Black Zen Masters in the Dojo of Reality Television

by: L.S.Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

Typically in reality television, the host is white — famous examples include Jeff Probst in Survivor, Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, and Regis Philbin in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? whose through-the-roof ratings jump-started the reality programming watershed. But in America’s Next Top Model, The Road to Stardom, and Pimp My Ride, the hosts are African American and already stars.

In my first article for FLOW, I raised the concept of personal transformation as the underlying logic of reality television programming, particularly as it relates to race. Through an explicit display of Gratitude, a Sympathetic Back-Story, and Hard Work, reality television winners are shown to triumph, no matter what their race is. In this sort of “double-bind” (of having racial diversity on the small screen, but within a specific ideological framework), the article also points to the fact that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre in primetime. Furthermore, few (if any) other genres proffer African Americans in positions of authority and roles as knowledge-giver.

“Miss Tyra,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, and X are key decision-makers, glamorous celebrities, and mentors. What Victoria’s Secret supermodel Tyra Banks says, fourteen wannabe supermodels do, or at least try to do, as they strive to learn the inner secrets of modeling to earn entry into the temple of fashion. Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliot is music priestess to thirteen “wannabe artists” who hope to gain immortality with a $100,000 recording contract. And Rapper Xzibit endows young dreamers with the ability to “go from dirt to pimped” on MTV’s popular show where clunkers are transformed into “tricked-out masterpieces.”

Race or ethnicity would not have been an obvious prerequisite for the job of host in these series. On the surface, a white supermodel is just as qualified to mentor and evaluate novice models, a popular white singer can just as skillfully spot a striving young artist’s talent, and a white entertainer can host a show about car culture as easily as an African American entertainer can. Is this simply a case of bringing faces of color into roles that are primarily race-neutral? Or are these roles essentially racialized, offering an alternative in the representation of characters of color as well as in the way viewers participate in racial discourse?

All three series involve multicultural, multi-racial “casts.” As with many reality programs, the characters consist of those who do the transforming and those who are transformed. (Just as Extreme Makeover, for example, has a cast of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, and personal trainers who literally transform the physical appearance of the cast of participants, Pimp My Ride has a cast of mechanics, auto body specialists, painters, and other car experts together with a cast of car-owners.) While the contestants on America’s Next Top Model and the young performers on The Road to Stardom distinctly consist of a rainbow coalition — and white singers who master the hip hop beat are especially intriguing — it is notable that the “transforming” experts (i.e., the panel of judges and advisors) are a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. And the clear masters of the game, the hosts, are African American.

In this regard, the role of host is much more than an emcee. The host is a paragon of what the contestants strive to become, and is the means — the necessary instrument — through which they can reach a higher level.

America’s Next Top Model is a tightly-constructed, smartly-paced program that involves a group of young women participating in weekly tests in their effort to get into the succeeding round of judging. Each episode is a lesson on multiple aspects of the fashion industry: photography, make-up artistry, clothing style, and publicity. Each competitor realizes she must learn how to model: how to pose, how to express emotion in a still image, how to convey that she understands the concept of the task at hand whether it is to pull off a squeaky clean Cover Girl close-up, or an edgy experimental “art shot.” There are people on the ground training the women, featured prominently are “Mr. and Mrs. J” — Jay Manuel, who helps direct the models at the shoots and just J, a very tall Black man who instructs the women on how to move down the catwalk.

It is Tyra Banks — her style, her look, her experience and expertise, her personality that is both motherly and sisterly — that is the guiding force in the program. Although her catchphrases, “The judges will now deliberate” and “Congratulations, you’re still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model” are subject to ridicule in Saturday Night Live skits, Banks’ success with the series is no joke. Moving into its 4th cycle, Tyra Banks is creator, executive producer, and judge of the hit “dramality” series, and she is also founder of Bankable Productions. She lends the wisest and most earnestly taken advice to the young women. Miss Tyra is quite literally, a model for them in her success in the fashion industry, and as a self-possessed, strong Black woman.

In the three seasons thus far, there is a running discourse about owning up to who you are, specifically for the women of color. April in season 2 who is Japanese and Caucasian made statements such as “My Mother said I could never be a model … but it’s her fault that I look this way.” Tyra advised her to embrace her looks and market herself as ‘an Asian model.’ April agreed, if not to the idea to accept who she is, at least to the strategic suggestion. In a photo shoot that transformed each contestant into a famous figure, Xiomara’s skin was made darker with body paint to resemble Grace Jones; she was clearly upset with the choice and rejected the persona. Miss Tyra later schooled the young woman, and all the women, on Grace Jones’ place in history as a beautiful, dark-skinned, “fierce” model who helped pave the way for her and other “non-traditionally beautiful” (read non-white) women.

Being non-traditional is a vital part of Missy Elliot’s achievements as a writer, performer, and producer. Her ground-breaking work as an artist who crosses and combines genres — rap, hip hop, pop, and techno — has garnered her numerous accolades. She is highly regarded among music critics and kids alike and her videos are impressive, avant-garde pieces with musical, lyrical, and political bite.

On the show, she comes across as a near mystical figure. Her aloof demeanor can be daunting. Seated and surrounded by a coterie (her dancers), beautiful and regal, clad in a phat outfit and signature baseball cap, unsmiling and sucking on a lollipop, Missy Elliot delivers such lines as, “I think you’re going places . . . just not with me.” She tells you whether you are good enough — to be on tour with her, to be a performer of her high standards. Contestants act as willing pupils, hoping to have the honor of sharing the stage with her. Unlike Miss Tyra, she does not interact closely with the contestants. Like Banks, however, she is the avatar of cool everyone seeks knowledge and approval from.

Like ANTM, TRTS also uses a multi-racial panel of judges. Among them are singer Teena Marie, producer Dallas Austin, and president of Violator Management, Mona Scott. The goal of Scott’s company is: “To better market hip hop to Hollywood . . . to successfully promote mainstream products to the urban consumer, a consumer not defined by ethnicity, but rather by lifestyle.” The website for the program also proffers the idea of cultural sharing, and the sentiment that ethnic and racial identity is not as important as style: “The next big superstar could spring from a variety of backgrounds, but what each participant has in common is amazing talent, distinctive style and fresh attitude.” A contestant’s ethnicity may or may not be immediately relevant, but the racialzed derivation of that “lifestyle,” “distinctive style” and “fresh attitude” is unmistakably Black, or more importantly, learned from a Black mentor.

Style and attitude are exactly what contestants hope to gain from Pimp My Ride. They begin their transformative journey by appealing to MTV and Xzibit for help. Many are college students (including one of my own from UCSC), driving, for example, their soccer mom’s old Nissan. There usually is some element of charity involved in each episode, not only towards the car owner, but also for another group — helping an aspiring singer drive to teach kids music lessons, for instance. When Xzibit comes knocking on the front door, the car owner goes crazy, jumping on X, acting like Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up, only more excited. There are many who dream to come face to face with this man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and cornrows.

Whether you are Black, white, Asian American, male, or female, Xzibit’s crew — the working class, minority men at aftermarket West Coast Customs — will take you from 0 to 60 in the eyes of your friends and family. These guys have pimped cars with turntables, a ping pong table, a big screen monitor, and even a fireplace in the trunk. Video games with monitors installed in headrests practically come standard.

Theme Song Lyrics
So you wanna be a playa?
But your wheels ain’t fly
You gotta hit us up
to get a pimped out ride

To what ends is the creation and representation of Black sensei figures in these reality series? It is the promotion and cultivation of respect and reverence for the African American hosts. While Miss Tyra and Missy Elliot have more to specifically teach than Xzibit (and arguably, their level of accomplishment is higher than his, his recent album has not sold well), all three are examples of Black hosts/African American figures as benefactors — bequeathing opportunities upon youth primarily, and whites often.

One could argue that this is a form of exoticism, that Black culture has long held “the cool factor” desired secretly and now openly by non African Americans. But most things on television are exotic or cool, that’s what gets them good ratings (Ex: The O.C.). I also want to make note of not only a multiculturalism that is proffered in all three of these television discourses, but a cross-culturalism: The latest season of ANTM is set mostly in Tokyo where Tyra Banks wants to educate the models about experiencing another culture; Missy Elliot’s most popular and award-winning video engages with an aesthetic that is both mystical (Chinese martial arts) and avant garde (Japanese fashion); and Xzibit essentially takes up Asian American “rice rocket” tuner culture. This is part of what I call a “Black-Yellow alliance,” which I don’t have time to expand upon here.

