“Blim and Chill”: Telenovelas and Class Ideologies in the Online Streaming Wars
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez / University of California, Santa Barbara

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Netflix crying over losing telenovelas to Televisa’s Blim.

In February 2016, Mexican broadcasting giant Televisa announced its streaming service Blim, the company’s attempt to compete in the country’s online streaming ecosystem. The new platform created another competitor to existing services such as HBO Go, ClaroVideo, and Netflix Mexico. It also meant that, starting on October 1st, Netflix would lose the licenses to Televisa’s catalog, which had been key to the platform’s control of 39% of the Mexican video-on-demand (VOD) market share. While Blim would capitalize on Televisa’s decades-old slate of programming, the loss could prove significant for Netflix’s success in the second largest VOD market in Latin America. The U.S.-based streaming platform did not let the event go unnoticed.

In the lead up to the removal of Televisa’s series from its service, Netflix ran online video spots mocking the new venture. In one, a young man cries in front of the television because his favorite series has been removed from Netflix. A friend comes in to comfort him and asks what series is gone. Is it Orange is the New Black? Breaking Bad? Narcos? The sobbing man finally admits that it is Rebelde (2004–2006), the popular Mexican teen telenovela that launched the careers of its six protagonists and their music group RBD. (( Josh Kun, “We Are a Band, and We Play One on TV,” New York Times (July 9, 2006), http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/09/arts/music/09kun.html )) The friend’s reaction betrays the expected response from the audience: who cares if Rebelde is gone when the aforementioned series are still there? By mocking a fictional consumer who relied on Netflix to watch his teen telenovela, the U.S. company disavows this type of user and preemptively mocks their departure from the service.

Netflix’s promotional spot mocking the new streaming platform Blim.

Noteworthy in this advertisement is the inclusion of Breaking Bad along with Netflix’s original series, implicitly attaching the AMC show to the streaming platform’s own brand. While U.S. broadcast networks have succeeded in maintaining their brand markers on the shows they license to Netflix, this is not the case in Latin America. Moreover, when announcing that a new show is streaming on the platform, the Netflix social media team superimposes its logo or the iconic “N” to a screengrab from the show. With this two-step approach, evidence of a show’s original network disappears in favor of a homogeneous Netflix brand effort. A series on Netflix can readily become known as a Netflix series.

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Netflix Latin America re-branding The Vampire Diaries in its social media promotion.

At the same time, the video spot does the work of demarcating a “quality” differential between Netflix’s and Blim’s streaming library. The female friend lists only shows that have come to be considered part of the contemporary “Quality TV” cannon as representative of the selection that Netflix’s library will retain. The male consumer’s complaint, in contrast, emphasizes the type of undesirable content that Netflix (purportedly) does not mind losing: telenovelas, a television genre often derided as feminine and in poor taste. As Michael Newman and Elana Levine have argued, the cultural legitimation of television continuously depends on the establishment of taste hierarchies that distinguish good from bad in terms of class and gender. ((Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. New York: Routledge, 2011. )) This tendency remains in the arena of online streaming. Given the ways Netflix re-brands its catalog for Latin America, the rhetorical move pursued by the American streaming platform in these video spots transfers the discourse of “quality” from television shows to streaming platforms.

A second promotional spot emphasizes this point. It features a montage of close-ups of women from Televisa’s telenovelas as they cry profusely and in an exaggerated manner. Over these shots appear the phrases Es difícil decir adiós. Muchos las extrañarán. Otros no tanto. [It is hard to say goodbye. Many will miss them. Others, not so much.] This second spot reinforces the gendered distinction that the first one gestures at. In the first, casting a man as the undesired, telenovela consumer and a woman as the preferred, quality-TV connoisseur contributes to shaming the former for watching content meant for women and teenagers. In the second video, the wailing, disheveled women from Televisa’s shows contrast with the composed female lead of the Spanish series Velvet (2014– ) seen in the final shots. The spot ends with a cut to the male lead in Velvet smiling at his love interest when the words Otros no tanto [Others, not so much.] appear. The last shot returns the gaze to the male character as the decider of which women to miss and which to forget.

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Replicating “quality platform” rhetoric in anti-Blim news coverage.

In their coverage of these anti-Blim spots, online news outlets used an accompanying image of Kevin Spacey and Eugenio Derbez as a metonymy of the Netflix-Blim distinction. On the left side, Kevin Spacey is dressed as his character Frank Underwood from House of Cards, rolling up the sleeves of this dress shirt and staring seriously into the camera. Eugenio Derbez, in contrast, is dressed as his character Ludovico from La Familia P.luche, sporting the character’s iconic plush, oversized electric blue coat and a tacky tie. The image succinctly repeats the “Quality Platform” rhetoric of the Netflix spots, setting up the American streaming platform as serious and professional against the ridiculous and crass Mexican platform.

