TiVoing Childhood

TiVo Set

TiVo Set

This winter, my family celebrated the fifth anniversary of two life-altering additions to our household – the birth of our first child and the purchase of TiVo. The celebration for my daughter turning five was certainly more notable than my casual reflection that we’d been a TiVo family for five years. But I often think about these two transformations as somehow linked, a simultaneous immersion into the chaos of parenthood tempered by the order of time-shifting.

Libraries have been filled on the life-changing impacts of having children, and the transformative potential of TiVo has occupied many column inches as well. But I haven’t read much on the connections between DVR technology and young children, a topic worth some consideration.1 So forgive me as I play into the stereotype of both parents and TiVo-owners – that we can’t talk about anything else! – and reflect on the significance of raising children in a time-shifted household.

For new parents, the power of TiVo is quite apparent. A baby’s schedule is far less regimented and predicable than the networks’, so most new parents are forced to sacrifice their dedication to their favorite shows for the immediate demands of a newborn. There is still plenty of time to watch television, as late-night nursing sessions and hours of baby-rocking welcome the company of a glowing screen, but being able to consistently choose these times becomes a rare luxury. So having a time-shifted menu of your favorite shows awaiting your attention is a parental pacifier.

When the baby grows into a little kid, TiVo’s advantages stretch across the family. We use the TiVo as a self-replenishing library of children’s programming, keeping a steady stream of new episodes of Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, and Higglytown Heroes on demand. So while it may be easier to force a pre-schooler to follow the whims of the television schedule than a newborn, it is still far from ideal. Television’s best uses, both as a child development tool and parenting aid, shine through when you can control both what they watch and when they watch it, not having to choose between a program or a schedule. Personally, my buzzwords for children watching television are “moderation” and “age-appropriate” – goals well-served by the control offered by a DVR. Add the ability to fast-forward through commercials, and it’s hard for me to imagine raising kids without a DVR (assuming you don’t fall prey to the “TV-Free” propaganda).

All of this might just be another in a long line of rhapsodizing paeans to TiVo from a proselytizing early adopter (of technology, not children). But I’ve recently noticed more significant and interesting impacts of TiVo on my children. All of my daughter’s experiences with television have been via a DVR, and thus her entire frame of reference on the medium is shaped by a technology that is still on the fringes of American media – DVRs are only in approximately 7% of television households.

When my daughter asks “what shows are on?”, she is not referring to the TV schedule – rather she means what’s on the TiVo’s menu. For her, the transmission of television via a simultaneous schedule is an entirely foreign concept, even though this has been one of the defining elements of television as a medium for decades. She understands that sometimes certain shows aren’t available, but it’s not tied to a concept of how these programs get transmitted and recorded onto the TiVo.

When faced with the “normal” way to watch TV, she expresses understandable confusion. If I want to watch a football or baseball game in conflict with the normal “time for shows!” in our house – between 5:00-6:00 pm, giving tired parents a chance to cook dinner and chat in relative peace – she doesn’t understand why the timeliness of the game grants it precedence over her menu of programs. For her, all television is part of an ever changing menu of programming to be accessed at our convenience, not a steady stream of broadcasting to be tapped into at someone else’s convenience. (Of course, she also thinks of television as something that grownups study, teach, and write books about, so she might not be representative of most children.)

She also has little concept of channels – if programming is part of a personal menu, what does it matter if it came from Nickelodeon or Disney? She does, however, care a great deal about episode titles, an aspect of programming I don’t think I encountered until well into my twenties – since TiVo offers a title and description of each show it records, she regularly previews what a show will be about before watching it, and judges whether it’s new or an old favorite. Or sometimes she’ll reflect on the vintage of the episode, whether it’s a Steve or Joe Blue’s Clues, a Dora the Explorer with or without Diego. Clearly this is a different mode of consumption then my memories of flipping on the TV to see what cartoons were on.

Recently we had a family meeting to discuss revamping TiVo’s Season Passes for their daily diet of TV. Media literacy proponents talk about making media consumption a conscious and active process–what could be more active than a 5 and 2-year-old discussing whether they’d rather be watching Bob the Builder or Between the Lions? (For the record, Bob won, much to Daddy’s Muppet-philic chagrin.) Even if they’re not the offspring of a media scholar, children in a TiVo household are encouraged to think about what they’re watching and make active choices about their televisual taste and experiences in a way previous generations did not.

Diddy says, \

Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

The absence of scheduling as a significant structuring element will leave some experiential gaps in my children’s televisual growth. As a kid, Saturday morning was an oasis of children-only pleasures, with wall-to-wall cartoons and sugared cereal ads that licensed laziness both for kids and their snoozing parents. Some networks have abandoned this strategy in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine children in a TiVo household embracing such a ritual when cartoons lose their scarcity and may be accessed on demand. Likewise, for me a snow day or being sick meant mornings lying on the couch watching a parade of game shows, since nothing else worth watching was on; if the TiVo is full of age-appropriate favorites, the game shows would quickly lose their appeal.

These gaps are clearly no great loss – I’d rather my kids watch things more appropriate to their ages and interests than just what happens to be on. But it’s easy when thinking about new technologies to focus on either their industrial impacts and strategies, or utopian potentials as part of a digitally converged future. These are certainly important, but we should also consider technology’s impact on the everyday lives of its users, and on the way technologies shape the way we think about those mundane, commonplace practices.

I teach my students that media technologies are shaped by the intersection of technological, institutional, and cultural forces, emerging with unpredictable uses and social impacts. It’s hard to imagine a better way of witnessing how new technologies are culturally consumed and shape our perception than watching a child learn how to use them. My oldest is just learning the ins and outs of the remote control – turning the set off and muting commercials while watching sports live – but it will be interesting to see how she takes control of the TiVo once she can fully operate the menu. I expect she will be navigating the technology quite differently than her parents, who clearly see it as an empowering interface to a more normal way of watching the flow of television. If DVRs become as ubiquitous as many believe they will, how will the TiVo generation view the media? If my household is any indication, television will be transformed, but not necessarily in predictable ways.

Both parenting and TiVo transform a household. Personally, we’ve found satisfaction in both, upgrading our family to three children. Our one TiVo remains an only child, occasionally begging for a sibling to allow it to grow, learn to talk to other devices, and walk about the house a bit. But for now, it awaits further discovery from a generation who will think it so odd that we ever needed to watch television according to someone else’s schedule and flow.

1 See this link for a TiVo user discussion on the topic, and here for a brief consideration from USA Today.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo Set

2. Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

Please feel free to comment below.




Rating the Runway: Project Runway and New York Fashion Week

Project Runway

Project Runway cast

On February 10, the three finalists from Bravo’s Project Runway presented their Fall 2006 collections at New York Fashion Week. The shows were recorded for the season finale, scheduled for March 8. Given the secrecy usually associated with reality show finales, there seems something amiss, if not completely inept, about this timing. Yet it is clearly deliberate: this is the second season structured in this way, replete with a decoy finalist whose runway presence at once nods to this asynchrony and indicates careful advance planning. This elaborate strategy instead suggests an important shift in contemporary television textuality. That fourth decoy collection and the delayed transmission of the Bryant Park fashion shows reveal viewer responses to be as much a part of PR’s text as its broadcast events1

Jane Feuer has argued that both of contemporary broadcasting’s most paradigmatic forms–reality and quality television–largely depend on their discursive and interpretative communities to create meanings2. In the case of reality shows in particular, this results in a distinctive textuality that evokes a close and dynamic relationship with an offscreen “real,’ while at the same time asserting the show’s textual specificity. Shows like Project Runway maintain a distinct textual presence while they advocate viewer participation, play with the idea of permeable and non-permeable textual boundaries and highlight the different ways in which we can access ‘the real world.’