There is a bit of exoticism and idealism of the “Black Master” going on. But I think (I hope) there is also modeling. Viewers see African Americans in positions of authority, as lenders and gatekeepers of hopes and dreams and moreover, viewers see numerous and diverse contestants (“people just like us”) paying respect to them. And that’s something to model.

Links:
America’s Next Top Model
CBS Review, Pimp My Ride
Pimp My Ride Homepage
TV Tome — Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.




My Own Private TV

by: Erin MacLeod / McGill University

With the “TV on DVD” phenomenon in full effect (Golden Girls, My Little Pony and Friends, and Too Close for Comfort — among many others — have all been released in the last few weeks), almost any show you’ve ever loved that’s been either relegated to reruns or sporadic glimpses on various cable channels is available for a small fee from Amazon.com. As an absolute TV junkie, I’m happy that I can get a hold of my favorite small-screen gems in their pristine, commercial-less form rather than buying some crappy VHS version off Ebay.

But for those of us who were, for many years, in the business of trading copies of television shows, what does this all mean? My somewhat fuzzy full season of The Ben Stiller Show was a prized possession that became worthless on 11 December 2003, the date that the complete 1992-93 season was released on DVD for the low price of $26.99.

Billed as “the funniest show you never saw” in the time since it was cancelled after one season on Fox, my video copies of Ben Stiller episodes made me part of a larger community — people who’d seen the show when it originally aired, but moreover, people who cared enough to share quality television. Sure, it’s great that Ben Stiller and its sketch comedy brilliance is available to everyone, but it seems that something’s been lost. To more fully understand this issue, it’s best to recount the tale of the supposedly triumphant DVD release of another one-season stunner: Freaks and Geeks.

On one of the many commentaries included in the eighteen episode set, creator Paul Feig talks about how he wanted to make a television show about teenagers that didn’t trade in stereotypes — avoiding the archetypal nerds with taped glasses and, on the other hand, steering his focus clear of the beautiful people. The pilot’s initial scene clearly illustrates his vision. Opening with a vacuous conversation taking place on the bleachers between a jock and his perky, blond cheerleader girlfriend, the camera immediately juts downwards, under the seats, and plants itself on a group of scruffy kids: the “freaks.” Fittingly, the soundtrack shifts from some upbeat strumming to Van Halen. Clearly this isn’t going to be Dawson’s Creek. After one freak hails the merits of Jon Bonham’s drumming, the music swells and we shift to the “geeks”; they’re laughing at each other’s Bill Murray impersonations when interrupted by a group of slightly (and only slightly) “cooler” looking bullies.

It’s been only three minutes, but at this point Feig has established his characters. They’re not cardboard cutouts of various high school archetypes, they are real kids — as Feig himself puts it, “people I knew.” We don’t have the extremes, the heroes and zeroes here; we’ve got kids who simply go about the business of growing up. It’s simply not possible to find a comparable teen show that, over and above presenting teen angst, simply let kids talk to each other. This truthful approach garnered passionate fans, yet poor ratings, and thus wasn’t exactly appreciated by the network hacks. Executive producer Judd Apatow famously revealed that Garth Ancier, NBC’s programming director at the time, wanted “the kids to have more victories” — the cookie-cutter climaxes so prevalent in most teen movies and TV shows.

Avoiding the classic showdown between the cool kids and the dorks (think Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and, more recently, Mean Girls), the truthful and realistic Freaks was riveting viewing for those who could relate. When the show was cancelled after months of futile fan protest in March 2000, fans were left to tape and trade episodes of their beloved show. Postings on the Freaks net message board are testament to this fact — not only are people furiously discussing the show in detail, but for the years between initial fall 1999 airing and DVD release in April 2004, the board’s threads are chock full of trading requests. Ebay bootleggers were a last resort, providing desperate fans with access to illegal tapes and DVDs.

Eventually, after a long struggle for music licensing (original licensing agreements do not fit with the new DVD reality) and 40,000 signatures, Shout! Factory made the dream of Freaks fanatics come true. The show that was yanked off the air because not enough folks were watching it would now be available to anyone who could cough up the cash to buy the box set.

I should be happy, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the process that brought Freaks to DVD re-inscribes the very same type of narrative that the show itself tried to avoid. Feig once said that “most people, when they write a high school show say, ‘If I knew back then what I know now, boy would I have ruled,’ and you know, they write the show that way. So all of these kids are popping off good ones and they’re making the other kids look dumb.” The fans who related to Bill, Neil, Sam, Lindsay, Nick, Kim, Ken, and Daniel ended up in a situation where they had to think of a scheme to get back at the nasty, popularity-hungry executives who took away their show. Much like the stereotypical high school power struggle, the fans took the role of the nerds who had to prove themselves — they had to figure out how to pop off the good ones that would get them a win. Here we find a victory that might make Garth Ancier proud.

Sure, Feig and Apatow created a “Special Edition” box set that was initially offered only to committed fans who’d signed the petition, but the fans vs. network situation ends up much like Feig’s description. It’s nice to rule the school, but once you are in with the popular kids (as one episode of Freaks made painfully clear) you tend to forget where you came from.

The community that is created as a result of love for a TV program — especially a short lived one — is disrupted by this instantaneous availability. For the average viewer, before the advent of VCRs, television was an incredibly ephemeral medium. VCRs gave way to personal taping and committed fans could dutifully collect episodes of their favorites. TV on DVD (and TiVo, for that matter) makes any of that care — not to mention the patience required during the wait for the next episode — irrelevant. The ability to watch episodes on DVD not only eliminates any waiting for commercials (or the fast forwarding through ads), but it also enables viewer to consume television at a much faster — and perhaps thereby less thoughtful — rate. You could down the whole of Freaks in a single day if you wanted to.

Interestingly, a recent topic on the Freaks message board asks viewers to state exactly when they first saw the show — some claim to have been in on it from the first commercial teaser, others admit that they were initiated only after it came out on DVD. I know that I should celebrate rather than disparage these newcomers, but regardless, the irony of the Freaks case throws into sharp relief this new relationship viewers must develop with television and the shows they care so deeply about. What will it look like? Until then, however, does anyone have any tapes of Undeclared they’d like to trade?

Links:
The Ben Stiller Show Web Memorial
Freaks and Geeks Website
Heather Hendershot’s Superfreaks article on FLOW

Please feel free to comment.




“Citizen versus Consumer”: Rethinking Core Concepts

by: Michele Hilmes / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Obama for President

Projecting into the future

Every so often a core concept emerges in an historical or theoretical field that serves a purpose at the time of its invention but slowly loses its explanatory power while continuing to crop up as something “everybody knows.” Eventually, it no longer clarifies but actually obscures: everybody knows George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, America is the best democracy in the world, women are more sensitive than men, Saddam Hussein had links to terrorists, etc. Or, in the field of media, Hollywood tried to ignore broadcasting in hopes it would go away; US media produce audiences, not programs; and public service broadcasting serves citizens living in communities while commercial broadcasting addresses itself to consumers living in markets. There are many more (skip to the bottom of this piece to post your own favorites – I hope we can compile a collection.)

It’s the last statement above that I want to address here, with hopes of returning to the second one later. Like the “Hollywood ignored television” myth (which provided me with a dissertation topic some years ago, and my entrée into the world of media scholarship), the “consumers vs. citizens” diad emerged during a period of tension, but drew on a much older and more embedded set of historical assumptions and concepts. The distinction between “citizen” and “consumer” linked to the media can be traced back to the very earliest years of broadcasting, as social forces and groups struggled over how to define and control the myriad “radical potentials” that the new technology and its earliest practitioners offered.

Elites in the industrialized nations most prominent in broadcasting’s development already recognized, by the 1920s, that the influx of increasingly organized market forces in media such as newspapers, magazines, film, and popular music had led to an upsurge of popular – what they called “mass” – culture, which encouraged values that intellectuals and leaders on both the left and the right found disturbing. In Britain, one look at the already highly commercialized radio situation in the United States led to the construction of a public service broadcasting system, the BBC, in which “public service” was defined as first and foremost not commercial and not competitive, and in fact adamantly opposed to marketplace (popular, “mass”) values.

