Mr. Robot’s Filmic Debts
M. King Adkins / South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson

Actor Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, security engineer and vigilante hacktivist

The USA Network’s new summer series, Mr. Robot knows its media history. It’s filled with hidden references (see, for example, Sarah Bunting’s discussion of Mr. Robot’s relationships to Ocean’s 11, The Wire, and Hannibal). [ (( Bunting, Sarah. “Love on a Real Train.” Previously TV. 23 July 2015. )) ] I want to focus here on two specific debts it owes – the first to The Matrix (1999); the second, to the 1949 classic, The Third Man. It’s the mix of the two that really gives Mr. Robot its particular complexity.

The Matrix, of course, has exerted enormous influence in film and television over the last sixteen years, or rather pop culture’s brand of postmodernism has exerted enormous influence, since The Matrix (and, in fact, The Truman Show, which came out at roughly the same time) is, at its heart, a parable of postmodernism. Movies including Inception, Stranger than Fiction, Avatar, Insidious, Wall-E, all owe a debt to Neo and Morpheus and the artificial reality they inhabit. Lately, the same sorts of worlds have been cropping up on television as well. Wayward Pines, in which we discover a small town is not quite what it seems, offers one good example. Meanwhile, in this season of The Dome, the characters have spent some time living lives that turned out to be only virtual.

Mr. Robot’s references to The Matrix have less to do with plot and more with attitude. The green camera filter, for instance, tints everything to roughly the same computer-code-color as The Matrix. Some of the language echoes the Wachowski’s dialogue as well. In his first conversation with Elliot Alderson (note the last name), the mysterious Mr. Robot (played by Christian Slater) sounds very much like Morpheus reassuring the newly reborn Neo: “Obviously you’re going to ask a lot of questions. It’s weird what you’re doing right now. But I can’t tell you anything until we get there.” Later, he promises: “I’m gonna break you out.” And still later, he begins to reveal a bit more about the “truth”: “Let me tell you why you’re really here. You’re here because you sense something wrong with the world. Something you can’t explain. But you know it controls you and everyone you care about.” [ (( “” Mr. Robot. Perf. Rami Malek, Christian Slater. USA, 27 May 2015. TV. )) ] Like “a splinter in the mind” perhaps? And in an interview for Google, creator Sam Esmail readily admits, “You can say I ripped the lines off […] I’m a huge Matrix fan.”

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail admits he’s a “huge Matrix fan.”

This new version, however, twists the “things aren’t what they seem” motif of The Matrix: this Alderson, like that earlier Anderson, is a gifted hacker, but he finds himself caught up in a real computer-generated network. That is, the network in this case isn’t virtual. Except that’s not strictly accurate either: the virtual and the “real” exist as one, a situation that more closely resembles how postmodern theorists like Jean Baudrillard saw the world. Literally living inside a computer construct makes for a handy metaphor, but these thinkers saw our world – not some futuristic post-apocalyptic world – as the true Matrix. “Living in the computer” in these terms isn’t about learning to stop bullets; instead, it means texting your friends across the country while ignoring the people sitting next to you; it means walking around with your own soundtrack (courtesy of iPod) playing in your ears; it means being exposed to so many images that your reality only exists as a collage of these images.

Mr. Robot shows us the corporations that generate these images and the complex web of computer systems that weave these corporations into a virtual world that both underlies and overshadows the “real” world. It offers us characters shaped by that artificiality – Elliot, so deeply enmeshed in this world that he seems himself robotic; or Martin Wallstrom, who seems to have been made psychotic by having constantly to split his personality between the underworld of the computer system and its glittering corporate façade. This is not the world even while it very much is the world.

Part of the show’s complication of The Matrix‘s themes has to do with its debt to another, less obvious, source: Carol Reed’s brilliant noir classic, The Third Man. Without getting too enmeshed in that film’s complex plot, it concerns Holly Martins, recently arrived in post-war Berlin to discover his old friend, Harry Lime, has become embroiled in black market racketeering. Harry, it seems, has committed a number of rather vicious frauds, one of which involves selling tainted batches of penicillin to orphanages. The crux of the film occurs, rather famously, in a Ferris wheel compartment. There, Martins asks his old friend, bewildered, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you seen any of your victims?” to which Harry replies, “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic, Holly. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” [ (( Reed, Carol. The Third Man. Perf. Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles. Lionsgate, 2014. DVD )) ]

Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel

Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel

But Harry continues with one of the most famous speeches in all of cinema: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” [ (( “Ibid.” )) ]

Lime’s point here about beauty springing from horrific circumstances gets echoed in another Ferris wheel scene, this one from the first episode of Mr. Robot. Here, Mr. Robot entices Elliot with a proposition:

“Money. Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual. Software: the operating system of our world […] We are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality. Think about it. What if you could take down one conglomerate, a conglomerate so deeply entrenched in the world’s economy. Too big to fail doesn’t even come close to describing it. […] What if I told you that this conglomerate just so happens to own 70% of the global consumer credit industry? If we hit their data center just right we could systematically format all the servers, including back up. […] All the debt we owe them. Every record of every credit card, loan, and mortgage would be wiped clean. It would impossible to enforce outdated paper records. It would all be gone. The single biggest incident of wealth redistribution in history.” [ (( “” Mr. Robot. Perf. Rami Malek, Christian Slater. USA, 27 May 2015. TV. )) ]

Here Mr. Robot’s speech borrows pieces of both Morpheus and Lime, “one conglomerate” and “What if I told you” echoing Harry’s temptation of Holly with the “one dot” below.

Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

The Matrix is brilliant in many ways, especially its crucial head-turning moment when reality becomes something entirely different (a moment important enough to influence Inception, Stranger than Fiction, Its morality, on the other hand, is overly simplistic: computers bad! humanity good! This wasn’t quite the point Baudrillard had been driving at. The postmodern condition isn’t a philosophical proposition, an ideological argument for how we should or shouldn’t live. It’s a description of things as they are. And things as they are aren’t good or evil – they simply are.

The genius of Mr. Robot is that it complicates that simple morality. Mr. Robot offers a proposition that sounds an awful lot like the one Morpheus offers to Neo: open your eyes, see the world for what it is, and fight to get the reality back. At the same time, it’s couched in the disconcerting morality of Harry Lime: “so a few people get hurt; in the end it’s all to the greater good.” The system, it turns out, is more complicated than we might imagine – it traps us, to be sure, but we must always remember we are at least passive participants. We like our video games, our designer drugs, our internet porn. Taking down the system means taking down ourselves.

It must be said that the Wachowskis did have something like this complexity in mind when they made the second and third parts of their trilogy. We learn in The Matrix: Reloaded, for instance, that the computer encourages occasional revolution. Unfortunately, if Neo wasn’t heroically defeating the system the audience found the plot less engaging. The other part of Mr. Robot’s genius – at least I hope – is that they’ve discovered a way to make this complexity resonate more strongly with the audience. Or perhaps – another hope – we have grown more sophisticated in our understanding of the postmodern world around us.

Image Credits

1. Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson
2. Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel
3. Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

Please feel free to comment

Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.

Redefining Indecency

Rolling Stones half-time show

Rolling Stones half-time show

Once again the organizers of the Super Bowl half-time show called upon British knighthood to rescue America’s premier global media event from the breast-baring moral depravities of half-time past. However, the transition from last year’s cautious Sir Paul McCartney pop to this year’s hip-swaggering Rolling Stones rock required a series of preemptive measures to ensure a “decent” performance. The Rolling Stones agreed to the NFL’s request that the half-time producers dampen the sound when Sir Mick uttered the lyrics “You make a dead man come” and “Am I just one of your cocks?,” though the censoring of these sexual connotations were a bit nullified when Jagger stripped down to his signature skin-tight t-shirt and mod pants as a gigantic stage tongue retracted during the performance. ABC, the network that broadcast the game, denied any involvement in censoring the lyrics, perhaps to distance themselves from validating the Federal Communication Commission’s recent crackdown on indecency and tenfold increase in fines for violations since breast-gate two years earlier. Nonetheless, ABC, perhaps jittery from the FCC’s retroactive fines against a fellow network’s stations for yet another rock star’s indiscrimination at a live event, instituted a five second broadcast delay as a failsafe to prevent naughtiness from traveling the airwaves, a standard industry practice for live shows since the infamous exposure and a way to show the FCC that self-regulation rather than government intervention could address the issue. As if to remind us of the legacies of rock-n-roll TV censorship of yore, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards impressed reporters with an Ed Sullivan impersonation in a pre-game press conference. And when the FCC and Congress turned its attention away from a broader critique of media conglomeration during the controversial biennial review of media ownership rules in 2002 to focus on dirty words and bare skin, we are yet reminded of the regulatory legacies that find lawmakers making loud public moral postures against distasteful graphic indecencies in lieu of finding structural solutions to the more broadly defined indecencies of race, gender, sexuality and class discriminations that commercial media propagate.

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

While the NFL and ABC’s layered precautions preempted any verbal or wardrobe malfunctions, other more heinous indecencies were certainly on display. Most egregious of these was the NFL’s decision to include Detroit’s legendary Motown artists in the event only after Bowl organizers received a barrage of complaints from Motown fans and artists for dissing the host city’s musical heritage. After dismissing a proposal made a year earlier to include the music from Detroit’s past and present (from Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger to Kid Rock and Eminem), the NFL hastily added a 12-minute pre-game show that included Stevie Wonder leading a medley of Motown classics and invited Aretha Franklin, New Orleans singer Aaron Neville, keyboardist Dr. John and a 150-member Detroit-based gospel choir to perform the national anthem. For those who missed the pre-game performance (that is, the 65 million viewers who saw Mick’s midriff at half-time but missed the pre-game Motown tribute), Wonder called for a coming together before “we annihilate each other,” stating that the global threat was not about our “religion” but rather about our “relationship.” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy defended this marginalization of Detroit’s musical legacies in stating that the “Super Bowl transcends the host city and even the country,” as if Motown music, and the global hip-hop it inspired, had little relevance outside the city limits. Even within this city’s borders which has experienced a history of marginalizing African American life and culture (most tragically evident in the race riots of July 1967), the historic Motown Center building which gave birth to this famous record label was torn down to create more parking for the big game. The building had been abandoned for 30 years, leaving precious documents that archived the careers of Smoky Robinson, Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder for waste. Local amateur historians scrambled to collect documents before and after the demolition while the Detroit Metro Host Committee spent $10 million to insure that the Super Bowl fans, media and corporate sponsors enjoyed their stay. These abandoned cityscapes also remind us of the global dynamics that have put downward pressures on the wage and pension benefits of local autoworkers.

