Grace and Frankie Open the Door: Dramedy, Netflix, and Small Screen Lily Tomlin
Kelly Kessler / DePaul University

Grace and Frankie billboard
Billboard for Season 3 of Grace and Frankie

When Grace and Frankie launched as an original Netflix comedy series in 2015, the Internet was all a twitter in anticipation of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, feminist icons of 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, reuniting a full 35 years after their blockbuster feminist manifesto 9 to 5. Despite the fact that anything with Fonda and Tomlin had me at “hello” and the duo’s interactions and roles as simultaneous foils and unexpected soul mates were what made the show so special, I want to take this opportunity to consider Tomlin and her contested space in the televisual landscape. Although Tomlin has visited and at times frequented the small screen ever since her 1966 debut on The Garry Moore Show, something about 21st century generic innovation and allowances of the Netflix era opened up a space for Tomlin, one just out of reach for the comedienne for much of the last half-century.

Tomlin’s Susie Sorority from her 1975 comedy album Modern Scream.

It’s not as if series television had wholesale shuttered its electronic doors to comediennes or ladies of standup comedy. Wanda at Large and All-American Girl may have floundered, but Roseanne’s ratings blew everyone out of the water and Grace Under Fire and Ellen scored five seasons each. But those women were more traditional stand-ups or joke-tellers. Tomlin’s bread-and-butter was one-woman sketch comedy, trotting out her cadre of eccentrics. A 1976 New York Times article defines her style as “docu‐comedy” and “sentire” or “sentiment/feelings cum satire.” Its author Ellen Cohn repeatedly questions the small screen marketability of Tomlin’s performance style and evokes its tendency to render television producers and executives gun-shy and baffled. She says “Docu‐comedy? Sentire? Poetry? On Friday night in prime time? It’s enough to make the toughest network vice president hang his head and weep.”

This discomfort on the part of television execs didn’t keep Tomlin from away from the small screen. She was a series regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In from 1969 to 1973 and had won five primetime Emmys by 1981, including those for her 1973 and 1975 specials, Lily and The Lily Tomlin Special, and her 1981 all-star Vegas-themed reflection on art versus commerce Lily: Sold Out. She later won a daytime Emmy for the animated The Magic School Bus, clocked-in 46 episodes of Murphy Brown and 34 of The West Wing, and appeared in a string of other series including the ABC dramedy Desperate Housewives, the FX thriller Damages, and HBO’s Eastbound and Down.

Tomlin in various television roles
Tomlin across the dial: (left to right) Murphy Brown, West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Eastbound and Down.

Rather than embracing the comedy style which had unnerved TV execs, however, her post-Laugh-In gigs tended to illustrate her breadth and knack for skillfully doing something else. Her stage act and comedy albums had not only included the well-known Edith Ann and Earnestine, but a parade of characters from Susie Sorority, radio evangelist Sister Boogie Woman, and lounge singer Bobbi-Jeanine to disaffected punk-rock adolescent Agnes Angst, struggling feminist Lynn, and prostitutes Brandy and Tina. Often such characters’ parallel existences helped construct Tomlin’s larger humorous and heartfelt projection of struggling humanity. In 1976 Cohn had described Tomlin’s characters by saying, “They are meant to touch us and tickle us; they are meant to set us thinking. Thigh‐slapping is not prohibited neither is it slavishly sought. Tomlin is satisfied with the smile and sigh of recognition.”

Tomlin and lounge singer Bobbi-Jeanine forego knee-slapping for more introspective and contemplative moments of humor and humanity in Lily: Sold Out (1981, CBS).

Although Polydor who distributed the bulk of Tomlin’s 1970s albums may have been at this ease with such a sigh of recognition, her act lacked the kind of climactic and comedic button standard to most situation comedies of the 20th century. Although Grace Under Fire and Roseanne cultivated a combo of emotion, pathos, and slapstick, they also followed a pretty traditional sitcom structure raising, complicating, and solving a problem with some kind of humorous action and moving on to the next episode with only marginal memory or seriality. Not until the early 2000s and 2010s was serialized dramedy commonplace on American TV, exemplified by HBO’s lady-driven variety with Sex and the City, Weeds, and The Big C. Whereas critics hail these shifts for allowing space for the “comic genius” of a Louis CK or Larry David, these evolutions in genre, continued splintering of viewers, and the rise in offbeat original streaming series also helped open a space for a comedienne who had frustrated broadcast strategies for decades.

Tomlin and her writer/partner Jane Wagner discuss the motivation and struggles behind Agnes Angst from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

The embrace of shows like Grace and Frankie opened a door just the shape of Tomlin’s comedic introspection. The show takes two big characters—Fonda’s acerbic society matron and makeup mogul and Tomlin’s aging bohemian artist—and provides room—not unlike Tomlin’s Tony winning The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (hereafter Search for Signs)—to feature a mix of humorous foibles and pain. Although perhaps more dram-EDY than DRAM-edy, the show doesn’t always demand the laugh, but does allow Tomlin moments of excess whether chanting “blood on my hands” while smeared in faux monkey blood protesting the use of palm oil in her yam-based vaginal lube or practicing guttural Tuvan throat singing. Alongside such big bits and big laughs, the show explores the pain of later-in-life divorce, as the frenemies are thrust together after their husbands reveal they’ve been having a 20-year affair. Like Tomlin’s feminist divorcee Lynn in Search for Signs, they now have to strike out on their own and discover power outside of their men as they buck cultural notions of aging womanhood (all the while sharing the screen with cast-off actresses “of a certain age” like Marsha Mason, Estelle Parsons, Mary Kay Place, and Swoozie Kurtz).

Trailer for Season 2.

The very characteristics that made the show Tomlin-friendly irked reviewers. The Hollywood Reporter insisted Grace and Frankie felt more like a network show than “something trying to stand out in the streaming world” while Vulture criticized the show, produced by Friends’ Marta Kauffman, for being too much like a traditional sitcom via its “bigness of the physical comedy,” embrace “of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down jokes,” and what the reviewer saw as a “seeming aversion to authentic human pain.” A Daily Dot reviewer faulted Netflix’s agreement to allow Kauffman to conceive the show as a series and not just pilot, claiming the producer’s sense of security acted as “fertilizer for misplaced grandiosity.” I argue these flaws cultivate a Tomlin-esque sweet spot, one embraced by her 1985 Search for Signs which was described by the New York Times as treating the audience to “an idiosyncratic, rude, blood-stained comedy about American democracy and its discontents.” As season one opens with Sol and Robert announcing their affair and plans to leave their wives, the show’s focused exploration of Grace and Frankie’s desperation alongside bigger comedic moments allows it to blend with other Netflix genre hybrids like the more drama-leaning Orange is the New Black (a show that notably provided a space for 50-something butch lesbian comic Lea DeLaria) and Tomlin’s tendency toward “sentire”.

Netflix promo images for Grace and Frankie=
Season 1 ads humorously project the rollercoaster of human emotion in Grace and Frankie’s dramedy.

Alongside these shifts in genre, a splintering television landscape and viewership has led to the kind of niche marketing which has provided an “out” for the type of anxiety 1970s execs may have felt regarding Tomlin’s docu-comedy style. No one is expecting a 25 rating or 20 million viewers anymore. Add in the branding and economic model of Netflix, which has allowed offbeat, niche television(ish) series to thrive one full season at a time, dropping all episodes on the same day, and the scene was set. Season 2 of Grace and Frankie ranked 19th out of the 22 original Netflix series with only 757 thousand viewers (versus Fuller House’s 7.3 million). Despite ratings, a reported audience resistance to ads depicting the politically polarizing Fonda, and the fact that the show stars two women in their late seventies and early eighties and traffics in talk of vaginal dryness, Alzheimer’s, broken hips, arthritis, and ageism, the series—low ratings and all—is heading into its sixth season and sits as Netflix’s longest-running comedy series with Tomlin already garnering four Emmy nominations and unplanned audiences perhaps finding it unexpectedly relevant. As Fonda said in a 2015 NPR interview “It’s like making one very long movie, and because it’s Netflix you don’t have to have a button on the end of every episode, you know, to keep people coming back next week. You can just kind of make it all flow together.” This distribution/viewing structure also allows the show to emerge as a kind of extended set more akin to Tomlin’s one-woman shows and LPs, weaving together experiences, developing the “sentire,” and allowing the comedy and drama to build upon each other. It may have taken nearly half a century since her Garry Moore debut, but television seems to have caught up with the genius of Tomlin.

Photo of author with Lily Tomlin
Me with Tomlin after her 1999 performance of an updated version of Search for Signs at the University of Texas at Austin Performing Arts Center and autographs from Tomlin and Wagner.

Image Credits:
1. Billboard on Vine Street in Hollywood for Season 3 of Grace and Frankie
2. Clip from Tomlin’s 1975 Album Modern Scream
3. Strip of television shows on which Tomlin appeared (various sources)
4. Clip from Lily: Sold Out (CBS, 1981)
5. Clip of Agnes Angst from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe with commentary by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner (original source unknown)
6. Season 2 trailer of Grace and Frankie (Netflix)
7. Season 1 “stages of grief” advertising campaign (Netflix)
8. The author with Lily Tomlin and autographs from Tomlin and Wagner (circa 1999, author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019,] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018,] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018,] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017,]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014,] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002,] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

Please feel free to comment.

