from Night Trap, wielded the plastic gun shipped with Sega’s Lethal Enforcers game, and played a Sega commercial that he claimed was targeting children to play Mortal Kombat. The assembled panel of industry executives surely could not have been pleased to hear Lieberman’s inflammatory rhetoric, particularly such statements as, “These games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture.”[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1. ))] It was shades of D&D all over again: the fear of blurring the lines between children, adults, and games.


“Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny ” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

By that point, though, the industry was already scrambling hard to ease the legislative pain and shift the discourse away from potential harm to one of self-control. Eighteen software companies and the Video Software Dealers Association formed a coalition in early December 1993 and announced they would create a ratings system. “Parents have every right to know and understand what their kids are getting,” said Electronic Arts executive Jeanne Golly in a press conference outside the hearings; such self-serving statements may have contradicted the narratives at play in commercials like the one for Sega shown by Lieberman, but they clearly fit the requirement that something was “being done” about the problem.[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1.))] It was certainly not a moment too soon for the industry: by mid-December, Toys ‘R’ Us and other retailers announced they would stop selling Night Trap, pouring fuel on the panic fire (and, of course, making the game even more taboo and thus desirable).[ (( Tom Redburn, “Toys ‘R’ Us Stops Selling a Violent Video Game,” New York Times 17 December 1993, B1.))] In early January, Sega threw in the towel and pulled the game from the market in order to “revise” it. Lieberman called the announcement a “small victory” on a larger road to a less violent society.[ (( John Burgess, “Sega to Withdraw, Revise ‘Night Trap,’” Washington Post 11 January 1994: D5.))]

The game industry didn’t wait for things to get worse. It was during meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was born. The self-regulatory agency, created and managed by a coalition of software companies, offers guidelines, ratings, and strategies to convey information to retailers and parents. Moreover, and most importantly, they also ensure nervous politicians stay out of game stores and living rooms. Ultimately, while Lieberman and Kohl might have declared some sort of victory, it was the game designers and retailers that survived the battles to emerge with deeper pockets and an “official” mechanism in place to placate those who feared adult games were encroaching on children’s play.

ROUND #3 WINNER: Sega, Nintendo, and the Industry itself…

Once the ESRB was established, Sega’s VRC folded and disappeared, as it had become an unnecessary redundancy. The result in the years since has been very nearly a replication of the ratings system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which serves a similar purpose: maintain an “official,” internal mechanism to regulate content (one that promises to control the spectatorial and play behavior of children) and which will keep the threat of government interventions at a distance.[ (( For more on the history of movie regulation, see: Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and the Hays Office,” in Grand Design–Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Tino Balio (New York: Scribner, 1993).))] This regulatory moment was inevitable, perhaps even overdue, for the game industry. The combination of aging consumers, technological advancement, and creative and commercial investments meant boundaries of cultural acceptability would be pushed, eventually, into the ever-present and always on standby anxiety around “the children.”

While initially resistant, the game industry came to accept and embrace the economic necessity of creating a self-regulatory body. It was a strategy that the creators of D&D and other tabletop role-playing games certainly could have utilized to mitigate the moral panic that swept across the cultural landscape during a previous era. Despite their ability to keep politicians and anxious publics at bay, such bodies also inevitably have a creative chilling effect in that they lead first to distribution suppression. No major theater chains will play NC17-rated films, for example, just as no large-scale retailers will sell “Adults Only”-rated games, even though these are both “official” ratings categories. This means, obviously, that very few creators are willing to create content that will lead to such ratings. Even with such internal suppressions, though, the overall result for self-regulated industries is economic stability and discursive control, not to mention a mechanism for foreclosing episodes that might lead to public outcry, Congressional response, and moral panics. Ultimately, in exchange for imposing creative limitations, the ESRB helped guarantee a predictable marketplace and economic return on investment.

Despite the clear intentions of regulatory bodies such as the ESRB to contain the industry in a tidy, controversy-free package, ruptures are also predictable and unavoidable. The nature of regulation is that boundary-crossing is not only inevitable, but even, ironically, occasionally necessary. It allows regulators to keep the boundaries clearly defined and supported by a vigilant and wary public. In our third, and final, column, we will examine an example of just such a prominent and inevitable rupture: the “Hot Coffee” modification of the 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that permitted users to see a sexually graphic sequence hidden by the game’s creators. The predictable panic that followed was rooted in anxieties about visibility, dependability, and trustworthiness: what happens when self-regulatory mechanisms designed to keep play transparent, such as the ESRB, fail to do their critical job? The fear of “dangerous play” is always lurking in the shadows, like the monsters in D&D’s mazes or the escalation of graphic content during the arms race of the fourth-generation console wars. In our concluding column, we continue to explore these tensions, and argue that the cycle of panics, regulations, and ruptures are an inevitable, predictable, and useful way of understanding how gameplay is produced and consumed.

Image Credits:
1. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings
2. The Sega Master System, circa 1985
3. Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd
4. Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions Vol. 1, Issue 1. June/July 1990 pp. 25-27.)
5. Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers (Author’s Screen grab from Sega Visions Nov/Dec 1992, pp 6-7.)
6. Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.
7. Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo (Authors screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, pp. 20-21.)
8. Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)
9. Night Trap‘s preview complete with dripping blood (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Nov/Dec 1992, pp 38-39.)
10. “Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat‘s September 1993 console release (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, p. 3)
11. Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny (Author’s screen grab from Electronic Games, Vol. 2, Issue 4. Jan. 1994)

Expanded Cinematography, or the Problems Workflow Won’t Solve
Christopher Lucas, Trinity University

Bradford Young
Bradford Young, cinematographer for A Most Violent Year.