Motown Center demolished

Motown Center demolished

This marginalization of America’s African-American music heritage resonated as US citizens mourned the passing of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King just days before. Just as the NFL and ABC prevented Stevie Wonder’s anti-war plea from airing on the half-time center stage, the television coverage of King’s funeral three days after the Super Bowl dampened the anti-war messages that resonated in the eulogies. The Rev. Joseph Lowry received negative media attention when he stated that, “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there” [followed by a 23 second standing ovation], “but Coretta knew, and we knew, there were weapons of misdirection right here.” Much of the news coverage focused on whether this was “tasteful” or “appropriate” for a funeral, especially because George W. was in attendance – CNN even edited out 18 seconds of Lowry’s standing ovation in its coverage. Even fewer news reports repeated Lowry’s comments that linked the costs of the war to class discriminations at home: “Millions without health insurance, poverty abound. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.”

While the news media dwelled on the indecencies of breaking funeral decorum with political protests rather than honoring the work of civil rights leaders who fought to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination, the Marketing to Moms Coalition, a market research firm, conducted a recent survey revealing that 80% of America’s mothers feel snubbed by Super Bowl advertisers even though women make up nearly half of the audience. Confirming the history of this marketing bias was the special attention given to the commercial for Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” as the first Super Bowl commercial pitched specifically to women. But the ongoing assumption among advertisers that men are harder to reach than women continues to ensure that advertising pitches, especially in sports programming, will consider their male viewers first, as was evident in the nine Anheuser-Busch ads that played during the game. Typical of the masculinity on display was their “magic fridge” ad which won a USA Today poll for best ad featuring a man hiding his Bud Light from friends in a fridge that disappeared behind a revolving wall, only to reappear in the adjacent apartment to the gleeful worship of a room full of 20 something guys. Yet, while Anheuser-Busch and other advertisers reinforced this all-about-sports-and-beer construct of masculinity to pitch their wares, Shonda Rimes exploited this masculine discourse to promote her hit hospital TV drama Grey’s Anatomy which immediately followed the game. Though the series offers a reprieve from the shock-and-awe spectacles of Michael Crichton’s ER by focusing on the relationship dynamics of its racially diverse cast, Rimes tapped into the testosterone-charged environment with promotions promising an ER-esque emergency “code black” and opening the episode with a male fantasy scene depicting three women cast members sudsing-up in the shower.

Fortunately for ABC no breasts or nasty words were exposed in the scene, but there may be signs that the FCC has cooled its policing of indecency because after awarding a record $7,928,080 in fines in 2004, no fines were proposed in 2005. Perhaps they are satisfied that the networks have curbed live TV spontaneity with broadcast delays, that viewers will be shielded from the indecencies of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps they are just eager to distance themselves from the image of the sexually repressed (crazed?) old white male regulators that the internet domain registry Go Daddy parodies in their ad campaigns. For many of us who think that this narrow focus on censoring indecencies of the flesh and tongue does not address the broader injustices of racial, class, gender and sex discriminations that the structures of commercial media propagate, perhaps we can spark debate and activism by redefining the indecencies of this year’s Super Bowl, including:

1. As the live events that bring the nation together for collective viewing become less common in a fragmented digital media environment, we should care more about what the legacies of civil rights activism can tell us about ongoing racial discrimination (as evidenced by the war’s accentuation of racial and class injustices at home, the global outsourcing dynamics that impact access to living wages, the racial and class politics of the Katrina disaster, and the dismissing of America’s musical heritage steeped in these struggles) than protecting the young against foul mouths and bare skin. Let’s inoculate our youth through engaged discussion about what they might find on TV and the internet, as well as what they will not find, rather than censoring our collective viewing spaces on their behalf.
2. Address the gender discriminations in advertising-sponsored television sports that not only privilege male viewers during coverage of male-only sporting events but also limit financial support for women’s sporting events. Also, in witnessing Shonda Rime’s counter narratives to those of Michael Crichton, Paul Tagliabue and August Busch III, we should reinforce our commitment to equal opportunity rules for those who labor before and behind the cameras.
3. As more broadcast programming migrates away from over-the-air broadcasting to cable/satellite subscription services (such as Monday Night Football’s migration to ESPN), broadcast radio’s migration to pay-radio, and audio-visual migrations to the internet (which has seen threats to network neutrality principles as service providers offer faster broadband access for premium subscribers), issues of equitable access to a broad array of content should matter more than censoring what remains of our most accessible broadcast programming.

Willard D. Rowland, Jr. “The Television Violence Debates (The V-Chip). The Television History Book. Ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI Publishing, 2003. 132-6.
Anna McCarthy. “Media Effects (CBS and Stanley Milgram)” Television Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. London: BFI Publishing, 2002. 74-78.

Image Credits:

1. Rolling Stones half-time show

2. Stevie Wonder leads pre-game show

3. Motown Center demolished

Please feel free to comment.

Do Good TV?

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

On January 16, 2006, The New York Times declared a positive trend in reality television. Amidst the “mean-spirited, bug-eating shows,” do-good programs had appeared to provide housing, healthcare and help to the needy. The article focused on Miracle Workers, a new ABC series that intervenes in the lives of “seriously ill people who lack the contacts or the money for treatment.” A team of doctors and nurses provided by ABC steers people to the “latest medical breakthroughs” while cameras “capture the drama of patient-hood, from consultations to surgery to recovery.” The TV network also pays for medical treatments not covered by health insurance, as was case in an episode featuring the Gibbs family of Florida, whose father and son underwent procedures to remove brain tumors that cost more than $100,000. Besides footing the bill for the surgeries, ABC’s medical team “asked the questions they did not know to ask, held their hands, made the arrangements,” said The Times. According to Mr. Gibbs, who described his family as “average people,” it was the TV show that got them through the ordeal.

What can explain ABC’s foray into the helping culture? After all, TV (particularly in the United States) isn’t required to do much more than maximize profit. The erstwhile notion that it should also work for the betterment of democratic society has been more or less obliterated by neoliberal policies. As Disney CEO Michael Eisner put it in 1998, “We have no obligation to make history; we have no obligation to make art; we have no obligation to make a statement; to make money is our only objective.” And yet, Stephen McPherson, president of ABC’s entertainment division, worked hard to convince The Times that a TV show like Miracles is more than a “toaster with pictures,” to use the idiom coined by former FCC chairman Mark Fowler. Although it is being packaged as reality entertainment, McPherson played up its educational and humanitarian dimensions, insisting that “whatever the rating,” ABC had done a good thing by providing “knowledge and access” to unwell people who lack the “wherewithal to get the best treatment” on their own.

McPherson didn’t dwell on how quickly ABC would pull the plug in the event of a less-than-desired rating or any number of business factors, from lackluster sponsor interest to the “wrong” audience demographics. Such is the fate of all television produced within the rationality of the free market. However, we shouldn’t dismiss McPherson’s statement as entirely disingenuous, either. In fact, I’d argue that he summed up a new mentality of public service that can be seen operating across much network and cable television, particularly reality and lifestyle programs.

Historically, attempts to regulate the use of commercial broadcasting for the so-called public good have focused on the cultural and intellectual fortification of the public sphere: By preparing the TV-viewing citizenry for its role in the affairs of the nation, the community and civil society, broadcasters would earn the “right” to conduct business on the airwaves, went this reasoning. The new mentality of public service, which is voluntary on the part of the TV industry, emphasizes the individual’s ability to care (or not) for her/himself. In other words, political sovereignty on TV has been severed from the electronic town square and rearticulated to a market model of citizenship that values choice, personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and empowerment–the basic characteristics of George W. Bush’s “ownership” society. McPherson’s definition of “do good” TV as that which provides the technical knowledge that consumers need to navigate a plethora of options and make the best choices in the service of their own well-being is an example of this shift.

Much TV is about demonstrating the duties, techniques and pleasures involved in the care of the self, whether that means the body (The Biggest Loser), the senses (Sex Inspectors), the psyche (Starting Over), the family (Wife Swap) or the home (Clean House). But television also acknowledges, in its own warped way, that no amount of technical knowledge can empower people who lack fundamental resources (“entitlements” in the maligned language of the downsized welfare state). Hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to TV programs not just for medical care, but also for decent housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Town Haul), college tuition (The Scholar) and other forms of material assistance, from food to money for speech therapy to relocation help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Three Wishes, The Gift, Renovate My Family). This isn’t a new phenomenon: In the 1950s, TV programs like Queen for a Day and Strike it Rich showered “deserving” contestants with cash prizes and consumer goods provided by sponsors. But today’s “do good” TV is more pervasive, more legitimated, and more clearly aligned with political reforms and discourses.

ABC, with its high-profile “transformational” reality TV lineup, is the leader of the pack. In adopting the role of the private charity/social service provider in “real life” dramas of human hardship and suffering, ABC programs like Medical Miracles help to mediate the ideological contradictions of neoliberalism. But “do good” TV is ultimately more about television’s move into complex new bureaucratic roles and relationships than it is about ideological positioning in any simple sense. For Miracles, TV producers formed networks with patient support groups, hospitals and health care professionals, and through these “partnerships” became directly involved in the social work (screening, evaluating, outreach, testing, counseling) of the medical establishment. In classifying “deserving” individuals and redistributing the surplus of informational capitalism in a manner of its own choosing, TV also drew from an arrogant philanthropic logic that can be traced to Robber Baron industrialists. The difference is that TV has fused charity work with the rationality of the market, so that there’s no distinction between public service and cultural product. Finally, if TV stepped in to fill some of the gaps left by the unraveling of the welfare state, it did so with reformist zeal, implementing an extreme version of the “risk management” strategies practiced by HMOs and private insurance carriers (only surgeries with at least a 90 percent success rate were considered for funding by Miracles).