Project Runway is currently the highest rated cable show on Wednesday nights among 18-49s–and given the prevalence of PR reruns and mini-marathons, it’s arguably easier to see it than miss it. It’s also one of the most discussed shows on television. Viewers can also extend their participation by purchasing assorted t-shirts, bags and pins from the official site and a tie-in magazine is available from Banana Republic with a purchase. If that’s not enough, they can buy clothing from the designers’ own collections, bid on the actual garments from the show, get the tie-in Banana Republic outfit or the PR Barbie.

Santino Rice

Santino Rice

PR is not about making couture accessible; instead, it explores this gap in cultural power through the vehicle of fashion. Although premised on finding “the next great American designer,” PR presents the more mundane world of mass-market retail (L’Oreal, Banana Republic, Mattell, Toys R Us). Unlike most high profile reality shows, it has no desert islands, boardrooms or elaborate stages but instead embraces the everyday while ostensibly focusing on the elite world of high fashion. Unlike American Idol, the judges alone decide who advances on PR, and the inconsistency and elitism of their criteria is the primary discussion topic on official and fan sites. Polls on the Bravo site allow viewers to correct these seemingly awry and capricious verdicts immediately after the show. In both seasons a fan favorite was eliminated just before the Bryant Park shows while a free pass was seemingly given to its “villains” (first the style-challenged Wendy Pepper, then the arrogant and outspoken Santino Rice). Viewers respond by ensuring that their favorites–season 1’s Austin Scarlett and Season 2’s Nick Verreos–win almost every challenge (at least online), regardless of the quality of their designs, blasting the judges/producers for elevating character over accomplishments.

Bravo’s site also offers commentaries from Tim Gunn, Chair of Fashion Design at Parsons, that encourage viewers to mount a counter critique of the show. These elaborate upon events we didn’t see, suggesting that the show–as broadcast–is incomplete. Viewers are implicitly invited to seal up these gaps–or rent them further apart–in order to finish the show. Websites and internet posters point to clumsy devices–voice-overs that do not match the image and obvious temporal ellipses–and offer their own interpretations of what really happened. This allows them to correct perceived errors in judgment–a bad overdub meant that the producers really sent Nick home on episode 10, favoring outsized character over good design.

Jay McCarroll

Jay McCarroll

Many PR posters admit to knowing little about fashion, however, allowing the show to mobilize another gap that exists in the real world: the gulf between the populist feelings/tastes of the masses and the elitism of those in the fashion industry. Jay McCarroll, last season’s popular winner has now been reinvented as a villain: as an outsider (contestant) he was funny and offbeat, but as an industry insider, he is just bitchy and mean spirited. On the other hand, viewers like Tim Gunn, not just because he is the paradigmatic witty and debonair gay man, but also because he is a teacher and thus occupies a liminal position between the industry and those of us permanently on the other side of the velvet ropes. During Fashion Week, he eschewed a front row seat, instead remaining backstage to support the designers. Tim thus foregrounds the distance between the viewers and the elite worlds of fashion and television while acting as a conduit for further commentary.

PR’s most obvious gap–the four weeks between its finale and the Bryant Park shows–thus not only stimulates discussion and displays the multifaceted registers of this text, but makes a statement on social status and expertise. Although initially intended as a trade event, Fashion Week is now effectively part of celebrity culture, and, as such, more about access and social status than talent or knowledge. The hierarchies of access–admission to the tent, viewing the collections on the internet (still photos that cannot display the way garments move) and watching them on television (with a four week wait)–enact the discrepancies in power that are part of high fashion and the social sphere it embodies. By stimulating viewer discussion and arguably stoking critique of its judges (celebrities and fashion world insiders alike), Bravo reiterates television’s status as ostensibly popular medium. By forsaking the conventional secrecy, shock and suspense of most reality television, PR instead offers a network-sanctioned utopian vision of a more interactive and democratic text–albeit a form of populism designed more to placate advertisers and sponsors than truly disturb hierarchies of power.

1Airing the season finale a month after the show sacrifices novelty and suspense, but as the Banana Republic magazine exposed designs and challenges before the show even aired, PR would seem to be one reality show where suspense–and with it, a concentration on the text as text–was not the point.

2Jane Feuer, “The Shifting Meaning of Quality TV: 1950s-Present,” presented at American Quality TV, An International Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, April 2004.

Image Credits:

1. Project Runway Cast

2. Santino Rice

3. Jay McCarroll

Links:
Official Bravo site Project Runway
Also see Blogging Project Runway

Please feel free to comment.




Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sundance 2006

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Overheard on a shuttle as I traveled from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts: “the best film so far has been that midnight movie The Descent, you know the one with the chicks with ice picks versus CHUD.” CHUD, for those readers unfamiliar with the world of trashy eighties horror films, stands for “Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers.” Actually, The Descent was a pretty enjoyable film with its mildly feminist revision of the buddy film set against a plot that includes subterranean Appalachian piranha people who devour their victims while alive — a tonic against a schedule of Sundance festival films loaded with light romantic comedies and heavy-handed social issue documentaries (the second of which I like to watch, but this genre goes down a bit hard if it constitutes the bulk of one’s cinematic diet on a trip that averaged four films a day over four days). Out of the fifteen screenings that I attended, I saw several good serious films — 5 Days (a documentary detailing the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza), A Little Trip to Heaven (an Icelandic film noir with Forrest Whittaker as an insurance investigator), and Wordplay (a shaggy dog of a documentary about crossword puzzle makers and fans) were all stand outs.

But for this column I want to focus on another aspect of the Sundance Film Festival that most attendees know about but that doesn’t really rate entry into the fabled festival buzz: the coverage of Sundance by the local cable station, Park City Television (PCTV). Each day upon return to my hotel room, I unwound by watching PCTV’s fragmented, repetitious series of vignettes covering the big events of that day’s festival schedule. Modeled after the style and format of “Entertainment Tonight” or the E! cable channel — but aimed at the indie film crowd sensibility — PCTV featured segments entitled “In the Can,” “The Scene,” and “Big Mountain Adventure” (a segment that followed selected filmmakers as they ventured out to the Park City ski slopes). These PCTV segments were then packaged into a 30-minute program and aired on the Sundance Film Channel as a wrap up of the day’s events for those unfortunate enough not to have traveled to Park City, Utah in person.

Alternating with these canned-entertainment pieces were extended segments that featured video documentation of Sundance sponsored panel discussions and special events. The panel coverage that I found myself watching late Friday evening was entitled “Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theatre Experience and the Future of Exhibition.” While the panel was supposed to focus on changes in film exhibition and its consequences for independent film producers, the emphasis in the discussion was actually on new forms of distribution that generate new forms of exhibition. The panel, chaired by Bill Alpert senior editor at Barron’s Magazine, included key executives from Google.com, the Sundance Channel, Sony Connect.com, and the Wall Street Journal.

While digital cinematography and postproduction has by now gained acceptance from film producers and audiences, large screen cinematic exhibition continues to be considered the gold standard of the movie-going experience, in contrast to the diminished experience (at least for those in the film community) of the small screens of television, the Internet, or mobile phones. However, perhaps because multiplex screens have for the most part shrunken to a size not much larger than plasma TVs, or perhaps simply in response to the increasing financial pressures of big screen distribution, indie filmmakers are becoming more accepting of small screen alternatives to the standard studio distribution model, based as it is on the high costs of multiple prints and multiple theaters. The panelists on “Stay-at-Home Movies” spent most of their allotted time addressing the needs of these filmmakers — a core creative class presumed to be different from those who make Hollywood studio product — and looking at the forms of distribution enabled by the Internet and small, portable screens such as the video iPod.