In 2013, two articles came to my attention that raised difficult questions about the future of cinematography. One was a critical look at the state of gender equity in the trade. The other was by the founder of a forward-looking education project attempting to reclaim a share of authorship that has seeped away from cinematographers with the rise of digital filmmaking techniques. The art and craft of cinematography is changing, and certainly new technologies fo dissertation writer and specializations will be part of the new definition of the craft, but I want to suggest here that the idea of an expansive, open cinematography may rely less on the number of new workflows it learns, and more on the openness of its practitioners, and those that hire them, to new types of artistic voices.

Precisely what cinematography means in this day and age has become a pressing question for the craft (and, hopefully, some educators). Yes, skilled cinematographers continue to be hired for projects large and small, although, as I wrote in my last Flow submission, pay scales have become severely depressed in the growing online and non-union sectors of the industry. And, of course, Academy Awards are still awarded to the high-end practitioners in this branch of the “art and science” of motion pictures, helping extend our image of cinematography as a coherent professional locus. Increasingly, though, there is widespread confusion over how the visual design of films is conceived and executed and who is responsible for that work. For example, between 2011 and 2014 the academy awards for cinematography and visual effects were awarded to the same films: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, and Life of Pi. The 2015 Oscars may be an exception that proves a new rule as Birdman’s Emmanuel Lubezki won for Cinematography (for a film with many visual effects elements) and Interstellar won for Visual Effects (for elegant if rather familiarly-defined “outer space” visual effects).

In 2012, two established and respected cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC, founded the Global Cinematography Institute, a training program in Los Angeles built around a concept they call “expanded cinematography”—arguing that cinematographers must find a way to expand their craft influence into the pre-visualization, visual effects, and post-production stages of film production. GCI promised to do that with courses and workshops from experts from those neighboring specializations. As Neyman wrote in a series of articles and op eds accompanying the group’s launch, GCI has recognized that the “pre- through post-“ workflow of classical film production is increasingly a weak construct for understanding how creative decision-making actually happens in film production. The new by-word is non-linear/real-time: workflows in which decisions about look, contrast, color, tone, and grain (or any number of aesthetic qualities usually associated with cinematography), as well as editing, visual effects, and other craft work may be taken at any point in the production process. GCI’s stated goal is to create a new model of cinematographer, better able to assert “image control” and cinematographers’ intentions in this new work process.

The Global Cinematography Institute
A new training program founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC promises to expand the definition of cinematography.

Alongside this narrative of technological obsolescence, cinematography has periodically grappled with the lack of gender equity in its professional ranks. In 2013, The New York Film Academy issued a report that raised this question yet again. To the surprise of many, the report showed the industry making almost no headway, with women photographing only 2-4% of the Top 250 films over the last five years. This, despite broad discussion of the issue, increased enrollments of women in film schools, films like Women Behind the Camera and efforts by some cinematographers to advocate for more diverse crews. In the wake of this sobering report, lists emerged highlighting talented women DPs (often recycling the same small pool of names), and yet more think-pieces dwelling on the sources of this disparity.

NYFA Chart
A study by the New York Film Academy showed little progress for gender equality if key roles in film production.

These crises within cinematography may seem unrelated or only loosely joined, but its notable that both are rooted in a very traditional notion of the division of labor in film production. Ultimately, in each, the concept of cinematography circles around the notion of the “on set” cinematographer. Not without reason, since the idea of director of photography as head of the camera department retains significant currency in labor force organization to write my essay, and within the union definitions that guide hiring and compensation. In this traditional conception, the on set cinematographer is the primary interpreter of story in visual terms—the “visual storyteller”—second only to the director in the realization of the look of the film. To include women in this vital role, prescriptions of groups like IATSE typically involve bringing more women into entry level camera crew positions or focusing on making camera crews more welcoming to women (sexism on set remains a pervasive problem). Even the “expanded cinematography” of GCI envisions the cinematographer as needing to reach out, seeking invitations from beyond his or her base on the film set to influence other parts in the production process.

All of these discussions may miss an important point in the emerging film production process. Simply put, in more and more cases the job of a film crew is to realize shots (or even just elements of shots) planned, designed, and conceived by others in the filmmaking process. Such work requires a lot of skill and collaborative sensibility, of course, but it also cuts against the discursive construction of the cinematographer as artist/technician contributing their singular vision to the film. Arguably, Sharon Calahan is one of the most influential cinematographers (man or woman) of the last 15 years. As first a “lighting designer” on Toy Story (2005), then Director of Photography on later Pixar projects, she has translated the language of cinematography into the created at https://grademiners.com/research-paper worlds of animation. In 2014, Calahan was invited to join the ASC—the first cinematographer the group invited a member whose entire body of work was digitally created. I find this both remarkable and entirely predictable in that, as Calahan has noted, her work represents the most visible edge of hundreds of animators and coders tasked with creating visual looks in the virtual animated worlds of Pixar’s films. In other words, it’s a definition of the cinematographer that fits quite nicely with ASC’s efforts to define the work of its members as primarily “conceptual.” Given the prominence of next generation DPs like Calahan, it’s not surprising that some respected traditional cinematographers have also moved into animation in a “consultative” role, as with Roger Deakins’ work on Wall-E (2008), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), and Rango (2011).