To understand the emergence of programs like Medical Miracles, we also need to know something about ABC’s ties to public and private agencies charged with the privatization of public service. Disney was one of the corporate sponsors of the 2005 National Conference on Volunteering and Service (Home Depot, which also sponsors ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was another funder). The event was put together by The Corporation for National and Community Service, The Points of Light Foundation and the USA Freedom Corps, the agency created by Bush to foster a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility, and to help all Americans answer the President’s Call to Service.” In typical corporate liberal fashion, leaders from the public and private sectors met to strategize ways to develop a
culture of “volunteer service” (a term used to describe everything from corporate giving to bake sales) to meet America’s “pressing social needs.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt spoke to the group about “economic goodness,” and a motivational closing plenary was delivered by Mark Victor Hansen, author of the self-help book Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Bigge Crane and Rigging

Bigge Crane and Rigging

The ABC “do good” brand has emerged within this climate of cooperation among politicians and private corporations with a common interest in the privatization of welfare. Popular reality is the network’s favored venue for the new ethos of charity and volunteerism. Stephen McPherson, head of entertainment, spearheaded ABC’s Better Community Outreach program, which seeks to bring TV viewers “pro-social programs and messages” and give them the “tools they need” to “help build a better community one family, one house, one donation at a time.” Besides “partnering” with ABC programs like Home Edition to promote volunteerism on air, the outreach program aims to develop four qualities in American life: compassion, volunteerism, learning and environmentalism. If the rationale for doing this sounds a lot like the rhetoric surrounding the ownership society, web links to organizations (also called “partners”) from the Better Business Bureau to the Points of Light Foundation a virtual network of privatized care.

Home Edition receives over 15,000 applications every week from families hoping to improve their living conditions in some way or another. As it turns out, the process of applying to the show is not so unlike a visit to the paternalistic welfare office. Applicants are drawn into relationship of scrutiny and surveillance. To be considered, they must answer detailed questions about household income, education, debt, involvement in lawsuits and prior conviction of a crime, whether as “simple as a driving violation or as serious as armed robbery” (Be honest: We will find out sooner or later through our comprehensive background checks, warns the application). They must agree to provide three years worth of tax forms if selected, and they must explain in detail why their case is unique, what extraordinary circumstances have led up to their need, why they more than others “deserve” help. The families are also required to produce a short video, using a provided shot list and following guidelines such as “dress as if you were attending a formal lunch” and “women should wear light makeup.”

The most “deserving” of the applicants, as determined by the casting department, are then offered home makeovers in a “race against time on a project that would ordinarily take at least four months to achieve, involving a team of designers, contractors and several hundred workers who have just seven days to totally rebuild an entire house – every single room, plus exterior and landscaping.” The venture doesn’t cost ABC anything. Local businesses are solicited to donate services, and corporate sponsors from Sears to Home Depot provide the finishing touches. The catch to this spectacular fusion of business efficiency and corporate good will is that only a handful of families with “extraordinary” reasons for seeking outside help (e.g. a child with leukemia, a father who lost a limb in Iraq) will have their lives “transformed” by the program. “We just can’t help them all even though we wish we could,” says ABC.

Boldly claiming to change the “lives of the lucky families forever,” ABC nonetheless plays up the magnitude of Home Edition‘s humanitarian outreach to needy “others.” At a time when low-income housing programs are strapped for funding and welfare as we know it doesn’t exist, the program epitomizes television’s literal (not merely symbolic) role in the privatization of social services. The Home Edition web site is, incidentally, looped back to ABC’s Better Community project, where TV viewers are encouraged to become more compassionate by visiting nonprofit organizations (also described as “partners”) like Habitat for Humanity and Home Aid and by purchasing the new Home Edition DVD (ABC will donate one dollar for every product sold). George Bush must be proud.

This essay draws from my forthcoming book with James Hay, tentatively titled Television for Living (Blackwell).

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

2. Bigge Crane and Rigging

Please feel free to comment.

When Mullahs Ride the Airwaves: Muslim Televangelists and the Saudi Connection

Dishes and Mosque

Dishes and Mosque


“Soccer is not an illicit form of entertainment, but when practiced in violation of shariah, then it is as abhorrent as any other sin…. When we fanatically love non-Muslim players who perform the sign of the cross upon entering or leaving the field…or when Muslim players imitate the pagan dance of famous infidel players when they score, or put forbidden things on their chests, that’s not acceptable.” The author of this soccer fatwa is Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid on a set of Islam’s powerful spokeschannel, Iqra’ TV.

Until recently sheikhs like Al-Munajid were only able to reach their audience through audio and video recordings sold on Arab black street markets. Those who preached a rigorous interpretation of Islam had a minimal impact among fringe groups of Arab populations, but as satellite technology becomes greatly appealing to the religious and the secular alike, television channels with a strict religious message as Iqra’ are quickly setting shop. Inaugurated in 1998, Iqra’ is Saudi Arabia’s most recent and probably most effective campaign of spreading its Wahhabi doctrine, which the channel’s producers temper by saying on their website that their mission is to bring “the teachings of Islam into the homes and hearts of Arabs worldwide.” The Saudis take issue with the Wahhabi label because it makes them look less as the real Islam and more like a sect that is highly disputed in some respectable religious circles. But the systematic indoctrination of imams and financing of religious schools and mosques around the world reveal a rigid reading of Islam which forbids close interaction with non-Muslims and calls for the literal application of shariah laws across the region, including hand amputation for theft, sword beheading for capital crimes, and denying women any role in public life.

For years, Saudi Arabia had to flaunt its generosity towards poor Muslim countries by building hospitals, schools, universities and mosques even in Western Europe and the United States. According to Saudi officials, between 1975 and 2002, the Riyadh government spent more than $70 billion on Islamic projects around the world, excluding the millions of dollars volunteered by Saudi charity foundations and unidentified philanthropists. An estimated 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are funded by Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. While the funding of mosques and the ideological direction of those who frequent them do not necessarily correlate, the influence of the Saudis over the content of the sermons, the training of imams, and the substance of Islamic schools’ curricula is undeniable.

Religious spending per se is not the problem here, but it is the extremist ideology promoted thanks to this cash availability that is disturbing. The voices of intransigent Islam are featured frequently on the airwaves of Iqra’, and their edicts are often consistent with the Wahhabi attempt to purge Islam of what is perceived as foreign threat disguised as societal change. In fact, some of the messages on the channel can be extreme like Saudi cleric Aed Al-Qarni’s recent on-the-air endorsement of suicide bombing. “Houses and young men must be sacrificed,” he says, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the road to victory and to shahada (sacrifice). Oh brothers, the idolatrous Vietnamese, Cambodians, and South Africans….Nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices–sacrificing people, blood, and souls. All the more so should we, the nation of Islam.” And some show moderators often appear as enlightened by their guests’ revelations as when Egyptian historian, Zaynab Abdel Aziz tells a show host that the “Vatican delegated the US to carry out 9/11.”

While religious platforms such as Iqra’ do not call for jihad bluntly, theycontribute to an increasingly radicalized religious culture in the Arab world, making every facet of social, cultural, and economic life a religious issue in need of a fatwa. Fatwas range from Muslim women needing to comply with their husbands’ desire in bed even if they don’t want to, to why hands of stealers should be chopped, to whether Muslims should shake hands with Jews. Iqra’ (literally: “recite” or “read in an
intelligent way”), has found a fertile ground in a region still lacking basic political reforms and jaded with repetitious autocratic and corrupt regimes. For years, religious groups–mostly underground–in the Arab world have become the only viable alternative: when the health
system fails customarily in these countries, Islamic groups with disposable cash can intervene with their own doctors for free; when schools educate poorly, the same groups offer their own teachers for free. In the wake of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, religious groups often respond quickly and more efficiently than governments to help the victims and alleviate their losses, as was the case in the earthquakes of Algeria and last year’s floods of northeastern Morocco. The failure of secular regimes to provide minimum social welfare and secure political freedom in the region has steadily nurtured a new perception whereby the state benefits the elite while religion benefits the masses.

This is why the world of Arab media seems swamped with religious messages, but by now, Arabs have evolved since the state-owned, everything-is-fine, and dull television channels. So, in order to appeal to a more media saturated audience, the producers of Iqra’ are taunting their skills by making religious preaching less shabby and threatening. The on-screen graphics and studio sets are comparable to entertainment television, but nothing is more alluring than the new look of Islamic scholars and sheikhs who do not always conform to the conventional image of a preacher in a mosque. In fact, many of these preachers and scholars wear suits and use softer tones than usual. Some of them are young and do not claim to be a religious authority like the channel’s superstar preacher, Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old who hosts one of the most popular programs on Arab television, Sunaa al Hayat (Life Makers).

Khaled, who has become a household name across the Arab world, is seemingly an anomaly in the Saudi quest to popularize Wahhabism: he is young, a business accountant not a religious scholar, and with a somewhat liberal and tolerant approach to Islamic preaching. Khaled’s fame at Iqra’ was preceded by a long showdown with Egyptian authorities who expelled him from Egypt after his religious lectures had become spiritual revelations for thousands of well-to-do women and youth in the country. His age, modern look (wearing jeans or a suit and clean-shaven), and the use of colloquial Arabic make him accessible to a young Arab audience extremely tired of the staid, disconnected sheikhs of Islam. But what made Khaled’s message appealing to the Saudi channel Iqra’; is that it is liberal only in style and quite conservative in substance. During his lectures and discussions on the hijab, Khaled is rarely original in citing the reasons why Muslim women should be veiled. Women are the pillars of Islamic education and wearing the veil, he says, is a selfless gesture to protect the sanctity of the faith itself: “I think that the primary purpose of legislating hijab, other than preservation of virtue, is…to remind people in the street about Islam; there will be no way better than hijab.” Islam’s integrity, he says on his show, depends on the virtue of its women and since their responsibility in the temptation of men is inevitable, veiling is a must, even if you don’t understand. While Khaled’s message lacks in originality and critical quality, his highly emotional, talk-show style provides an innovative and soothing statement that you can be pious and still remain modern and cool. And the Amr Khaled phenomenon has just begun despite some already unprecedented television ratings for his show: five million viewers tune in to his weekly show and his web site records millions of hits daily.