The question initially raised by Mr. Alpert was, “How do content providers get paid for their product?” As the studios routinely fudge accounting and fashion deals that favor corporate ledgers at the expense of creativity, conventional wisdom states that if independent filmmakers can control distribution, they will reap a larger portion of the rewards accrued by their productions. But if small screens are the vehicles, how will filmmakers collect the cash? Of course, the model used by Google Video — in effect a video search engine (or is it a video distribution engine?) — suggests that through advertising-supported web content (the foundation of Google’s economic success), filmmakers could make, in the words of Jennifer Feikin, director of Google’s video project, “seventy cents on the dollar as opposed to the pennies on the dollar that they receive from studio deals,” implying that, as Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher succinctly put it: “the studios are screwing the makers.”

In response, Chris Dorr of Sony Connect.com flatly stated, “the nature of community is promotion.” Well, so be it. If we are discussing economies of scale and of promotion, then the economic model that is brought to the filmmaker by the Internet distribution model is one that simply reproduces the older studio model of production financing. While the artist hawking his productions on Google Video does reap much more of the proportional rewards than do his or her colleagues at Paramount, in the end the total amount of money earned through studio distribution still dictates that some, chosen by the financially secure agents of movie capitalism, reap disproportionate amounts of money for their efforts.

Bill Alpert noted this inequity in the studio system of production and distribution by bringing to the attention of his fellow panelists that filmmakers with studio support are allowed to spend considerable up-front money to make their creations, where truly indie producers potentially working within the Google Video model — which essentially pays after the fact of production — are much more constrained in their vision by the lack of up-front capital. So while the costs of production have declined significantly through the introduction and refinement of digital technology, the costs of distribution still depend on a large expensive media apparatus controlled by corporations that privilege certain ideas — those that generate the most revenue — over others — those that quaintly explore more complex and abrasive ideas. While the myth of Sundance continues to hoodwink filmmakers into believing that the odds of securing a distribution deal are in their favor, the reality is that only a small percentage of Sundance Festival filmmakers find these million-dollar deals coming their way.

As prophesied by the panelists, distribution through Internet Protocol (IP) systems — blogs using video, myspace.com-style websites, sling boxes, and portable media players — does seem to be the future of the media industry, but this future, at least at this juncture, holds no more limitless horizons for independent media producers than the current structure, as the means of distribution, if not production, are still controlled by corporations and IP distribution is still a part of this corporate system. Discussing the business end of the indie scene, it is hard not to slip into a neo-Marxist analysis of the matters at hand. As Feikin from Google Video flatly stated, “70 percent of one dollar is better than nothing.” Is that really the best that indie media producers can expect? Or should we just expect to live in the “small monitor town” where we all carry screens (Dorr’s location free television) which are supplemented by large screen experiences as they transpire at home or at the digital multiplex while still relying on large scale capital to supply the majority of high visibility media content?

These are questions I had hoped the panelists would answer, but suddenly the PCTV’s coverage of the “Stay-at-Home” panel discussion was interrupted, cutting off Bill Alpert in mid-sentence, to switch to an in-progress commercial for a hip clothing store on Park City’s main street. What conclusions panelists drew regarding the future of exhibition remains a mystery. But given the rather bleak future forecast to that point by representatives of the Sundance Channel, Sony, and Google — a future where corporations rule IP distribution networks just as they have done in the world of film and television, where voices are limited to those whose ideas fit within the intellectual space of the media industry, and those who fail, or who are incapable of “fitting in,” are relegated to producing on a handful of pennies — it seems that the next stage of media distribution is on track to reproduce the inequities inherent in those that came before. It seems that indie producers are still just “chicks with ice picks” pitted against the CHUDs of corporate media culture.

Links
2006 Sundance Festival
Sundance.org
Connect.com
Google Video

Image Credits:

1. Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Please feel free to comment.




Public Radio Redux

NPR DJs

NPR DJs

Someone once described the period between completion of an academic book and its publication as “the calm before the calm.” In late 1999, my first book was published with the less-than-felicitous title of Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio. The book was an institutional analysis of National Public Radio, focusing specifically on how NPR had configured the “public” throughout its history. Writing the book was like cutting stone; after publication, it promptly sank like a rock from sight. I posted a notice to the public radio listserv with a link to the first chapter, and the only comment came from the fundraising director of a public radio station in New Hampshire: “Jeez, I couldn’t get past the tortured fire metaphor on the first page.” One of the three published reviews referred to it as a “rant.” Subsequent books about NPR ignored it altogether. So much for fortune and fame.

So I left the study of public radio for other endeavors. However, recent rumblings in the popular press regarding flat station revenues and audience growth, political machinations and listener discontent (as well as deadline pressures) have led me to re-examine my predictions for National Public Radio and its affiliated stations. On the whole, my predictions were fairly accurate. NPR’s occasionally tenuous finances were stabilized when it received a $236 million windfall from the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 2003, as well as a recent $7.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation. Yet NPR has been extremely hesitant to share its good fortune with stations. Instead, the network has been pouring more and more money into its news operations, and news continues to trump cultural programming at the local level. Classical music, the traditional mainstay of local station schedules, continues to slide in importance. Washington’s WETA went all-news in 2005 and Detroit’s WDET followed in 2006 (the latter move triggered a class-action suit from listeners against the station).

Predictions for regional consolidation have been borne out. Iowa public radio now operates as an umbrella, rather than as separate stations; other regional powerhouses, such as San Francisco’s KQED and Austin’s KUT, have engaged in aggressive land grabs by acquiring additional stations. Minnesota Public Radio, which introduced winner-take-all economics into public radio, split off from the distributor it co-founded, NPR’s arch-rival Public Radio International (PRI), and, true to form, began jacking up rates for its programming. Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor simply vanished. NPR currently operates two channels on Sirius satellite radio, but the “tent poles” of Morning Edition and All Things Considered remain firmly staked to terrestrial broadcasting. Stations, which purchase programming from NPR and other suppliers, would never allow their two chief moneymakers to bypass them. Local programming is largely an afterthought at the station level (and NPR, to its eternal shame, worked in conjunction with the NAB to hobble the low-power FM movement). NPR also offers streams of canned programming to stations for rebroadcast on their web sites, but the results, as far as I can tell, have been underwhelming in terms of both carriage and listenership.

NPR Ipod

NPR Ipod

The wild card, which virtually no one could have predicted seven years ago, was the advent and popularity of podcasting. The audience research gurus who essentially set NPR and station policies throughout the ’80s and ’90s based their embrace of commercial programming strategies on the belief that listeners approach radio passively, listening to stations rather than discrete programs. However, a director at Boston’s WGBH found that Morning Edition was downloaded approximately 14,000 times a week in December, 2005 despite no promotion whatsoever. In contrast, the program’s RealAudio stream drew less than 50 listeners a week. Yet podcasting is no panacea, either. A micropayment system, implemented for station non-members, may discourage use, and producers may provide their programs through other venues. The economics also are problematic, since stations must add server capacity as they draw new listeners. The existence of a “digital divide” ensures that substantial portions of the population will lack access to broadband technology in the foreseeable future (although NPR historically has had little use for the folks on the other side of the tracks). Most importantly, the local stations that form the core of the public radio system do little more than vend the programs – they don’t create them.