The picture taps into a popular meme that first arose in February 2016 when Televisa announced it was developing Blim. Throughout social media, users created and shared images that juxtaposed a screen grab from a show or film from Netflix with one from a Televisa telenovela. It was not long before the meme acquired classist tones. Pictures signifying Televisa were often those of the lower-class characters in its series. The Netflix-Blim meme became shorthand for high-production value aesthetics worthy of praise versus low-quality stills worthy of mockery. Further, poor people become the punchline for an elitist online content turf war. The popular resignification of Televisa’s programming as an undesirable, low class aesthetic is in some ways unsurprising. The broadcasting empire has long profited from conservative programming that perpetuates the nation’s class distinctions, devalues rural and working class ethics, and sets up social mobility as attainable only through heterosexual marriage. (( Ana M. Lopez, “Our Welcomed Guests: Telenovelas in Latin America,” in To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World, edited by Robert C. Allen, 256-275. New York: Routledge, 1995. )) These memes then perpetuate the ideologies of class endemic to Televisa’s programming by extending its hierarchization transnationally to the distinction between Netflix and Televisa programming.

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Poor people become the punchline in the turf war between competing streaming services.

What remained unremarked in mainstream reactions to the release of Blim was the fact that, with the licensing lapse, Netflix lost access to a popular type of programming, Telemundo’s super series like El Señor de los Cielos (2013– ). Super series are reformatted telenovelas broken up into multiple 70-episode seasons instead of a single run of 120 episodes. They have succeeded in increasing Telemundo’s domestic market share in the United States, especially with younger and male audiences, and they attract the digital-savvy audiences that Netflix tries to court in countries like Mexico. (( Juan Piñón, María de los Ángeles Flores, and Tanya Cornejo, “The Hispanic Television Industry in a Crossroad,” in Obitel 2015: Gender Relations in Television Fiction, edited by Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes and Guillermo Orozco Gómez, 405-436. Porto Alegre: Sulina, 2015. )) Telemundo has also mobilized the Quality TV rhetoric as a marketing strategy to differentiate these series from traditional telenovelas by emphasizing their higher production budgets, on-location shooting, and action sequences. Netflix’s strategy of mocking telenovelas and the people who watch them did little to obfuscate how important a section of this television genre is for the streaming service’s market dominance in the Mexican VOD market.

It was not long before Televisa struck back with its own promotional spot mocking Netflix. Featuring two actors with an uncanny resemblance to those in Netflix’s ad, the male consumer in the Blim promo celebrates that he can watch Rebelde once more while his friend mourns losing El Señor de los Cielos from Netflix, only to be reassured that it is available on Blim as well. The last laugh may be short lived since a new agreement between Telemundo and Netflix would give the latter licensing rights to the U.S. network’s new seasons, including upcoming ones for El Señor de los Cielos. Still, Netflix’s initial reaction to the release of Blim remains a pointed reminder of the class markers latent in issues of genre and platform branding at a transnational scale. The video spots speak both to Netflix’s ongoing struggles to secure content when seeking new markets and to its increasing efforts to build a “Quality Platform” brand. That the opponent in this instance was Televisa reminds us that the entire affair is a race towards monopoly. As one critic noted, it would be great “to see Latin American services giving Netflix a run for their money in their home markets… just not Televisa.” In the end, this streaming war between Netflix and Blim comes down to two media giants slamming each other yet devaluing their users in the process.

Image Credits:
1. Netflix Crying
2. Vampire Diaries
3. Punchline




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

Netflix audience

Audiences as Netflix Subscribers

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

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

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

Netflix subscribers

Netflix Subscription Data

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

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

Quantifying success

Netflix Brands Success

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

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

Image Credits:

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

Please feel free to comment.




Content That Travels: International Content and Original Programming on U.S. Streaming Sites
Karen Petruska / University of California, Santa Barbara

Shows
The French series Les Revenants and its American adaptation.
“There’s a more level playing field in content creation and greater professionalism in the execution of small-screen content everywhere around the globe.” —The Hollywood Reporter

For a recent review of The Returned, an American adaptation of the French series, Les Revenants, Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman issued a harsh critique of the A&E adaptation: “This ill-advised remake of the original French series is an embarrassment. Go watch the original.” With the French version of The Returned having completed a run on the Sundance Channel and now streaming with subtitles on Netflix, it has never been easier for U.S. audiences to legally access international programs in their original formats through legal means. As a result, when adaptations prove to be inferior copies of the non-U.S. version—see also Gracepoint for another recent example—a network’s failure to air an international series in its original form can seem short sighted. Why remake a series that has already proven itself, as evident in praise from the U.S. press?