Sharon Calahan
Pixar “Lighting Director of Photography” Sharon Calahan was admitted to the ASC in 2014, the first member whose entire body of work was computer generated.

So, what kind of “expanded cinematography” do we want at the end of the day? For both the digital crisis and the equity crisis, “solving” the problems is placed almost entirely at the feet of cinematographers. In keeping with craft’s long-standing investment in individual virtuosity, the (by-now familiar) refrain is: innovate or die. In practice, though, producers and director are responsible for hiring cinematographers, and have enormous influence (through budget and stylistic goal-setting) on the workflows built around specific film projects. In other words, although cinematography absorbs a great deal of blame for its resistance to digital cinema, as well as residual misogyny and slow acceptance of women in the workforce, a large part of the essential conservatism of the craft comes from these hiring practices in which older, established cinematographers, laden with awards or thick CVs, always get the first call from risk-averse producers and directors.

The old school of cinematography can do its best to train itself in these new specializations, although the industry has already created and staffed those roles and it unlikely to “un-crowd” the workflow with technicians. Battles over creative authority will be eternal, and next generation cinematographers will push back on pre-viz artists, colorists, and the VFX department to make its contribution known. But the recent trend is toward more centralization of that authority under directors and producers, now enabled to bring visual design decisions further “above the line” than they have since the earliest days of the art form. Meanwhile, craft areas will fight over smaller crumbs of creative input, and more hyphenates (director-cinematographers, etc.) will emerge reflecting that centralization. Cinematographers can continue to circle the wagons around their traditional notion of the journeyman-craftsperson on-set, a blue-collar, classed and gendered concept of the work, or it can embrace its more creative legacy, the pluralism of artistic endeavor. It can open the doors to a wider variety of artists. It’s time for cinematography—and the producers and directors that support it as an art form—to consider a truly expanded cinematography, a more intersectional cinematography, that welcomes more women, people of color, and greater diversity of sexualities.

Image Credits:

1. Bradford Young, cinematographer for A Most Violent Year.
2. A new training program founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC promises to expand the definition of cinematography.
3. A study by the New York Film Academy showed little progress for gender equality if key roles in film production.
4. Pixar “Lighting Director of Photography” Sharon Calahan was admitted to the ASC in 2014, the first member whose entire body of work was computer generated.

Please feel free to comment.

Know Your Audience: The Quest for Digitally Addressable Systems in India
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin


DTH Players

In the shift from analog to digital television in India, much of the discussion in the media industries and policy circles has focused on whether the new digital addressable system (DAS) will be a revolutionary transformation in the delivery of programming services, as its proponents claim, or a mirage that critics argue the Indian cable industry will be chasing in futility for years to come. This is a debate I have covered more extensively in an earlier Flow essay.

To briefly summarize, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011 made it mandatory for analog Cable TV systems in India to switch over to a new Digital Addressable System (DAS) by December 2014. The advocates of DAS view digital addressability as an ideal new technology to overcome the problems posed by the current analog systems in the cable television industry, and to offer television content providers and audiences the ability to directly interact and communicate with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you get your TV through broadcasting, cable, direct-to-home satellite systems or the internet, direct addressability seems to be the fix-it-all solution to problems of analog television like limitations of bandwidth, delivery of digital HD, 3D, interactive services, targeted advertising, standardization of TV rates, reliable billing practices and so on. (( Consultation Paper on “Issues related to Implementation of Digital Addressable Cable TV Systems” ))

For the critics of DAS, the elevation of digital addressable system as a technical fix to all the problems in Indian television is rather problematic. Their criticism of the DAS policy has at least four dimensions to it: The first is an argument about the inherent difficulties in uniformly implementing DAS as a new technology in a politically, economically, culturally and linguistically diverse country like India. The second strand of criticism comes from those who question the assumption that giving cable companies greater access to television households through DAS will automatically improve the quality of services for the viewers. The third strand of criticism comes from those who argue that the kind of “choice” proposed by the advocates of DAS is a menu-driven format of click-and-choose options that does not fully exploit the interactive potential of digital addressability. The final strand of criticism is that the menu-driven format of choice does not promote the interests of the television viewer at home, but instead serves the commercial interests of the powerful media industries and their elite allies in the government.

Although advocates and critics in the media industries differ in their assessments of the ways in which the new DAS regime is being implemented in India, there seems to be little disagreement in these circles about the potential of new digital technologies to overcome the many problems posed by the old analog mode of delivering broadcasting and cable television services. Therefore, not surprisingly, much of the debate on the shift to DAS television system in India has been framed in technical terms about the relative advantages and disadvantages of digital set-top boxes over the current analog cable technologies. Underlying this consensus about the ills of the analog world is a common view that the attempt to realize the full potential of the broadcasting revolution of the 1970-80s, and the satellite television revolution of the 1990s is being hindered by the inability of television content providers to directly address the audiences at home.