No More Room for You: Reading Between the Lines of Netflix’s Claims of Inclusivity
Jacinta Yanders / The Ohio State University

Avenge the Fallen

Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo)

In a recently published edited collection on Netflix and nostalgia, I wrote about how Netflix’s current interest in nostalgia allowed for the production of the One Day at a Time (ODAAT) reimagining. Unlike other reimaginings that have changed elements of characters’ identities strictly on the surface level, ODAAT attends to how such changes should necessarily influence characterizations and storytelling. Despite positive responses from viewers and critics, ODAAT has always existed in a sphere of uncertainty. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the series currently holds a 98% overall rating from critics and a 90% overall rating from viewers. [ (( “One Day at a Time.” Rotten Tomatoes, Accessed 26 Apr. 2019. ))] Yet, the series perpetually teetered on the edge of cancellation. Additionally, when it comes to matters of media representation, viewers have been let down more often than not. My chapter poses this question about Netflix in the end: “Will it continue to provide spaces to shows like One Day at a Time that both provide the comfort Netflix seeks to capitalize upon while also challenging dominant ideologies and providing space for underrepresented narratives?” [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “‘We can’t have two white boys trying to tell a Latina story’: Nostalgia, Identity and Cultural Specificity.” Netflix Nostalgia: Streaming the Past on Demand, edited by Kathryn Pallister, Lexington Books, 2019, 137-152. p. 148. ))]

Netflix essentially answered this question on March 14th by announcing the cancellation of ODAAT:

Netflix cancels ODAAT

Netflix cancels ODAAT part 2

Netflix cancels One Day at a Time

This announcement was quickly met with displeased reactions. Because the series was regularly on the bubble, the fact that it was canceled was not surprising in and of itself. What seemed to be most off-putting, however, was the reasoning Netflix used to explain the cancellation, and in particular, the continued insistence that Netflix is invested in representation. This insistence in the cancellation notice—in addition to several promotional campaigns Netflix has produced—is presumably meant to entice viewers and lessen any blowback that might be incurred. However, because Netflix’s words in these assurances have so noticeably conflicted with their actions, the good faith that the streaming service is hoping to cultivate is rendered nearly nonexistent.

Taking Netflix at their word is difficult for a variety of reasons. In the cancellation tweets, Netflix claims that “simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Two factors cast doubt on this statement. First, Netflix rarely shares any sort of viewership metrics. There’s no way to know how many people watched the show or what “enough” would even look like. Additionally, Netflix seemed to do very little to promote the series. In recent years, Netflix’s promotional toolkit has expanded beyond in-app notifications to include billboards, and perhaps most importantly, extensive social media engagement. [ (( Beer, Jeff. “Inside the Secretly Effective—and Underrated—Way Netflix Keeps Its Shows and Movies at the Forefront of Pop Culture.” ))] At the time of writing, the official Netflix Twitter account has made nearly 28,000 tweets. In conducting a basic search of the account’s tweets, I found that only seventeen directly referred to ODAAT. Of those seventeen, eight occurred in 2019, which is curious for a series that began in January 2017. Admittedly, Netflix produces an exceptional amount of content, which might limit promotional efforts for individual products. However, one might expect to see a program that has gotten the sort of critical and commercial acclaim ODAAT has received as more of a focal point.

Limited promotion extends beyond Netflix’s social media audience. Latinx media critic Yolanda Machado noted that she was unable to secure screeners for the show or set up interviews with cast, despite persistent efforts (@SassyMamainLA):

Yolanda Machado

Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA)

Given the lack of social media promotion and critical engagement, the task of promoting the series often fell to the cast and crew, and ultimately extended to fans, who engaged in the labor of renewal campaigns, viewing sprees, and sharing personal connections, often highlighting the importance of seeing well-developed portrayals of narratives featuring Latinx, LGBTQ, disabled, and working class experiences.

Like several other corporate social media accounts, Netflix has recognized that many fans enjoy when accounts tweet with some measure of personality as opposed to maintaining a sterile distance. This can foster a sense of “authentic” connection, which I’ve argued elsewhere doesn’t necessarily need to be proven, but instead only needs to feel real. [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “Interactions, Emotions, and Earpers: ‘Wynonna Earp,’ the Best Fandom Ever.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 26, Mar. 2018. doi:10.3983/twc.2018.1129. ))] But there’s a catch here. Media entities can cultivate feelings of care with viewers, but this amplifies the likelihood of engendering negative sentiment when viewers feel lied to, manipulated, and/or cast aside. The final tweet in the ODAAT cancellation reads as follows: “And to anyone who felt seen or represented — possibly for the first time — by ODAAT, please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important. The outpouring of love for this show is a firm reminder to us that we must continue finding ways to tell these stories.” Every component of this purposefully-crafted message scans as disingenuous, as “an attempt to soften the blow, to make the company look better even while it twists the knife.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” Vulture, 14 Mar. 2019, ))] Netflix—not unlike many other institutions—grasps that the language of diversity and inclusion can be used as a cover. They parrot language often utilized by fans about feeling “seen” or “represented” and commit to continuing to tell such stories while eliminating an already-existing story that was accomplishing this goal. They note the “outpouring of love” the show has received just after claiming the audience wasn’t there.

Ultimately, the use of this language comes across as little more than a marketing ploy. To be clear, I’m not arguing that one should expect a business to operate altruistically, but rather that Netflix’s attempts to paint themselves as altruistic are so blatantly unbelievable that they’re fostering more resentment than would likely occur if they simply said their decisions were about money. In the recent “Make Room” ad, Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba travels through various Netflix properties which might be deemed inclusive, such as Glow and Roma, while highlighting the lack of representation in media. The video begins with Aduba asking, “Have you ever been in a room and didn’t see anyone else like you?” Ultimately, she delivers a call to action (“Let’s make room”) followed by saying, “We’re making room for you to find them and for them to find you.” The ad ends with text that reads “More room. More stories. More voices.” followed by the Netflix logo. Through Aduba, Netflix asserts that it is already and will continue to be inclusive. Notably, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has previously indicated that ODAAT had a “unique value” because of groups of viewers it drew in, including women, LGBTQ viewers, and Latinx viewers. But this knowledge ultimately offered little protection. [ (( Adalian, Josef. “Inside Netflix’s TV-Swallowing, Market-Dominating Binge Factory.” Vulture, 10 June 2018, ))]

Of course, Netflix isn’t the only network attempting to capitalize on such language. The CW’s ongoing “Open to All” campaign provides another example of the operationalization of representational discourse to shore up a network’s public persona. For the record, ODAAT is not featured in the “Make Room” ad, despite having just released a new season a few weeks prior. ODAAT’s cancellation came two weeks after the ad’s release. Netflix is still purportedly blocking other entities from picking up ODAAT, which curiously does not seem like an action that correlates with “making room.” [ (( Andreeva, Nellie. “Sony Pictures TV Chiefs On ‘One Day At a Time’ Future, Selling ‘Suites’ Of Series & Competing For Talent.” Deadline, 12 Apr. 2019, ))] After the cancellation, creator of the original ODAAT Norman Lear asked, “Is there really so little room in business for love and laughter?” (@TheNormanLear):

Norman Lear

Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

On one hand, this might seem like an absurd question to ask a billion-dollar corporation, but it’s a question that Netflix invites via its own choices, with ODAAT and beyond. As VanArendonk notes about the end result of the cancellation, “Thanks to Netflix’s extensive social media efforts, it felt insulting, tin-eared, and greedy. It felt personal.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” ))]

So is it still worthwhile to viewers that care about representation to become invested in Netflix properties? If Netflix isn’t going to promote these works and it’s going to limit the sustainability of such projects, seemingly just to turn over to the next new thing, all the while paying lip service to inclusivity, what’s the long term value of what Netflix offers? Industrial upheaval appears to be on the horizon, particularly with an onslaught of new streamers. Rather that taking Netflix’s words at face value, its actions certainly need to remain in the foreground of conversations about what sort of change, if any, is actually being enacted.

Image Credits:

1. Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo).
2. Netflix cancels One Day at a Time.
3. Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA).
4. Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

Please feel free to comment.

Doing Nothing: The Pleasure and Power of Idle Media
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

A man slouches on a stylish grey sofa, looking at his phone. A woman enters the spacious living room and asks him if he’s eaten. Awhile later they and a few others congregate in a modern white kitchen to eat curry and discuss whether they are working the next day. In the evening some of them sit on the same couch, drinking, napping, and talking a little about their days before shuffling off to bed. This riveting content is the norm for the Japanese reality television franchise Terrace House, co-produced by Netflix with four seasons in and another in the works, where three women and three men cohabitate while going about their everyday working and personal lives in a distinctly undramatic fashion.

Terrace House has been lauded as a fix and an antidote to contemporary reality TV. While it follows many of the conceits and conventions of the genre—casting is primarily focused on attractive young single people with aspirations for or jobs in creative industries such as fashion design, music, modelling, acting, and dance for instance—it breaks with some of the most routinized customs related to maximizing conflict and confrontation. Instead, the pleasures taken in watching the show—its tranquillity and slow burning emotional tension, its meditative and muted style, its mundanity and relatability and politeness and nothing too much of anything—give its designation as a sleeper hit a double meaning.

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

With these attributes in mind, Terrace House is reminiscent not so much of other reality programming such as The Hills and The Bachelor but of an entirely different divergence from media-specific conventions, the ‘idle’ video game genre. Also known as incremental or clicker games, this type of play experience differs dramatically from the frenetic action and speed of the first-person shooters and battle royale games that make up the mainstream fare of contemporary digital gaming. Instead, in titles such as Cookie Clicker and Clicker Heroes 2 the player is asked to occasionally interact with the virtual environment via the act of a click, but for the most part to leave the game running to play itself. In other words, players progress by allowing the game to idle. The minimal interactivity of these titles, particularly within the subgenre of ‘background games’ entailing zero input from the player, sit uneasily alongside the conventional understanding of what constitutes a game [ ((Purkiss, Blair & Khaliq, Imran. (2015.) “A Study of Interaction in Idle Games and Perceptions on the Definition of a Game.” Proceedings of IEEE Games, Entertainment, Media Conference, pp. 1-6.))] . Popular reception of this genre describes such play experiences as “dumb”, “weird”, and “addictive” but also “intoxicating”, “alluring”, and “delightful”, a “progress treadmill without the accompanying nastiness” of prompts for microtransactions or push notifications bombarding your social networks. Idle games challenge the emphasis in not only games but many of the forms of participatory culture on user interactivity and agency [ ((Fizek, Sonia. (2018.) “Interpassivity and the Joy of Delegated Play in Idle Games.” Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, 3(3), pp. 137-163.))], and the normalized valuation within the culture of digital play on meritocratic challenge and achievement, typically via combat. And yet these games have also been surprisingly popular, indicating that they fulfill a desire for slowed-down, less active play experiences.