The U.S. television industry has always borrowed from and adapted popular international programming, from program remakes like the 1970s All in the Family to a wide range of reality format series throughout the past fifteen years. Direct importation of these series for linear TV has been less common, however. A format or adaptation provides a number of benefits for the producer and distributor. Adapting a series allows a network to make the program its own, to cast actors familiar to local audiences, and to otherwise frame the story through local contexts. Moreover, by creating an original series, producers and distributors of the new version may be able to complete the hat trick of then licensing their remake abroad, perhaps even in markets that have already been exposed to the foreign original. From Downton Abbey on PBS to Top of the Lake on Sundance Channel, programs that enjoyed American financing as part of an international co-production arrangement are gaining an unprecedented access to American audiences.

Notwithstanding this trend towards adaptation, web-based streaming sites have opened a new marketplace for original international content. For sites like Netflix and Hulu, international content provides a ready supply of programming at good rates. These programs also generate unique promotional opportunities for streaming distributors trying to attract viewers and to build a nationally or globally-recognized brand. My current project takes a closer look at the distribution of international content within the U.S., focusing upon shows that are promoted as “original” series despite having premiered abroad. Among the shows that fall into this category, for example, are Netflix’s Lilyhammer (2012-) and The Fall (2013-) and Hulu’s Misfits (2009-) and Prisoners of War (2009-).

Lilyhammer
Lilyhammer
A number of scholars have called for more work about global distribution patterns and the reception of international content within the U.S., and this post engages that area of study by exploring the implications of an increasing emphasis upon the branding of international content as original series for U.S. streaming sites. My attention to “original” series belies that distributors have always branded series produced by others as their own. For instance, The Big Bang Theory is a CBS show even though it is produced by Warner Bros. But in most instances, the program in question has enjoyed its world premiere on the network that claims it—the distributor has given the producers a means to reach an audience, and in exchange, they claim a sort of ownership stake in that series. But when Hulu promotes an international series as an original, that program has generally enjoyed a successful run in at least one other nation prior to its premiere online in the U.S. online. “Original,” therefore, seems a misnomer.

Hulu has been particularly aggressive in licensing foreign programs, as syndicated, exclusive, and original series. Syndicated content may be found across a variety of platforms, from broadcast repeats to cable on demand, in addition to the streaming access provided by Hulu. Exclusive programs, on the other hand, appear only on Hulu, making this content key to Hulu’s subscriber appeal. With original series, Hulu makes an extra claim—an original series is not only exclusively aired by Hulu, it also carries the imprimatur of the site. When a network promotes a program as an “original series,” it implies not only some sort of fiduciary investment but also a role in making the series come to life. For a show like Top of the Lake, Sundance invested as one many producers before distributing the show through its cable channel in the U.S. For a show like Misfits, Hulu operated only as a distributor.

A streaming video distributor based in the U.S. and owned by several media conglomerates, Hulu has always been sort of the also-ran of the major streaming sites, despite its pedigree. For a site that does not operate outside the U.S., international content has played an important role for Hulu in building its program library and subscriber base. Streaming content, as Hulu’s former content chief Andy Forsell has explained, can break down barriers to foreign content circulation within the U.S.—from the pressure of ratings to time zone challenges. Perhaps even more significantly, one other key barrier broken by streaming is the frictionless experience of viewing on demand. For an audience unfamiliar with international programming fare, streaming provides a relatively smooth mechanism to try a show and see if you like it. Not only is there no “per view” fee to account for when viewing content on Hulu, but it is also incredibly easy to select additional content to view as a binge or instead. Hulu has also tended to be accessed on smaller mobile screens, research paper, particularly for the free users lacking access to the over-the-top interface, and subtitles may be easier to consume on these smaller screens. For a variety of reasons, then, streaming sites like Hulu may provide a uniquely well suited environment for the sampling and consumption of international programming among U.S. audiences.

Prisoners of War
Prisoners of War
One of Hulu’s first “original” series was Prisoners of War, which served as the inspiration for Showtime’s Homeland. Hulu did not produce Prisoners of War, and it does not enjoy licensing rights to the series, which are held by production company, Keshet. Nevertheless, it markets Prisoners of War as an original program. While Homeland focuses on the suspense of Carrie’s investigations, Prisoners of War concentrates upon the soldiers and their families struggles with reintegration. Just as Homeland became a bit of a sensation here in the U.S., Prisoners of War, or Hatufim, was hugely popular in its native Israel. Prisoners of War aired in Israel in 2009, earning mega ratings and Israel’s top award for television. A second season aired three years later. Hulu picked up the first season in 2012, airing it weekly. Season two streamed on Hulu on demand in its entirety in 2013, and though a third season has been promised by Raff, it has yet to air in Israel or elsewhere.