In this essay, I want to move debate on DAS away from the focus on the pros and cons of digital technologies for the delivery of television services where the digital is seen as a technical fix-it-all solution for the problems of the outdated analog system. Instead, I want to pay closer attention to the distinction between addressable and non-addressable systems of communication, and critically analyze the cultural implications of the wholesale shift toward digitally addressable systems in Indian television. I argue that the shift from the current regime of non-addressable analog systems and hybrid analog-digital systems to a uniformly digital addressable system is taking place in the television industry in conjunction with similar transformations in other allied and equally crucial sectors of the Indian economy and culture. This generalized shift toward uniformly digital addressable systems is visible most prominently in the unique identification number system called “Aadhaar” launched by the government of India, and in the “Know Your Customer” (KYC) system promulgated by the Reserve Bank of India for use in the banking industry to prevent financial fraud and other criminal activities.

Aadhaar (meaning support in Hindi) is a 12-digit unique identification number (UID) issued to all residents in India on a voluntary basis by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) The UIDAI agency was established by the government of India in 2009, and began assigning UID numbers in September 2010. The aadhaar numbers are stored in a centralized database and linked to demographic and biometric information such as photographs, ten fingerprints and iris scans of every individual with a UID number. The stated goal of the Aadhaar project is to serve as the single source of verifiable identity for the delivery of various public services by using the UID numbers and the associated database information to uniquely address each individual resident in India. (( uidnumber.org ))



The Know Your Customer (KYC) system is used in the banking industry to individually identify each customer and verify his/her identity by using uniquely identifiable data such as a photograph, residential address, marital status and so on. Introduced in 2002 by the Reserve Bank of India, the KYC system is now used by all banks to ensure that they are fully compliant with the government of India’s regulations aimed at preventing money laundering, terrorism financing and identity theft schemes. (( Know Your Customer (KYC) Guidelines ))

Know Your Customer

Know Your Customer

Similarly, the Digital Addressable System (DAS) is being promoted in the television industry as a way to uniquely identify each subscriber on the cable delivery system. DAS comprises of a set of digital hardware and software tools used in satellite and cable TV industries for the transmission of television channels in encrypted form to their subscribers. All subscribers get set top boxes with authorization to view free, paid or on-demand encrypted channels on the satellite or cable network. Authorization is given and controlled by the Multi System Operator (MSO) who owns the DAS but may work with Local Cable Operators (LCO) in different markets.

While the current interactions and intersections among the television industry’s DAS platform with the aadhaar system and the KYC system are limited, the future potential for integration of these digital addressable systems in India is immense. According to a study released by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in April 2012, Telecommunications companies can save over Rs. 1,000 crore (( 1 crore = 10 million. 1 US dollar = 55 Indian rupees )) every year if they use Aadhaar to verify the identity and address of new subscribers. The report claims that the Telecom industry can save this money by going paperless in back end processes, and by avoiding the fines that the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring (TERM) cell imposes on companies for failing to verify subscriber identity in a proper and timely manner. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/using-aadhaar-as-kyc-norm-can-save-telecos-rs-1000-cr-says-study/471088/ )) Recognizing the potential benefits of such digital integration, DISHTV – the leading provider of DTH services in India – embraced the aadhaar UID and the KYC IDs for uniquely identifying its customers, and rapidly expanding its subscriber base across the country. “Dish TV is proud to align with UIDAI to recognise and support the country’s largest movement to provide unique ID numbers to its residents. Aadhaar will also serve an additional payment option as the UID has a direct connect to the banks and financial institutions,” said Dish TV COO Salil Kapoor in statement released to announce the implementation of the new policy in February 2011. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/dish-tv-alignsaadhaar-to-accept-uid-number-as-id-proof/124598/on ))

The development of new digital technologies to communicate with citizens, consumers and audiences in nationalized systems such as Aadhaar, KYC and DAS respectively, requires a new understanding of the emerging modes of digital address in India today. However, the debate over digital addressable systems cannot be simply reduced to the positive versus negative effects of new technologies at home, or more generally in media culture and industries. Television viewers are ambivalent about the potential threats of DAS to their privacy and may also be vaguely aware of the possibilities of greater surveillance by the media industries in the digital world. But at the same time, television viewers recognize that many everyday conveniences of better programming services, efficiency of delivery mechanisms, and greater security in the television household depend greatly on digital addressable systems. As is evident from the recent attempts of major players in the media industry like DISH TV to integrate the DAS platform with KYC and Aadhaar systems, the rise of digital addressable systems and their ability to uniquely address viewers as consumers and citizens raises new questions about the changing relationships between public and private spaces, privacy and surveillance, and the state and its subjects. These are questions that Indian media scholars need to address by extending our analyses of television more broadly to the changing mode of digital address in systems like DAS, KYC and Aadhaar, as well as to the increasing intersections and the growing interdependence among various digital platforms.

Image Credits:

1) DTH Players
2) Aadhaar
3) Know Your Customer

Please feel free to comment.

Satellite TV Smackdown: Viacom vs. DirecTV
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College

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Viacom channels

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at approximately 11:45pm (ET), something unexpected happened in 20 million living rooms across America. DirecTV customers (myself included) no longer had access to 17 Viacom channels, including such favorites as Comedy Central, MTV, and the #1 most watched cable channel on DirecTV, Nickelodeon. A single flick of a switch–and it was so long Stewart & Colbert, au revoir Spongebob & Dora, and good riddance Snooki and JWOWW.