A publicly funded monopoly, aimed at citizens, not consumers, was needed to hold the vulgar forces of marketplace capitalism at bay – even though, as I have argued elsewhere, this stemmed not so much from deeply-held philosophy at the point of its earliest iteration, 1922, than from a desire to resist the “American chaos” that its founders observed abroad.[1]

This context also demonstrates how closely debates over “public” and “citizens” are tied to concepts of national identity construction, and how markets are perceived as threatening to those constructions, both internally (in terms of hierarchies of citizenship) and externally (in terms of preserving national cultures from “foreign” influences).

The BBC model eventually became standard in Europe and in Europe’s colonial possessions. Many groups in the US advocated for it as well, from a variety of perspectives, and indeed its basic precepts can be found in early US broadcast regulation, despite the prevalence of commercial interests. The roots of the “citizen versus consumer” diad can be traced to this nexus, finding articulation on both the left and the right in the 1930s and 40s: from the Frankfurt school’s condemnation of the “culture industries” (though they held no brief for the state-dominated systems of Europe, having seen what happened in Germany), to the Leavisites and their Arnoldian disparagement of market-based culture on the right. Although the word “consumer” was not widely used at this time, it was clear to such observers that markets created a debased culture inimical to the uplift goals of the educated elite, whether progressive or deeply conservative. “Public” intervention was necessary to control such chaotic tendencies and to link broadcasting to the interests of the nation/state.

When Jurgen Habermas wrote his postdoctoral dissertation in the 1950s, tracing the transformation of the mediated public sphere by impinging state and market forces, he drew on this tradition. It should be noted, however, that Habermas (like Chomsky after him), worried as much about the interventions of the state as the market sector (as well he might post-war), in fact created a history in which market-based interests operating at the dawn of democracy built a sphere of citizen discussion and debate outside the machinations of the state. Though more focused on coffee houses than tea parties, Habermas described the world of private, commercial – though not commercialized, a more complicated concept – media and markets as a crucial ingredient in resistance to the overweening state. It was the later intrusion of the state into private life, as well as private interests into affairs of state, that equally worked to create the “refeudalization” of the public sphere that Habermas deplored.

This was not the aspect of Habermas taken up when the “citizens vs. consumers” dichotomy reached its fullest expression, in 1980s Britain, though he was frequently invoked. In 1982 Philip Elliott seminally wrote, “The thesis I wish to advance is that what we are seeing and what we face is a continuation of the shift away from involving people in society as political citizens of nation states towards involving them as consumption units in a corporate world.”[2]

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pursued deregulatory policies and the 1986 Peacock Report sketched out a more competitive and commercialized future for British Broadcasting, unfavorable comparisons with US broadcasting again became central to defending public service broadcasting via the citizen/consumer diad, exemplified by Graham Murdock’s conclusion in a 1990 article, “American commercial television is about promoting mass consumption not about providing resources for citizenship.”[3]

“Citizen or consumer,” as Duncan H. Brown’s 1994 article was entitled,[4] became the increasingly Manichean choice. In each case, it was the citizen model (ie, European, not American) that was empowered by the comparison – almost without overt argument, since to be a “citizen” is so clearly preferable to being a “consumer” for those arguing in this tradition. As Justin Lewis summarizes, consumption begins to be conceived as opposed to citizenship: “Unlike the citizen, the consumer’s means of expression is limited: while citizens can address every aspect of cultural, social and economic life (operating in what Jurgen Habermas called ‘the public sphere’), consumers find expression only in the marketplace.”[5]

But as Habermas would remind us, both the market and the state work together to define and delimit the public sphere; citizen and consumer are not opposite and contradictory identities but always and inevitably entwined in a capitalist society. Moreover, this dualism’s implications for the definition and construction of the public itself, and the internal social hierarchies it conceals, go unexamined. Most noticeable is the citizen/consumer diad’s hidden referencing of a gendered distinction: the normatively masculine citizen versus consumerism’s normatively feminine subject. Hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity are also concealed: citizenship has been a privilege initially confined, since the Greeks, to a small minority (masculine, property-owning, native-born) sector of the public and only very recently and imperfectly enlarged to include the majority: women, working classes, and non-native or nationally “othered” groups; it always excludes those residents of a state not legally entitled to citizen rights, such as recent immigrants, sans-papiers, guest workers, and resident aliens.

Other assumptions reveal themselves through closer scrutiny. The concept of “citizen” implies a “nation” whose public exists in a relationship of legal rights and status and whose appropriate activities are defined in terms of his relationship with the state. The “consumer”, on the other hand, is a stateless, rootless subject whose activities consist of acts of selection and purchase in a market where products of all nations jostle for shelf space. Further, by precepts of liberal democratic thinking, all citizens are equal; citizenship is a homogeneous, unified status that ideally makes no distinctions between citizens, who remain undifferentiated and “equal under the law.” Consumption, on the other hand, is usually conceptualized as a highly individualizing activity, by which markets identify and capitalize on – even create, if they can – distinctions of class, gender, age, region, taste, etc. in an address that thrives on differentiation and segmentation. So, conceptually, the public as citizen is masculine, homogeneous, and national; the public as consumer is feminine, differentiated, and hybrid.

It is easy to see, then, why “public service television for citizens” can stifle some forms of expression and marginalize some groups, and why “commercial television for consumers” can be politically and socially empowering under certain circumstances, as with women’s programming in 1930s US radio, television under Franco in Spain, or Asian satellite TV in Britain. It neglects the very real cultural, legal, and economic power that consumers can exercise over the circumstances of their lives, even – especially – if they are disempowered as citizens. We need to rein in the citizen/consumer diad, not to argue for a heroic market model along Rupert Murdoch lines, but to point out that it has roots in a long history that needs re-examination, and to face the fact that avoidance of commercialism via public funding will not always produce inclusive, representational, empowering media any more than the mere presence of commercialism will subvert all public sphere-building activities – and that neither can avert the intervention of the state. It’s much more complicated than that. But we cannot begin to think it through using concepts that conceal more shady assumptions than they provide enlightenment.

Notes
Michele Hilmes, “Who We Are, Who We Are Not: Battle of the Global Paradigms,” in Planet Television. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar, eds. New York UP, 2003.
Philip Elliott, “Intellectuals, the “information society,’ and the disappearance of the public sphere,” Media, Culture, and Society 4 (1982): 244.
Graham Murdock, “Television and citizenship: In defence of public broadcasting,” in Consumption, Identity, and Style: Marketing, meanings, and the packaging of pleasure, ed. Alan Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 1990. 99.
Duncan H. Brown, “Citizens or Consumers: U.S. Reactions to the European Communitiy’s Directive on Television,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1994): 1-12.
Justin Lewis, “Citizens and Consumers,” in The Television History Book ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI, 2003.

Links
BBC Online
Jurgen Habermas Resource Page

Image Credits:

Buy American Vote for Barack Obama

Please feel free to comment.




Murdoch’s Munificence

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Critics roundly denounce Rupert Murdoch as the most rapacious media baron of the current era, yet few have commented upon the fact that Sir Rupert is also our greatest media philanthropist. In fact, Murdoch himself may not recognize this or, more to the point, he might not relish the fact that over the past decade News Corporation has lavished more resources on the development of Asian television than any other private concern, with estimates now running close to $2 billion. This largesse has furthermore spurred the development of competing commercial services and has stimulated reforms within state media, thereby dramatically expanding the range of information and entertainment now available to Asian audiences. Of course, Murdoch’s initial ambition was hardly philanthropic, yet in retrospect one strains to see it as a commercial venture, since both his Star and Phoenix satellite services are deeply in the red and have yet to prove themselves consistently profitable.

Murdoch stunned the media critics worldwide when he first mounted a billion dollar takeover of Star TV in 1993, putting him at the helm of the first pan-Asian satellite platform. So taken was he with the stratospheric rhetoric of satellite TV that he regaled the investment and advertising communities with heady prophecies of a new Asian millennium of three billion consumers and an end to authoritarian regimes everywhere. As one might imagine Chinese leaders didn’t share the latter enthusiasm, slapping a ban on foreign satellite services shortly thereafter and rolling out competitive cable services that were offered for a fraction of the cost Star’s services. A humbled Murdoch was accordingly reminded that his fortunes in Asia would be shaped by forces on the ground as much as technologies in the skies.