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Hulu’s menu for Prisoners of War.
When selecting Prisoners of War within the Hulu program menu, a prospective viewer does not see any indicator that this is a foreign series (see image above). In fact, the program description does not mention Israel at all. Instead, the blurb strives for a more universal appeal, referring to the soldiers returning “home” rather than to a specific location. The program does stream with subtitles, but a viewer will have to begin the screening to discover that indicator of foreignness. Through Hulu’s interface, Prisoners of War becomes a timeless story about the struggles of soldiers returning home. Missing from the plot summary and metadata are specific details at service https://grademiners.com/coursework-help of Israel’s political life, its battles within the middle east, and the complex religious themes of the series. On Hulu, this is a program with no past, appearing in the U.S. seemingly fresh and new, even though this means the critical acclaim it earned abroad plays no role encouraging sampling of the series. Instead, its status as a Hulu original, offering something distinctive and exclusive for viewers, stands as a key allure of the program.

Interestingly, the program’s creator, Gideon Raff, believes the show is best understood through its Israeli context. As Raff has noted, Prisoners of War speaks to Israeli viewers in a different way than Homeland addresses American ones—asking Israelis to work through ugly parts of day-to-day life after heroes come home. Raff wanted to start a national conversation within Israel, amplified in season two when a third prisoner of war turns up alive but is revealed to have converted to Islam. These sorts of local appeals, Raff worried, may be lost due to the success of Prisoners of War abroad: “It’s dangerous, just in the sense that I think part of the success of the Israeli formats is because they’re very local and true to Israel. Prisoners of War, even though it found a big audience, is really a very local show about a very local experience. The danger is that Israeli creators of Grademiners.com will now try to fit what the American audience would love.” Prisoners of War is a featured program on Hulu, but even its creator is unsure if this global exposure ultimately benefits the series or the audience it purports to address.

Americans are enjoying increased access to international programs in their original format and languages, but these shows nevertheless undergo a process of translation that distances the Americans from the series original meanings and contexts. Digital distribution technologies may have made it easier for international content to reach American audiences in its original form, but this does not necessarily mean that these original series are un-adapted, rendered less foreign, or absent a process of translation. The programs may travel but they are doing so without a passport.

Image Credits:

1. The French series Les Revenants and its American adaptation.
2. Lilyhammer
3. Prisoners of War
4. Hulu’s menu for Prisoners of War.

Please feel free to comment.




Neighed to Order: The Case of BoJack Horseman
Matt Sienkiewicz / Boston College

misc. bojack characters

Various BoJack Horseman Characters

There is nothing new about genre mixing within the television industry. As Todd Gitlin (1984) notes, TV is an inherently “recombinant” medium, all too happy to graft together the limbs of old successes in the hope that this season’s Frankenstein’s Monster will jolt to life and keep eyes on the screen for a year or two. McAllister (1992) takes this argument further, arguing that television’s long seasons and commercial imperatives make pure genre productions virtually impossible and hybridity the natural state of the art. From this perspective, Cop Rock is less the unholy spawn of creative mad science and more something that had to be tried eventually.

And yet, despite television’s long tradition of putting odd things together and seeing what sticks, there remains something unique about the amalgam that is Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. BoJack is not merely a genre-bender in the tradition of The Flintstones, Twin Peaks, or Doogie Howser, M.D. It is instead something much more intriguing: a shameless cultural omnivore. It absorbs and recreates elements from across the television landscape, incorporating themes, plotlines, jokes and characters from shows as disparate as Family Guy and Breaking Bad.

This approach, we argue, not only makes for an interesting entertainment product, but is also indicative of something new about the contemporary TV moment. In the age of big data, “television” outlets such as Netflix have embraced the possibility that even the most counterintuitive combinations–say a talking animal animated sitcom that will by the end of season one include a very serious story of cancer, death, shame and forgiveness–might succeed, provided there are some statistics speaking in its favor.

For all of its creativity, the conceit of BoJack is lifted, rather shamelessly, from the Seth MacFarlane playbook. Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show and Ted have a number of overlaps, but perhaps the most striking is the use of a character that looks like an animal, talks like a person and yet occasionally lapses back into animal form. Family Guy’s Brian the dog, for example, is a sophisticated liberal blowhard with distinctly human flaws. Unless, of course, the mailman walks by, in which case he turns into an irrational barking mess. BoJack’s world is populated by dozens of such characters–horses, cats, dogs, whales, seals and so on–with intermittent non-humanity a consistent source of the humor.