Blaming NPR for the malaise that afflicts public radio is akin to blaming the victim, since it is a membership organization that must follow the directives of its affiliates. And that is where the principal problem lies – at the station level. I’m still convinced that locally produced radio programming remains the key way to reach the “public” NPR was chartered to serve. In 1999, discussing the adaption of “seamless” formats and syndicated program advocated by consultants, I wrote, “Given the development of diverse delivery systems . . . local stations will not be able to survive if they continue their present practices.” In fiscal year 2003, nearly half of all public radio stations in the U.S. operated in the red. A year later, the New York Times noted that “To remain viable, many managers say that their local stations must gain more leverage vis a vis NPR by producing and promoting more of the kind of distinctive, localized programs and segments that help shape public radio’s eclectic character.” Radio is uniquely suited to fill the role of a public medium. Its low cost and mobility afford a sense of immediacy and flexibility that make it ideal for reflecting a community’s history and constructing a community’s possibilities. At the risk of invoking another tortured metaphor, public radio must go back to the future if it is to survive.

Mike Janssen, “Jacking Into Podcasts.” Current, January 31, 2005, p. 1
Lynette Clemetson, “All Things Considered, NPR’s Growing Clout Alarms Member Stations.” The New York Times, August 30, 2004, p. E1.

Image Credits:
1. NPR DJs

2. NPR Ipod

Please feel free to comment.




Producers, Publics, and Podcasts: Where Does Television Happen?

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

The distance between television creators and television viewers has always seemed to me to be exaggerated, in mainstream as well as academic conceptions. “The industry,” that mysterious source of texts, is put over in one corner, and the “audience,” endlessly receiving (actively, passively, or otherwise), is parked in the other. We scholars look into each side fairly well, but rarely do we examine what happens when they meet. John Fiske once wrote about “moments of television,” where television “happens” in the interaction of text and audience.1 I’ve always liked this conception, but would suggest that we scale it back beyond only the text (which always matters, of course), to the institutions and people who made it. “Television” happens somewhere in this meeting of people, institutions, ideas, and technology.

Unfortunately, while the various parties of this relationship are generally analyzed on their own, they’re rarely brought together. The industry is all too often viewed as either a monolith or a set of fiefdoms, with transparent intents and machinations (i.e., to make lots of money). While this conception is valid, if banal, it lacks an analysis of the complex workings of the television industry, its components, and its people. The pursuit of profit alone doesn’t explain the prevalence of hand-held camerawork in single-camera shows, the explosion of procedural dramas, or even how Ashton Kutcher became a reality show mogul. Meanwhile, textual analysis, while invaluable, still separates process from product. This isn’t the place to ruminate on the interpretive role of the critic, but surely, as Keith Negus detailed in his study of genre in the music industry, the motivations, calculations, and judgments of creators and other industry personnel “matter,” at least in principle.2 Finally, while the audience has received the lion’s share of critical attention (whether categorized as viewers or fans), their documented encounters with television generally begin and end with the text, or with the texts they create. Television creative personnel rarely factor into such studies. However, many television creators today (writers in particular) consider themselves fans, and actively foster relationships with fans. These “fan-professionals,” including creators like Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon, present significant opportunities for connecting the dots between producers, texts, and viewers.

While fans have long contacted series producers and writers (dating back to radio), the growth of organized fandom over the past forty years has provided producers of particular genres with ready-made, eager and receptive, if often difficult, audiences for their work. An array of media and fora, ranging from magazines to conventions, have developed over this period to facilitate (and, yes, exploit) this connection. Over the last dozen or so years, the internet has greatly expanded the range and volume of these creator-fan encounters. Engaged creators can now obtain instantaneous feedback on their work from their most enthusiastic viewers. Some writers and producers (and in a few rare cases, actors) even directly engage with fans on their own turf, posting on fan-run message boards and blogs. Most recently, however, creators have taken an even more active role in this relationship, offering up extensive online commentary and discussion about their work.3

The producers of the new Battlestar Galactica didn’t have to put blogs (text and video), galleries of production art, or weekly podcasts online, but they did. This material has gone beyond the usual staid promotional package you’d expect on official websites, to include frank discussions about the series’ production, and salty on-set actualities. In his unprecedented podcast episode commentaries, executive producer Ron Moore is mostly concerned with explaining the “whys” of televisual storytelling, justifying narrative elements, detailing rewrites, lamenting production difficulties, and even regretting some choices. As a grizzled veteran of the rise and fall of Star Trek in the 1990s, Moore is keenly aware of the demands of fans, of networks and studios, and of commercial television itself. He effectively communicates the exhausting process of pleasing all of these masters, and yet can still gush with unapologetic fannish glee at an actor’s performance, at a shot sequence, or at his series’ much-noted moral ambiguity.

Although Galactica’s official web presence is certainly robust, Lost arguably represents the most extensive online interaction between creators and fans on American television right now. As with Battlestar Galactica, a weekly podcast enables series producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to talk directly about their work, discussing that week’s episode, and answering a few fan questions about the narrative each week. Unlike Moore and Eick, however, Cuse and Lindelof focus primarily on teasing the narrative rather than explaining how things were done. This approach runs parallel with both the dominant treatment of the series (as unfolding puzzle) and the other components of its online footprint (e.g., cryptic websites for Oceanic Air and the Hanso Foundation). Their fannish enthusiasm comes across in anticipation of “what happens next,” rather than in Moore’s “here’s how we did it.” In addition, each Lost podcast also includes an interview with a cast member. Thus far, these interviews have served as fairly standard publicity fodder, although as the podcast form becomes more established, perhaps they will evolve into something more substantial as well.

Lost

Lost

Like their fan-produced counterparts (which number in the dozens), these official blogs and podcasts offer new spaces for analysis, interpretation, and creator-fan interaction. That said, these practices shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their face value. They still function primarily as promotion material, drawing fans not only to the programs, but to ad-supported websites and other media. Moreover, significant cultural and social power differentials still remain between creators and fans, no matter how sincere the formers’ intents may be. Still, though, creators like Moore and Lindelof are clearly enthusiastic about their work, and about talking about their work with other enthusiasts. There’s something in these exchanges that needs to be acknowledged and studied, rather than ignored or written off.

Thankfully, there are precedents in television studies for “connecting the dots.”4 These works trace the connections over time, revealing how creators sometimes rely upon viewers for creative acknowledgement and even political support, and how viewers communicate their perspectives and concerns to creators. What emerges in these accounts is an understanding of how television texts (and even institutions) are ongoing collaborations of expectations and possibilities between creators, networks, advertisers, viewers, fans, and technology. In other words, television isn’t just what happens in the proverbial living room between eyeballs and screens.

The mushrooming of content (online and otherwise) related to series — what used to be called “extratextual”–presents not only further avenues of interpretation, but also alternative conceptions of what “television” is, or can be, or was. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere in Flow, the rapidly shifting distribution of television adds to this redefinition, and arguably enhances the importance of creator-viewer interaction. The distance between the dots is shrinking, and has been for years. It’s high time to connect them.

Notes
1John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987).
2Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1999).
3The prevalence of commentary tracks and other “behind-the-scenes” features on DVD releases is another signficant incarnation of this phenomenon.
4A few examples: Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham, NC: Duke, 2001), Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina, 1994), Laurie Ouellette’s Viewers Like You?: How Pulbic TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia, 2002), and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Methuen, 1983).

Image Credits
1. Battlestar Galactica

2. Lost

Please feel free to comment.