Yet one can perhaps forgive Murdoch’s initial enthusiasm, for his investment was made during an era of heady optimism about the power of satellite television to transcend national borders and usher in at long last the global village that many had reportedly been waiting to join. Maps of satellite footprints were perhaps the most intoxicating representations of this TV mania, as in the case of Star they suggested blanket coverage across Asia, from Lebanon to the Philippines and south to Indonesia. Yet today, News Corp’s Asia satellite services look more like a patchwork quilt, and a somewhat tattered one at that. Indeed, over the past decade, Star’s effective coverage was dramatically refigured by infrastructural, political, and textual forces on the ground. And the Chinese case serves as an instructive example.

At the infrastructural level, initial expectations regarding a pan-Asian market were dashed by the cultural and linguistic diversity of audiences and tough competition from local and national broadcasters. Likewise complexity of product distribution networks on the ground undermined the possibility of expansive advertising strategies in the sky, since advertisers only wanted to pay for airtime in markets where their goods were available. In the end, they preferred targeted ad buys over pan-Asian appeals.

At the political level, Murdoch found the Beijing government was far more complicated than popular conceptions of authoritarianism might suggest. Chinese leaders could initiate sweeping changes to media policy on relatively short notice, yet such policies were executed with significant discretion at the local level, forcing Star to expend considerable resources currying the favor of provincial officials in a bid to gain carriage on their new cable systems. Moreover, within the national government many factions vie for power, ranging from reformers who are bent on experimentation to guardians of Mao’s peasant revolution. In such a context, global capital can at turns be welcomed as a productive force or reviled as an exploitative foreign element. Star’s image has repeatedly shifted with the political winds and Murdoch has periodically been chilled by the breeze.

At the textual level, Star has been forced to refashion and multiply its services, carefully targeting audiences and branding its products to fit the competitive environment in local media markets. Rather than appealing to a pan-Asian audience or even a pan-Chinese audience, Star has had to content itself with carving out market niches and surprisingly, one of those niches is as a venue for serious political talk on its joint venture Phoenix channel, aiming at an audience of only 140 million viewers in the eastern part of the mainland.

These three levels press relentlessly on News Corp’s Asian satellite services, as they attempt to strike a balance between economies of scale and the local particularities of existing media markets. Star’s delicate balancing act is at work in other countries and markets, as well, such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Since Murdoch first purchased the five-channel satellite platform, he has multiplied its services at an astounding rate, so that the company now manages 19 brands on more than 60 satellite channels. Rather than a singular pan-Asian juggernaut, Star instead provides a host of niche services targeted at a diverse range of viewers, and the sum of the parts still does not add up to a consistently profitable whole.

Such uneven performance is no doubt troubling, for Murdoch’s stated ambition is to put together the first viable global satellite network and then float a public stock offering in hopes of recouping his company’s massive investments. An important part of that portfolio will be Star and Phoenix, but many media executives in Asia confidentially wonder if either service will prove profitable over the long run. Indeed, to witness Murdoch kowtowing to Chinese leaders, currying the favor of provincial bureaucrats, and pandering to nationalist sentiments of Chinese audiences seems indicative of his anxieties about the future of his Asian ventures. Such uneasiness should no doubt invite revision of the cheeky characterization of Murdoch’s generosity at the outset of this essay, but it should also encourage us to reconsider simplistic notions of power that paint Murdoch as an omnipotent global media baron.

Links
News Corporation
Media in China blog
Inside China

Please feel free to comment.




Want to Hear a Scary Story?

by: Eileen R Meehan / Lousiana State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links
Media Channel
GE
RCA
NBC

Please feel free to comment.




News Corporation: From the Local to the Global

by: John Sinclair / Victoria University, Melbourne

At the end of last month, October 2004, Rupert Murdoch won shareholder approval to move News Corporation’s domicile and main stock market listing from Australia to the US. Subsequently cleared by the relevant Australian and US authorities, it has become incorporated in Delaware as News Corp US, with its primary listing on the New York stock exchange, and it expects to join the S&P 500 index next year. While the shift brings News into line with the reality that it now generates 75% of its revenue in the US, it was aimed also at gaining better access to Wall Street capital markets and getting closer to institutional fund investors in the US.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

However, even before the NYSE listing occurred, while many formerly Australian-held shares were in play during the crossover, a large parcel was snatched up by Merrill Lynch, acting on behalf of John Malone, formerly principal of Tele-Communications Inc., and now Liberty Media. Malone had been building up his stake in News for some time, and before the shift already was the second biggest owner of voting stock, with 9.2 per cent. With the latest purchase, he now has 17.3 per cent, which compares to Murdoch’s 29.5 per cent. Malone’s position could strengthen further as he also owns convertible non-voting shares. It is not clear whether his bid is friendly or hostile, or something else again. The financial press is full of speculation. Is Malone actually after control of News, perhaps to merge it with Liberty Media? Or is he just putting pressure on Murdoch to reciprocate by taking up equity in Liberty? Perhaps Malone is not necessarily after control in his own right, but making sure he is in a position to influence who succeeds Murdoch?

Certainly, Murdoch has already shown that he knows how to take care of himself in the bear-pit of the NYSE, but the next few months to April, when Malone has to settle with Merrill Lynch and News becomes listed on the S&P 500, will be a decisive phase for the future direction and control of News.

‘I still call Australia home’

With the last annual shareholders’ meeting at the Adelaide Hilton on October 26, it seems that News Corporation ceased to be an ‘Australian’ company, so as to become an ‘American’ one. It is easy to conclude that there must be some centripetal pull in capitalism, though a harder look at the dynamics shows that, quite apart from the fact that capitalism has more than one centre, decisions like this are motivated by a strategic assessment of comparative advantages. In this case, and regardless of what risks it was taking vis-a-vis Malone, calculated or not, News relocated to be in its largest and most profitable market, and to be closer to sources of capital.

However, this ‘historic’ shift, as Murdoch called it, gives us cause to reflect more deeply on the relationship which global media companies now bear to the nation-states in which they develop, and in which they are domiciled – which is obviously no longer the same thing.

When Rupert Murdoch’s father died, he left him nothing but a newspaper – not a copy of a newspaper, of course, but the whole business, namely the Adelaide News. It was from this asset that the young, Melbourne-born Rupert Murdoch went on to build up media interests progressively in Australia, then the UK, the US, Asia and Latin America, ultimately forming today’s eponymous global media conglomerate.

Rupert Murdoch’s father had been Sir Keith Murdoch, who began his career as a journalist, but became a major figure in the development of the commercial popular press in Australia between the World Wars. Seen as the counterpart to the innovative and interventionist British press baron Lord Northcliffe, Murdoch Senior earned himself the epithet, ‘Lord Southcliffe’. Yet Keith Murdoch’s international outlook went beyond the customary colonial fealty to Britain, which Australians of his generation referred to as ‘Home’: interestingly, he was a founder of the Australian-American Association, created before World War Two to foster ties with the US.

As far as Rupert himself is concerned, he quite famously became an American citizen in 1985, so as to purchase the group of Metromedia television stations in the US which he intended to build into the Fox network. This also was a strategic move, required to comply with FCC restrictions on foreign ownership of US television stations. The subsequent taunts of ‘Citizen Murdoch’ refer to this change of allegiance: not his mythic stature as an aloof and omnipotent Citizen Kane figure.

Although personally an unabashed admirer of the US, and now notorious for the conservative editorial slant of his media properties in the US, Murdoch’s change of citizenship appears to have been utterly pragmatic – just something he had to do to acquire Metromedia. Like News’s shift to the US, it demonstrates the arbitrariness, and many would say, cynicism, with which global media companies now relate to the nation-state, and calls into question the very point of maintaining foreign ownership rules at all, at least within what the conservatives are now calling ‘the Anglosphere’.