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DirecTV’s notice to customers

The blackout was due to a financial dispute over an increase in the subscription fees Viacom was charging DirecTV to carry their channels, a list that also includes VH1, BET, TVLand, Spike and Nickelodeon’s siblings, NickToons, Nick Jr., and Teen Nick. According to an online video message from DirecTV CEO Mike White, Viacom was demanding DirecTV “pay over 30% more. That’s an extra billion dollars for the exact same channels you already receive.” ((“Mike White’s Message to Customers.” Lybio.net. n.d. Web. 27 July 2012. http://lybio.net/mike-white-message-to-customers-directv-ceo/people/.)) Viacom accused DirecTV of misleading their customers and set the record straight: “Here’s the truth: Viacom is asking DirecTV for an increase of a couple of pennies per day per subscriber. That’s far less than DirecTV pays other programmers with fewer viewers than Viacom.” (( As quoted in Brian Anthony Hernandez, “DireTV Removes Viacom Channels Amid Battle on Social Media.” Mashable.com. Mashable, 10 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://mashable.com/2012/07/10/viacom-directv-social-media/))

The phrase “a couple of pennies a day” makes me nervous. Exactly how many pennies are we talking about? Let’s do the math: $1 billion dollars (the additional cost per year) divided by 20 million subscribers = 5,000 pennies or $50 dollars per year per subscriber. In this economy, that’s a substantial increase, especially when, as White points out, we will be receiving the same channels.

Channel blackouts are no longer a rare occurrence. Over the past two years they have risen significantly in number, from 4 in 2010, to 15 in 2011, to 22 in the first half of 2012. According to the Associated Press, cable and satellite providers are less willing to pay higher fees because their profits have decreased due to the decline in the number new households in the current economic climate. At the same time, entertainment companies like Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, AMC, and Viacom “have kept expanding their profit share.” ((“TV Channel Blackouts Becoming More Common as Profits Stall.” www.usatoday.com. USA Today, 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2012-07-15/television-blackouts/56236886/1.)) On July 20, 2012, the same day DirecTV and Viacom reached an agreement, Time Warner Cable and the Hearst Corporation ended their financial standoff, restoring nearly half of Hearst’s twenty-nine local television stations. ((Chelsea Stevenson, “Time Warner Agrees to Restore 15 Local Hearst TV Stations.” Online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20120720-706219.html)) A heated contract dispute over licensing fees between AMC Networks and the DISH Network resulted in the second-largest satellite TV provider eventually dropping American Movie Classics, WEtv, and Independent Film Channel (IFC) from its line-up on July 1, 2012. ((William Launder, “AMC in Deal to Keep Channels on AT&T.” online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304299704577500853046352874.html)) Knowing DISH customers were outraged over missing the highly anticipated season premiere of Breaking Bad, AMC decided to live stream the episode (which they never do) in order to give Dish customers “an extra week to switch providers so they can enjoy the rest of the season.” ((Amanda Kondolojy, “AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Season 5 Premiere is Most-Watched Episode Ever.” TVbythenumbers.zap2it.com. 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/07/16/amcs-breaking-bad-season-5-premiere-is-most-watched-episode-ever/141710/))

In the case of DirecTV vs. Viacom, their seven-year contract was up on June 30th but Viacom allowed DirecTV to continue to air their channels until negotiations stalled. Then a mini-modern day Game of Thrones (minus the sexposition) erupted with both sides engaging in some very intense finger pointing via on-screen messages, TV commercials, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr). DirecTV’s campaign was more corporate and subdued compared to Viacom’s, which, like the programming on MTV and Nickelodeon, was overstated, in-your-face, and a tad cartoonish.

The more adult of the two companies, DirecTV appealed to their customers by presenting “the facts” (or at least their version of them). An on-screen message on the blacked out channels and on their website, DIRECTVpromise.com, made it clear that Viacom is the guilty party. On their website, DirecTV also explained the correct number of blacked out channels is 17, not 26, the number Viacom was using in their campaign: “Viacom’s double-counting both high definition and standard definition versions of the same service to overly inflate its totals and add more unnecessary drama to what should have always remained private business discussions.” ((The 17 Viacom channels, 9 of which are available in HD (designated by an *asterisk): BET*, CMT* (Country Music Television), Centric, Comedy Central*, Logo, MTV*, MTV2, Nickelodeon*, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, Palladia, Spike*, Teen Nick, TR3s, TV Land, VH1*, VH1 Classic. ))

There was plenty of “unnecessary drama” in Viacom’s campaign urging customers to call DirecTV to stop them from “taking away 26 of your channels.” Their website, whendirectvdrops.com, featured a search engine DirecTV customers could use to find another cable or satellite service provider that carries Viacom’s channels and make the switch. DirecTV explained on their website that changing providers would not matter because “no TV provider is immune to unfair fee increases” (to prove their point they even provide a list of “current and recent industry disputes”). Still, DirecTV was no doubt concerned about losing customers (who would be charged a pro-rated early cancellation fee of up to $20 a month!) (( When a close friend called DirecTV while the blackout was going on to find out where to send an old box she had been holding on to, she inquired if they would be offering some credit since they were no longer carrying Comedy Central – she’s a Daily Show fan. Before she could say anything else they offered her 6 months of free Showtime, Starz and Encore and $10 off her bill for the next six months. )).