By putting Khaled next to the old and conventional sheikhs, Iqra’s producers are hoping to change the moral path of young Arabs who are still deeply influenced by Western popular culture. Major Internet chat rooms in the region are teeming with testimonies, particularly of young women thanking Khaled for convincing them to put on the veil. Programming this year included not only talk shows and lectures, but dramas and cartoons. It is hard to quantify the impact of Khaled’s hip preaching and Iqra’s religious broadcasting, but religion has never been this popular from Cairo to Casablanca. At a time when political regimes in the region continuously fail their constituency and Islam is the subject of humiliating headlines, Khaled and a wave of young preachers seem not only innovative, but also vengeful in a let’s-go-back-to-the-roots fashion. It is therefore not a surprise to find Saudi Arabia at the helm of this religious survival in disguise. Though Wahhabism may never become a preferred doctrine of Muslim Arabs, its signature of uncritical, exclusionary spirituality is quickly infiltrating Arab living rooms and delaying badly needed reforms both in religious interpretations and political rule.

The 30-year-old executive manager of Iqra’, Mohammad Hammam, likes to think of his channel as serving a double mission: counter the post-September 11 image of Islam and guide Muslims to understand better their own religion. Many of the ideas propagated from the sets of the channel, however, belie the core of this mission. If there is one, it seems to be to flood the airwaves with a fatigued interpretation of religion simply refurbished with funky jingles and beardless preachers.

Iqra’ TV

Image Credits

1. Dishes and Mosque

Please feel free to comment.

The Problem of Morality in Media Policy

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

Much of what passes for discussions of morality in media policy these days is at best silly, at worst reactionary. But it’s not enough to scoff at the shallowness and hypocrisies of moral panics like the recent Superbowl wardrobe malfunction fracas, or to elegantly chart their ideological functions. Of course, there’s little to be gained from the kind of moralizing often associated with academics who cluck their tongues at Howard Stern or Jerry Springer. Condescension of the popular, I agree, will get us nowhere. But completely dodging morality won’t get us very far, either; a rigorous post-Foucaultian moral anarchism, for all its intellectual appeals, can too easily function as an unintentional apology for the status quo or, worse, simply concede the field to naive moral absolutists. Occasionally seeking to distinguish between good and bad is, as Raymond Williams said about culture, “ordinary.”[1] It’s an ordinary part of people’s experience, and as such, moral discourse will inevitably play a role in shaping the future. Ignore that and you write yourself out of the game. Any effort to change media for the better must have a moral component.

So how do we talk about media and morality without sounding petty or holier-than-thou? I think we need to start by getting beyond the typical bifurcation of media matters into structural and cultural issues. On the structural side are questions of law, money, procedure, and technology, stories of big corporations, gadgets, and financial schemes. On the cultural side are hot button issues like pornography, violence, and the protection of children. And too often, I think, US media and cultural studies scholars act as though we agree; we tend to divide our interests and scholarship along similar lines, policy folks over here, textual critics over there. There needs to be an approach that does not take the structure/culture bifurcation for granted. And one place to begin is by talking about the role of the subjective or cultural within classic structural media issues. Let’s do some cultural criticism of what goes on behind the screen. Rhetoric and style — the raw materials of culture — matter behind the screen as well as on it; if those of us trained in cultural and media studies are really going to act on all that’s been learned in the last thirty years, it’s not just that that culture matters, it’s that culture matters everywhere.

Take a current structural issue: the current experiments in wireless broadband, a possible candidate for the media infrastructure of the future (and a personal fascination of mine). At first glance, it seems to be all about technology standards, legal regulations, and money, stuff for self-important white guys in suits. Not what we spent all that time in graduate school deciphering Stuart Hall or Gayatri Spivak for.

But consider the following: in a recent interview, the FCC’s chief of policy development, Robert Pepper, was asked about new wireless networks. “Wireless ISPs,” he replied, “are some of the most exciting companies and developments that I’ve seen in a long time. You have a lot of little companies — we estimate somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500. They are providing broadband service in urban and also rural areas without subsidy. They are being deployed very rapidly at a low cost. They break even with relatively low penetration rates. They can operate on mountaintops. They can operate in inner cities and neighborhoods. This is very exciting.”

Notice that Pepper used the word “exciting” twice to describe Wireless ISPs. I don’t want to over interpret, but his use of the word “exciting” is significant. When someone like Pepper talks about, say, the transition from traditional to digital and high definition television, the talk is in the language of acronym-fluent technocrats: about orderly process, protecting stakeholders, striking a balance between competing interests, and so forth. All that stuff may sound important, but not “exciting.” Basically, Pepper’s description of wireless ISPs — small, fast, numerous, on mountaintops and in inner cities, and growing — follows the narrative lines of the tale of the plucky capitalist entrepreneur.

This is a moral discourse. It invokes a classic liberal narrative in which self-interested individual effort is constructed as a form of moral behavior. From Robinson Crusoe to Poor Richard’s Almanac to the novels of Ayn Rand to Little House on the Prairie, there’s a long and deep tradition of tales in which capitalist entrepreneurial behavior is celebrated as a sign of good character and a source of human progress. In the American context, these narratives have played a role in legitimating the very corporate capitalism that in the end undermines entrepreneurial possibilities. Pepper does not mention that these thousands of wonderful small businesses are eventually doomed to either be pushed aside by other technologies, or — if the technology does catch on — be swallowed up by larger corporate outfits (as has happened to the thousands of small phone-line-based ISPs that sprang up in the mid-1990s).

But it’s not all bad. Striking out on one’s own, taking a risk, making something new in a way that has integrity — these are all visions that have provided energy and support to many folks who could use it. The real question is how that discourse gets articulated. Currently, some city governments are exploring ways to build wireless broadband networks for their citizens that would operate on a non-profit basis, and the corporate world is doing everything it can to stop them, seeking to make such efforts illegal through state legislatures. How should struggles like this be framed? The traditional progressive tactic is to make it a struggle of the public good against private greed. But the “public good” can seem like a hollow phrase to many. Why not frame this another way? Isn’t this a case of local folks, through their city governments, setting out to build small and ingenious systems with which they can express themselves and connect to each other? Maybe it’s the cities that are on the side of the little guy and the experimenters, who are struggling against special interests who are using government to restrict the freedom to communicate. Competition is good, but allow the notion of competition to include accountable non-profit entities, like city governments, under its umbrella. (Michael Curtin has argued we need to support more and more diverse forms of public broadcasting; maybe the argument should focus on something like structural diversity; not just “public” channels or more channels, but more freedom in building channels.)

It’s now becoming routine in Hollywood to say that the media will change more in the next three to five years than it has in the last fifty. A struggle is now afoot over the future organization of media, a struggle that encompasses news, entertainment, and infrastructure. Up to this point, progressive activists are entering the struggle with a pretty narrow range of rhetorical tools, mostly focusing on the charge of media monopoly and a weak call to the “public good.” Let’s see if we can’t add a few more arrows, like structural diversity or nonprofit entrepreneurialism, to the activist quiver.

[1]Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary.” In Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan (Eds.), Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader. London: Arnold, 1997 [1958], pp. 5-14.

Image Credits:
1. Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII mishap

WISPA-Cut the Wires!
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page

Please feel free to comment.

Pass the Remote!

by: Natalie Cannon, Zak Salih, and Angela Nemecek

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at

Pass the Remote Logo

Dear Zak and Angela,

A little over a year ago I got hooked on HBO’s new series, Carnivale. I liked the strangeness of the story — it was like a grittier Tim Burton movie — and I really enjoyed the artistic quality of the cinematography. After my course work on “Disability and Freakery” last semester, I found a lot more in the show that catches my attention.

Interactions between freaks or social others with “normal” people, in the first season of Carnivale in particular, seems to beg for commentary and further study. The fact that the show has two main venues only complicates the query in a good way; it allows for comparisons among and between the carnival and the settled town of Mintern, which comprise the two branches of the story. All the characters in the traveling Carnivale branch of the show are represented as various levels of freaks — bearded lady, lizard man with tail, whores, conjoined twins, disabled head roustie, and the dwarf, a voice of authority for the mutilated management. The protagonist Ben Hawkins is rescued by these carnies, and a lot of the tension that drives the first few episodes is how he tries to fit in or not, and the way he is made the butt of jokes and initiation pranks because they all assume that he is “normal,” which is an “other” to their freakish way of life.



The Mintern, CA branch of the show is set up as a “normal” story about holy, but normal people — a preacher, his sister, their friends, and his parishioners of citizens and migrants. The odd thing is that the “normal” people are manipulative and turn out to be evil, while the carnies and freaks are the characters most easily identified with by the audience and house tools to stop the evil. This begs the question, are we to think the other is the answer and the normal is the problem?

Natalie Cannon
University of Virginia

Dear Natalie and Angela,

I second Natalie’s notion about the twisted definitions of “other” and “normal” throughout the two seasons of Carnivale. As to her question of whether the “other” is the perceived hero of this series in contrast with the evilness of what we would commonly consider “normal,” I would argue that it’s near impossible to arrive at any simple answer.

I think the qualifiers of good and evil in Carnivale are indeed based on these notions of “normal” and “other.” But as the show develops, we come to realize that what is normal and what is other is not based so much on physical characteristics but on actions and internalized characteristics. So, in a sense, Carnivale is validating these traditional notions of good and evil while trying to step outside them. Good and evil are based on character, not physical appearance – it’s a classic theme we’ve seen in numerous television shows, movies, and books. The other is still the problem and the normal is still the answer; that is, if we read Carnivale on a moral level as well as a visual level.

I guess the formula for the morality of this show would be that: visually, the other is the answer and the normal is the problem; morally, the “other” (the evil actions and intent of Brother Justin) is the problem and the “normal” (the good intentions of the prophet Ben Hawkins) is the answer. After all, don’t the common cultural codes tell us that good character is normal and acceptable while bad/evil character is abnormal and unacceptable? Isn’t Carnivale then just reaffirming these cultural codes, albeit under trickier circumstances?

Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia

Dear Zak and Natalie,

I agree with Zak’s assessment that Carnivale fundamentally reinscribes normative cultural codes, even as it plays with the slippage between outer and inner: morally good characters can look physically “deformed,” while morally bad characters can look physically “normal.” But the show adds a further twist, demanding that evil characters come to be physically altered by their evil.

Brother Justin, for example, shows consistent outward signs of evil — most notably, demonic pupil-less eyes. Indeed, this physical change is a cultural trope of evil; we come to expect this cue in everything from The Ring II to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, since it’s how we tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys — or even how we tell the Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde versions of the same character apart (Oz on Buffy, for example, gradually morphs into a werewolf when it’s that time of the month).