News had long since ceased to be ‘Australian’ in any meaningful sense before the shift to the US, although it commands nearly 70% of the daily press, operates Fox Studios, and is a major player in pay-TV and recording in Australia. It will continue to list on the Australian stock exchange, as a secondary listing, and has pledged to maintain and expand its operations in Australia. Ironically, just as in the US, Australia has a newly re-elected conservative government, one that is now in a position to lift the foreign ownership restrictions which it hitherto had been thwarted in doing. This would allow News to acquire a broadcast television network ,but at least for the moment, Murdoch is feigning a total lack of interest in that prospect.

Adelaide, the cradle of News Corporation and home to it for fifty years, with little more than a million people, is one of Australia’s smaller state capitals. Although it has a stylish and cosmopolitan side to it, Adelaide is mostly sedate and a little provincial, in an English kind of way: ‘a city of pubs and churches’. It was not surprising that Murdoch’s ambitions soon outgrew it, but he maintains that it will always have special place in his heart – wherever that is.

Links
News Corp home page
AP report on News Corp’s move to US
Economist editorial on Rupert Murdoch

Please feel free to comment.




Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?

Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.

Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.

In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.

In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.

In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.

Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.

In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.

A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.

As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.

The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.

Links
America’s Next Top Model/UPN
Reality Television forum
Reality TV information
Race, class, and gender in media
The Partridge Family

Please feel free to comment.




MGM, DVD, and “TV”

by: Thomas Schatz / University of Texas-Austin

MGM Logo

MGM logo

Among the latest deals in the endless churn of media mergers & acquisitions was Sony Corp.’s purchase of MGM a few weeks ago for $5 billion. In the overall scheme of things, this scarcely qualifies as a “big deal” – not when TV networks and movie studios are being bought and sold for tens, even hundreds (in the case of AOL-Time Warner) of billions of dollars. But the Sony-MGM deal speaks volumes about the vastly rising stakes and the radically changing structure of “the media” in recent years, and the enormous changes in media culture and media experience as well.

And paradoxically enough, the purchase of the once-glorious, now-struggling MGM movie studio by the global media giant Sony – the only media conglom without its own television network(s) – speaks volumes about the changing state of “television” as well.

One measure of how much the stakes have changed is that Sony paid nearly as much for MGM last month as it paid for Columbia-TriStar some 15 years ago. In buying Columbia-TriStar, Sony acquired a huge, active, successful motion picture and television production-distribution company. In buying MGM, conversely, Sony acquired an anemic production company – one that’s expected to produce only three or four movies a year, most of them sequels from its handful of brand-name movie franchises (most notably the Bond series) – along with a movie library that is most distinguished for hits produced over a half-century ago.

Back in 1989, Sony was accused of overpaying for Columbia-TriStar, and it may have paid too much for MGM as well, due mainly to a bidding war with Time Warner, which until the eleventh hour was expected to acquire MGM for $4.5 billion. So what gives? Why were these two media giants willing to pay so much for MGM, when its key assets are 4,100 movie titles, most of them decades old?

The answer, of course, is the booming DVD market and the rapidly evolving digital home-video arena. The MGM purchase gives Sony the world’s largest movie library, totaling over 7,000 titles, and some estimates put the DVD-related value of MGM’s titles at over $1 billion per year. This is a truly staggering figure, and one that would have been inconceivable even five years ago, when the home-video value of MGM’s library was widely considered to be tapped out.

DVD changed all that, and it did so very quickly. The studios had learned their lesson with the VCR in the1980s, initially battling but eventually embracing home-video technology. By the time DVD technology emerged in the mid 1990s, the Hollywood powers had long since learned to think in terms of hardware-software synergies. The VCR by then was a ubiquitous home appliance and the studios’ home-video revenues more than doubled their theatrical income. Thus the studios and their parent companies displayed uncharacteristic good sense, fueled of course by enlightened self-interest, and worked together to fully exploit the radical new system of digital home-video delivery. The results of that cooperation, along with the inherent benefits of the technology itself, surpassed even the most optimistic projections for this new home-video system.

Consider for a moment the phenomenal growth of DVD- as a technology, as a media format, and above all as a delivery system for movies to the home. It’s now become commonplace to note that DVD technology has enjoyed the most rapid “diffusion of innovation” in history, and it’s too seldom noted that the DVD boom took off at the very same time that the high-tech, dot-com market collapsed. It’s worth noting, too, that the DVD’s diffusion has been driven primarily by movies. At the end of 1998, the year that DVD became commercially viable, fewer than 2% of US households had DVD players. Five years later nearly half (46.7%, according to the Motion Picture Association) of American homes had at least one DVD player. In 1998-1999, DVD rentals and sales went from virtually nil to nearly 100 million units. In 2003, over one billion DVD’s were sold, most of them directly to consumers as “sell-through” movie titles. Sell-through DVD’s return far more to the studio-distributors than rentals, which accounts for the studios’ current financial viability – not to mention their increasing reliance on effects-driven, franchise-scale blockbusters.

What’s equally remarkable about the DVD boom is the number of movie titles that have become available in just a few years – a total that surpassed 30,000 earlier this year. Hollywood currently releases only a few hundred movies per annum, so the number of DVD titles available obviously means that the studios are digging deep into their libraries for product. This represents a major break from the VHS home-video era, when the market was geared to contemporary films – although it syncs up quite nicely with cable television, which since the early 1990s has relied more and more heavily on classical Hollywood for programming.

Consumer interest in “old” Hollywood movies clearly has been a pleasant surprise for the Hollywood powers. Indeed, along with the DVD explosion in general, it proves yet again how little the entertainment industry understands its audience. This extends well beyond media content to DVD “players” to the mode of display – i.e., to “TV sets,” if that term still applies at all.

When Sony acquired MGM, the trade paper Broadcasting & Cable made this rather curious and illuminating comment about the purchase: “For Sony and its financial group, TV is a small part of the deal. The group is far more interested in the $1.1 billion a year that MGM has been generating by selling its movies on DVD.” Where and how, one might ask, are consumers watching all these DVD’s? “On TV,” of course, but here too consumer behavior and the marketplace at large are rapidly changing. Just as the studios had no clue how interested consumers might be in old(er) movies, they also were clueless about audience interest in screen format, aspect ratio, and the quality of image and sound. In one of the oddest and most unexpected developments in screen history, letter-boxing has become so prevalent that it’s even being used in TV commercials – not that anyone’s watching them, given the TiVo and DVR technology that’s accompanied DVD’s and a new generation of digital television sets.

One wild card in the Sony-MGM deal is Comcast, a true Hollywood outsider that promises to further complicate the evolving movie-television symbiosis. The nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast recently made a serious run at Hollywood via a failed $54 billion bid for Disney. The investment here is far more modest – a mere $300 million to acquire an eventual 20 percent stake in MGM – but the implications are considerable. Comcast is busily acquiring “content” for its burgeoning VOD (video on demand) service, while another division is rolling out a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephone service. Clearly Comcast is leading the cable industry’s three-pronged strategy to provide video, broadband and telephone service – envisioning an America, perhaps, where media-hungry gadget hounds are making phonecalls on their computers and watching movies on their cell phones.

While the Sony-MGM deal gives Comcast access to a vast movie library, it puts Sony on line with 21 million cable subscribers, which is a significant figure in today’s fragmented television universe. This fall, for the first time ever during the first week of the new TV season, basic cable with its hodge-podge of networks and programming services drew more viewers than the six “broadcast” networks (43% versus 41% of TV households, with the balance watching pay-cable or PBS).

But it’s the millions watching their DVD’s that matter most to Sony, particularly with yet another generation of HD (high-definition) DVD technology poised to launch in early 2005. After the recent rush to DVD players and “home theater” audio-video systems, we may be ready at long last, after decades of hype and disappointment, to make the leap to HD – a leap that traditional television simply could not induce. Whether this occurs, and whether it alters the nature of “watching TV,” remains to be seen. But it would be a delicious irony indeed. A half-century ago, the postwar emergence of commercial television left the Hollywood studio system in ruins and decimated its audience; now a resurgent movie industry and a revolutionary home-video technology threaten to exact their revenge.