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MacFarlane’s Talking Animals

BoJack, however, draws (steals?) from more than just its animated brethren. The opening sequence of the show, for example, features a boozed up BoJack, dressed in a suit. Jazzy music provides the soundtrack. Half way through, BoJack free falls from the top of a building, plummeting to what would seem to be certain death. This is noteworthy on its own, insofar as its deathly seriousness stands in sharp contrast to the openings of other adult animated sitcoms like The Simpsons, South Park, and Bob’s Burgers. More importantly, however, the sounds and images are so evocative of Mad Men’s famous opening that it is tempting to read BoJack’s credit sequence as an homage or an all too serious parody. Furthermore, the similarities have prompted a comically parallel set of online fan engagements in which fans of both shows argue that the main characters–Don Draper and BoJack–will commit suicide in their respective finales.

aaron paul on breaking bad

Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad

The show’s casting is similarly unashamed to pull from a variety of successful programs, many of which have a prominent home on Netflix. Will Arnett plays BoJack, rather obviously channeling his oblivious, self-important entertainer character of Gob Bluth from Arrested Development. Alison Brie’s character offers more than a handful of similarities to her role of Annie on Community. Most striking, however, is Aaron Paul’s Todd, who appears to be lifted directly out of Breaking Bad. Todd is an irresponsible understudy being held back by a domineering, unstable, irresponsible and yet somehow charming father figure. He has a run-in with a Mexican drug cartel. He wears a wool hat despite living in a warm, southwestern climate. He never seems to have time for a shave. He is, in other words, an only slightly exaggerated version of Jesse Pinkman.

todd on bojack

Aaron Paul’s BoJack Horseman character, Todd

The Breaking Bad elements of the show go beyond even this rather obvious importation. For one, there is BoJack’s very serious, multi-episode engagement with Herb Kazazz, an old friend now stricken with cancer. As the backstory plays out, we learn that BoJack, in a moment of selfish weakness, sold Herb out for money and fame many years ago. Not only does this plotline seem to violate standard principles of TV comedy by moving into a rather dark, seemingly unironic space, it also overlaps remarkably well with Walter White’s relationship to Elliot Schwartz throughout Breaking Bad. More generally, BoJack draws upon the narrative strategies of prestige, complex TV, offering overlapping and interweaving storylines no doubt meant to increase the program’s “bingeability.”

In pointing out these similarities we, by no means, intend to suggest that show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his writers were making creative decisions based directly on the algorithmic demands of Netflix data. This is almost certainly not the case, even if Netflix openly admits to providing a number of suggestions for the program. However, we do contend that there is something more than a coincidence at play here. All of the shows listed above, with the exception of Community, are found in Netflix’s U.S. streaming catalogue in their complete runs. Although it is impossible at this point to get a hold of actual Netflix rating numbers, it is not hard to guess that 12 seasons of Family Guy and 6 each of Mad Men and Breaking Bad represent expensive properties. The fact that Netflix keeps them on board thus suggests a steady procession of viewers. With Arnett’s Arrested Development, they went as far as to produce an entirely new season at considerable cost. Furthermore, Netflix certainly knows the extent to which these viewers overlap.

Our suggestion, therefore, is that at the moment of the show’s pitch and throughout the development process, Netflix may well have had reason to believe that BoJack’s strange menagerie could actually work. Armed with data about the viewing habits of its clients, the company was able to free itself from the restraints of long standing industry lore and even the limitations of blunt instruments such as genre conventions and traditional demographics. In a previous era, BoJack may well have been seen as a program full of contradictory niches, hailing small audience groups with one aspect while repelling those same groups with the next. The data, however, may well have shown that this would not be the case, suggesting that audiences for the shows BoJack draws from have more in common than is immediately apparent.

Certainly, there is the potential for the abuse of such information. If BoJack works too well, we could see a parade of increasingly ham-fisted attempts to combine popular programs in cheap, search engine-friendly ways. Though this may be unfortunate, it would also not be terribly new, of course, as copy catting has long been one of the industry’s most unappealing but profitable vices.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the freedom that BoJack displays in its mixing of genres and crossing of references. It is a strange, wondrous beast of a show, recalling Raoul Duke’s description of Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “too weird to live, too rare to die.” In a previous era, it likely would not have lived at all. Today, it exists and even thrives, perhaps less to the surprise of its benefactors than we might think.

Image Credits:

1. Various BoJack Horseman Characters
2. MacFarlane’s Talking Animals
3. Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad
4. Aaron Paul’s BoJack Horseman character, Todd

Please feel free to comment.