Why Accurate Audience Measurement is Worth the Trouble

Arbitron\'s Portable People Meter

Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas drove home a point that has been made repeatedly in the pages of Flow — the way we engage media is undergoing radical changes. The prospect of online distribution of programs created for TV has come to pass, with more portable video players and video downloading programs emerging to compete with the Video IPod and ITunes. These developments are likely to make the Nielsens, an already woefully inaccurate audience measurement system as detailed by Jason Mittell in the previous issue of Flow, even less accurate. It may no longer make sense to track an audience without looking across media — from television broadcasts, to video-on-demand, to downloads. But changing the method of audience measurement for TV programs won’t be easy. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it might not be possible at all.

What’s clear is that there is a lot at stake. As John Gertner noted in a New York Times article last April, changing the method of audience measurement could change the entire culture industry, an industry that, for reasons both economic and ideological, doesn’t like to be changed. Indeed, these statistics hold so much sway over those shaping the American collective consciousness that it’s easy to suspect their custodians of having something other than the accurate depiction of audience desire as their MO. However, if we adopt such a distrustful view of audience measurement, if any centralized system for the measurement of audience preference is inherently susceptible to corruption, then what would be the incentive to develop a more accurate system?

There is a certain amount of faith one must have to engage in the campaign for more accurate audience data. One has to acknowledge that what is being measured — the audience for certain programs — has social and political implications that go beyond dollars and cents. While every consumer decision made by citizens impacts these spheres, its easy to see how ratings for a progressive-minded talk show might be more indicative of its consumers’ values than, say, their decision to buy Crest toothpaste instead of Colgate. Creators, distributors, advertisers and audience researchers all have socio-political agendas of one sort or another. Nevertheless, they (particularly the distributors) are motivated foremost by profit, and if people are willing to pay for a certain program, or tolerate ten minutes of advertising to watch a show, then they would like to know about it. If it really is “all about the money,” then the networks would want to know exactly what the audience wants so that they don’t miss the boat on a series that ends up being a hit on DVD or, god forbid, another network.

We have to believe that while a totally accurate picture of audience desire may never be achievable, it is an ideal that can and should be aspired to, as much for the sake of the scholar seeking a greater knowledge of how individuals engage media as for the sake of the fan crusading to keep a soon-to-be-cancelled show from going under.

Assuming that the system is broken, and that it is worth fixing, is there anything outsiders like us can do to affect change? Individual arguments for a show’s potential, no matter how well founded or articulate, can only do so much. A financial catalyst is needed, and we might just have that in the form of a la carte availability of TV episodes courtesy of ITunes. If a show with horrible ratings gets downloaded enough times, the creators, distributors and advertisers will get the message — something is seriously wrong with the way audience desire is measured. The “tipping point” referred to by Derek Kompare in his response to Jason Mittell’s article may take this form.

Just how resistant is the current audience tracking system to change? Is this stubbornness due to an inability to keep up with new distribution technology? Is it part of a concerted attempt to marginalize certain values put forth in certain programs, or is it simply a case of a large system with many players that cannot change quickly? Perhaps we’ll never have totally accurate answers to any of these questions, but that doesn’t make the search for these answers any less worthwhile.

Image Credits:

1. Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Please feel free to comment.




Speaking to Each Other at Last? The Ghost of TV Past, Present and To Come…

This is my fifth and last Flow column, all of which I have enjoyed writing – I hope you have caught one or two of them. If by some oversight you’ve missed them, they are archived here:

1. Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?
2. Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?
3. To Have and Have Not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)
4. Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows? Television as History

There’s not that much space for pleasurable discourse among peers these days. So it was instantly appealing when co-founder Avi Santo (along with Christopher Lucas) offered me a chance not only to write about my own specialist field again, but to engage with the comments of others. The Flow journal wanted us to ‘engage with television at the pace of the medium,’ he said.

Horace Newcomb

Horace Newcomb

It was then that I began to hear the rustle of the Ghost of TV Past. Actually it wasn’t a ghost, it was the Spirit of Horace Newcomb. Here he was, large-as-life, not exactly rustling in those Texan boots, taking me back to 1984 or thereabouts.

I see a big drill-hall of a conference venue somewhere in Michigan, or is it Illinois, where it seems Horace has invited me and another British guy to join with himself and plenty of others – American media academics and a sprinkling of media professionals – to talk about TV.

They’re calling me Fiskan; Fiskan Hartley I was in those days.1 There was a deep chime. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was the very ‘moment’ of High Theory. A shudder went through me, as if from a Ferment in the Field. Everyone began speaking in tongues: I spoke Althusserian, Fiske was babbling away in Certeauvian, young Docrock2 was there too I think, talking in a Birmingham accent. Two giant but shadowy figures – Charlie and Percy – lurked in the background as they Measured our Meanings, muttering:

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
3

Then the Genial Spirit politely rounded us up, I think there was some embarrassed hanging back and a general feeling that we were stepping out of our comfort zones. He wants us to do what? To sit up on the podium; to watch a pilot episode of an as-yet-unseen TV sitcom called 227; and he wants us to review it? There and then, in public, no rehearsals … oh and 227‘s proud producers are sitting there too in the drill hall, waiting with the usual grad-student crowd to hear what Media Academics had to say.

Hell, this vision is turning into a nightmare, surely? But no – it was Horace Newcomb, quietly trying to do what he has never stopped attempting, which is to get the worlds of professional media production and criticism to talk to each other. It has proved to be an uphill struggle.

We got through our ordeal-by-criticism on that night, but I wasn’t very impressed with us. There was just not enough common understanding of what TV criticism in an academic context might be for. So as each of us took our turn on the podium, what came out of our mouths told the audience much more about us than it did about the hapless 227 – which however survived our critique and went on to five successful seasons.

227 was an ordinary product of the network dream factory, with no particular critical, avant garde or oppositional merits to recommend it to the assembled Young (well, mostly older) Turks. Its merits were that it was funny in a sitcommy way, and it proposed to put a predominantly African-American cast, playing working-class characters, in front of Americans each Saturday night. Everyone could think about neighbourliness while they laughed at the vicissitudes of apartment-block life. Check it out.

But someone on the podium thought it was too much like the Cosby Show; someone else thought it had its class analysis all wrong; a third (it might’ve been me) thought it reeked of network values rather than those of the culture it purported to portray.

This was the last time I ever heard media academics doing ‘live’ TV criticism, in sync with the rhythm of TV itself. In fact criticism itself became a nearly forgotten art after that painful night in the wilds of East Lansing (or Urbana-Champaign).

During the long slog through Ideological Critique and the posts- (structuralism, modernism, colonialism etc.), it was hard to get a judgement in edgeways. It seemed that criticism had had its day. It was either an oppressive discourse imposing DWEM [dead white European male] values, or it was self-deluding infantile wish-fulfilment universalising the self of the critic, or both. Just then the Bennett & Miller gang, the tough guys of Cultural Policy Studies, rode into town, shot the place up with their Foucault-45s and declared the unattached universal intellectual dead.

Criticism became the love that dare not speak its name. Those of us trained (as unattached universal intellectuals) to make skilled judgements, both aesthetic and moral, about texts, in order to provide expert guidance in matters of culture and value to the public at large, with due understanding of the context of class, you know, like Richard Hoggart, learnt to keep our big mouths shut.

Until Flow. And suddenly all the memories came flooding back, because Flow has Horace Newcomb written all over it. It is tolerant, open, polite, passionately interested in connecting the industry with the academy and both with the audience, and of course it comes from Austin-Texas.

TV Present

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me

And all of a sudden I hear an eerie clanking again. This time it’s none other than Toby Miller … oh and I can make out other figures in the modernist gloom … Anna McCarthy, Michael Curtin, Mimi White, Tom Streeter, Sharon Ross, Henry Jenkins … no wonder there’s a big noise.