This physical metamorphosis indicating evil is most evident — and most permanent — in Brother Justin when he requests his gigantic tree tattoo, the Mark of the Usher. Once he has been literally “marked,” he is physically othered into the evil Other we have always known him to be. I’d argue that the viewer finds this form of othering quite satisfying, as now the character’s outside confirms his inside, and his identity is stabilized.

But this stability obviously complicates the status of other Others on the show, since it reaffirms the notion that physical otherness corresponds with moral otherness. In the end, does Carnivale only reify the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible?

Angela Nemecek

Dear Angela and Zak,

While I agree and enjoy that Justin finally starts to look as bad, visually, as he is inwardly, I do not agree that Carnivale only reifies the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible because, at the end of Season Two, the ‘freaks’ are still visibly, physically different, but they are the ones who emerge triumphant.

Perhaps the show is instead enacting a subversion of that topos as it appeals to the audience to look beyond appearances because it has been proven that appearances can be deceiving and it was never exactly clear until nearly the end of the season as to who — Ben or Justin — is the dark one of the generation. They both kill, they both help people, they both are conflicted, and they both share the same nightmares frequently, so the division between them as Good or Evil is hazy until Justin reveals his intent.

I would argue that Justin receives his changes as punishment for falling pray to the devil within rather than the idea that he is branded so as to physically become an ‘other’ for the audience. In support of this I would also like to offer that Ben, the established ‘Good Guy’ heals the sick but not the freakishly disabled like Sampson or any of his fellow carnies. He does not exhibit the least desire to do so, and because of these contrasting actions it seems that Carnivale is not operating the way David Mitchell’s “Narrative Prosthesis” theory accuses most representations of the disabled of operating. Mitchell claims that disabled characters are either killed or cured by the end, but in Carnivale they end the same as they were before, if not a little spiritually or morally purified.

Natalie Cannon
University of Virginia

Dear Natalie and Angela,

In regards to the case of Mitchell’s “narrative prosthesis” that Natalie brought up at the end of her post, I’m left wondering how we can apply this to the culminating season (and if the buzz on the web is true, possibly series) finale that aired nearly a month ago. Natalie points to spiritual and moral purification, an idea I find intersting when analyzed in the light of Brother Justin’s death in the cornfield and subsequent resurrection at the hands of Sofie. It appears that Brother Justin has taken on the persona of a dramatic Christ figure — yet aren’t Christ figures commonly considered to be agents of good rather than evil (as we all three seem to agree that Justin is, indeed, morally deformed)?

This notion further complicates our reading of good and evil in Carnivale. Notice how entrenched Brother Justin is in the Church. Throughout the progression of the two seasons, we have seen our traditional notions of faith and religion as moral forces somewhat skewed by the nefarious goings-on with Justin’s congregation (everything from the psychological torture of Rev. Balthus to nefarious allegiances with local politicians and grand baptism sequences that take on the tone of mass brainwashing). Given that Brother Justin is head of this particular religious camp, I’m left wondering what Carnivale is saying about the politics and morality of the devout Christianity on display here. In the same way that the outward/inward morality of the characters are skewed, so too do we see the same complications with Justin’s religious camp (what is normally a force for spiritual good is now a marketplace for evil and sin). It would seem then that in the universe of Carnivale, social institutions can be just as deformed and disabled as any carny.

If we consider Brother Justin to be a morally disabled character, then how does his demise/resurrection fit in with the aformentioned narrative prosthesis? He is resurrected but we have yet to see whether his evil (his disability) has been cured or transplanted into Sofie, who possesses the same black, pupil-less eyes that Angela notes is a common trope of evil in popular entertainment. While his death at the hands of Ben Hawkins might seem to affirm the narrative prosthesis on a moral level, his resurrection further complicates matters.

Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia

Image Credits:
1. Carnivale

Please feel free to comment.

Belaboring Reality

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

In season one of The Simple Life, the apparently soulless Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton spend a month in rural Arkansas disappointing the Ledings, the humble, hard-working farm family that has agreed to take them in. Each day the girls French kiss the local boys, ignore their chores, assemble slutty outfits, and make a half-assed attempt to work a blue-collar job. They don’t even feel gratitude for the freshly slaughtered chickens offered to them by good ‘ol grandma Curly, the only person in town who sees goodness in them despite the depths of bitchdom they sink to. The Simple Life seems to offer a Simple Moral: rich people are stupid assholes (but sexy), while working class people are saints (but fat).

A Marxist parable? Not exactly. The “working class” Ledings have a big house, an above-ground pool, and at least one nice car. They aren’t poor, they just have working class tastes. The show is really about Nicole and Paris, so it is hard to glean many details about the Ledings, but one has to wonder how Fox found these farmers who seem to have no giant machinery, let their chickens breathe fresh air in outdoor coops, and manage a large farm without any hired laborers. Didn’t agribusiness wipe out this Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some years ago? Altus, Arkansas, it seems, is a Southern working class Stars Hollow, the fantasy New England town of The Gilmore Girls. Both towns feature quaint pie contests and sack races, but in Altus the locals are likely to sport mullets and beer bellies.

As on The Gilmore Girls, the little private dramas of The Simple Life are wedged in between public dramas at work. Though TV has pictured the workplace for years, reality TV is the first genre to emerge that is obsessively focused on labor. Indeed, it seems that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into labor on a reality show. On The Apprentice, participants construct business strategies, and the effort displayed is often mental. On the other hand, their labor also has a physical dimension, as contestants are often asked to pound the pavement and do grunt work. (Also, one cannot fail to notice the labor of self-production on the program. Contestants put together special outfits to catch Trump’s eye, and the taut female participants have bodies that are the visible result of labor in the gym.) Notwithstanding The Apprentice, on most programs the “work” demanded is not the kind of thing one would normally be paid for. Often, the labor is emotional: participants on The Bachelor are working really hard to make someone love them.

In real life, your job involves stacking things on shelves, balancing ledgers, plugging information into a database, or cleaning people’s teeth. But on TV your job is to cheat on your girlfriend, pretend to be a millionaire, eat slimy bugs, pretend to marry a jerk, lose a ton of weight, or live with fellow washed up celebrities. If you do your job well, you can win a million bucks, or a Chapstick contract, or the chance to be on other reality TV shows. In regular jobs, the people who work the hardest don’t necessarily advance, but if you do your job on TV, your effort is often rewarded. Moreover, in an information economy where manufacturing has been sent overseas and where minimum wage service jobs are among the few remaining jobs that require rigorous physical activity, reality TV is one of the few places where you can do hard physical labor for big bucks—if you win, that is.

The roots of genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama date back to radio, but reality TV is a bit of generic puzzle. It may contain moments indebted to soap opera, and offer a sprinkling of cinema vérité pastiche, but it is really a new genre. Though reality programming might seem to have some kinship with game shows, game shows have never been so labor-intensive. In fact, before the money pots increased in the 1980s, shows like What’s My Line? and Match Game were more about clever banter than actually winning prizes. The sly quips of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are sorely lacking from the gotta-get-things-done (or die) work ethic that drives the competitive reality programs.

The heroines of The Simple Life lack this ethic, of course. The saddest illustration of this occurs at the Sonic fast-food restaurant, where a young manager desperately tries to get the girls to do their work. In other episodes, the older, self-employed male bosses have the option of firing the girls (after telling one of them “you’re a real screw-up!”), but the fast-food manager knows that these nubile, lazy screw-ups are jeopardizing her own job, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She works hard but has no money; Nicole and Paris do no work, are rich, and enjoy wasting money. Can anyone hear Thorstein Veblen shouting, “see, I told you so!” from the grave?

The Simple Life

The Simple Life baldly reveals the shaky foundations of the American myth of class mobility. Unlike on the competitive shows, where merit is rewarded, here doing a bad job brings no real punishment, and people who work hard do not necessarily advance. It seemed to me as I watched it that the show’s underlying moral message was that hard work was better than slacking off. After all, it ends with the sympathetic Ledings saying that they hope the girls have benefited from the values the family has tried to teach them. But I cannot help but fear that many viewers find this about as convincing as Jerry Springer’s “Final Thought,” a tacked on moral that does little to mitigate the rich-and-lazy-and-proud-of-it ethos that has preceded it.

Given reality TV’s relentless focus on work, one might naively imagine a behind-the-scenes team of empathic laborers creating the shows. The BBC’s scripted faux-reality show The Office, for example, obviously springs from an impulse of proletarian solidarity: only writers who have endured the proverbial boss-from-hell could create the monstrous David Brent. Alas, American reality programs do not spring from a similar impulse. For, in theory, reality TV has no writers. Instead, videographers shoot endlessly, and editors then step in and collaborate with “story producers” or “story editors” (actually writers) to attempt to create dramatic tension, a Herculean feat that often requires the addition of goofy sound effects, voice-overs, or music (a recently heard ditty on Strange Love: “He’s a jester, she’s a fox. She likes smoking, he likes clocks.”). According to a Washington Post article, the story editors “use the expression ‘frankenbites’ to describe the art of switching around contestant sound bites recorded at different times and patched together to create what appears to be a seamless narrative.”

The premise that the people on reality shows are real translates into one thing as far as producers are concerned: free labor. These are regular people, not actors with SAG cards. And once you’ve gotten rid of unionized actors, why not get rid of the unionized writers? In fact, it is rare for any of the workers creating reality TV to be unionized — not the directors, not the carpenters, not the camera operators. The Screen Writers Guild has made reality TV central to its contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but has had no success in attempts to get reality writers unionized. These young workers have lower salaries than Guild members, no health care, no pension, and, of course, they don’t get a writing credit for their work, since no producer wants his show tainted by a credit acknowledging that stories are managed and banter is often scripted. The shows have much shorter shooting schedules than regular programs, so writers typically work 12 to 18 hours a day, but they tolerate such conditions because reality TV is seen as a steppingstone to better gigs for young writers. Willingly overworked, and desperate for a permanent job with benefits, these kids would be perfect candidates for The Apprentice!

In fact, I have a great idea: how about a reality show about workers on a reality show? I can imagine how the networks would respond to my brilliant pitch: “You’re fired!”