Industry Lore and Algorithmic Programming on Netflix
Nick Marx / Colorado State University

Netflix
Part 1:

Over the last several years, much digital ink has been spilled on Netflix, its allegedly slavish devotion to data, its stubborn refusal to make any of that data public, and its plans for world domination. In the absence of conventional metrics for comparing it to linear television networks, we’re left to cobble together incomplete findings from third-party research firms and infer broader generalizations about Netflix instead. We’d be lying if we said this two-part column isn’t grasping at the same straws, but we hope to reframe some of the available information about Netflix in order to avoid characterizing it as a “red menace” or something inherently threatening to television’s business-as-usual. Doing so can help critics and scholars better understand the context for Netflix’s success and its role as a cultural forum.

Despite growing concerns that Netflix’s algorithm-driven model will replace organic culture with cold, T-1000 ruthlessness, data may well serve to activate new sets of creative possibilities instead. TV producers have always worked within a set of industry constraints. Historically, these have been based on a body of common sense drawn from a combination of passed-down lore and information derived from highly flawed statistical services such as those offered by Nielsen. Working within these limitations, moments of immense creativity emerged, as did a long list of uninspired, derivative drivel.

The Netflix-led “Data Era,” we suggest, promises not to be all that different. Although new data gathering methods may well improve audience-targeting practices, such improvements amount to little more than new industry lore informed by more precise, but not necessarily more useful, information. As a result, new programming possibilities may well open up, with executives now being able to see virtue in unusual connections and combinations that once would have been perceived as nonsense. But how can we better conceptualize this balance of agency and machinery? If we posit at the least a soft connection between data and programming for dissertation help, what does this say about the nature of innovation and creative choice-making? The first part of this column explores the former question, the second, the latter question through a close look at the Netflix original comedy series BoJack Horseman.

Popular press accounts love to portray Netflix content as mostly the product of complex computer algorithms, but it’s important to remember the people interpreting those data, and how they do so differently from linear television. Generally speaking, Netflix’s structure for the relationship between entertainment products and data about them combines human intuition for knowing how to talk about and appreciate media content with a sophisticated system for organizing that content into categories as uniquely customized for a given subscriber as possible. For instance, Netflix employs an army of part-time media buffs to watch and tag content with generic information, the primary data that shape its increasingly-personalized recommendation system. Netflix maintains relatively distinct workplaces, too, between its engineering corps and data scientists based in Northern California and its talent and content acquisition team in the production centers of Southern California. As Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt notes of this division of labor, “The contract between us, roughly, is whatever they buy we figure out how to get the most value out of it by putting the right stuff in front of the right people.”

Ultimately, and not unlike a traditional network head, final say for original programming falls to Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, whom profiles portray again and again as a sort of television Billy Beane, the baseball executive known for popularizing the use of advanced metrics in the sport and the subject of 2011’s Moneyball. Sarandos’ daily dilemma, to paraphrase Todd Gitlin, might be called “the problem of knowing too much”: finding useful needles of data among haystacks of distractions AND determining how to use those data to marshal resources for content (and organization of that content) that speaks to loyal viewers.

Although the network is notoriously tight-lipped about how and to what ends it deploys data analysis, small indications exist that, in the aggregate, provide a clearer picture about the decision-making process behind Netflix originals like BoJack Horseman. For instance, in interviews creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg highlights Netflix’s eagerness to offer notes on the minutest of creative choices like background music, as well as its amenability to serialized storytelling and binge watching, something he saw as crucial to the show’s comedic sensibility. One can infer, then, that Netflix provided Bob-Waksberg with data supporting these creative choices without forcing them, as accounts of “Netflix-as-culture-machine” would have us believe. For other original shows, Netflix has revealed the importance of title cards to a viewer’s browsing experience and how data about color patterns drive viewers of, say, a PBS prestige drama to a Netflix original like House of Cards.

Netflix Color Chart
Detailed Color Comparison of Hemlock Grove, House of Cards, and Arrested Development
Another commonly circulated myth about Netflix is that its long-tail library means that there’s something for everyone to choose from. Of course, as anyone who’s ever been frustrated not to find their favorite recent release knows, this isn’t the case. Netflix’s library is finite and subject to the same bidding wars and vagaries of windowing and syndication as linear television and film. In this sense, Netflix seeks not to create or license the perfect show for every viewer, but to guide each viewer as carefully as possible to a title in its catalog with which it hopes s/he will have high engagement. Hunt indicates that “Our vision is you won’t see a grid and you won’t see a sea of titles. Instead you’ll see one or two perfect suggestions that perfectly capture what you want to watch right now depending on your mood and who is with you, who is sitting with you at the TV right now.”