Links of interest:

1. Sony USA

2. MGM

3. Time Warner

4. MPAA

5. Broadcasting & Cable

6. DVD Verdict

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:

MGM Logo




Political Polarization and the New Hollywood Blockbuster

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College CUNY

The connection between politics and movies is continuous and yet murky. It is not to be found solely in the intentions of the creative team or in overt themes of the plotline. The once popular analysis of the link between politics and cinematic form that argued the jump cut is a blow against capitalism is now as a quaint reminder of the “60s.” Nonetheless the relationship between films and politics is immediate perhaps because both involve large populations and both appropriate more and more cultural resources. The rather dramatic change in the American landscape from the relative consensual mainstream politics of the post war era into the polarized, mutually incomprehensible positions of today are bound to be reflected in films. I think the reflection may even change the way New Hollywood does business.

The “blockbuster” movie was a term associated with the saturated bombing of World War Two and certainly there was mixture of shock and awe at the blockbusters of the past quarter century along with some concern over their excesses. I would like to treat the blockbuster as a genre although there is little unity of content. But there is enough sharing of formal features and marketing strategies to group these films together. Certainly they are all big budget movies attempting to achieve “event” movie status. (At what point did someone come up with the term “event movie?”) The event movie is defined as being that movie that I (and the rest of us) had to go to because everyone else was going to see it. Quite frankly despite being in the film business and now in the academic film biz and despite generally liking anything with sprocket holes and even things with time code, there are many, many event films I resent that I felt obliged to go to. Like Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, I took some minor satisfaction in railing at the minor credits in event movies. But the satisfaction was only minor. It was a bit of circular logic; I went because they were important; they were important because everybody else went.

Thus these films were particular evidence for the social importance of film. The marketing campaigns and the various formulations of new Hollywood suffice to convince a population that this was a “must-see” movie. They were invariably from the major studios except for the annual noble independent low budget film that also achieved event status precisely because it was not from the majors. Think of Sex, lies and videotape (1989), The Crying Game (1992), and The Blair Witch Project (1999) to name a few.

Suddenly this year there are two event films and they have odd relations with the majors, neither one a major studio release and neither very independent. Both are driven by outside the box marketing strategies and both are raising fierce hackles as well as exuberant praise. The dual arrivals of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911 inspires thoughts that we are at a sea change regarding the cultural status of movies or, at least, the blockbusters.

They revealed how much the film product of the last twenty, twenty-five years has been pitched at the entire audience, the entire globe. Media historians have asserted that the general movement for media is to go from general audiences to niche ones (Shaw). This statement only reveals how media historians constantly overlook films. The film industry had constructed niche audiences in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the loss of the habitual audience to television. But the 1970s new Hollywood blockbuster formula of cross media marketing was premised on attracting everyone everywhere. Statistics show that video and other ancillary markets meant that eventually all age groups were attracted back to the Hollywood product by the end of the 1980s. No niche audiences here as we headed into the apogee of Titanic (1997).

Yet Passion and Fahrenheit both struck like lightning bolts within a few months at the cultural cleavage of America and it is safe to say that only a few went to both movies (I did) and that even fewer liked both (I didn’t). Will new Hollywood be able to paper over this new culture war as well as it did with the old 60s cultural war?

Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit has little in common with the blockbuster. It is a documentary that is framed around the central everyman character of Michael Moore in a popularizing tradition that refers both to TV’s 60 Minutes (1968-now) and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986). But the recent turn of the documentary genre towards the popular still rarely attracts production funding from a major studio. It was a sign of extraordinary times that Moore was able to find such financing when the Miramax division of The Walt Disney Company gave his project the go ahead. This division occasionally does revert back to the kind of marginal projects it was famous for when it was still an independent company 12 years ago. But the parent Disney showed mainstream timidity when it sold the film rather than release it itself. It was another sign of the extraordinary times that Disney anticipated a political retaliation from the Governor of Florida who is the brother of the sitting president. Is the breakdown of American polity eroding the nominal autonomy of popular culture?

Passion has many features that are in common with the blockbuster and many that are not. It was a relatively modest budget for a blockbuster but it was based on a well-known story that has been filmed many times before. Thus the production and the marketing needed to claim a unique status to compel a global audience to see this new version. Typically the New Hollywood Blockbuster handles this problem of universal appeal by promising the audience something new within a comfortable and well-known formula. They do this by giving an “A” budget to a “B” script. Thus great efforts are made to assure the audience that they will have to make very little effort to believe in the reality of such impossible things as contemporary dinosaurs, men with super-human powers, or even the end of the world. All the audience has to do in return is to show up in numbers that surpasses the usual clique of dinosaur fans or action hero enthusiasts.

In addition to a realism effect of heightened budgets, the new Hollywood likes to use universal villains such sharks, treacherous lions, serial murderers or creatures from outer space. While The Godfather (1972) angered some Italian-American groups and many action films have upset Middle Eastern groups for their choice of villains, these are viewed as lapses. After all the economics of the blockbuster dictates that it cannot alienate any sizable segment of the global audience. Even those few films that touch on real world controversies are designed to allow a great deal of flexibility of interpretation. Saving Private Ryan (1998) can serve as a recent example since it was interpreted as both a corrective to the jingoism of earlier war movies and as a continuation of the same themes. Dances With Wolves (1990) was an earlier example of correcting earlier Western movie attitudes towards Native Americans without challenging the audience.

Thus we have two measures of the new Hollywood formula: heightened believability and the attempt for universal appeal either through avoidance of cultural specifics or a polyvalent attitude towards cultural divides.

From Mel Gibson\'s The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the Christ follows the former but not the latter.

Gibson placed heavy stress that the audience will believe in his film. Of course belief takes on added meaning when speaking of the gospel of a major religion. But Gibson didn’t just rely on pre-existing faith. He resorted to the tried and true tactics of new Hollywood to compel such faith. He emphasized action and he indulged in the use of a subjective camera. The combination of the two particularly during the flagellation scenes ensured the same kind of visceral roller coaster ride that is the feature of most of new Hollywood’s blockbusters. Many critics have commented on the bloody shots of Jesus, as Gibson portrays the beating in detail. In addition to what is being portrayed we should also know it is being represented with all the hyperrealism of the blockbuster. The sound effects, particularly in the opening fight in the Mount of Olives, follow the exaggerations that were initially popularized in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982). Gibson uses the camera in the blockbuster hyperbolic manner; even going so far as to turn the camera upside down to reproduce Jesus’ point of view of his torturers. This extreme visual along with an extreme overhead at the end of the film and others would not be tolerated in old Hollywood but is relished in contemporary big budget filmmaking.

The blockbuster’s commitment to visceral effects is well known. Jean Pierre-Geuens is convincing in his explanation of the motivation for such visceral effects. He borrows from William James’ psychology to note that there are two preliminary human reactions to stimuli before the human can reflect even emotionally on the stimuli. For example, with a fire, there is the feeling of fire, and the flight from fire, before there is the reflective reaction of the fear of fire. Geuens notes that contemporary filmmakers aim to cause the first two reactions in their audience without concern for the third stage of a reflective emotion. This is precisely my critique of blockbusters in general which give us little time to ponder the wonder of the worlds they create and for Passion in particular which gives us no time to reflect on the universal message of Jesus’ death. The extreme physicality bullies us into crying in reaction to the brutality, not in reflecting on the love of God’s only son undergoing the human pain of death.

So Gibson learned that lesson of the blockbuster but he deviates radically from the universal appeal of the blockbuster in his own marketing and positioning. He certainly took pride from his own radical brand of Catholicism and used it in the marketing of the movie. He did not seek compromise or consensus when scholars warned him that his script reopened old sectarian wounds. This is the only recent event film that purposefully drives a wedge between Christian and Jew, between fervent believers and rational religionists. This is not the formula of new Hollywood, which now goes to some lengths to attract audiences across social divides. Gibson’s deviation from Hollywood’s marketing is reflected in his self-financing, his use of the small independent distributor (Newmarket) and his extensive use of religious groups to give marketing clout to the movie.

Both Fahrenheit and Passion avoided the bland ambiguities and polyvalent plotlines of new Hollywood. They both became “must-see” movies despite major deviations from the blockbuster formula.

What is happening to the major studio blockbuster? Is it no longer an event?