How might we conceptualize this desire? The mediated pleasures of these unique media types are not passive per se—idle games do require player action, however minimal, while framing the viewing of Terrace House as passive evokes troubling and unwanted associations with media effects traditions. And though they engage their audiences in more languid experiences than their rapidly edited and highly reactive associates, they do not quite fit with the mindful and sustainable practices Jennifer Raugh explores under the umbrella of Slow Media. Idle games, including Ian Bogost’s massively successful parodic 2011 title Cow Clicker, originated as a critique of the exploitative practices of social networking games, but despite their decelerated pace they do not offer a straightforward challenge to the vicissitudes of fast capitalism.

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

This is because at their core neither Terrace House nor games in the idle genre offer a challenge to capitalist logics. Cast members come to their shared living situations in pursuit of a goal, which as frequently entails launching a brand as it does finding a romantic partner. They encourage each other with warm calls to “do your best” and earnest injunctions to “work hard”. Arman, a cast member in the second season, is the subject of confusion with his relaxed Hawaiian ‘go with the flow’ ethos, though he is ultimately praised for embracing his unique self. Idle games in turn operate on logics of ravenous accumulation and expansion, with infinite progress the result of a player’s minimal input and the ultimate objective of the genre, which some have interpreted as a way for players to optimize their time in multitasking. There is therefore on one hand valuation of a highly disciplined and goal-oriented work ethic and on the other a simulated embrace of the growth imperative.

But what is both pleasurable and ultimately powerful about these mediated experiences is how they extricate these aims completely from the ethos of competition. Terrace House contains no challenges or games and has no ultimate winner; it ends as it begins with warm conversations between housemates in a peaceable setting. Idle games have no ending at all. In the elimination of the competitive impetus as the core driver of action, these media create something unique—spaces of leisure for their audiences. Idle media ask you only to sit back, relax, and take it easy, an enjoyment that Fizek (2018) describes as a “delegated pleasure… lead[ing] to a momentary escape from the responsibility of active play” [ ((Fizek, 2018, 6))], which we can also extrapolate to spectating idleness. The joy of idle media harkens not to its synonymous associations with laziness or pointlessness but in the act of doing nothing, ticking along, resting on your oars, and twiddling your thumbs, calm experiences increasingly rare in the escalating intensities of contemporary life.

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

The leisurely approach to engagement that these playing and viewing experiences share is quite distinct from that elicited by the hyper-visible high-achieving practices normalized across the activities of neoliberal capitalism and digital culture. In contrast to the increasingly performative practices of self-care online—advanced yoga poses in luxury sportswear, beautifully made-up faces blissfully meditating—these media create spaces for audiences to loaf, let go, and escape the fetishization of working, playing, and self-actualizing hard. Their power lies with this atmosphere of ease. As Alharthi et. al (2018) [ ((Alharthi, Sultan A., Alsaedi, Olaa, Toups, Zachary O., Tanenbaum, Joshua, & Hammer, Jessica. (2018.) “Playing to Wait: A Taxonomy of Idle Games.” CHI 2018. DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3174195))] suggest, idle games provoke different approaches to what activities are valued in the design of play experiences as well as the ecological and human resources demanded by digital games. What might this entail when we look at the idling entailed in other media? Its popularity—and the pockets of quiet, slow, and sedate experiences designed into the most mainstream of games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Uncharted 2, however contentious—suggest the need to take seriously the possibilities of doing nothing or very little with media.

Image Credits:

1. Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada
2. Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State
3. Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker (author’s screen grab)
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

Please feel free to comment.

“The Game on Top of the Game”: Navigating Race, Media, and the Business of Basketball in High Flying Bird
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

High Flying Bird 1

High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg).

On the surface, it appears to be a film about basketball. Netflix’s High Flying Bird (2019) boasts the back of a jersey on its cover, the sneaker squeaks of the gym, and the voices of some of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) real-life up-and-coming stars (Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl Anthony-Towns) interspersed as vignettes with the film’s scripted SAV Management, an agency representing professional athletes. The main character, Ray Burke (played by André Holland) is an agent representing NBA rookie Erick Scott, the first pick in the previous draft who has yet to play his first game due to a league-wide lockout. At first glance, it’s a version of HBO’s Ballers meant to be taken seriously; the viewer spends time following Scott navigate the financial pitfalls of being a young millionaire-to-be who hasn’t gotten his first check, while Ray maneuvers through a firm struggling under the weight of the lockout as owners engage in battle with a players’ union fighting on behalf of its athletes.

The film tackles sport under late capitalism through slick visuals and overly-dramatic dialogue.

But close up, the film is a critical, albeit heavy-handed look at the global phenomenon of basketball and the racial and economic shifts which have shaped the game. Early in the film, old school coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells Ray, “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters’ exhibitions started going international. Control. They wanted the control of a game that we play, we played better. They invented a game on top of a game.” The game on top is an ecosystem comprised of agents, television networks, marketing execs, and team owners who profit off of the spectacle of a majority-Black sport. Even Ray, a Black agent, is positioned outside of the power circle of his own firm and the greater “game” operating above the court.

Much of the film operates through smaller screens, filled with familiar faces and voices of TV personalities such as Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, shows like TMZ, and tweets between players. The media isn’t a subplot of the film; it’s a major character. High Flying Bird focuses on the media’s role as a catalyst for both the actions of players, their families, and league representatives while simultaneously delving into the major media contracts between the NBA and TV networks, which comprise a large portion of the league’s annual revenue.

High Flying Bird 2

The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development.

Ray’s ingenuity in concocting a plan to end the lockout is rooted in creating “something that they can’t bottle up,” after his former assistant asks if they’ve “run out of story” (in the same way one could run out of money). One fabricated Twitter beef and 24-hour news cycle later, a one-on-one hoops showdown on a community court between two rookies draws in millions of views to shaky cell phone video, proving they may be out of money, but aren’t yet out of story. The exclusive nature of an untelevised one-on-one game between two players yet to take the court in the NBA takes the social media posts of those at the game viral and results in the potential to create new exclusive streetball games—”lockout ball”—while negotiations continue. Ray schedules meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of sport scholar Lawrence Wenner’s Transactional Model of Media, Sports, and Society Relationships. Wenner offered a blueprint of the “game on top of a game” in his canonical Media, Sports, and Society (1989). His visual representation of what has been called the sports-media complex (the interdependent relationship between sports and media) offers a bird’s eye view of the ties and tensions and between sports organizations, media conglomerates, and fans. [ (( Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, Sports, and Society: The Research Agenda. In Media, Sports, and Society (pp. 13–48). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. ))]

Wenner model

In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society.

During a lockout, it is particularly difficult to ascertain what’s going on within the “sports organizations” triangle, comprised of athletes, owners, league officials, and the players’ association. It is interesting that Wenner chooses to place athletes within this particular grouping rather than outside of it (a la “sports journalists” in their own triangle from “media organizations”). Sports fans may remember 2011-2012 as particularly fraught for player-league relations as three out of the “Big Four” U.S. men’s professional leagues faced lockouts across the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League. Jonothan Lewis and Jennifer M. Proffitt, in comparing coverage of a lockout in 2011 to the mid-1990s, found that the media continues to focus on many of the same major themes: a consumer focus (the fan as the ultimate loser in these labor negotiations), lockouts as a “millionaires vs. billionaires” problem (rich people’s problems), and the players as “gaming the system.” [ (( Lewis, J., & Proffitt, J. M. (2013). Sports, Labor and the Media: An Examination of Media Coverage of the 2011 NFL Lockout. Labor Studies Journal, 38(4), 300–320. ))] High Flying Bird seemingly reifies this model throughout the film, locating athletes who wish to operate outside the league’s framework as deviant, or, as Ray defines it, “disruptors.” As negotiations between the players’ union and team owners stall, the concept of players and agents joining forces to create their own league and negotiate media rights deals feels like fantasy, even when housed within the realm of a scripted film. The concept of a lockout league is shopped around to interested media factions outside of the standard ESPNs, NBCs, and FOX offerings. Ray sets up meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix. “For a second,” Ray says, “I could see an infrastructure that put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the sky box.” However radical this vision appears, the film captures how his eventual actions serve to move him socially and financially closer to sky box rather than realigning power to those on the court.

High Flying Bird 3

Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport.

In the same way, it is fascinating to consider that this film, shot by director Steven Soderbergh in two weeks on an iPhone (with a working cut available within hours of completing shooting), also represents a shift in the gatekeeping of filmmakers and production in general. While shooting a film on a smartphone is nothing new (thousands of film students do this daily), Soderbergh offers a potential disruption because of his position as an established industry figure. However, like the normalization of streaming platforms and social media networks into the entertainment industry, these technological shifts do not inherently make these spaces more egalitarian; rather, they become embedded into the system (an Oscar nod, the ability to hire and retain top talent, etc.). Ray’s desire to collapse the game on top of the game merely resulted in a regulating mechanism to stifle any potential dismantling.

Ultimately, the threat of reasserting the “control” that Coach Spence references at the beginning of the film is enough to end the lockout; Ray, in an attempt to assert himself within this game on top of a game, uses his position—along with the players as pawns—to change the power structure, if only for a moment. He, in turn, is rewarded, but once again absorbed into the larger framework. At best, he can only shift the model for his own benefit, not destroy it entirely.

Image Credits:

1. High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). (author’s screen grab)
2. The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development. (author’s screen grab)
3. In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society. (author’s screen grab)
4. Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Showtime’s The Chi and the Surge in Black-Cast TV Dramas
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Cast of Showtime's The Chi

Cast of Showtime’s The Chi

Showtime’s new series, The Chi, has drawn countless comparisons to HBO’s The Wire. Set in a South Chicago neighborhood, The Chi has many of the same themes as The Wire, an ensemble cast, and relies on extensive on-location shooting to create a strong sense of place. At the same time, while The Wire addressed the institutional and economic causes and conditions of black inner-city poverty, The Chi explores the interiority of lives lived alongside the day-to-day grind of poverty, violence, and social decay. Perhaps even more interesting, in its characterizations, its cinematography, and its sound track, The Chi manages to find hope, dignity, and even beauty in back urban life in a way that The Wire never did.