So what do Netflix’s programming decisions say about its desired or presumed viewership? For most of its short history, Netflix’s original shows have functioned a lot like HBO’s in the 2000s–programs that need to generate buzz and drive subscriptions, not necessarily shows that will make up their production cost. Until recently, this has meant dark or sensational dramas like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. But the network’s increased forays into original comedies offers further fodder for understanding how Netflix targets certain viewing groups as it continues to grow. At the end of 2013, Netflix hired a new executive to oversee comedy development, Jane Wiseman, whose credits include niche-but-buzzy network fare like New Girl, Community, and Parks & Recreation. Her pedigree and shepherding of BoJack Horseman highlight two key aspects of Netflix’s comedy strategy. First, to develop comedies that resonate with the aesthetic and binge-ability of the prestige dramas–like those mentioned above, as well as Mad Men and Breaking Bad–already owned or licensed by Netflix. Second, to develop content translatable to the international market in order to avoid the time and cost of region-specific licensing as Netflix expands globally, aiming to be in 200 countries by 2016.

To that end, Netflix has signed comedian Adam Sandler to a four-picture deal, one described by Sarandos as “data trumping conventional wisdom” because of Netflix research indicating Sandler performs much better on home video and in foreign markets than at the American box office. The network’s forthcoming day-and-date release of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel also represents a clear attempt to establish a foothold in the lucrative Chinese market, but in a way familiar to Western fans of the original film. With this two-pronged approach, then, Netflix is re-interpreting an industrial blueprint in place since the dawn of the FOX network and merger mania of the late 1980s. But what difference, if any, exists in the resulting original programming, and what does this mean about the nature of creativity in the “Data Era?”

Part Two explores this question by looking closely at the Netflix original comedy BoJack Horseman.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix
2. Netflix Color Chart




Party Like It’s 1999: Another Wave of Network Nostalgia
Derek Johnson / University of Wisconsin-Madison

i love the 90s
I Love the 90s…and so does the post-network television industry.
In just the last couple weeks, several new television productions have been announced that suggest the network plundering of the 1990s is now fully underway as a concrete production cycle. Fox has announced that it will produce a 6-episode limited series of new X-Files episodes with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny returning to their original roles. In a move I suspect far fewer saw coming, NBC has resurrected the football-themed sitcom Coach, apparently unable to imagine keeping Craig T. Nelson off its schedule after the recent cancellation of Parenthood. The Disney Channel had already drawn from ABC’s old TGIF programming block to bring back Boy Meets World as Girl Meets World in 2014, and now Netflix wants to do the same in reviving Full House as Fuller House. With this reinvestment in 1990s television properties come accompanying reports about the difficulties of executing that strategy; David Lynch has apparently parted ways with Showtime despite their once shared desire to update Twin Peaks for the 21st Century, and the overall future of the project remains in doubt. Nevertheless, even struggles to mine the 1990s for renewable resources call our attention to the lengths to which programmers are going to extract new value from the television of that era. Despite all the changes wrought by the post-network era, networks, cable channels, and over-the-top digital services alike can all comprehend the future as yet another extension of old broadcast programming.

Coach
Craig T. Nelson returns as Coach Hayden Fox on Coach
We’ve had recent waves of 1970s and 1980s revivals as well, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising to reach this point with the 1990s. But I’ve been trying to reflect on what the programming of the 1990s specifically might have to offer contemporary television from network to Netflix, and whether this nostalgic storytelling is a new moment in television franchising or just more of the same.

In my all-time favorite Flow column, Bob Rehak examined the 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica series as an exemplar of the “reboot” strategy whereby the television industry continually renews and reinvents its proven properties to pitch them at new audiences in different cultural moments. Rehak understood the “reimagining” of Battlestar for the 21st century less as the force of cultural zeitgeist, however, and more as part of the “rhythms of franchise.” Regardless of cultural change, remakes and relaunches are part of the industrial process of maintaining and managing the serial production of television franchises over time. “Such is the nature of the successful media franchise,” Rehak wrote, “doomed to plow forward under the ever-increasing inertia of its own fecund replication.” I’ve sometimes taken issue with the bleakness this implies; rather than “doom,” another way to think about this is how franchising may be just as reliant on innovation and dynamism (even if only in small doses) than formula and creative stasis. Regardless, from his vantage point in 2007, Rehak helps us to see how the serial processes and temporalities of television franchising in the first decade of the century pushed toward continual narrative reinvention.