Image Credits:

The Simple Life

Please feel free to comment.

Right Turn: Talk TV and Contemporary Politics

by: Rhonda Hammer / UCLA and Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Talk TV 20/20

Talk TV – 20/20

Talk television has become increasingly political in the past years. Since Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio show and MTV during the 1992 presidential race, presidential candidates regularly appear on TV talk shows. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush were featured on the Oprah show, acknowledging the importance of daytime talk television, and both Bush and John Kerry appeared on the Dr. Phil show in the 2004 campaign. Moreover, in 1995 the conservative coalition, Empower America, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats like William Bennett and Joe Lieberman, condemned talk shows for promoting “cultural rot.” Since then, there has been a decline of the “trash talk” television of shows like Jerry Springer and an increase of advice shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil.

The content of talk TV has engaged a wide range of political topics over the past decades, addressing controversial issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, war, religion, and other issues of the day, while often taking a partisan caste. Crossfire and The McLaughlin Report in the 1980s initiated highly partisan left vs. right shoutfests, usually pitting hardcore conservatives against softer liberals, to the detriment of the latter.

While Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of daytime TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey’s show from 1986 to the present has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk show in history, over the past decades, talk TV took a number of bizarre turns to the right. As David Brock recounts in his indispensable 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine, Mort Downey introduced a rightwing populist shout show in the late 1980s, featuring an angry and belligerent host who vented deep resentments against women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and liberals. Shot before a live and handpicked TV audience, raucous fans chanted “Mort! Mort! Mort!” as Downey would attack “pablum-puking” liberals and “liberal slime,” vituperate against gays and women, or shout “Shut up, you old hag!” at an elderly woman (Brock pp. 220f), providing an earlier incarnation of Bill O’Reilly.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

The 1980s and 1990s exhibited the remarkable rise of rightwing talk radio figures, who would eventually make their way into television through extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean O’Hannity. As Brock points out, by the late 1990s there were over four hundred major rightwing talk radio shows contrasted to a handful of liberal ones, with one rightwing activist claiming that by 2003, there were 1,700 rightwing talk radio hosts (Brock, p. 273). Furthermore, “today the top five radio station owners in the country, controlling forty-five powerful radio stations, broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated rightwing talk every weekday. Only 5 hours of nonconservative talk are aired nationally on those stations” (Brock 2004, p. 300).

The imbalance may be slightly corrected with the rise of Air America Radio, but, nonetheless, the almost total hegemony of talk radio by conservatives is astounding and subversive of genuine democracy. Rightwing talk radio savaged Clinton during his presidency, excoriated Gore during the 2000 election, and rabidly defended the George W. Bush administration while relentlessly disparaging John Kerry during the 2004 election (see Alterman 2003; Brock 2004; and Kellner 2005). It is well-documented that rightwing talk radio shows would coordinate their themes and messages of the day with the Republican party, and that the most influential rightwing hosts often received daily faxes from the Republican leadership (Brock, p. 285).

Rightwing talk radio became the shame of the nation, spewing racist, sexist, homophobic, and hateful anti-liberal discourse, while stigmatizing well-known liberals and relentlessly pushing conservative candidates and issues of the day. In addition to rightwing talk radio, the 1990s exhibited a new form of “trash talk television” in which Jerry Springer would display a wide range of exotic members of the underclass, people of color, and sexual deviants who would often engage in verbal conflict and even fist fights. These shows put on display the nightmare of traditional conservatives, the underclass and people of color out of control and needing discipline, if not incarceration.

By the 2000s, many of the trashier daytime talk shows were cancelled, Oprah continued to reign, and liberal shows like Rosie and, later, Ellen seemed to be ascendant. But during the Bush administration, Dr. Phil has emerged as the most visible and perhaps influential TV daytime talk show. In early January 2005 he featured New Year’s Resolutions week, including the “Dr. Phil Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge.” With his audience decked out in identical sweat-suits exhibiting the weight loss theme of the show, Dr. Phil put on display a number of overweight individuals who looked to him for salvation. Hawking his weight-loss book as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly uses his show to promote his wares, Dr. Phil engages in endless self-promotion.[1]

Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil

Indeed, Dr. Phil uses his TV show and web-site to relentlessly sell his books and himself as the solution to America’s problems. Presenting himself as Savior, Dr. Phil tells his audience that he can solve their problems if they just follow his advice. The audience, primarily women, bestows adoring looks of submission on Dr. Phil as the guests extol his wisdom and guidance, promising to do exactly what he advises. As Michelle Cottle points out: “Dr. Phil relies on much the same exploitative freak-show format as Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, with everyone from drug-addicted housewives to love-starved transsexuals spinning their tales of woe for a salivating audience. But to help himself — and his audience — feel less icky about their voyeurism, Dr. Phil exposes America’s dark side under the guise of inspiring hope and change. In Dr. Phil’s formulation, cheating couples who air every nauseating detail of their sex lives on national television aren’t shameless media whores, they are troubled souls courageous enough to seek help.”[2]The chanting of the day’s slogans and group behavior and Groupthink on the early January 2005 Dr. Phil programs was reminiscent of the 2004 Republican convention and the adoration of George W. Bush. While conservatives once exhibited individualism, independence, and critical thinking as virtues, contemporary conservatives engage in Groupthink, as when followers of talk radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh call themselves “dittoheads” and repeat his lines of the day, however ill-documented and partisan. Exemplifying what Herbert Marcuse (1964) condemned as one-dimensional thought and behavior, Bush conservatives reproduce the slogans of their master and deify a president who has rarely had a thought of his own and reads and performs the scripts of his handlers (see Douglas Kellner’s “Wired Bush” Flow column).

Hence, in addition to the right turn in talk radio and political talk shows documented by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, there has been a right turn in daytime talk television. Talk TV is parasitic on social problems and misery caused in large part by social inequalities and the damage of poverty and lack of education. Yet the major programs dedicated to advice and everyday life target individual failings and offer largely individual solutions to a wide range of problems, solutions that reproduce dominant ideology and forms of thought and behavior. Moreover, on daytime talk television, the majority of the guests are women and girls or feminized men, while the host and experts, regardless of gender, embody and uphold traditional patriarchal and dominant middle class codes. The class bias makes working class people feel inferior and sets up middle class and professional people as the social norm and ideal. Importantly, the politics of difference, especially in relation to class, race, gender and sexuality are effectively obscured and depicted as one-dimensional, psychological, personal problems, which tend to blame the victim rather than critique the socio-political and economic contexts which mediate these kinds of pathologies.

In addition, the constellations of aberrant social types and behaviors that are the topic of many of the shows reify the demonization of marginalized groups. In particular, single-mothers (predominantly the working poor and lower classes) and youth (especially, teen-age girls) are favorite targets of daytime talk television. Discussions of genres, which Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) identify as teens-out-of-control [TOOC], and the escalating numbers of paternity themed shows, also tend to reinforce dominant, conservative traditional family values that maintain stereotypical gendered relations.[3] Hence, absurd and impossible imaginary standards of idealized images of fathers and mothers — and rigid, bifurcated notions of masculinity and femininity — are further reified. Racist and heterosexist assumptions are often inferentially if not overtly reproduced in depictions of heterosexual families as “normal” and gay sexuality as deviant, while extremely negative depictions of people of color and underclass people multiply.

Class, race, gender, and hetrosexualist bias, however, is often subtly communicated in these shows, masked by an ideology of democratic populism that displays a multicultural rainbow of diversity, often with hosts of color like Oprah or Montel. These hosts tend to reinforce the American myth that anyone can pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and can overcome racial (class, gender or sexual) inequalities through individual attitude, perseverance and moral character (Jhally and Lewis, 1992).

Moreover, individual authority figures often in the guise of celebrity hosts or guests, as well as slews of so-called professional experts, legitimate the ideologies of individualism and the naturalization of elite hegemonic power, which negates inquiries into social and public responsibilities for transforming social conditions to alleviate oppression and suffering. In this sense, talk TV, as a form of infotainment (i.e. information blended with entertainment) serves as an expansive advertisement for not only its sponsors, but also for the commercial products which it incessantly hypes, as well as the books and services of the hosts and so-called experts, and the commoditization of the viewers themselves who are delivered to sponsors through their TV-watching activity.

Hence, talk television as media spectacle is itself a valuable commodity for the multinational corporations which own and produce them and the laissez-faire and individualistic capitalist values the shows espouse. Media spectacles mesmerize audiences with the sensationalistic news of the day (the O.J Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandals, the celebrity trials of the moment, and the spectacles of sports and entertainment which dominate everyday life in consumer and corporate capitalism (Kellner 2003)). The real material conditions of the relationships between poverty, rising unemployment, out-sourcing of jobs, the decimation of social assistance and education programs, and the social conditions of escalating violence have no place in the narcissistic celebrity obsessed domain of the talk television spectacle.

Indeed, celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life, and ordinary people are positioned as the worshippers of these celebrities and pawns of “experts” who tell them how to solve their problems and live their lives. In this sense, the popularity of daytime talk television serves as a mode of distraction, in that it encourages a politics of individualistic guilt, envy, and ameliorative action. Rather than teaching audiences how to think critically about the power relations which structure their world and the social conditions which help produce their problems, audiences are taught to focus on their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and taught how to conform to social norms and dominant modes of thought and behavior.

The pedagogy of talk TV is conformist and reproduces existing relations of power and domination. Although many studies of television focus on the programs as sites of pleasure or as a democratic public sphere, Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) espouse a dialectical approach that examines the manner in which daytime talk television is both compelling and repellent. While talk TV promises to provide a democratic space for public debate, it often exploits its marginalized guests and presents them as abnormal and as freaks, at odds with the so-called normalized experiences and values of the hosts, experts and audience members. And this is another example of how daytime television manages to maintain dominant ideologies of power and control.

Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue

Of course, there are positive moments of daytime talk television. Pioneering talk show host Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk host and personality in history. These shows discussed issues often neglected by mainstream media and promoted thought and dialogue on many important issues. The more carnivalesque “trash TV” of the Jerry Springer variety that mushroomed in the 1990s had transgressive moments, gave voice to individuals and issues often suppressed by mainstream culture, and dramatically presented the problem of male violence against women and family terrorism usually neglected by mainstream culture (Hammer 2002). The advice shows of even so crass and exploitative a host as Dr. Phil provides useful information, as his January 2005 series on weight reduction dramatizes the problems of obesity and the need to deal with the problem. Yet in addressing this problem, he shamelessly hawks his own book, TV show, and web-site, and thus himself as the solution.