Despite some complaints that the social critique of The Chi is not as sharp as The Wire, the series manages to tell a unique story and, in African American media studies, telling unique stories has long been considered an objective good. Moreover, one could argue that the sympathetic exploration of the characters and their lives reflects the unique standpoint of its African American female showrunner, Lena Waithe; that, at both a narrative and a stylistic level, the series exhibits a distinctly black feminine sensibility.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Chi is that it launched in an era of abundance for predominantly black-cast television dramas. Even five years ago, a new, well-funded black-cast drama series would have caused a splash, but today, we barely take notice. To name only a few prominent examples, there’s Power (2013-present) on Starz, Dear White People (2017-present), She’s Gotta Have It (2017-present), and The Get Down (2016-2017) on Netflix, Atlanta (2016-present) on FX, Being Mary Jane (2013-present) on BET, Black America (expected, 2018) on Amazon, and Empire (2015-precent) on Fox.

Promo for FX's Atlanta

Promo of FX’s Atlanta

Still for Netflix's The Get Down

Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Alvin Poussaint, among others, has noted that African American characters on television have largely been restricted to comedy. Before 2013, the only predominantly black-cast dramas in U.S. television were the ABC miniseries Roots (1977), the Showtime series Soul Food (2000-2004), and HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008). Why have we seen this recent explosion in black-cast dramas, when for nearly 70 years of TV history, they were absent, and what might this new slate of black-cast dramas tell us about current state of African American television culture?

One popular narrative explaining the surge in black-cast series attributes it to a growing number of nonwhite showrunners who often seek creative talent from outside of traditional TV circles. But major changes in the portrayals of African Americans on television have always been linked to broader changes in the commercial institutions that produce, fund, and profit from American television. In the 1980s, competition from cable, combined with growing African American purchasing power, led to a growth in network sitcoms focused on predominantly black casts (Gray, 1995). [ ((Gray, Herman (1995) Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.))] In the 1990s, Fox Broadcasting’s efforts to start a fourth network focused on underserved African American audiences in large urban markets, leading to a host of distinctly black situation comedies produced and written by African Americans (Zook, 1999). [ ((Zook, Kristal Brent (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.))]

In exploring the industrial dimensions of the changing fortunes of black-cast dramas, the first thing to note is that several are high-budget series offered through subscription services – a significant departure from the past, when black-cast series had low budgets compared to white series. Among these subscription series, some, like The Chi, can truly be called auteur TV.

How might we explain the sudden willingness of the television industry to invest money in black-cast series? For one thing, African Americans tend to spend more on subscription television than other U.S. racial groups. However, as I noted in a previous Flow post, African Americans also undersubscribe to subscription streaming services: while urban black subscriptions to video-on-demand services are 10% higher than average, subscriptions to streaming video-on-demand services are roughly the same as other racial groups. Moreover, Horowitz Research’s State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition reports that, while African Americans watch a disproportionally large amount of TV drama, they watch only an average amount of original streaming dramas.

These statistics suggest that the African American market for subscription streaming services remains somewhat untapped, and that original television dramas may a good way to attract them. With competition for subscribers growing, it should perhaps come as no surprise that black-cast dramas helmed by African American creatives have proliferated. We saw this competition on display last summer when the new HBO series Confederate, a counterfactual history series from two white creators based on the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War, spurred strong opposition from African Americans. In the wake of the controversy, Amazon immediately announced its own Civil War counterfactual series, Black America, which narrates the story of a separate black nation created within the borders of the United States and is produced by Will Packer and Aaron Magruder.

If I am correct that subscription television services, particularly streaming services, have begun to use black-cast dramas to increase African American subscriptions, some important questions remain. Are these services targeting all black viewers equally, or are certain members of the African American community more desirable? And, how important are non-black viewers in the decision to create black-cast television dramas?

My answers to these questions are speculative. They are rooted in the notion that, much as among white Americans, African American taste cultures tend to divide along class lines, with the proletariat classes preferring content that is rowdier, gaudier, and more visceral than the refined, intellectual culture that their bourgeois counterparts enjoy. Within African American studies, class-based taste differences in comedy and humor have been well documented, going back to Mel Watkins 1994 classic book, On the Real Side. These differences in class-based taste cultures, however, are less well theorized when it comes to television and film drama.

Returning to The Chi, one of its most noteworthy aesthetic elements is its conscious and effective use of stylized editing and camera techniques. In the first sequence featuring a young man named Coogie biking through the neighborhood, past bright graffiti and blighted buildings, we see several jump cuts that unsettle the viewer and prime us for his eventual discovery of a dead body. In episode three, when Coogie’s older brother get involved in a shooting that threatens to ruin his romantic relationship and his budding career as a successful chef, the narrative continues to circle back over and over to the dark, posterized scene of the shooting until we realize who the true shooter is. There are several moments in the series that are highly stylized, with the camerawork, lighting, and editing all working together to reveal the stark beauty of the urban landscape.

In other words, the artistry of the series is clear. At the same time, it is an artistry primarily born of film schools and art house cinemas, rather than the rich visual history of black popular culture. By contrast, the Afrofuturist aesthetics of a film like Black Panther into a populism that transcends class-based African American tastes cultures. Of course, my point is not that working class and poor African Americans can’t get textual pleasure from watching The Chi. However, I would argue that The Chi’s aesthetics appeal to a decidedly middle-class, liberal subscriber, regardless of race.

For much of the history of African American television, series combined bourgeois and proletariat aesthetics in an effort to appeal to both working-class and well-off African Americans. To be viable, broadcast series needed to maintain as many black viewers as possible, while also incorporating white viewers. Not that every series achieved this balance, but most black-cast series tried. By contrast, today’s high-budget black-cast dramas seem designed to splinter the African American audience along class-based taste culture lines in an effort to cobble together an affluent multi-racial subscriber base.

Image Credits:
1. Cast of Showtime’s The Chi
2. Promo for FX’s Atlanta
3. Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Please feel free to comment.

Algorithmic Advertising and the Perils of Personalisation
JP Kelly / Royal Holloway College, University of London

Godless Tweet

A recent and somewhat controversial example of how a promotion emphasises particular elements of a text. In this instance, Netflix’s Godless (2017) was initially marketed through posters and trailers as a female-oriented Western. However, as critics were quick to point out (as in the Tweet above), male characters enjoyed the lion’s share of dialogue in the pilot episode.

Since Netflix debuted their first original series in 2013, House of Cards, there has been a growing body of scholarship examining the implications of the company’s data-driven approach for the production, distribution, and consumption of film and television. Almost all of this work has focused on the content itself – on the programmes that have (supposedly) been commissioned through a combination of algorithms and human instinct. However, far less has been written about the SVOD giant’s promotional practices, which, as the images above indicate, are equally worthy of study even if they have somewhat gone under the radar.

Godless Thumbnails
Contrary to the trailers and official poster, and despite the series’ tagline, ‘Welcome to No Man’s Land’ and its focus on a town almost entirely populated by women, there is an overwhelming emphasis on male characters in the thumbnails that are used to promote the title within the Netflix interface. It’s also worth noting that in the only thumbnail I could locate featuring a female character, only half of her face is visible.

This post examines Netflix’s algorithmic promotional practices, setting them in relation to a longer history of marketing in the entertainment industries. By doing so, I hope to draw out some of the key similarities and differences between analogue (for want of a better word) and algorithmic advertising, and to briefly consider some of the implications of these emerging practices for how we choose, interact with and experience content via services such as Netflix.

Thumbnails: The Art of Selection
Though Netflix has a relatively limited brand presence within traditional marketing spaces such as billboards, newspapers ads, TV commercials, etc. (in the UK at least) promotion is nevertheless at the heart of how the company operates. Indeed, we can think of the Netflix interface itself as one big promotional arena in which titles constantly vie for our attention, their arrangement and choice of artwork (thumbnails) determined by complex algorithms that rely on a vast and dynamic body of data. The process through which these promotional thumbnails are created, selected and positioned warrants critical attention not least because, as Ed Finn has recently argued, ‘the [Netflix] marketing and recommendation framework itself has become a new form of authorship’. [ (( Finn, Ed (2017) What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.))]

According to Finn, this framework encourages the production of certain kinds of content (and thus constitutes a form of authorship). However, from a promotional point-of-view, the framework also encourages particular kinds of readings, specifically through the use of personalised thumbnails (more on this in a moment). As Jonathan Gray has argued, paratexts such as trailers and posters ‘play a constitutive role in establishing a “proper” interpretation for a text’. [ (( Gray, Jonathan (2010) Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press.))] Positioned as they are at the “threshold of interpretation” – to borrow Gérard Genette’s term [ (( Genette, Gérard (1997) Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.))] – ‘paratexts tell us what to expect, and in doing so, they shape the reading strategies that we will take with us “into” the text,’ and ‘provide the all-important early frames through which we will examine, react to, and evaluate textual consumption’. [ (( ibid. 26.))]

Whilst these definitions and functions of “analogue” promotional paratexts map neatly onto more conventional marketing practices, they are less effective at describing the algorithmic approach employed by Netflix. For one thing – and here is where algorithmic and analogue practices begin to diverge – there is often no single promotional thumbnail for a title. Instead, many series and films – particularly Netflix Originals – have multiple thumbnails which are selected and then displayed depending on a range of different (and largely invisible) factors. Take for example, Stranger Things, which according to a recent Netflix Tech Blog has at least nine different thumbnails.

Stranger Things Thumbnail
The nine thumbnails for Stranger Things that have achieved a 5% or greater rate of engagement.

Though many of these thumbnails reinforce genres that we might already associate with the series, such as sci-fi or horror (in particular, the top row and the bottom right image), others seem somewhat less representative of the programme. For example, the bottom-middle image (featuring Nancy and Jonathan) emphasises the relationship between these two characters, thus promoting the series through a very different generic lens (i.e. drama, teen romance), perhaps even encouraging viewers to foreground this plot over others. Other thumbnails, such as the one in which Mike, Dustin and Lucas are dressed in replica Ghostbuster’s costumes exaggerates the series more comedic elements, thereby appealing to viewers who may be less interested in sci-fi, horror, or even romance, and ultimately resulting in a different framing and a potentially different interpretation of the text.