Certainly not if we just look at the figures. Shrek Two (2004) and The Shark Tale (2004) are performing to the high standards of their studios. Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) has been as eventful as Star Wars (1977). Still I detect that the fractured American audience is a glimmer of the down slope of the blockbuster cycle. Peter Bart of Variety also confirms a downward trend when he reports that a certain zest for gamesmanship has gone out of the movie executive suites in light of the 1998 summer release schedule. It stands to reason that media moguls who own the corporations of Viacom, News Corporation, and Sony are tired of their filmed entertainment divisions which rarely contribute more than a fifth of revenue and yet never settle down to be a nice dependable steady flow of revenue. Instead these divisions continue to operate with low profit margins and high stakes. The atmosphere following the success of Titanic seems to be more one of relief than jubilation. In 2002 Disney announced to Merrill Lynch that it would try to discipline the budget levels. Hardly the mantra of blockbuster movie making.

The big movies since the turn of the current century have been full-length animations. Certainly these are the movies that inspire Wall Street to buy stocks and invest money. Animation audiences are typically bimodal with parents or grandparents bringing children to the theaters or buying the DVDs. These audiences are not the universal ones that blockbusters at the height of the cycle a decade ago attracted. The big live action films are also turning towards a youthful audience with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. J. Kapur noticed that Harry Potter represents the big budget movie genre turning towards “Englishness.” Lord of the Rings has the same quality albeit New Zealanders represented its Englishness.

It stands to reason that America’s embrace of unilateralism would limit American film exporting. Perhaps we exaggerated power of our appeal even before the latest Iraq invasion. Early reports, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, were that a liberated population was storming the cinemas to see Hollywood films. Later reports clarified that they were actually anxious to see the latest imports from “Bollywood,” not Hollywood. Our grip is slipping. I suspect that even a favorable result to the upcoming election will not restore the universal global audience to Hollywood and that the fracture uncovered by Passion and Fahrenheit will lead to more niche audience marketing for American films than before.

Works cited

Geuens, Jean-Pierre. (2000). Film Production Theory. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Kapur, Jyostna. (2003, Spring). “Free market, branded imagination — Harry Potter and the commercialization of children’s culture.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media Online: Jump Cut article visited September 5th, 2004.

Shaw, D. (1991, April 4). “Rise and Fall of American Mass Media: Roles of Technology and Leadership” second annual Roy W. Howard lecture presented at Indiana University Bloomington.

Links of Interest:

1. The Passion of the Christ

2. IMDB’s 100 worst films ever

3. 100 MOST DARING MOVIES EVER MADE

4. Best Movies

Image Credits:

1. Fahrenheit 9/11

2. The Passion of the Christ

Please feel free to comment.




What Can We Still Learn about Television from Raymond Williams?

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

When I was invited to write this column for Flow, I wondered where to start. So, I turned to Alan O’Connor’s edited collection, Raymond Williams on Television – Selected Writings (1989). Williams died in January 1988. One of his last acts of publishing was to write a preface to O’Connor’s collection. Williams dated his signature to the preface, December 1987. The collection is largely made up of short articles from Williams’s monthly column in The Listener between 1968 and 1972. There are a few later pieces as well. The now defunct Listener was a BBC weekly publication of discussions and occasionally transcripts of what was going on in broadcasting. Its demise might suggest that television has become less the focus of urgent public debate now than it used to be. That’s unfortunate.

Williams wrote surprisingly little about television. The first edition of his book Communications, published in 1962, concentrated on the press. Much of the material was drawn from adult evening classes that Williams taught in the 1950s when video tape was only coming into use in television programme-making. Later, of course, domestic video recorders were a huge boon to education about television. In fact, they made it possible from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Williams must have made notes when watching the uninterrupted flow of TV before the advent of domestic video recording. His observations became copy for The Listener, some of which also appeared in the third edition of Communications, published in 1976.

The Listener column effectively ended in December 1972. A couple of later pieces from The Listener, dated 1974, are included in O’Connor’s collection, but Williams never did resume his column on a regular basis. What had Williams been up to between suspending his column at the end of 1972 and the few afterthoughts he added in 1974? He went to the USA. While at Stanford in California, Williams began work on Television – Technology and Cultural Form, which was published after he had returned to Cambridge in England. Williams watched a lot of American television in a state of bemusement, especially with regard to the incessant advertising’s surreal interruptions of editorial content, and learnt about cutting edge technological developments in the medium at Stanford’s Department of Communications. In his book of thirty years ago, Williams not only commented on the form and content of television but also its developing technologies, including video-cassette recording, satellite transmission, large screen receivers and cable distribution. The cultural critic had become, to an extent, a political economist of televisual technology.

Williams concluded Television – Technology and Cultural Form prophetically. Permit me to quote the key passage, a passage that I am fond of quoting and have done so before:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities (p151).

So, thirty years ago, with trepidation, Williams spotted what was likely to happen. Conventional wisdom tells us that the reason television has developed in this way is due to technological advance. It is indeed to do with technology but not only technology. Instantaneous satellite communications, channel proliferation, digitalisation and convergence of television and computing are all important but their deployment is a matter of decision-making, a matter of politics and economic pressure, as Williams always insisted. Profitability, not social use, is the driving force. This has put enormous pressure on the European tradition of public service broadcasting, a tradition that has barely existed at all in the USA. Even the most illustrious organisation of public service broadcasting – the British Broadcasting Corporation – behaves these days like a business in a competitive market. Yet, the public service aspect has not been entirely obliterated. There is still a debate to be had.

How does the situation differ now from thirty years ago when Williams sought to comment on the ordinary output of British television and theorised the development of the medium? Then, television in Britain was governed by public service principles, including commercial television. The Independent Television (ITV) network was established in the 1950s as a federation of regionally based companies, with regional responsibilities, under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with the subsequent advent of commercial radio. The regional franchises were once described as ‘a license to print money’ since the ITV companies had a monopoly over broadcast advertising revenue in their regions and could, therefore, sell time and audiences at exorbitant rates. The Wilson Labour government of the 1960s put a cap on ITV profits. The companies were left swimming in money, which could be lavished on production and high wages for staff, technical and administrative, not only managerial and creative. The so-called ‘golden age’ of British television – the 1960s and into the 1970s – was exceptionally well funded by advertising and license fee revenue. This was when Williams was writing about television.

The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s seriously considered the introduction of advertising to the BBC, not uncommon in public service broadcasting elsewhere. The ITV companies successfully protested against such competition that would inevitably force down rates. The competition came anyway, from cable operators and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite service, which really took off with satellite sport, especially live Premiership football, in the 1990s. Channel proliferation, then, and segmented audiences. All of which entailed extra payments by the viewing public, in addition to the BBC-funding license fee and the costs of advertising in the shops. Until then, the viewing public had been getting its television on the cheap. Now, they were paying through the nose for it, though with greater ostensible ‘choice’.

In the meantime, labour conditions in the business had changed dramatically, involving a shift from Fordist to Post-Fordist arrangements. Outsourcing product, de-unionisation, casualisation and career insecurity all grew apace. There were still huge rewards but only for the very few. Some young entrants to the business were working for virtually nothing. Making programmes for BBC4, the ‘intellectual’ digital channel, originally named BBC Knowledge, is a form of philanthropy that is, no doubt, appreciated by its viewing public (normally counted in the tens of thousands).

What does all this mean for the programmes? Here, it is necessary to avoid – or, at least, be sceptical – of two tendencies. First, there is the celebration of cornucopia and choice, which simply repeats the industry’s PR and marketing rhetoric. Second, there is the nostalgic comparison of the present and the past when things were supposedly so much better. There is some justification for the latter, particularly in Britain where the public service and market compact of the 1960s and ‘70s was, indeed, a notably successful way of organising TV and enabling creativity to flourish. Williams, however, complained about it at the time. He and other critics attacked the ‘consensus’ TV that suppressed deeply felt differences. Marketisation may well have contributed to opening up representations of difference. Enthusiasts for the present find plenty to praise, most remarkably in terms of changing social mores, such as openness to sexual differences, an openness that was inconceivable, frankly, when Williams was writing about TV. Multiculturalism has had a significant impact too. Nevertheless, let’s be realistic, ultimately the bottom line rules now more so than ever, in a way that would have stifled great innovations of the past at birth.

As an armchair critic, Williams was fascinated by television’s representation of the world in factual and fiction forms. I believe that for him television was a democratising medium in a fundamental sense, already contributing to what he liked to call ‘the long revolution’. The mobile access in a private space to so much that was hitherto unavailable on a daily basis had to be acknowledged by intellectuals who might otherwise write television off as beneath them. In his Listener column, Williams offered an immanent critique of television that is a critique on the grounds of television itself, registering its successes and identifying its failures, in the hope, against the odds, of making it better.