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Viacom’s notice to DirecTV customers

Team Viacom also encouraged customers to participate in the fun via Twitter (#whendirectvdrops.com), which also sent tweets from MTV and reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi encouraging their fans to call DirecTV and demand their channels back. DirecTV also had their own Twitter account that encouraged customers to express their support, though some chose to express their anger at both sides, accusing them of caring more about profits than their customers.

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Twitter message from Nicole Polizzi “Snooki”

Viacom even attempted to scare DirecTV customers with a shameless video montage that incorporated clips from popular shows on Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon shows that give the impression that Jersey Shore‘s The Situation, Stephen Colbert, Daniel Tosh, iCarly‘s Miranda Cosgrove, the South Park kids, and Spongebob Squarepants are reacting to DirecTV’s decision to get rid of “26 of your favorite channels” (Viacom’s name is, of course, never mentioned). The final image is a definite low point: Dora the Explorer saying, “We need your help!” (a request she often makes to her young fans). DirecTV was no doubt aware that the loss of Nickelodeon was devastating for many kids, so they added Disney Junior to their line-up.   ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV Adds Channel Amid Viacom Dispute.” Variety.com. Variety, 13 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056546)) In fact, the Disney Channel’s viewership rose during the blackout while Nickelodeon’s steadily dropped. ((Brian Stelter, “Denied Nickelodeon, DirecTV’s Youngest Clients Find Substitutes.” nytimes.com. New York Times, 18 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/business/media/dispute-with-directv-aids-viacoms-rivals-in-childrens-programming.html))

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Viacom’s video message to DirecTV customers

Viacom also tried to show whose boss by stopping the online streaming of complete episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Viacom restored the public’s access within a week after being lambasted by critics, including their own Jon Stewart, who asked, “Viacom, where are you, China?”

On July 10, 2012, an agreement was reached and order was restored in ViacomLand. A seven-year agreement was reached to the tune of $5 billion (a 20% increase instead of the initial 30% Viacom was demanding). ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV, Viacom Reach Agreement.” Variety.com. Variety, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056833))

As for DirecTV’s subscribers, it’s still not clear what if anything we got out of this deal. Viacom and DirecTV had no qualms about sending their customers into battle, yet it is only a matter of time before we will be footing the bill for their war. In the meantime, all I know is I had access to 17 (or 26) Viacom channels, suddenly I didn’t, and then I got them back. And I am not expecting to get a rebate anytime soon from DirecTV for those Snooki-less summer days of 2012.

Image Credits
1. Collage by author.
2. Screen shot by author
3. whendirectvdrops.com, screen shot by author
4. Screen shot by author
5. Screen shot by author

La semiótica de la televisión en América Latina: problemáticas y perspectivas metodológicas

(for English, click here)

por: Alfredo Cid Jurado / Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Mexico City

Marta Susana y Cristina en El Show de Cristina

Marta Susana y Cristina en “El Show de Cristina”

La semiótica aplicada al estudio de la televisión representa cada vez más un recurso a disposición de los analistas del medio en América Latina. Un recuento veloz nos muestra su incremento como consecuencia directa de la evolución del medio a partir de los estudios que provienen fundamentalmente de la Europa mediterránea (España, Italia y Francia). Desde sus inicios, la televisión en América Latina ha desarrollado una intensa producción televisiva que ha permitido madurar algunos géneros como las telenovelas (soap opera), algún tipo de comedia situacional, los talk shows, los programas musicales, por citar los más importantes. Dicha producción viene aparejada con su explicación teórica y con los instrumentos metodológicos para analizarla.

En la década de los 80´s aparecen diversos trabajos semioticos que muestran la preocupación por describir la independencia que la televisión empieza a mostrar con respecto al cine y a los otros medios de comunicación que le habían servido de base; la prensa y la radio. Inicia así a trazar su propio camino como sistema semiótico. Hasta ese momento, el lenguaje utilizado reproduce una herencia directa de la radio (los géneros en los programas, los formatos en la programación, el empleo de la musicalización), la radio (la presentación de la información inmediata) y del cine (el lenguaje audiovisual y los recursos propiamente cinematográficos en la producción).

Contemporáneamente a la maduración que adquiere en cuanto lenguaje se empieza a observar un distanciamiento paulatino de las estructuras creadas hasta ese momento, es entonces posible hablar de paleotelevisión, que de acuerdo con Umberto Eco se trata de una televisión de formatos definidos, géneros más o menos estables que tiende a definir un lenguaje televisivo para dar las noticias, para producir una ficción, etc. Con el surgimiento de la neotelevisión el lenguaje se transforma, surgen los géneros híbridos, los formatos adquieren mayor dinamismo y flexibilidad.