The generic diversity of these thumbnails and the complex process through which they are selected, positioned and displayed, poses an interesting question: to what extent can these promotional paratexts still be considered to ‘play a constitutive role in establishing a “proper” interpretation for a text’ when they are clearly so diverse, highly-personalised and, at times, unpredictable? [ (( ibid. 49))]

From Diverse Marketing to Hyper-Personalisation
Of course, a diversified marketing campaign that promotes different generic traits of a text in the hopes of attracting a broader audience is hardly a novel approach in the history of media entertainment. Take for example King Kong (1933), a film well-known for such a strategy. As Cynthia Erb explains: ‘its reception dynamic was a comparatively mobile, shifting one, in which distributors and exhibitors kept recalculating the terms of the campaign in an effort to re-present the film’s features in their best (and most profitable) light’. [ (( Erb, Cynthia (1998) Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.))] This involved, amongst other things, pitching the film’s different genres – romance, action, “jungle movie”, etc. – to different kinds of audiences, often in different, gendered promotional spaces.

King Kong Promotion
One of many promotional stills taken for King Kong (1933) to emphasise the film’s more romantic elements.

This approach has long been practiced within the entertainment industries and in principle is no different to the promotion of titles on Netflix, which similarly utilises a range of promotional imagery in order to appeal to different consumer interests and identities. At the same time, however, it constitutes a fundamentally different process, one that lacks the automated, instantaneous and highly-personalised characteristics of Netflix’s algorithmic model.

Though people often marvel at the efficacy of algorithms, some critics have expressed concern about their innate capacity for hyper-personalisation. As Gartner’s Martin Kihn has recently argued, algorithms (or “algos”) can be very effective at targeting consumers and tailoring campaigns, but they can also ‘build a commercial echo chamber and hone us down to our obvious features’. As he goes on to elaborate:

Every time an optimization is made, some data is discarded. Usually it’s data that doesn’t fit the model, which are exactly the features that make us unique. Our algo addiction is a hidden threat to advertising’s function as a catalyst of discovery. [ (( Kihn, Martin (2017) ‘The Perils of Algorithmic Advertising’, Gartner, May 2nd. Available at: [accessed Jan 12th, 2017]))]

In the case of the Netflix interface, not only does this mean that we are perhaps more likely to be offered the same kinds of content that the algorithm thinks will appeal to us (thereby diminishing the possibility of serendipitous discoveries), but that the promotion of these titles is increasingly personalised in such a way as to appeal to and further reinforce our generic preferences. Moreover, as scholars such as Genette and Gray have demonstrated, paratexts such as these produce certain kinds of framings and interpretations of a text, as per the Stranger Things thumbnails above or the Pulp Fiction examples below.

Pulp Fiction Thumbnails
An example of how thumbnail personalisation works on Netflix based on a users’ viewing history. In this instance, the promotional artwork varies by star rather than genre.

To be fair to Netflix, the company has publicly acknowledged the limitations of algorithmic curation on more than one occasion via their Tech Blog, with several posts [1, 2] detailing the various measures they have taken in order to avoid creating the kind of algorithmic echo chamber as described by Kihn. Nevertheless, the development of highly-personalised, algorithmically driven promotional thumbnails does suggest that we are now at a new frontier of marketing, one that has profound implications not just for what the promotional machine allows us to discover (or not to discover), but also in terms of how it increasingly encourages us to view the same texts through very different and highly-personalised promotional lenses.

House of Cards Thumbnails
The politics of personalisation. One final example which illustrates how personalisation can be used to draw attention away from certain actors/characters. In this instance, Spacey no longer features as the main or only figure in Netflix’s promotional thumbnails for House of Cards, with his face even distorted beyond recognition in the final image above.

Image Credits:

1. Godless tweet
2. Godless Thumbnails (author’s screen grab)
3. Stranger Things Thumbnails
4. King Kong Promotion (author’s screen grab)
5. Pulp Fiction Thumbnails
6. House of Cards Thumbnails (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

The Friction of Digital Markets
Ramon Lobato / RMIT University

Reed Hastings on Stage at CES in Las Vegas, 6 January 2016

In January 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stood on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to announce that the Netflix streaming service had just gone global.

As Hastings read from the teleprompter, Netflix engineers at the company’s headquarters in Los Gatos were switching on – effectively ‘geo-unblocking’ – the service in 130 new countries, bringing the total of official Netflix markets to more than 190. “Whether you are in Sydney or St Petersburg, Singapore or Seoul, Santiago or Saskatoon, you now can be part of the internet TV revolution,” Hastings promised. “No more waiting. No more watching on a schedule that’s not your own. No more frustration. Just Netflix.”

Almost two years later, it is instructive to reflect on this virtual roll-out. What can Netflix’s experience tell us about the relationship between over-the-top television, national media policies, and global audiences?

I have been recently researching the international (mis)adventures of Netflix for a forthcoming book, while Amanda Lotz and I have been working with our colleagues in the Global Internet TV Consortium to pool comparative insights on the topic. Below I discuss a few of the ideas that have emerged from this research.

Netflix launch event
Netflix Arrives in Italy: Launch Event, Oct 2015

Political Blowback
Rather than being a borderless, “flat” space of exchange, digital markets are sites of friction. Netflix’s international expansion has been messy, difficult, and controversial, often entangling the company in political debates that are only partly of its own making.

On the cultural policy front, Netflix is facing the prospect of new regulations designed to protect local content production and distribution. The EU has led this charge, proposing a 30% European content quota as part of the revised EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive. This would apply for the first time to foreign streaming services, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and these measures have been justified by European Audiovisual Observatory research showing a very strong Hollywood bias in Netflix catalogs. [ (( Alexa Scarlata and I recently conducted a similar study of Australian SVOD catalogs, as part of a submission to a government review on Australian content. See: Ramon Lobato and Alexa Scarlata (2017), “Australian Content in SVOD Catalogs: Availability and Discoverability”. ))] The EU may also require streaming services to adjust their algorithms so that the recommendation of European content is prominent.

VOD catalogs report
The European Audiovisual Observatory’s Crucial Report on VOD Catalogs

Similar debates about local content policy are underway in many Anglophone countries, especially Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, where the Netflix effect poses a direct challenge to national broadcast and pay-TV services. In these markets, Netflix is generally loved by audiences but also mildly feared as a new vehicle of U.S. cultural domination. Canada and Australia have recently conducted major reviews (AU, CA) of television and local content policy, prompted in part by Netflix’s market impact. [ (( In October, Netflix announced it would be committing $500 million to new production in Canada. This deal was greeted with suspicion by some in the industry, who claimed it was either already-planned expenditure or a trade-off to deter a mooted “Netflix tax.” ))]

Taxation is another contentious issue. Policymakers in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, parts of the EU, and various North American cities and states (including Alabama, Illinois, West Virginia, Maine and Quebec) have recently introduced “Netflix taxes” – consumption-based levies on digital subscriptions – in an attempt to stop revenue leakage. Netflix is also being scrutinized for using the same kind of profit-shifting strategies as other Silicon Valley companies. A recent Financial Times report (paywall) notes that Netflix declared annual revenue of £30 million and negligible profit in the United Kingdom, which has raised eyebrows given the company is estimated to have 6.5 million British subscribers and should therefore be generating approximately £400 million annually in the U.K. alone.

Censorship and content restriction is also a concern for regulators in many Asian markets, especially India, where Netflix faces pressure to modify content to comply with local norms. An age-verification system has recently been introduced for Netflix subscribers in Korea and Singapore, in line with local laws protecting minors from harmful content.

Netflix age restriction
Netflix Age Restriction System for R21 Content in Singapore

Meanwhile, government agencies in Russia, Kenya and Indonesia have all voiced concerns about Netflix’s “unlicensed” status. As an over-the-top service, Netflix does not usually require a license to operate, nor does it provide the regulatory compliance and political patronage that is expected in many countries. This inevitably leads to tension. The licensing issue was a major sticking point in Netflix’s long-running negotiations with the Chinese government, which were abandoned in April.

Understanding the Geography of Complaint
There are some broad patterns here worth considering. The first pertains to the relationship between market impact and political blowback.

Netflix is most closely scrutinized by regulators in those countries where it attracts significant audiences and actively competes with local television companies for market share – especially in the Anglosphere and Western Europe. In most other parts of the world, governments generally pay less attention to Netflix because it is considered a niche service used by a small group of broadband-connected elites and expats (as seems the case in the Middle East and in most of Africa). Netflix’s level of policy blowback tends to correlate to its level of market impact.

The nature of complaint also changes as we move from country to country. In rich Western states, anxieties around Netflix relate to cultural imperialism, local content and taxation. In other parts of the world, policymakers are more likely to be concerned with censorship and state sovereignty. It will be worthwhile to continue tracking these patterns as the global user-base for internet television expands and evolves.

Back to the Future?
As well as tracking these policy debates across space, it is also important to think about how they evolve over time.

Netflix is the first and most important global SVOD service, but its experience in international markets is not unprecedented. The challenge it faces in adapting to local conditions, regulations, and audience expectations has a direct precedent in earlier forms of transnational media.

Netflix and satellite television
Netflix and Satellite Television: History Repeating?

Satellite television is of particular interest here. Jean Chalaby has studied the challenges faced by U.S.-based transnational channels such as MTV as they tried to enter European markets during the 1980s and 1990s. Many channels were initially “unsure how to transmit across boundaries and were at first oblivious to local culture and market conditions,” and had “overestimated audience appetite for foreign [U.S.] programming.” [ (( Jean Chalaby, “The Quiet Invention of a New Medium: Twenty Years of Transnational Television in Europe”, in Jean Chalaby (ed.), Transnational Television Worldwide: Towards a New Media Order (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 62. ))] Struggling to gain traction in Europe, they underwent an expensive process of localization – including translation into local languages, hiring multilingual presenters, and producing original content for those markets.

These are the precise challenges facing Netflix, which seems to be responding in much the same way as its predecessors — by localizing itself. This is evidenced by its multi-billion dollar original content push and its significant investment in localization and translation infrastructure.