Links of interest:
1950s British Television Nostalgia
TV Resources – British Shows
TV Museum: Raymond Williams
Pop Cultures: Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

Please feel free to comment.




Affective Economics 101

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Apprentice

The Apprentice

How many different ways is The Apprentice involved in branding?

1. The Brand as Protagonist: The Donald casts himself and his corporate empire as the series protagonists. In the Sept.23 episode, the Donald ascends down the escalator to a trumpet fanfare and then directs our eyes upwards to enjoy the splendors of Trump Tower. [Play Video]

2. The Brand as Task Master: So far this season, contestants have been asked to design and play test toys for Mattel, to develop new ice cream flavors for Ciao Bella, and to market a new Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste for Proctor and Gamble.

3. The Branding Process as Entertainment: On the Sept.23 episode, contestants demonstrated ways of linking brands and entertainment (circuses, the New York Mets) in order to create buzz for Crest. [Play Video]

4. The Brand as Helper: Frequently, the contestants consult with smaller companies (such as the Alliance Talent Agency [Play Video]) who aid them in their tasks in return for exposure. (see Vendor “Suite”).

5. The Brand as Prize: In many cases, Trump rewards contestants with access to himself and his “things” or to luxury meals and services (such as a caviar feast at Petrushian’s). [Play Video]

6. The Brand as Personal Statement: Some of the contestants can be seen wearing t-shirts promoting brands (such as Goizuetta Business School), seen as Kevin answered the phone in one episode [Play Video]) with which they feel a strong personal connection.

7. The Brand as Tie-in: Following an episode where the contestants designed ice cream, viewers at home were able to order samples of the flavors online.

8. The Brand as Community: Through a tie-in between the Apprentice and Friendster, fans can assert their affiliation with specific contestants and the producers collect real-time data about audience response.

9. The Brand as Event: Following the Sept. 23 episode, with its focus on thinking big, Trump launched a sweepstakes competition with Yahoo! Hot Jobs, whose 25k award is designed to encourage new initiatives.

These examples scarcely exhaust the roles brands play in the series (for example, the various ways NBC is using the series to revise its own brand identity). The importance of reality television goes well beyond its specific ratings successes. Reality television is the testing ground for convergence and branding strategies at an important moment of media in transition. The temptation among media-savvy people is to dismiss The Apprentice as nothing but one big product placement, but this would not adequately explain its popularity. The Apprentice is popular because it’s a well-made show and the brand tie-ins work because they are linked to its core emotional mechanics.

Let’s consider some important data points:

Right now, 43 percent of all households skip commercials. Tivo and other digital video recorder users skip between 60 and 70 percent of advertisements. These numbers are producing panic within the consumer economy. Many worry that the effectiveness of a spot during a top rated television show will be about the same or less than the clickthrough rate on the web. Yet, there are other ways of reading these figures. It isn’t that 70 percent of Tivo users skip commercials altogether; people use Tivos to decide which commercials to watch. Marketers are trying to understand what kinds of commercials people choose to watch and why. More generally, they are looking for ways to more powerfully link brands and entertainment content. These approaches include product placements, but also context-specific commercials, such as this spot for the Trump board game which ran during a commercial break on The Apprentice [Play Video] and this spot for Pringles which wraps Survivor-specific content around a commercial for their canned chips. [Play Video]

Brand managers are fusing entertainment and branding content both to grab the attention of ad-skippers and to reshape our emotional bonds with brands. Here’s former Coca-Cola CEO Steven Heyer speaking at a gathering of advertising and entertainment industry insiders last year: “We will use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. In that order. We’re moving to ideas that elicit emotion and create connections. And this speeds the convergence of Madison and Vine. Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold… whether movies or music or television… are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.” Or here’s Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, talking about what he calls “lovemarks” (brands that inspire cult followings): “the emotions are a serious opportunity to get in touch with consumers. And best of all, emotion is an unlimited resource. It’s always there, waiting to be tapped with new ideas, new inspirations, and new experiences.”

Industry researchers are discovering that the most valuable viewers may be loyals (or what we call fans). For most shows, less than 5 percent of all viewers regard the program to be a favorite. For some shows (and these including many cult and reality television programs), the numbers may reach 40 or 50 percent of viewers. Loyals are significantly more apt to watch the entire show each week, seek out additional information, watch advertisements, recall brands, and talk about them with others. Marketers, then, are seeking programs which will generate high concentrations of loyal viewers, even if those programs do not necessarily enjoy high ratings overall. And networks are seeking to slow the erosion of their own viewership to cable competitors or digital media. Reality shows may be one of the few remaining forms of appointment-based television.

Brand loyalty is the holy grail of affective economics because of what economists call the 80/20 rule: for most consumer products, 80 percent of purchases are made by 20 percent of their consumer base. A generation of cultural and media scholars had equated the active spectator with audience resistance, but now, corporate America is embracing audience activity as the golden gateway into more reliable patterns of consumption.

Marketing researchers speak about “brand communities,” trying to better understand why some groups of consumers form intense bonds with the product and through the product, with fellow consumers. These ethnographers research specific groups of highly committed consumers (such as Harley-Davidson riders, Apple computer users, or Saturn drivers) or what they call “brandfests,” social events (either commercially sponsored or grassroots) that pull together large numbers of consumers. As these brand communities move online, members are able to sustain their connections over long periods and thus to intensify the role the community plays in their purchasing decisions. Companies seek to move more casual consumers towards links with these brand communities and count on what they call “inspirational consumers,” in effect, fans of brands, to advocate on their behalf. Advertisers are drawn towards the audience participation surrounding reality programs because they can help fuel the growth of online brand communities.

Marketers want to understand the relationship between fan communities (the most committed consumers of an entertainment franchise) and brand communities (the most committed consumers of a branded product). What happens when the two are brought face to face? Do brand messages become part of what people talk about when they discuss the show? Can advertisements gain greater currency by becoming vehicles by which fans can get more program-specific information?

At the same time, consumer companies are trying to figure out what kinds of links to the entertainment properties consumers will accept or value and which links alienate viewers. For example, has frustration over the voting mechanisms in American Idol last season rebounded and left people feeling more negative towards ATT, the company which has used the show to broaden the market for text messaging? And if people are feeling more negative to ATT, how does this impact Ford and Coca-Cola, two companies that are also closely associated with the program content? The unpredictable character of unscripted programming increases the risks in some cases: a product placement for Stolichnaya Citroena during Big Brother several seasons ago went seriously awry because one “houseguest” was an alcoholic who was stealing other people’s booze, getting sloppy drunk, and required an intervention, not exactly the messaging the company intended.

Before we write all of this off as simply an insidious new marketing strategy, consider a few more implications: Such arguments strengthen the hands of fan communities lobbying producers to keep their favorite series on the air. High favorability may trump high ratings in the new affective economy. The brand communities often emerge as important sites of consumer activism as those most invested in a brand seek to hold corporations more accountable.

Consumer products companies are not the only groups trying to tap popular interest in The Apprentice to shape our emotional responses to their messages. Consider this anti-Bush commercial created by the political organization True Majority to reach younger voters and circulated virally. Is this a form of ad-busting or is it itself an ad, given the fact that Ben Cohen, one of the group’s leaders, is CEO of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream . In the marketing world, they now talk about Citizen Brands — brands that build greater consumer loyalty by tapping into our political commitments. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s or the Body Shop (on the left) or Coors (on the right) were early explorers of the relationship between consumers and citizens. At the end of the day, both Ciao Bella and Ben and Jerry’s are in the same business — selling ice cream.

The example of Citizen Brands should help us rethink of own knee-jerk responses to these marketing strategies. The product placements work because they are tied to something people care about — whether it’s how to defeat George Bush or who is going to the boardroom. If the brand campaigns interfere too much with what draws people to these programs, they fail. We may chuckle over the heavy-handedness of The Donald’s self-promotion, but at the end of the day, he makes great television.

Links of Interest:

1. NBC’s Apprentice site

2. Village Voice article on the art of Trump branding

3. An exploration of cult branding

Image Credits:

The Apprentice Logo

Please feel free to comment.