Yet the conformist pedagogy usually preached on daytime talk TV, the imposing of experts on audiences and submission of helpless people to societal authority figures, and relentless mainstreaming of middle-class and commercial values, render the shows ultimately a means of social control and normalization. There is a strong voyeuristic dimension in TV talk shows in which audiences are positioned to gaze into the embarrassing underbelly and freak show of American life, a theme enhanced in Dr. Phil with the voyeuristic cameras that put under surveillance the transgressions, weaknesses, and failures of ordinary people. The sufferings of the underclass and marginalized people are exploited so that the host can emerge as a triumphant voice of social authority and control. Thus under the guise of liberal benevolence, talk TV functions increasingly as a vehicle of conservative power.


Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Rightwing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Hammer, Rhonda. Antifeminism and Family Terrorism: A Critical Feminist Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Bill Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Quail, Christine, Kathalene Razzano, and Loubna Skalli. Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, forthcoming.

When George W. Bush appeared on the Dr. Phil show during campaign 2004, one commentator noted that Dr. Phil spoke much more than Bush and Laura and repeatedly pushed his book Family First. See Tom Frank, “Bush and Kerry on Have Your Phil,” New Republic, posted online October 8, 2004. The book had also been the subject of a two-hour prime time extravaganza promoting Dr. Phil and his book. McGraw also endlessly promotes his website which promotes his various products, thus deploying media synergy to sell himself and his products.
See The New Republic cover story by Michelle Cottle, “THE BAD DOCTOR. Daddy Knows,” published December 27, 2004. The magazine cover features a picture of McGraw with the caption “Dr. Evil.”
This section of our column draws on a foreward that we are publishing in a forthcoming book, Christine Quail, Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli, Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang.

Image Credits:

1. Talk TV

2. Rush Limbaugh

3. Dr. Phil

4. Phil Donahue

Doug Kellner on media spectacle
Camille Paglia on talk shows
Talk shows background
Further talks shows links

Please feel free to comment.


by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

Some people do different things. Not saying that my wife would allow me to do that, but it’s just something that was done, and you move on.
–Donovan McNabb

I thought it hit at a lot of stereotypes toward athletes — black athletes in particular. I thought it was very insensitive on the heels of the Kobe Bryant situation, and I just don’t know that the Eagles PR people or the NFL would have let it go had it been a different player or a coach or an owner.
–Tony Dungy

Personally, I didn’t think it would have offended anyone, and if it did, I apologize.
–Terrell Owens

Apologizing is an art. And apologizing for tv is something else. Typically, tv apologies are designed to appease a public fury, as in the cases of Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. Sometimes they’re poorly conceived (“I’m so sorry, my band started playing the wrong song!”), sometimes preemptive (Jim McGreevey), and sometimes liberating (Natalie Maines). But they’re always performative and strangely sensational.

Consider the recent rush of apologies surrounding Terrell Owens’ cross-promotional appearance with Desperate Housewives’ Nicollette Sheridan. At first, no one seemed to notice the causal event: in a skit preceding Monday Night Football, T.O. acted like he was distracted from his manly duty (to the Philadelphia Eagles) when Sheridan dropped her towel. Within 24 hours, however, the FCC reported a flood of complaints — 50,000 is the given number, even as, Frank Rich noted in the New York Times (28 November 2004), it’s likely that these were generated, or at least encouraged, by conservative action groups.

Such upset could not go unaddressed. And so crusader Michael Powell leaped into the public fray, announcing that the Commission would investigate whether the image of the white woman’s naked back wrapped in a black man’s arms constitutes “obscenity.” In the meantime, nearly everyone involved was told to be sorry, though each party involved found a way to pass blame. An NFL spokesman called the sketch “inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience”; ABC Sports said, “We agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize”; and the Eagles announced, “It is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn’t aired.” We can only imagine how much they wish.

Amid this scramble to re-comport, no one expects Sheridan to say she’s sorry, because she was, after all, only playing a role — Edie, the campy tramp she plays each Sunday night, to the delight of some 24 million viewers. Owens, however, is always playing T.O., the celebrity wide receiver who has earned praise for his excellent game and censure for his spectacular end zone showmanship. These two responses typically collide in a kind of explosion of expectations. For one thing, as Tony Dungy points out, Owens is a black athlete in a hyper-mediated world, and he needs to be aware of that chaos and deal with it responsibly. That doesn’t make Owens or any other celebrity responsible for the chaos. It only makes him a likely target within its perpetual swirl.

Owens is, after all, a black man paid a lot of money for appealing, for the most part, to white male tv viewers. No matter how terrific his performance might be on a given Sunday, his audience — voracious consumers of images and icons, heroes and playmakers — still presumes he owes something. And so, while his partnership with quarterback Donovan McNabb has resulted in 13 touchdown receptions so far in 2004 (the best in the league) and put him in line to challenge Jerry Rice’s single-year record (22), both his fans and detractors want more. More points, more TD gyrations, more outrages.

While such anticipation isn’t specific to T.O., his particular affinity for tv cameras makes him an ideal star. Youngish (30) and cocky, beautiful and clever, he repeatedly delivers on the handheld camera’s promise of notoriety and desire. He’s more than willing to play the role of thrilling victor, utterly available and indestructible. He makes his emotions visible for cameras, by yelling at teammates or coaches on the sidelines, tearfully expressing his
gratitude for the new position. And he boasts for any reporter with a mic in his face, as when he guarantees wins or mouths off on Raven Ray Lewis’s “double murder case,” a brief, admittedly brash comment that hardly compares to the exploitative hay made of the story by cable news just a couple of years ago, it was poor taste and so, he was punished for it — by sports journalists, colleagues, and fans.

Like so many other adept tv performers — say, the President of the United States — Owens is not the sorry sort. He’s proud of his end-zone parties and weekly thinks up new ones, as pleasing to his fans as the antics on Wisteria Lane are to Desperate Housewives viewers. He’s also willing to discuss any new umbrage for camera crews. And so he decided, 18 November, to follow the leads of ABC and the NFL: he apologized for tv. Like Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson have performed their tv apologies, so too has T.O. On 18 November, he took up the optimum position, pronouncing the words in an order that allowed him to appear sorry for the ruckus but retain his dignity and sense of righteousness: “I felt like it was clean, the organization felt like it was a clean skit, and I think it just really got taken out of context with a lot of people and I apologize for that.” While he doesn’t quite concede the offense to those who assumed it (and thus reveals their sense of profound injury to be overreaction, given all the other misbehaviors on the planet that might offend them), he also offers just enough contrition to allow viewers to move on if they so desire.

This possibility of moving on was simultaneously compounded and complicated by the Motown Meltdown on Friday (19 November). Suddenly, Owens and Ron Artest became poster boys for the same problem. And no matter how this problem is parsed — sex and violence, misbehaving black men, egotistical sports stars — all of it is on tv and so demands suitably public penitence. As of this writing, Artest scheduled and then cancelled an apology press conference last week. As moving on is so plainly impossible, with or without the tv apology, caution seems a sane response.

iFilm video
ABC Sports
National Football League
Philadelphia Eagles

Please feel free to comment.


by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts. My subject for this first column is, appropriately, what we have lost and how we’re coping with that loss — on television, anyway. With a fall season marked by the popularity of programs entitled Without a Trace and Lost, the importance of loss as a televisual theme seems rather obvious. We can easily look back on the past few years for confirmation of this trend. For example, competitive reality programs in which the “unchosen” disappear into the night, through a ritual cab ride (as in The Apprentice or The Bachelor) or simply by going “off” camera. Others like Wife Swap exploit fears of spousal disappearance, creating fractured families who long for reconnection. And death, not love, is certainly all around in the crime procedurals that dominate prime time. These programs litter our evenings with corpses, most often women or children, casualties in a domestic war that has no name. Invisible during their lives, such bodies become sites for investigation after their death, as professionals use the latest technology to probe their flesh for clues to their untimely demise. As hard as these investigators work, however, the “losses” continue to pile up. On the one hand, these programs serve as cautionary tales reinforcing the terror warnings: we must be fearful, we must be good consumers, we must not lose the game. If we make a mistake, we shall be erased. On the other hand, these programs also enact a revealing displacement: both domestically and internationally, America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts.

In American prime-time, such losses are not exclusively thematic; the industry itself has dramatically changed in the last four years, and the loss of socially progressive programming has been devastating to liberal producers and to the communities they serve. During the 2000 Presidential election, for example, I alternated between watching the returns and reading the reactions to them by Buffy fans on-line. That evening, we had all previously watched a new episode of the program’s 5th season, “Family,” in which Buffy producer Joss Whedon took a firm stance in support of gay couples, to the delight of fans. This year, one week before the Presidential election, Whedon unexpectedly shut down his television production company, Mutant Enemy, because, he said “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where tv has gone the past five years.” (Variety, Oct.24, 2004). Since the surprise cancellation of Angel this year, all of Mutant Enemy’s programs are now off the air, replaced by sometimes entertaining but largely reactionary boy-centered melodramas like Smallville, Everwood, The O.C., Jack and Bobby, and life as we know it. Aside from a few female-centered programs, none of which offers the innovations Buffy did, girls (and queers) have largely vanished from prime time prominence, along with socially progressive agendas. Television’s experiments in the mid-to-late 90-s,which resulted in such gems as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Oz, Once and Again and Sex and the City seems over. For their audiences, these texts represented a socially liberal space that enabled viewers to connect with alternative forms of community which may not have been available to them otherwise. Their loss (and the lack of comparable replacements) is a potentially profound one for many television viewers, who are no longer permitted the range of discussion or opportunity for community richer, more critical texts made available to them (and often encouraged by producers like Whedon).