In David Morley and Kevin Robins’s Spaces of Identity – another foundational book on satellite television – the authors describe changes in the cultural geography of media distribution in Europe during the satellite age. They emphasise the disconnect between the “enlarged audiovisual spaces and markets” [ (( David Morley and Kevin Robins, Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries (London: Routledge, 1995), 11. ))] of satellite television and the stubborn locality of taste, language and identity in European nations. They conclude:

The question that we must now consider is how this logic [of market expansion] unfolds as it encounters and negotiates the real world, the world of already existing and established markets and cultures. [ (( Ibid, 15-16. ))]

Twenty years later, this appears also to be the main issue with Netflix. As Reed Hastings has discovered, the fully-digital global market is a pipedream: the reality of doing business in hundreds of markets simultaneously is messy and difficult, and governments are actively pursuing ways to extend national sovereignty online.

Internet delivery, rather than overcoming space, seems instead to be intensifying existing frictions of global media distribution.

Image Credits:

1. Reed Hastings on Stage at CES in Las Vegas, 6 January 2016
2. Netflix Arrives in Italy: Launch Event, Oct 2015. Image credit: Luca Viscardi
3. The European Audiovisual Observatory’s Crucial Report on VOD Catalogs
4. Netflix Age Restriction System for R21 Content in Singapore
5. Netflix and Satellite Television: History Repeating?

Please feel free to comment.

The Algorithmic Audience and African American Media Cultures
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Audience measurement has been a longstanding (if not terribly sexy) issue in African American media studies. For decades, audience numbers were reported as Gross Ratings Point (GRPs), or the aggregate percentage of metered homes that watched a particular broadcast. As early as the 1977 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, entitled “Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television,” observers began to point out that the broadcasting industry’s reliance on GRPs made it tough for anything that is non-mainstream, non-hegemonic, non-supremacist, and non-patriarchal to find its way on air. In the fallout of this report, Nielsen began over-representing black households as a percentage of their panels in order to move the needle at least a little bit when black and white tastes diverged substantially.

As Ien Ang has argued, no audience research ever measures real viewers’ and their tastes. [ ((Ien Ang, Desperately seeking the audience, Routledge, 2006.))] Instead, they construct a particular picture of audience that is deeply influenced by the technologies used to measure them. When measurement techniques change, Eileen Meehan has shown, so does the dominant image of the audience. [ ((Eileen Meehan, “Why we don’t count: The commodity audience,” Logics of television (1990): 117-37.))] This dominant image, moreover, circulates among programming executives who make production and acquisition decisions based upon that image.

By the time the Commission on Civil Rights’ report was published, the networks had already begun to integrate demographic considerations into their understanding of the audience, thanks to advances in Nielsen’s audience measurements. As the 1980s and 1990s progressed and the networks began to shed viewers to cable channels, they began to focus much more on their core 18-49 year old white family audience; since then, as Herman Gray argues, the networks have considered African Americans as political subjects capable of causing political turmoil for the networks, but not as economic subject worth targeting consistently with relevant programming. This set-up created a predictable dynamic between African Americans and the networks, as the networks inevitably dropped black-oriented shows for poor overall ratings, followed by political agitation on the part of African American and other minority-based political groups, which led to a brief surge in minority programming. [ ((Herman Gray, Cultural moves: African Americans and the politics of representation, University of California Press, 2005.))]

Today, we have seen another revolution in audience measurement with the explosion of digital data and the development of data-mining algorithms that make sense of viewers, tastes and behaviors in new ways. While the industry long lived in an era of scarcity of audience data, today there is an overabundance.

How might these new forms of algorithmic audience measurement shape the media culture we inhabit? I have primarily begun to think about this question through the streaming service Netflix. Netflix exhibits an odd contradiction: it exhibits a range of programming about (and sometimes by) African Americans and other minority groups, including Dear White People, Orange is the New Black, and Narcos, but it also has a reputation among some subscribers and independent producer as insensitive and closed to minority tastes and content producers. Among some African American subscribers, it has become a commonplace that, once they watch a single black-cast television series or film, they are suddenly inundated with every other black-cast offering on Netflix. Seemingly, the algorithm thinks that black people are only interested in black-cast content, and that everyone who watches a black-cast film or TV series must be black. There’s even a sentiment that circulates among some African Americans that Netflix’s black-cast offerings, as compared to their predominantly white-case offerings, are inferior in quality and steeped in stereotypes.

The idea that Netflix is largely insensitive to African American tastes is only one perspective, and it may well be a minority one at that. Still, at a time when the fate of cultural diversity on screen is in the hands of algorithms, the people who program them, and the people who interpret their findings, it is worth asking how they are shaping the diversity of the media content available through streaming services.

Here, I sketch out a typology of how to study the role of algorithmic audience analysis in commercial African American streaming culture, including questions of recommendations and user interface, content availability, and programming decisions. What results is a sort of research agenda, parts of which are certainly much easier to research than others.

Racial bias and exclusion in recommendation algorithms can happen at different moments in the process. At the input moment, it’s possible that African American are absent (or nearly absent) from the universe of subscribers in the first place. Indeed, Horowitz Research, who in 2015 published a report titled State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition, found that African Americans tend to watch more television than other ethnic and racial groups, just as countless other research studies have shown for decades. In addition, they found that African Americans living in urban areas oversubscribe to premium television services, compared with other urban ethnic/racial groups. However, Horowitz also found that African Americans undersubscribe to Netflix, even as they purchase more pay-per-view programming and oversubscribe to Hulu: while 57 percent of all urban viewers subscribe to Netflix, only 56 percent of African Americans do. Granted, the difference is small, but it’s three percent less than white urban viewers, and in every other category of programming, percentages of African American viewers exceed those of white and other ethnic groups. In other words, African American under-subscription to Netflix certainly stands out in the report.

Why do African Americans subscribe to Netflix at lower rates than other groups? This of course is a much tougher question. One might suspect that broadband internet penetration rates might be to blame: for cost reasons, African American broadband penetration rates do tend to lag a few percentages points behind most other racial and ethnic rates. However, if that were the sole cause, we would also expect undersubscription to Hulu, which isn’t the case. Instead, there may be content issues with regards to Netflix that explain African American subscription rates as well.

It may also be the case that the Netflix library offers little of interest for African American viewers, driving undersubscription rates because those potential subscribers know there will be little content for them. Content bias is of course the linchpin of the question of racial bias in Netflix’s algorithm, since relevant programming is at the heart of longstanding concerns about race and media. Empirically, this is a difficult topic to study, given the vastness of the Netflix library and the company’s licensing arrangements with content owners, which can cause programming to come and go from the library quite frequently. Finally, no good quantitative measure of what might constitute “programming for African American subscribers” has ever been developed, nor could it ever be.

If content diversity is a difficult object to fix methodologically, it is less difficult to imagine how we might study how Netflix executives use algorithmic data to make programming decisions. However, given the proprietary nature of algorithmic audience data and Netflix’s tight-lipped approach to releasing data and discussing content acquisition decisions makes addressing this question directly thorny as well. In the absence of such information, we can rely on some extant data that suggests that Netflix’s original programming, at least, is probably not designed with African Americans primarily in mind. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, streaming television series creators, directors, and writers (the vast majority of whom, at the time, must have been working on original Netflix series) are substantially whiter than their counterparts in cable or broadcast television. Of course, original programming is only a fraction of Netflix’s content, and may not be a main factor for deciding to subscribe to the service. Nevertheless, since original programming is both signature content and a loss leader for streaming television, the fact that such series seem to be designed mainly for white audiences lends credence to the impression that Netflix’s overall content acquisition practices may privilege white subscribers as well.

By way of closing, I want to talk a little about some new research I’ve been working on with an interdisciplinary team of humanists, social scientists, and computer scientists. We have been looking at the racial/ethnic discrimination in recommendation and filtering algorithms. Recently, we have started examining the question of input bias in streaming media service by interviewing subscribers and non-subscribers of various races and ethnicities about why they choose to subscribe to Netflix or not, and what their experience with Netflix’s offerings and recommendations has been. In addition, we are planning more systematic probing of how differential input into the Netflix system results in differential output, and whether we can find any pattern or logic in the personalized results. We have used a similar design to show that Google News personalizes search results based upon a user’s social media activity, but the complexity and variability of the Netflix user interface will create a good deal of unexpected problems.

This remains very preliminary research, and it requires a substantial amount of time, a range of expertise, and the development of new research methodologies. At each moment in the streaming media process – the input, the algorithmic processing, and the interpretation of the data – we have very little reliable information available, and we need to be creative and collaborative if we hope to find good ways to get more. Still, if the main questions that have animated African American media studies since the days of broadcasting are going to continue to concern us in an era of streaming, we will need to develop these new tools and modes of scholarship. It is a big job.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Banner image

An LGBTQ Netflix: Productive? Restricting? Lasting?
Chelsea McCracken / Beloit College

Logo for Revry

Logo for Revry

In March of 2016, Revry debuted a streaming subscription service that prides itself on providing content that includes a range of LGBTQ perspectives. By August of 2016, several sources had dubbed it the “LGBT Netflix” and “the Gay Netflix we need,” and questioned whether niche streaming sites could “take on” larger companies like Netflix and Amazon. In the history of independent LGBTQ filmmaking, distribution has often proved to be one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome. Failing to find a distributor meant your film would not play outside of local screenings or film festivals. Even films that did secure distribution were often limited to short runs in large cities with active arthouse theaters. With the development of streaming video technologies, even a relatively small scale operation can reach people around the world, connecting films with audiences to reach a broader, targeted market. This exciting development has yielded utopian visions alongside frustrating realities.

While streaming services have opened up new possibilities for worldwide distribution, niche distribution of LGBTQ media is not new, having occupied a distinct niche market for decades. A substantial infrastructure of publications, activist groups, film festivals, and LGBT production companies formed around this market beginning in the late 1970s, allowing LGBTQ cinema to flourish within American independent cinema. Distributors who focus primarily or exclusively on LGBTQ films began appearing in the 1980s and include Wolfe Video (1985-present), Water Bearer Films (1988-present), Strand Releasing (1991-present), and Ariztical Entertainment (1994-present). The longevity of these niche distributors suggests that the market supports them, even as many comparably sized independent distributors have undergone changes in ownership or gone bankrupt in the shifting indie landscape from the late 1980s to the 2000s.[ ((During this time, over 20 independent distributors went out of business (Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006): 258.).))]