These are collectively the Ghost of TV Present, and there’s a hell of a lot more of them crowded around. Their ghostly words surround you now, as you read this. Go on, check the archive (it’s one of Flow‘s attractions); read their stuff, it’s terrific.

Indeed this is the other thing that appeals to me about Flow. I like the idea of an interactive but asynchronous and global medium – a useful conversational tool for those of us living and working in Australia.

I especially like the idea of the comments that can be pasted under each column. This had been my own introduction to the site – I’d posted an irreverent comment on a piece by Michael Curtin.

Flow‘s comments are by an interesting mix of senior figures and grad-students, and they often bring some entirely new insight to the column in question, or else they race off at a tangent on some new line of thought entirely, forgetting the poor columnist altogether.

According to Avi Santo, each issue gets about 8000 hits, although as yet there’s no way to tell which columns they’re reading.

But as time has gone on on, it has been interesting to observe how many comments a given column attracted – a sort of beauty contest or instant poll that might tell us who or what topic was hot. Eventually Henry Jenkins won, with a column on the humour of Sarah Silverman that at last count had attracted 58 comments.

The fact that Henry is one of the best and most thought-provoking writers in our field has a lot to do with that. But so, it seems, do extra credits. Someone had had the bright idea of getting a class to post comments as part of a class assignment. Not a bad idea: it made the students think, write, and communicate in public about sexism and racism on TV; a good outcome for everyone and an absorbing read for any educator.

But there is a whiff of ‘insider trading’ about this particular manifestation of conversational democracy. Was it true, as Horace Newcomb had claimed in his own column, that the audience for Flow is ‘predetermined’? Perhaps. Despite the global reach of the Internet we still live in tight little demographic villages, and judging by the traffic on Flow, one type of community simply doesn’t interact with another.

So I thought I’d try to write a column that would speak directly to TV audience-members, about the experience of watching a show that I really liked, which was Dead Like Me. Imagine my delight when comments starting appearing from actual fans. They do read Flow! Posts are still trickling in, five months later. To date there are 22 of them. Not a patch on Henry’s score and of course nothing like what you can find on the comments pages of IMDb, Amazon.com, petitiononline.com and myriad fansites. But here they are – and every one of them shares my feelings about DLM. Welcome, TV fans!

The only fly in the ointment, or clank in the chain, is that there was not a single post from a ‘Flower’ (regular contributor to Flow), or even from another media academic (apart from the obligatory editor’s comment). There were posts from Australia, the USA, Croatia and four from Canada. But from my peers, silence.

So it remained true – we don’t really interact across the demographic boundaries. Academics and audiences can appear on the same site, but academics talk about one thing; audiences another. Professionals are nowhere to be seen (and students are seen but not heard).

Now I see again the lowering bulk of the Ghost of TV Present. I hear the doom-laden voice … of Toby Miller:

Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ …

Things are even worse on TV itself, he intones:

There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities.

Hell’s bells! What are we going to do about that?

TV To Come

TV Future

Is the promise of Flow – for technologically and critically enabled steps towards an interactive consumer co-created ‘conversational democracy’ – a mere illusion?

Well maybe; certainly the symptoms diagnosed by Miller suggest that the ‘imagined community’ of modernity is in a pretty sick condition, if broadcast news in the USA is the thermometer.

And maybe that’s true – maybe we are nearing the end of the modernist paradigm when public intellectuals, whether critical or universal, could aspire to speak to entire nations. Maybe nations themselves, or big ones like the USA, are evolving past the point where even network broadcasters can hope to address them as a unified whole – the ‘unum’ has gone out of the ‘pluribus.’

And so perhaps we’re reaching the end of the paradigm in which anyone thinks television itself is targeted at ‘the still-extant mass audience,’ whether they despise universities or not.

There’s a whispering breeze at the window; a trail of indeterminate smokey haze slides into the room, across the computer terminal … it’s the Ghost of TV to Come.

I can’t tell you what it looks like, since I have never met Jason Mittell, who in any case keeps morphing into Jonathan Gray … now it’s John McMurria, now Avi Santo … these guys, oh dear, are they really all early-adopter boy-toy guys? … no, here’s Tara McPherson … these guys seem to have got this thing licked.

They reckon TV will evolve from universal broadcasting to customised consumption. Jason Mittell writes:

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience … awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. … By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see.

If they’re right, we no longer have to assume that all television needs to be directed towards something as wide (and anti-critical) as ‘Americans.’ It just won’t matter whether or not ‘most people’ despise intellectuals or foolishly refuse to recognise the things that we like. Good TV shows – such as Dead Like Me, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development – won’t have to be cancelled if they ‘fail’ in the Neilsen lottery.

This new generation of scholars is putting together the case for a television ecology that can exploit the Internet (‘Web2’ McMurria calls it), BitTorrent, TiVo, video-iPods and DVD. It is becoming possible for passionate fans to support their favourite shows directly, without relying on network providers.

Not only that, but fans can use digital equipment and software to make their own TV. In fact I’ve done it myself with ‘digital storytelling.’ Out there now are tribute versions of sci-fi shows, local documentaries, digital storytelling, or even full-length feature films. Some of these will attract their own audiences, driving new distribution options.

And so, alongside, underneath and (at least as far as IP goes) in defiance of the closed expert system of broadcast television, will develop a new open innovation network. You can already inhabit it. Actually Flow already does.

This brave new world does have a couple of dystopian elements. One is that no-one knows how to fund non-universal TV production. Another is that any future ‘imagined community’ will have to get used to the fact that most people aren’t inside it. There will no longer be one technology of communication that combines broadcast television’s universal access, affordability and appeal with content that – at least in principle – addresses everyone from time to time; from the top of society to the bottom.

Instead, different groups can just ignore each other. Television will become more like publishing, and as is already the case in that medium, no-one will be able to claim any longer that their particular audience equates with a universal subject or with ‘the nation.’

Mind you, it does seem – if Miller is right about the fate of the critical intellectual on American TV news – that the broadcast era hasn’t got much to shout about in this regard anyway. Entire demographics co-exist but ignore or bad-mouth each other.

TV claims a universal subject but viewers increasingly resent that. Flow columnists like Mittell and Jonathan Gray are rebelling against the Neilsen ratings, the ‘representative’ apparatus that levels out national taste.

Back to the Future?

Conversational democracy still seems a long way off. But in fact we do need to recognise that the apparently simple act of ‘speaking to each other’ is quite hard work – it’s not a natural outcome of any technology or ideology.

Luckily, the future-facing folks at Flow are onto this simple truth, and they’re doing something about it. Avi Santo tells me they’re planning a Flow conference later this year (2006).

But it won’t be the usual academic thing. There’ll be no papers, panels or plenaries. Instead, there’ll be conversation. Why?

  • There are too few television and media conferences.
  • Traditional conferences provide too little time for discussion.
  • Wider conversation and the circulation of ideas can promote collegiality, a less polarized discipline, and the promise of engaging real publics with our ideas.
  • Critical media studies will be more effective if it grapples openly with the immediacy and breadth of its object of study.

Says Santo:
The roundtable would be open to the public. … In this manner, we hope to ensure a lively conversation … Our goal is to spark a conversation that is both immediate and consequential.

Presumably it’ll be at Austin-Texas, a place whose drill halls I’ve never had the happiness to visit. But I would love to go – if only to search for the spirit of Horace, for clearly he stalks the corridors still.