It’s perhaps no surprise that, amidst such loss, prime-time television has turned to God (like many voters in this year’s election). While in the 90s Buffy re-appropriated religious symbols and icons to serve feminist and queer ends, and Oz acknowledged religious diversity and linked spiritual practices with broader humanitarian concerns, God has reappeared in more traditional forms in recent years, as a wise advisor or institutionalized icon. This shift to God in “straight” form has been particularly hard on female characters. The most obvious example is Joan of Arcadia, whose creator, Barbara Hall, rediscovered God after suffering a sexual assault. Hall created Joan so that adolescent girls and other viewers could turn to God in dealing with the perils of modern life. The program, however, often seems to have the opposite effect for Joan. God tells his handmaiden how to make everyone else’s life better except her own, which is continually disrupted by his bizarre requests (unsurprisingly, Joan is not permitted to know God’s reasons beforehand). Similarly, on the much-heralded new drama Jack and Bobby, future President Bobby recoils from his fiercely secular (and unfortunately shrill) mother to embrace religious life, paving the way to his becoming a minister. And last season on Everwood, local doctor Harold Abbott races to church to confess his sins after performing an abortion for a random teenage girl. While the girl herself never reappears, the point is clear: the fallen woman caused this good man to sin.

Alongside these literal references to God, the desire for supernatural or spiritual intervention has taken hold of more secular-seeming dramas as well, most notably J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Lost begins where most disaster films end — after the plane crash on the deserted tropical island. The program is particularly timely in that it deals both with lost people and feelings of loss generally, especially for a liberal-minded middle-class audience. Lost represents many of those who are normally invisible as protagonists on television (non-Americans, non Anglos, the disabled, the overweight, an Iraqi citizen, a drug user), but it also suggests the world view of American liberals who feel stranded in a land in which they have lost social power, and who are haunted by past events which have brought them to where they are. This is a potentially powerful scenario, but Lost has resisted complex interrogations of liberal alienation or American social violence in favor of more comforting supernatural band-aids.

The most successful episode, “Walkabout,” found fans absolutely overjoyed and in tears when it was revealed that wheel-chair bound Terry O’Quinn had been mysteriously healed by the plane crash. Even on such seemingly secular boards as, religious rhetoric was plentiful as fans referred, some in gingerly quotations, to the “miracle” that had occurred. While the quotation marks indicate some possible discomfort with the term, especially in relation to a program coming from generally more progressive Buffy writer David Fury and Alias/Felicity creator J.J. Abrams, they also suggest an increased willingness to entertain religious explanations. Indeed, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 26% of viewers think that the “survivors” are actually all dead, another 23% that they’re in “Purgatory” (TV Guide, 11/14/04). Perhaps more than anything else, this poll suggests the hopelessness of many audience members who seem willing to embrace, at least televisually, some sign of a divine or at least an easy, solution to a depressing, perhaps intolerable, situation.

Remarkably, I find myself looking to a procedural for representations of the “disappeared” in which conditions of actual social violence are referenced. Without a Trace is unusual for today’s procedurals because it is the only crime program which consistently offers thoughtful characterizations, fallible detectives, failed investigations, and moments of progressive politics. The program recently departed from its procedural format to offer a pretty faithful adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s social critique of the situation of low-wage working women (the episode titles are “Nickel and Dimed, Parts I and II”). In this case, the “vanished” woman is a single mother, trying to make ends meet by working at “Everymart” and cleaning houses on her days off. Desperate for money for her son’s hearing aid, she works as a go-between for drug-dealers, who kidnap and eventually kill her. Single female Detective Samantha Spade empathizes with the women, putting her own life at risk in order to search for her by going undercover as a low-wage worker; Spade’s “break from common procedure” allows the program to further expose these women’s inhumane working and living conditions. In the episode’s thesis statement, the frustrated Spade angrily mourns the missing woman: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for her, you know? She deserved better. This isn’t about records or files or paper trails. The problem is she’s invisible. This woman has vanished into thin air, and if it weren’t for Jake, [her son], it wouldn’t have even made a ripple. I feel like things happen to people like her and no one notices and no one’s held accountable!” Spade’s critique is remarkable in that it exposes the blinders of our culture generally, well represented by television’s other procedurals — their devotion to “paper trails” and elaborate autopsies while larger structural causes are never addressed. While her outburst does not offer a divine or easy solution, it does significantly acknowledge the pervasive losses caused by our social system. And Spade does mourn these losses, at least for a television moment — and such moments may be the only “real” comfort television has to offer for the next four years.

ABC’s Lost Home Page
CBS’s Without a Trace Page
Religion Online
Religion and The Mass Media: Bibilographic Database

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The Audience Factor

by: Melissa Crawley / Lingnan University, Hong Kong


On The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel, host Bill O’Reilly introduces topics highlighted by recent news stories and spars with guests who represent each side of the issue. Under the program moniker the ‘no spin zone,’ O’Reilly prides himself on being a tough interviewer who refuses to let guests strategically stray from answering questions. His direct interviewing style and I’m-just-looking-out-for-the-folks attempt at audience bonding has made The Factor the highest rated cable news show. Equally admired and reviled, O’Reilly has earned a celebrity status that is strengthened by his nightly performance as a broadcast journalist.

In his work on television news, Robert Stam (2000) suggests that the work of newscasters entails “a kind of acting” (365). While not a conventional news anchor, O’Reilly makes a claim to representing the ‘truth’ of the news by reporting and investigating contemporary social and political issues. However, rather than the “minimalist” style of news acting that “implies the presence and denial of normal human emotions and responses” (Stam 365-66), O’Reilly is passionately engaged. He argues, he interrupts, he dramatically declares that it’s all ridiculous. In his non-neutrality, he invites the audience to love him or hate him. With this style, he has achieved a level of celebrity surpassing his status as a cable news personality. He appears on talk shows, is parodied in comedy sketches and has public battles with Al Franken. His personal approach to debate is as much the subject of viewers’ emails as the issues that he covers.

O’Reilly’s status as celebrity and broadcast journalist creates a unique position for his audience. He is a commodity for Fox News and a performer who has fans, but he is also a journalist who seeks out the subjects behind the headlines, engages with topical issues and invites dialogue with the public. In the context of daily news, O’Reilly creates an intimacy with the viewer that is seductively interactive. Like a news anchor, he “simulates communication” (Stam 375). On both his show and his website, he engages in dialogue that appears reciprocal. For example, in 2002 he called for Factor viewers to “punish” Pepsi for signing rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson. O’Reilly’s segment on the rapper’s controversial lyrics left little doubt over his position: “I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt the poor in our society” (August 27, 2002). The next day, he reported that Ludacris had been fired “because of pressure by Factor viewers” (August 28, 2002). Pepsi’s reaction was cast as the direct result of O’Reilly’s relationship with his viewers. He personalized an issue and they responded to him.

The ‘dialogue’ between O’Reilly and his audience continues on the internet. On, he sells hats, tote bags, t-shirts and civic engagement. For a monthly or yearly price ‘premium members’ can go to a Petitions section which recognizes that “our society is plagued by a lack of accountability” and wants “to help encourage more effective use of your trust and tax dollars.” Like the show, the website encourages a level of civic involvement that raises important questions about the position of The Factor’s audience. If a viewer boycotts Pepsi and buys O’Reilly’s latest book are they expressing political activism or fandom? Must the two identities remain separate or can you be outraged over consumer spending habits and still buy the ‘no spin zone’ doormat?

The position of The Factor audience becomes more complicated in light of the recent claim against O’Reilly for sexual harassment. In a suit filed October 13, a producer alleges that O’Reilly repeatedly subjected her to phone sex and lewd monologues. In an interesting twist, O’Reilly sued the producer and her lawyer first, claiming that their efforts to extort money were a politically motivated attempt to damage both him and Fox News. While the case raises interesting questions for a news network that is often accused of being biased toward the Republican party yet consistently proclaims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ I am interested in how the revelations over O’Reilly’s personal misconduct highlight his dual role as celebrity/journalist and further complicate the position of his audience.

When the story broke, O’Reilly addressed it in the opening ‘talking points’ segment of his show. With the graphic behind him headlined ‘treacherous times,’ he announced the filing of his lawsuit, called the case “the single most evil thing I have ever experienced” and declared “there comes a time when enough is enough” (October 13, 2004). The day after the allegations surfaced, O’Reilly appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly. Promoting his recent children’s book, he briefly discussed the case, noting that his rising popularity over the last several years had made him a target for lawsuits and threats of bodily harm. He told the hosts: “I’m going to take a stand. I’m a big mouth on the air and I’m a big mouth off the air.”

O’Reilly’s self-characterization suggests an element of non-performance that is an important part of his appeal. In claiming to be the same person on and off the air, he implies an on-screen reality that surpasses representation and reaches ‘truth.’ Because his news analysis largely reflects his personal convictions, this apparent openness assists his credibility and connection with his audience. When O’Reilly equates his public image with his personal image and declares that he is ‘looking out for you,’ his advocacy is personal. His declaration is believable because his media performance seems to be a natural extension of his private self. The exposure of his private life disrupts this balance and exposes the cracks in the performance. Suddenly his moral take on issues such as the sexualized nature of rap lyrics reveals a constructed falseness.

Yet, The Factor’s audience rose 34 percent the day after the sexual harassment story broke (Hoheb 2004). While the temporary increase may be the result of curiosity, the show has maintained its average audience of 2.4 million viewers, suggesting that his media strategy is working. His tough response to a personal crisis is consistent with his brash public image, suggesting that he is somehow authentic in his fall from grace. He is successfully performing himself. Additionally, audiences accustomed to scandalous revelations about public figures might be likely to accept his alleged indiscretions as a temporary disruption to his image rather than a permanent alteration. How they are positioned as active viewers of a news text is more problematic.

Stam argues that part of the pleasure of watching television news is the “sense of visual power” that creates an “all-perceiving” spectator (362). Watching events unfold, the viewer becomes a witness who is both part of a larger collective and separate from it. The O’Reilly Factor gives audiences the choice to transform visual power into civic action, but does his celebrity cloud the discourse? With the scandal surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit, has O’Reilly damaged his performance enough to affect the potential of his audience? Rather than civic dialogue and debate, the pleasure of The Factor’s audience may now be reduced to searching for the hidden subtext that reveals the ‘true’ Bill in the nightly role play.

Bill O’Reilly’s homepage
Fox News Channel
Random House, Inc. author homepage
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on O’Reilly case
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on Fox News Channel & NewsCorp
The Smoking Gun’s archive, copy of letter of intent to sue Fox News

Please feel free to comment.