Viewers searching for LGBTQ content today have an assortment of options. Behemoths like Netflix include an LGBTQ category in their content browsing options. Established home video and theatrical distributors, including Wolfe Video, have made the transition to Video on Demand, as has HereTV, “America’s only LGBT TV network.” Other distributors license their films through digital distributors, as Water Bearer did with FilmRise. Established distributors have a firm foundation in the move to digital distribution—a library of films, continued income from hard-copy sales, and/or support from a conglomerate parent company.

The lower costs of digital distribution and the revenue potential from streaming media to worldwide audiences created an environment for small distribution companies to form. In addition to Revry, there are other newcomers to the field, such as Dekkoo, a site launched in 2015 that specializes in gay content. Inexpensive means of distribution theoretically allows access to unlimited content, and the market has seen increases in LGBTQ media being offered. However, streaming distributors also act as curators for this content. They select what they consider to be the best available media that fits their brand identity, producing, as Revry calls it, “queerated” content. Streaming services have a great deal of control over what work gets shown, which in turn shapes the direction of LGBTQ media.

Wolfe Video Logo

Wolfe Video Logo

Some companies, like the relatively short-lived BuskFilms, attempted to build streaming distribution platforms that did not last. BuskFilms, formed in 2011, offered worldwide digital distribution of first lesbian and then a full range of LGBTQ media, and boasted viewers in around 160 countries. [ ((Andrea Wing, interview by author, 22 March 2013.))] Sadly, Busk ceased VOD services in 2014. While Busk did decent business and had an interested audience, the numbers were not strong enough to continue operating the site. The closing of Busk brings out the question of whether this mode of distribution is sustainable and highlights concerns over the endurance of smaller, niche streaming companies. Can these businesses find long-term, sustainable financial models? And what does the future viability of these distributors mean for LGBTQ media makers?

While the developing trends in digital distribution come with idealized possibilities, there are pitfalls and dangers involved with this mode of distribution. In independent filmmaking, distribution often comes into play before a film is complete. Historically, independent filmmakers have relied on pre-selling distribution rights for domestic and foreign theatrical release, home video, and/or television. These pre-sales provide essential production funds. While there is a lot of potential for using digital distribution to monetize distinct niche groups and for producers to recoup a larger percent of the profits from sales or rentals, there is also the danger that media makers may not break even. And even if they do eventually make back their money, filmmakers would not have access to the pre-sale lump sums needed in order to finance the large negative costs of production. One way around this is for subscription sites to use the “Netflix model” and become producers that fund original content, an option that Revry is exploring. This option, however, can be an expensive, risky endeavor.

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Can distributors like Revry and Dekkoo survive? They can, if people support them. The call for community support of LGBTQ media has been renewed continually. As a 1981 article put it, “You can have gay media but you have to support it… Gays will pay $5 to see Ordinary People but won’t pay to see a gay film. It doesn’t come with the trappings—the Hollywood seal of approval, or Robert Redford.” [ ((Sheila Roher qtd in Stefan Pevnik, “Gay Filmmakers Confront Media Homophobia in the U.S.” The Advocate 331 (26 November 1981): 37.))] The accusation that the LGBT community does not support its own media recurred, harshly, in 1990 with a bitter article by Vito Russo who, towards the end of his life, berated gays for accepting homophobia in mainstream media and not supporting independent works like Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986). Russo writes, “Most gay people have turned out to be nothing but a bunch of Americans who just want to be entertained for two hours and not have any hassle. It stinks. They should be ashamed of themselves.” [ ((Vito Russo, “Malice at the Movies: A Critic Gets ‘Bad,’ Mad, and Just Plain Fed Up With Bigots and Spineless Gays,” The Advocate 552 (5 June 1990): 60.))]

In addition to industry concerns, questions arise around the utility of niche distributors, whether their presence opens or restricts the potential of LGBTQ media. One could draw comparisons to the debates that have brought the role of LGBTQ film festivals into question. [ ((These are most thoroughly seen in Patricia White’s “Queer publicity – A dossier on lesbian and gay film festivals.” GLQ-a Journal of Lesbian And Gay Studies Vol.5(1) (1999): 73-93. This spawned the later: “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take one.” GLQ Vol.11(4) (2005): 579-603. “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take two.” GLQ Vol.12(4) (2006): 599-625. and “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take three.” GLQ Vol.14(1) (2008): 121-137.))] In 1991, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar was calling the gay and lesbian festival circuit “key” to her work, while others like Derek Jarman were speculating on whether their usefulness was at an end, that “maybe life in the ghetto now offers diminished returns.” [ ((B. Ruby Rich. “New Queer Cinema.” Sight and Sound 2(5) (September 1992): 32.))] Some defend the lasting benefits of these institutions, claiming that they are critical in creating spaces for the continued growth of LGBTQ filmmaking and the visibility of non-heterosexual identities onscreen. Others see them as an outdated institution that continues to marginalize these films. Similar arguments could be made of the work done by streaming distributors.

So, do we need an LGBTQ Netflix? I would say that we do not want to need it. Ideally, we would live in a world where distribution and exhibition opportunities were as readily available for films with LGBTQ content as those without. A world in which Netflix offered abundant options for queer viewing, perhaps even options that were readily accessible in integrated genre categories, rather than isolated in its own niche. We are moving towards that day, but it still seems distant. In our current media moment, I see a great value in streaming distributors who connect viewers to LGBTQ works and provide a support network that cultivates future LGBTQ films. If you want to see more diverse media, you have to support it. And in low-budget indie media making, a little goes a long way.

Image Credits:
1. Revry Logo
2. Wolfe Video Logo
3. Dekkoo Promotional Image

Please feel free to comment.

A Rose is A 장미 is A 장미 꽃: Translating Television Across Streaming Services
Amanda Halprin / University of Texas at Austin

Different words, same meaning

Different words, same meaning

The Internet has allowed television to go global. Although foreign language content has been a part of American television for decades (e.g., Telenovelas), almost all content aired on American television is in English. As Netflix and other streaming services grow their portfolios and reach, programs in a wider variety of languages are becoming accessible to US audiences. However, the content of these programs varies from service to service, even when the programs themselves are the same, as different services provide different translations. To demonstrate how these services can translate the same content into different phrases, let’s look at 응답하라 1997, a Korean drama available on Netflix, DramaFever, and Viki.

There is already a linguistic difference before you press play. Netflix and Viki translate “응답하라 1997 ” as “Reply 1997,” while DramaFever translates the title as “Answer Me 1997.” Although both of these titles convey the same general message, “reply” and “answer me” have different connotations, the most obvious being the figure and lack of figure. “Answer me” presents a specific person to the audience: there is a “me” asking for an answer. With “reply,” the speaker is less concrete. A viewer presented with the “answer me” translation might expect the show to have one main protagonist, while a viewer presented with the “reply” translation might not have this same expectation.

The difference in translations is also significant on a more superficial level. Titles are a key component in both drawing in audiences and pushing them away. Although there isn’t a distinct correlation between bad show titles and cancellation rates (as “bad” titles are subjective), bad titles are often cited as one of the contributing factors for low ratings that lead to cancellations (see: Trophy Wife, Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23, etc.). While most English speakers do not have a strong reaction to the words “reply” or “answer” there are some cases where one translation of a word would be preferable over another translation. For example, many people have an aversion to the word “moist.” According to a study published in PLOS One, as many as 20% of American English speakers find the word displeasing.[ ((Thibodeau, Paul H. “A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds.” PLOS One, vol. 11, no. 4, 2016. ] So, when describing something as “slight or moderately wet,” it’s probably best to choose “damp” over “moist” because “damp” has fewer negative associations. Although the words have the same meaning, viewers process them differently.


  • Top Left: Viki
  • Top right: DramaFever
  • Bottom: Netflix

The way viewers process subtitles also affect how they process content. The pictures above all capture the same line of dialogue, found one minute and nine seconds into Reply/Answer Me 1997 ‘s first episode. In this scene, a man (Sung Dong-il), his wife (Lee Il-hwa), and their daughter (Sung Shi-won) are performing karaoke in a singing room. Their time is almost up, so Shi-won decides she wants to sing a song. In the pictured line, her father tells her not to pick a song with English lyrics, as he doesn’t care for them. While Viki and DramaFever fit the whole line into one frame, Neflix splits it into two frames. Putting fewer words on the screen allows viewers to process other visual information in this image, such as the actor’s facial expressions, as opposed to just focusing on the subtitles. DramaFever’s subtitles take the same consideration into account. However, instead of splitting the line into two frames they condensed the content contained in the line. DramaFever’s version cuts out Dong-il grabbing Shi-won’s attention by yelling “Hey!” and removes his threat to “kill her” if she picks an English song. Removing these two components changes how the viewer is first introduced to Dong-il’s personality: “Hey” shows the casual nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s relationship, while “I’ll kill you” (which, it should be noted, is not a literal threat) demonstrates the combative nature of their banter. Both Viki and DramaFever drop the question contained in the line, which again stresses the casual yet combative nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s banter, while Netflix drops the descriptor “loud” from “English song,” slightly changing the context of their argument. Viki and DramaFever’s use of “loud” is meant to explain that Dong-il doesn’t want to hear an annoying song, while Netflix’s translation could be interpreted by a viewer as Dong-il having an aversion to all English-language songs. All three of these translations are valid.