I wonder if this cycle of 1990s nostalgia represents a move away from the logic of the rebooted reinvention. Yes, the industry is going back to the well in a familiar way, but instead of reboots we are seeing revivals. We aren’t seeing young, fresh reinterpretations of Mulder and Scully or even Uncle Joey; instead, we’re going back to continue what was started and (it now seems) left unfinished in the 1990s with the original interpretations of the characters. I’m not suggesting this move is unprecedented or even particularly new. Beyond the occasional reunion show in the past, we’ve seen television writers pick up the storylines of long lost characters on dramas like the recent 90210 and Melrose Place on The CW, as well as the Dallas revival on TNT. Yet in these cases, the returns of Jennie Garth, Laura Leighton, and Larry Hagman as their original characters (Kelly Taylor, Syndey Andrews, and JR Ewing, respectively) each seemed to be as much as part of a process of torch passing to a new generation of characters who share narrative focus or even come to be the new focus. While these current slate of 1990s revivals remain in pre-production, and I’m sure new elements and characters will be announced in the future, the initial hype surrounding them has very little to say on what new might be brought to the table. The only things disclosed about either X-Files or Coach focus on the casting of familiar returning leads—and likely very little other casting has yet been done to disclose. These programs are being ordered straight to series without pilots on the basis of the old that’s being revived, not the new of reinvention.

Melrose Place
Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) and Sydney Andrews (Laure Leighton) stand in the background to support a new cast of Melrose Place tenants in the 2009 series.
If this programming trend does constitute a move away from the reimagining and the reboot, I continue to wonder what factors might be driving such a shift. My critical eye might be compromised here, as I’m personally fascinated by these revivals. I’m thrilled to see the media industries invest more in television revivals on television; as a fan, I would have much rather seen properties like Firefly and Veronica Mars revived as ongoing series (even limited like The X-Files) than one-off films. I am also compelled by the chance to revisit a handful of television worlds that I watched when coming of age as both a viewer and budding television scholar in the 1990s. In my daily, stripped viewing of it, Coach is literally the lens through which I came to think about and appreciate syndication and repetition; along with the Star Trek spin-offs of the 1990s, The X-Files introduced me to fandom (though I never cared for Full House). So as much as I should be suspicious of both my complicity in the ideology of nostalgia and the industry’s ability to pull these off in a satisfying way, I am a little gleeful nonetheless. But if only because I’ve considered the possibility of other parts of this 1990s television heritage being revived—it won’t be a true return to the 1990s, in my opinion, until there’s another Star Trek in production—I keep wondering what industrial purposes the revival of such series serves.

Star Trek
Michael Dorn can’t get studio support for his “Captain Worf” Star Trek pitch.
Has the availability and repeatability of programming on Netflix and Amazon Prime reshaped the temporalities of viewing in such a way that older interpretations of television narratives have become (perceived as) more marketable than rebooted reinventions? As the temporalities of access to older programs change because of these new viewing platforms, has it become difficult for the industry to imagine separating viewers from their interests in these original incarnations? Is there an economic imperative to produce new, narratively compatible content that can be packaged along with existing programming libraries on these subscription services for dissertation help (or in other venues of repetition like TV Land?). In restarting production of Star Trek as Star Trek: The Next Generation after a 20-year hiatus, for example, Paramount Television reasoned that even if the new series was a failure, it could simply be added to the syndication package of the original, thereby increasing the value of that package. Forbes has suggested a similar dynamic may be in play on Netflix.

NetfliX-Files
The NetfliX-Files
At the same time, might there be anything about the nature of 1990s television narrative and its embrace of “cumulative,” hybrid episodic-serial structure that makes a greater demand for revival and in-continuity follow-up? Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and yes, even Coach played with ongoing storylines that helped usher in new kinds of narrative norms in US television by the end of the 1990s. And each of them also experimented with “soft” reboots in their final seasons: Twin Peaks tried to move on from the mystery of Laura Palmer’s killer, X-Files introduced new lead agents, and Coach moved Hayden Fox from Minnesota college football to a pro team in Orlando. Maybe the push toward reinvention already contained within these cumulative forms—and the failure of those original reinventions to stave off cancellation—has led to more of a back-to-basics embrace of familiarity over reimagining.

As noted above, the Star Trek spin-offs remain a particularly interesting point of comparison, both in representing an earlier moment of in-continuity revival, and in being persistently absent from the current nostalgia party. The obstacles standing in between Star Trek and a television revival are too numerous to name here, but its worth noting that over the years Next Generation stars like Jonathan Frakes and Michael Dorn have expressed interests in returning their characters to television production. While such revivals will probably remain pipedreams for them, they have somehow materialized for many of the other television series over here https://grademiners.com/book-report of that same era. Who would have guessed that in 2015 Coach would become a more easily exploited franchise than Star Trek—and how does it underscore the real industrial and cultural shifts that must have occurred since the 1990s for this to happen?

Image Credits:

1. I Love the 90s…and so does the post-network television industry.
2. Craig T. Nelson returns as Coach Hayden Fox on Coach.
3. Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) and Sydney Andrews (Laure Leighton) stand in the background to support a new cast of Melrose Place tenants in the 2009 series.
4. Michael Dorn can’t get studio support for his “Captain Worf” Star Trek pitch.
5. The NetfliX-Files

Please feel free to comment.