It is to their credit that ‘the Flowers’ are looking for more effective means by which we can continue ‘speaking to each other.’ But it is right to recall that this is exactly where cultural studies first came in. ‘Speaking to each other’ is the title of two books by ‘our founder,’ Richard Hoggart.

Notes
1 Fiskan Hartley is a reference to Reading Television (1978) by John Fiske and John Hartley,which enjoyed a moment of academic celebrity in the 1980s.

2 Docrock is Larry Grossberg. Docrock is his email alias.
3 Charlie and Percy are (were) Charles Osgood, inventor of the sematic differential, and Percy Tannenbaum (who co-authored a book called, from memory, The Measurement of Meaning, with Osgood, in about 1967). Both were still around when cultural studies hit America, and neither of them approved!

Image Credits:

1. Horace Newcomb

2. Dead Like Me

3. TV Future

Please feel free to comment.




Let’s Get Small: The Year When the Record Industry Broke and Listeners Became Crazy, Mixed Up, Downloading, File-Sharing Freaks

EMusic

EMusic

Like so many teachers, the end of the year for me is a time to catch up. Many of you may be catching up with unviewed programming, unopened letters or unread books you started in September but had to put down once the midterms, students and committee obligations rolled in for the next 10 to 16 weeks. For me, that means looking at end-of-the-year best of lists, particularly for popular music. Compared to film and television, trends in popular music move at light speed. The relatively low amount of investment capital it takes to produce a quality set of recordings has meant that significant aesthetic movements like local music scenes and subgenres can rise and fall without making an impact on the charts or popular consciousness. What this means for someone like me, someone who doesn’t get out to live music as often as they once did or has the free time to simply explore pop music with friends and music lovers alike, is that I play catch up when I can and my month-long holiday break truly becomes that most wonderful time of the year.

And Lord knows I need that time to catch up. To paraphrase Robert Christgau, unless you are obscenely wealthy or a professional music critic you probably aren’t going to have enough time and money to follow the vast set of genres and artists that constitute contemporary popular music. Furthermore, because social networks tend to depreciate and/or stagnate in terms of variety and numbers as one ages, an inverse relationship between your age and you’re your knowledge of contemporary popular music quickly develops. Put simply, the older you are, the less likely you will know or care to know who Young Jeezy is and why he is a “Soul Survivor.” So, in finding the time to read my issues of Spin, troll the web and have some old-fashioned discussions with my local hip baristas about “what I should be listening to”, a number of issues arose. While I finally had the time to listen to those Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party and Clipse records that had piled up, the story of 2005 lied not so much in what one listened to, or even in the fact that there was as much good music in 2005 as I can remember. The story of 2005 didn’t even reside in how one listened to music, but in how the listeners got those recordings. In other words, as I went about my days of reading, writing and grading, the kids had not only bought new music, but there were new ways of buying music. As illegal file sharing sources such as Kazaa and WinAmp were effectively slowed down, more and more legitimate distribution networks were established. In 2004 iTunes could claim a million song catalogue and by 2005 emusic, which specializes in independent music distribution, also met the million song mark. As one Major Label A&R person told me late in the year, “We finally plugged the holes in the system.” Furthermore, not only did those iPods get smaller and smaller, more and more listeners had gone from being curious about iPods in 2004 to finding them absolutely essential only one year later. But the most important story of the year wasn’t the iPod Nano, it was that an effective infrastructure of legal file distribution was finally in place. As a result, the music industry can put a stake in the heart of disk distribution. The combination of legal networks and a significant portion of the audience walking around with 60GB hard drives meant that, sometime in the last 12 months, both audiences and industry alike uttered a collective “iacta alea est” and crossed a “technological” Rubicon.

Just like any gamble, what exactly the outcome of all of these new organizations and their effects will be on listening and production is not clear. What is clear are the numbers. And the numbers tell us that audiences are buying significantly fewer and fewer pre-recorded discs. As the radio industry website fmqb.com noted in an end-of-the-year article (December 30, 2005):

“While there’s still two more days for cash registers to ring in 2005, sales of albums in the U.S. should come in around seven percent behind last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, however, digital downloads have more than doubled in the past twelve months.”

There was even more bad news for the disk-oriented portion of the industry, which was already in a slow, but steady decline. With the exception of the less-than-outstanding 1.9% rise in number of CD units shipped in 2004, according to the RIAA the years of 2001 (-6.4%), 2002 (-8.9%) and 2003 (-7.1%) confirm the diminishing importance of pre-recorded music. Compare this to the rise of legal downloads skyrocketing between 2004 and 2005 and one certainly does not need a crystal ball to notice that the 148% upward trend (134.2 million to 332.7 million) speaks volumes. And less than 10 days into 2006, Billboard reports that, “In the seven-day stretch between Christmas and the new year, millions of consumers armed with new MP3 players (primarily iPods) and stacks of gift cards gobbled up almost 20 million tracks from iTunes and other download retailers.”

Again, the key is not to confuse consumption with distribution. Despite what Ken Tucker claimed on a December 20th, 2005 interview on Fresh Air, it isn’t consumption that changed. People may not be buying discs, but they are buying laptops and digital music players. Lest we forget, an iPod is little more than a small but powerful record and playback device. And while “podcasting” and “TIVOing” of television may be a radical change for television and radio, concern about “time shifting” performances began to dominate the music industry beginning in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, when long play and magnetic tape recordings began to outstrip sheet music in terms of sales and industry importance, time shifting had effectively become the rule of thumb for musicians and listeners alike. This isn’t to say that the musicians thought that time shifting was good idea. In fact, they vehemently resisted in the form of two national recording bans, but that’s another story (Anderson 2004).

Myspace Music

Myspace Music

What is interesting is that artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie may be the first two critically revered pop music acts to rely more so on the distribution capabilities of the internet not simply to outflank broadcast radio, but in a direct-to-listener micro fashion that effectively grants music and bands a “personalized” aura. In fact, while major labels still aim for the distributive potency of radio airplay (it’s still the only way to move a million units or more), more and more artists are utilizing various computer and Internet networking techniques for viral marketing opportunity. And these techniques are effective. For example, while my students rarely speak about radio stations, they do talk about the songs they hear through their peers online playlists and personal sites such as those found on MySpace.com. And just like a virus that you can catch simply because you briefly connected with a fellow traveler, popular music is no longer something that we need to go some specific place to hear or purchase.

(a) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (b) Annie

What this has meant for someone like myself is that assignments I used to give in popular music classes regarding music purchasing no longer have the pedagogical impact that they once did even 5 years ago. Because more and more of us no longer go to record stores (or even frequencies on the dial), a specific musical geography is dissolving around us as the music industry has adjusted to make bricks and mortar. Over 18 months have passed since Virgin shut down a number of its US-based megastores, leaving my city of Columbus, Ohio with second tier acts such as FYE to fill the bill as a local catalogue store. At the end of December part of that second tier began to fall as Media Play, a chain associated with FYE through the holdings of Trans World, announced it would, close the doors to all 61 of its stores, including the four in the Columbus area. If poor fourth quarter reports slammed the doors of the chain shut, the poor Christmas season of 2005 was the equivalent of Snidely Whiplash throwing the chain’s possessions into the cold with one hand while changing the locks with his other. And while this Christmas season was bad for many retailers, for many music retailers it was simply beyond the pale. According to the same article,

“The biggest drop during the season was in music sales, which were down 15 percent. However, sales of electronics and other equipment were up 3 percent, he said.
The soft season comes at a time when many entertainment retailers are struggling. And the trade newspaper Billboard reported that U.S. album sales were down 10 percent in 2005, although digital sales tripled in the 53-week comparison.
Rocky Roy, owner of Music Shack in Colonie, can empathize. He said the CD and music store saw holiday-season sales decline 15 percent in December from a year ago.
I get the feeling, based on the sale of iPods, that’s going to continue,” he said.”