Por otro lado será la televisión que preste recursos al cine. A partir de estos cambios surgen una serie de conceptos que la semiótica puede ofrecer como instrumentos de análisis, rebasando la dicotomía cuantitativo/cualitativo. La amplia difusión metodológica del denominado pacto comunicativo permite extender al estudio de audiencias las posibilidades de seccionar un programa y analizarlo desde su proceso de ideación, su puesta en escena para prever la recepción por parte del espectador televisivo. El pacto será el resultado de la neotelevisión ya que cada emisión puede saber cuál es el espectador modelo que espera y al cual le encomienda tareas específicas; que van de la aceptación de la verosimilitud, el contrato de confianza y la aplicación de la competencia adecuada para comprender al programa.

Al enumerar una serie de factores que han determinado el desarrollo de la semiótica televisiva como herramienta para la comprensión del lenguaje televisivo, tenemos por un lado, la creciente demanda por parte de las televisoras para acceder a instrumentos críticos que permitan conocer el comportamiento de la programación en relación con su público, y al mismo tiempo, capaces de complementar los tradicionales estudios de audiencia. Aunado al anterior, se encuentra la búsqueda continua para fijar criterios, más o menos compartidos, con los cuales determinar la calidad de un programa televisivo en fase de preparación, producción y puesta al aire.

Don Francisco de Sábado Gigante

Don Francisco de “Sábado Gigante”

El ejercicio valorativo de la producción televisiva forma parte del trabajo pedagógico de las universidades que preparan expertos capaces de realizar las tareas de evaluación como parte de una tarea profesional.

Un recuento veloz sobre la contribución de los estudios semióticos aplicados a la televisión nos permite comprender también, además de su campo de acción, el tipo de análisis requerido que deriva de problemáticas específicas. La mayoría de ellas tiene que ver directamente con la lucha por las audiencias; la televisión generalista en contraposición a la temática, la televisión abierta versus la televisión por cable, etc.

Hemos elegido tres casos que nos permiten apreciar la aplicación de los instrumentos semióticos y los resultados que ofrecen; tenemos la serialidad, el humor, y la creación de identidad, cada uno de ellos muestra diversos grados de complejidad.

La serialidad es un problema ampliamente tratado en la década de los 80’s y aún vigente cuando se enfrenta a la necesidad de una solución para un programa con alto índice de audiencia y que merece, por diversos criterios, permanecer al aire. Se trata, en términos operativos, del estudio de la serialización, que se presenta de manera distinta para cada género. La solución de las “temporadas” no aplica para la estructura narrativa que asume por ejemplo la telenovela, la cual pasa de un número finito de capítulos a un número mayor. Precisamente, el caso de la telenovela requiere, para esta situación, del conocimiento de su estructura, de sus componentes figurativos en una primera instancia, lo que incluye a los personajes y sus roles, que deben corresponder a la historia narrada capaz de enfrentar el problema de las tramas. Los modos con los cuales cada personaje contará su historia deben obedecer a las formas estructuradas del género pues cambios radicales romperán el pacto establecido entre la producción televisiva y su espectador.

Otro ejemplo importante del trabajo de la semiótica se observa en el estudio del mecanismo del humor. La diferencia entre el humor y la tragedia radica en el carácter determinado por la cultura de pertenencia del primero y la comprensión universal del segundo, según observaba Umberto Eco. Una semiótica del humor televisivo debe poner atención en su construcción a partir de los dos caminos disponibles: el humor visual y el humor lingüístico. La estructura básica de la construcción del humor reconoce algunos mecanismos generales que aplican para ambos aunque de ellos se deriven usos distintos como lo muestra el caso de “El chavo del 8”. De este modo el humor puede trascender el ámbito de los programas de entretenimiento para insertarse de manera activa en una contienda política (el caso de las recientes elecciones en México y Venezuela) o como instrumento eficaz en la publicad televisiva (como sucede en Argentina).

Los vecinos de El Chavo del 8

Los vecinos de “El Chavo del 8″

Por último, una tarea asignada a la semiótica en su capacidad de describir el carácter ideológico de la estructuración del significado presente en cada programa que es emitido por una red en español, consiste en observar la construcción de identidades que acomunan diversos aspectos como son la historia compartida; los hábitos musicales, culinarios, deportivos, etc. y que permiten integrar ideológicamente al mundo hispanohablante. Precisamente los talk show adquieren un valor unificante en casos como el de “Cristina”.

Hemos querido presentar solamente tres tipos de tareas que la semiótica de la televisión debe enfrentar como retos para responder a las demandas sobre el estudio profundo del rol social que juega la televisión en el mundo de habla hispana. Seguramente la visión tradicional de una semiótica estructural es trascendida por su capacidad de describir los procesos en fases distintas y ver como cada emisión televisiva es capaz de prever a su consumidor, pero al mismo tiempo reproduce la cultura que la genera y de qué manera participa en la conservación de su propia memoria colectiva.

1. Marta Susana y Cristina en “El Show de Cristina”
2. Don Francisco de “Sábado Gigante”
3. Los vecinos de “El Chavo del 8″

Alfredo Cid Jurado es profesor en el Tec de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México.

Favor de comentar.

by: Alfredo Cid Jurado / Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Mexico City

Semiotics, applied to the study of television, increasingly represents a resource for analysts of this medium in Latin America. A quick overview shows us that this increasing interest is a direct consequence of the medium’s evolution, starting with the studies that have primarily come out of the Mediterranean countries in Europe, i.e. Spain, Italy and France. Since the dawn of television in Latin America there has been some intense television production which has allowed some genres to mature, such as soap operas, some types of situational comedies, talk shows, and music programs, to mention the most important ones. In order to analyze it, one must recognize how this production is inextricably tied to its theoretical explanation and methodological instruments.