Translation Chart

Different methods of translation

There is no one “correct” method of translation. The chart above demonstrates different methods of translation divided into two categories: methods that prioritize the initial content of the source language (SL) and methods that prioritize reception of an utterance once it is translated into the target language (TL). The methods of translation chosen depend entirely on the translator’s preference and objectives. Netflix, Viki, and DramaFever have different positions on the translation process. Netflix built on its background of algorithmic matching to develop HERMES, a translator test and indexing system described as “emblematic of Hollywood meets Silicon Valley at Netflix.”[ (( “The Netflix HERMES Test: Quality Subtitling at Scale.” Netflix Technology Blog, 30 Mar. 2017, ] Potential translators take the HERMES test and are assigned an identifying “H-number,” which Netflix uses to monitor the number of translators working on any given language and to figure out which translators should be assigned to which genres. The system’s ultimate goal is to “use [HERMES’] metrics in concert with other innovations to ‘recommend’ the best translator for specific work based on their past performance to Netflix,” similar to how Netflix recommends specific content to its users.[ ((Ibid.)) ] Viki’s call for translators emphasizes the fan communities around the shows being translated. Instead of making translation seem like an isolated activity, Viki advertises it as a way for translators to “make new friends” and “meet people from around the world.” They invite those interested in translating to submit language self-evaluations; in addition, potential translators can directly message a “channel manager” (the person who oversees the translation team for a particular program) if they want to write subtitles for a specific show. Viki’s translation teams also include editors, who review the subtitles, moderators, who manage the translators and editors, and segmenters, who cut the videos into segments to prepare them for translation, in addition to the aforementioned channel managers and translators. As with the translators, anyone with access to Viki’s site is able to apply for these positions. DramaFever’s approach to translation is less overt than the other two approaches. In 2014, the site posed an article encouraging users to sign up for WeSubtitle, a “subtitling community” where users could get paid to translate DramaFever’s shows based on factors such as translation ability and schedule availability. However, the website is not taking on new translators as it is currently “at capacity.” DramaFever has not put out a call for translators since 2014. Furthermore, DramaFever’s current advertising strategy emphasizes that its subtitles are written by “professionals.”







Although advertising its translators is not part of Netflix’s marketing strategy, this is a major component of both Viki and DramaFever’s strategies. As previously mentioned, Viki positions its subtitles as written for fans by fans, presenting the website as a community where fans can bond over the same content, regardless of language barriers. Viewership communities are also a component of DramaFever’s overall experience, but its subtitles are presented as a separate element, created for fans by professionals. However subtle these differences and their outcomes may seem, these factors push users to choose one service over another. While rose is a rose is a rose, if you asked Google Translate, a rose is a 장미 is a 장미 꽃. The medium may be the message, but so is the messenger.

Image Credits
1. Different words, same meaning
2. Author’s screengrabs
3. Different methods of translation
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Author’s screengrab
6. DramaFever promotional photo

Please feel free to comment.

TV Finales: On-Demand Endings
Casey McCormick / McGill University


House of Cards season one teaser

When Netflix released a full season of House of Cards in 2013, the online streaming company paved the way for a major shift in how TV gets made and watched. Of course, this was not the first time that TV viewers had access to the entirety of a season (or even series): on-demand technologies such as VHS, DVD, PVR, and streaming, had made TV compilation relatively common by 2013. But it was the first time that a series had been crafted with this method of distribution in mind, and the first time that the initial release of a series took the form of a full-season “dump.” Such on-demand native programming is becoming increasingly common, with Netflix’s $5 billion investment in original programming in 2016, and several other online distribution companies (e.g. Amazon, Hulu, CraveTV) all producing their own series—and in almost every case, releasing entire seasons at once.

Letterkenny Promo

Letterkenny is the flagship series of CraveTV, a Canadian video on demand (VOD) service

The full-season dump model departs from the traditional industry logic of offering viewers a slow drip of content, hyping appointment viewing, and using distribution gaps and hiatuses to generate anticipation and demand for more “product.” These financial imperatives trickle down into the formal structures of television, affecting plot and character pacing, season and episode length, and expectations regarding narrative resolution. Before on-demand technologies, viewers were at the whim of programming schedules, and TV series could wield that narrative power in delightful and/or frustrating ways. Indeed, one of the recurring themes in accounts of on-demand technologies center on the idea of increased viewer control over when and how we watch content. While I agree with the fact that VOD shifts the power dynamics of media consumption, we need to interrogate more fully the repercussions of this shift—particularly when it comes to understanding our narrative desires. Therefore, I’m interested in two questions: how do on-demand native series take advantage of their distribution format to tell stories in new ways? And how does on-demand viewing change our experience of serial television, especially with regard to endings?

Stranger Things on Netflix

Stranger Things utilizes chapter-based naming and variable running times in its eight-episode first season

In 2015, TV critic Todd VanDerWerff wrote about how “Netflix thinks more in terms of seasons than episodes,” quoting chief content officer Ted Sarandos’ claim that “The first season of Bloodline is the pilot.” TV critic Alan Sepinwall has bemoaned such storytelling structures, arguing that many of these series have “no interest in differentiating one episode from the next, and just offe[r] up 13 amorphous hours of… stuff.” Sepinwall’s criticism is rooted in a deep loyalty to the television medium and an aversion to TV positioning itself as “like” literature or film. VanDerWerff, on the other hand, recognizes the Netflix model as a “new art form” that will “require a fair amount of trial and error.” The proliferation of Netflix original programming over the past two years has certainly given creators the opportunity to experiment with this storytelling form, and so the growing library of Netflix originals invites us to think about what I’m calling “Netflix poetics,” a specific set of tools and tactics for creating meaning in televisual narrative. [ ((These changes in TV poetics are not limited to Netflix, or even to on-demand native series. As Sepinwall points out: “More and more […] dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air.” In Complex TV, Jason Mittell argues that “Compiling a serial allows viewers to see a series differently, enabling us to perceive aesthetic values traditionally used for discrete cultural works to ongoing narratives” and VanDerWerff notes that binge-viewing “changes everything” about our relationship to a series. In the context of this article, I’m using “Netflix poetics” to describe features of Netflix original series, though I believe that this poetic structure extends to all series that are put into on-demand context.))]

In addition to variations in episode and season structures, Netflix poetics include thematic and stylistic consistencies across programming genres. In my experience of watching *a lot* of Netflix originals, I’ve found that they tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling. Many include narrators (Narcos, Jessica Jones), some of whom are able to break the fourth wall (House of Cards, A Series of Unfortunate Events), while others emphasize storytelling-as-such (The OA, Bloodline). Several Netflix originals also feature addiction plots, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, can be understood as thematizations of the binge-viewing process. Stylistically, Netflix originals share similarities with what many have called “quality TV,” such as higher production values, darker colour palettes, and more “cinematic” camera work. In addition, these series typically assume a dedicated viewer who watches each episode closely, so they do away with many of the recapping strategies typical of broadcast TV, and they don’t use cliffhangers to manufacture hype. Fuller House and The Ranch notwithstanding, Netflix original series seem to be attempting to offer stories that aren’t often told on television.

“That’s Not How the Story Goes,” the closing musical number to season one of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, emphasizes how the the show is resisting conventional narrative tropes

So, how do Netflix poetics change our relationship to endings? In my previous Flow article, I discussed a pervasive ambivalence that we feel with regards to the ends of TV series. I was speaking particularly about series finales, but that ambivalence is often present in relation to season and even episode endings as well. While there have been relatively few series finales of on-demand native shows (itself a phenomenon in need of more attention), we can still draw some conclusions about the effect of Netflix poetics on our experience of endings.

When we reach the end of an episode on Netflix, the infamous “auto-play” function begins a countdown that gives us roughly 15 seconds to decide whether or not to keep watching. Auto-play is one of the ways that Netflix subverts the power of endings, instantly reminding us that there is more to be watched. Recently, Netflix has extended the reach of the auto-play function, so the closure (or lack thereof) of a season finale is immediately undercut by the start of the next season—if it exists. Anticipation has traditionally served as the central component of TV storytelling, but on-demand viewing limits the opportunities for a series to capitalize on this emotion. When a full season or series is available on Netflix, we control the temporality of endings: we can race to the finale, milk a season for all its worth, or skip right to the final episode. But even as we gain more control over viewing time, we are often so lured by the joys of narrative immersion that we give ourselves over to the addictive flow of a particular series. We binge because we can, but also because it feels good.

Jessica Jones Finale House of Cards Ch 27 Netflix addiction

Jessica Jones, “AKA Smile” (2015) | House of Cards, “Chapter 27” (2015) | Essenpreis’ Netflix Addiction

On-demand contexts like Netflix divorce endings from the paratextual hype and social buzz that accompanies most season and series finales. Sometimes, as a result of auto-play functions, we may not even realize that we’ve reached a finale. Most discussions about series finales position these episodes as “cultural spectacle[s],” emphasizing the social nature of endings and communal experiences of closure and finality. [ ((Joanne Morreale (2000), “Sitcoms Say Goodbye: The Cultural Spectacle of Seinfeld’s Last Episode.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 28.3. 108-15.))] While we certainly do sometimes watch Netflix with our partners and friends, the ability to personalize viewing temporalities means that, more often than not, Netflixing is a solitary act. We still discuss and share our experiences of a series with others, which is why I disagree with accounts claiming that on-demand viewing diminishes the social nature of television, but there’s no doubt that these technologies change the value and meaning of finales.

As I noted above, very few Netflix originals have ended their series runs. [ ((Hemlock Grove ended after 3 seasons (a planned finale), and Marco Polo was cancelled after two (unplanned). ))] Once we get a proper sample size, it will be interesting to see how Netflix series finales stack up against a history of TV endings. As for season finales, Netflix originals strike a balance between utilizing traditional closural gestures—answering season-spanning questions, setting up the conditions for subsequent seasons—and maintaining stylistic loyalty to the rest of the series. In other words, Netflix season finales don’t tend to stand apart from other episodes to the same extent that cable and broadcast finales do, and so the special pressures of finale storytelling come more from the viewer’s ingrained expectations than from structural narrative imperatives. Personally, I’ve found Netflix season finales less disappointing overall, but nonetheless underwhelming. I’m rarely angered by them, but I’m rarely satisfied. It seems that on-demand viewing emphasizes a drive towards finality by encouraging binge-viewing, but Netflix original series have yet to solve the problem of what it means to make a “good” finale.

Hemlock Grove Finale

Hemlock Grove, “Brian’s Song” (2015), resorts to a common series finale trope

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screen grab
2. Letterkenny is the flagship series of CraveTV, a Canadian video on demand (VOD) service3
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Author’s screen grab
5. Author’s screen grab
6. Kiersten Essenpreis’ Netflix Addiction
7. Author’s screen grab

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