During the 80s, diverse semiotic studies showed a preoccupation for describing the independence that television has begun to show with respect to cinema and other mediums of communication that have served as its major influences. This is how TV began to carve out its own path as a semiotic system. Until now, the language used in studying television has reproduced a direct inheritance from radio, in terms of the genres of its programs, the programming formats, the use of music, etc. Radio has been influential in terms of its presentation of immediate information; and cinema has played a part considering the audio-visual language and the distinct cinematographic resources used during production.

In conjunction with the maturity that television studies have acquired in terms of their language, one begins to observe a noticeable distance from the narrative structures created until now. Today, one may speak of a paleo-television that, according to Umberto Eco, deals with television in distinct formats. These are more or less established genres which tend to define a TV language for delivering the news, for creating fiction, etc. With the rise of the soap opera, the language is transformed and hybrid genres emerge. Moreover, formats become more dynamic and flexible.

On the other hand, television will even lend resources to cinema. Starting with those changes, a series of concepts surface, concepts that semiotics can offer as analytical instruments which can overcome the dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative analysis. The wide methodological diffusion of the so-called “communicative pact” can extend to audience studies the possibilities of dissecting a program and analyzing it from its original idea and its setting. This would allow one to predict its reception on the part of the TV viewer. The pact will be the result of neo-television, as each broadcast would address a foreseen model spectator from whom it would elicit certain kinds of engagement. This process is an agreement that goes along with the suspension of disbelief, a trust contract, and the application of adequate competence in order to understand the program.

By enumerating a series of factors that have determined the development of television semiotics as a tool to comprehend television language, we have, on one hand, the growing demand on the part of television networks to provide critical instruments that allow one to know the performance of the programming in relation to its audience, and, at the same time, ones that are capable of complimenting traditional audience studies. In addition to the aforementioned features, one finds the continual search for establishing criteria, more or less shared, with which to determine the quality of a TV program in its phases of preparation, production and when it is on the air.

The worthwhile exercise of TV production forms part of the pedagogical work of the universities that prepare expert producers who are capable of assessing their own work as part of their profession.

A quick glance over the contribution of applied semiotics to the television allows us to understand also the type of analysis required for specific problems. The majority of them have to do directly with the struggle to attract audiences, mass-audience (televisión generalista) versus niche audiences, broadcast television versus cable television, etc.

We have elected three cases that allow us to appreciate the application of semiotic instruments and the results they offer. These are seriality, humor, and identity creation. Each one of them shows diverse degrees of complexity.

Seriality is a problem that was widely dealt with in the 80s and is still alive today. This is especially important when one must confront the need for a solution for a program with a high audience index and one that deserves to stay on the air because of diverse criteria. In terms of operation, it (tv semiotics) deals with the study of serialization whereby each genre is presented in a distinct manner. The solution of the “seasons” does not apply to the narrative structure that assumes, for example, the soap opera which passes from a finite number of chapters to X number of episodes. Precisely, the case of the soap opera, requires, from the first instance, knowledge of its structure and its figurative components which include characters and their roles that should correspond to the narrative history. These roles should also be navigate complexities of plot. The manner by which each character tells his or her story should obey the structural forms of the genre because radical changes would break the established pact between the television production and its audience.

Another important example of semiotic investigation is observed in the study of the humor mechanism. The difference between humor and tragedy is found in the elements determined by the culture belonging to the first and the universal understanding of the second, as Eco observed. A Semiotic study of television humor should pay attention to its construction beginning with the available means: visual humor and linguistic humor. The basic structure of the construction of humor recognizes some general mechanisms that apply to both even though from them distinct uses are derived as in, for example, the case with El Chavo del 8. This way, humor can transcend the range of programs for entertainment in order to place itself in an active way in a program with political content (recall the recent elections in Mexico and Venezuela) or as an efficient instrument for television publicity, as is the case is in Argentina.

Finally, an assigned task for semiotics, in its capacity for describing the ideological character of the structuring of the present meaning in each program transmitted by a network in Spanish, consists in observing the construction of identities that gather diverse aspects, such as a shared history, the musical elements, cooking shows, sports, etc, and that is able to integrate the Spanish-speaking world in terms of ideology. Talk shows, in particular, acquired a unifying worth in cases such as that of Cristina.

We have wanted to present only three types of tasks that television semiotics should confront as a challenge to respond to the demands for a deeper study of the social role that television plays in the Spanish speaking world. Certainly, a traditional vision of structural semiotics is transcended by its capacity for describing the processes in distinct phases and: 1) seeing how each television broadcast is capable of predicting its consumer; 2) recognizing how each television broadcast also reproduces the very culture that generates such a consumer; and 3) questioning how each television broadcast participates in the conservation of its own culture’s collective memory.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. Marta Susana and Cristina on El Show de Cristina
2. Don Francisco host of Sábado Gigante
3. The neighbors of El Chavo del 8

Author: Alfredo Cid Jurado is a professor at the Tec de Monterry, Mexico City.

Translator: Clark Murray is a professor at the Tec de Monterry, Mexico City.