Indeed, that loss will continue and we should recognize that we are at the beginning of one of those unique cultural moments, a moment where we end one mode of distribution and begin another, a moment that cuts both ways. I assume I will miss my catalogue stores, look forward to my trips to San Francisco, Phoenix and New York so I can visit Amoeba, Zias and Towers, and continue to frequent a number of smaller used and specialty shops. But I can’t say this kind of longing for a media space has any place in my student’s lives. While the extinction of the large, well-stocked, colorful, multi-genre record store is inevitable in all but the most hip, urban American centers does not exactly signal the demise of a overly centralized system of control, it does make it clear that many of the centralizing forces of geography have been effectively removed. And while I may mourn the loss of the record store as an element central to the popular music experience, it is something that I hope artists and producers will continue to organize around. If we no longer have to press as many physical discs let alone pieces of cover art, then maybe our investments can get so low that we won’t have to worry so much about making a video or paying for the airplay that is so persuasive that when we see or hear it we are forced to get up, leave our houses, drive to our local Sam Goody and plunk down $15 to $19 on a CD with only two good songs. Maybe this will be one of those moments when the music industry can become, for lack of a better phrase, “fun” again, something it hasn’t been in years. And as bottom line excessive as capitalism wants us to become, perhaps we can find some time at the beginning of the post-disk era to explore what it would mean to live in a pop music world where artists and producers need not deal with those excesses that so many of us believed had become part and parcel of the music industry. Maybe we will get a chance to, like punks in the late 1970s and hip hop of the early 1980s, once again see what it means to get really small together.

Work Cited:
Anderson, Tim J., “Buried Under the Fecundity of His Own Creations: Rethinking The Stockpile, The Standing Reserve and the Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musician, 1942 to 1944 and 1948,” American Music, Summer 2004.

Image Credits:

1. EMusic

2. Myspace Music

3a. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

3b. Annie

Please feel free to comment.




What Color Is Your Scholarship?

A friend of mine has been testing out a major technology company’s new e-book, a sleek little package that aims to reinvent the ways in which we read. It’s not the first sexy, silver object of its kind, but it hopes to be a successful one. Several earlier pioneers have pretty soundly failed, crippled by a lack of available content, by technological snafus and copyright issues, and by an ongoing fondness for that ‘old’ technology, the book. After all, the book works pretty well. It’s an interface we’ve naturalized and grown very comfortable with. As folks are wont to point out, it’s easy to take to bed or bath, it never needs a power source, and it almost never crashes. And, like many other academics, I like the very materiality of my books: their smells, their inscriptions, their covers (especially those from Duke Press.)

But I have to admit to being seduced by the promise and idea of the digital book, particularly its portability and its usability. Every time I find myself lugging forty pounds of books along while on vacation or visiting an archive, I realize I’d give up the physical pleasures of ‘book-ness’ for easy mobility. Sure, I might have to forego reading in the tub or in bright sunlight, but there are gains to be had here, even beyond portability. I’ve become so accustomed to working with digital documents that I find myself stymied by the inadequate indexes of many books I read. I want to search the print book of my own accord and have it capitulate to my desires the way the reams of digital data on my desktop appear to obey my epistemophilic desires. Sometimes I want to read a book cover to cover, in full savor mode, but, increasingly, I want to cut, paste, and remix them.

the Sony LIBRIe

the Sony LIBRIe

Honestly, I guess my TiVo is partially to blame. I can’t remember the last time I watched live TV. Even during the media circus that followed the devastation of Katrina, I had my TiVo working overtime, taping hours of coverage I’d peruse later, while I logged time at my keyboard searching interactive maps (courtesy of Google mash-ups), video snippets, and blog feeds. In her now-canonical essay on television’s temporality circa 1988, Mary Anne Doane argued that information on TV “inhabits a moment of time and is then lost to memory. Television thrives on its own forgettability.” Of course, Doane wrote just as the simultaneous double whammy of the cable explosion and VCR time-shifting began to take full hold. We might read our current investments in DVRs and 500 gig hard drives as our attempt to stave off television’s insistence that we immediately forget. Today, memory is cheap.

My desktop now sports a new folder labeled “Katrina clips,” a small, DYI database of moments I want to remember, culled both from the internet and my own TiVo hard drive. These clips share memory with talks and articles I’ve written about Katrina, with emails I’ve saved from families and friends along the Gulf, and with various news stories and blog postings I’ve catalogued for future reference. While Katrina and its aftermath provoked this particular deployment of memory, the hundreds of folders on my PC catalogue more banal aspects of daily life, from family photos to tax receipts. I move this data about at will, mixing media and matching files, orchestrating new collisions of space and time.

It’s a feeling of control that impacts my interactions with both word and image, returning me to my opening thoughts about e-books. In less than 20 years (I got my first PC and VCR in 1987, shiny new tools for starting grad school), I guess I’ve succumbed pretty fully to the lure of information machines and the control they seem to promise. No matter that this control is more ideology than ontology, to repurpose Jane Feuer’s prescient analysis of television. As fond as I am of my many, many books, I feel primed for new modes of reading and of writing, for information mixes that might open up new ways of knowing and of feeling, new circuits of exchange. New media artists have been pushing the boundaries of digital expression for at least a decade, and the electronic literature crowd has an even longer track record of pushing the boundaries of linear narrative. Still, the scholarly crowd has been slow to respond. Even those of us who study electronic media for a living still largely write and publish the ‘old-fashioned’ way even as academic presses struggle to stay afloat. What might electronic scholarship (rather than scholarship about the electronic) look like?

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Flow already begins to point the way. It closes the feedback loop between publication and reply, between academic call and response, by knitting the ‘comments’ function integrally into each article it publishes. Other online publications like the Electronic Book Review , Kairos , and the now-defunct Horizon Zero have also explored how multimedia or networked scholarship might take shape. The Labyrinth Project at USC pushes even further, exploring the power of cinematic language for the database documentary and public scholarship. Vectors , a new electronic scholarly journal, only publishes pieces that can’t exist in print. (In the interest of full disclosure, I edit the last one.)

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Such experiments aim to explore modes of scholarship more fully responsive to the remix possibilities of digital culture and to the visual cultures of film, TV, and the everyday. One goal of Vectors is to investigate the potential of the different affective and sensory registers of scholarship. Can scholarship look and feel differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user. What happens to argument when scholarship goes fully networked and multimedia? How do you ‘experience’ argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space? Can you play an article? What color is your scholarship? While these questions may seem trivial or even alien to scholarship as we now know it, I, for one, am game to explore a world where the outputs of media studies participate more fully in the emergent forms and practices of the media we study and populate new devices. I’m not getting rid of my books just yet, but I wouldn’t mind putting Flow on my iPod.

Sources:
Doane, Mary Anne, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1990).

Feuer, Jane. “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology and
Ideology,” in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles, CA.: AFI, 1983).

Image Credits:

1. the Sony LIBRIe

2. Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

3. Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Please feel free to comment.




Broadcasting Is Dead, Long Live Broadcasting

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

The Pondering Primate

The Pondering Primate

Internet pundits say we are witnessing the Web’s second coming. While overly exuberant venture capitalists burst the bubble in 2000 before the Internet was ready for profitable business, now it seems that conditions for the sustainable growth of a more prosperous “Web 2.0” have been established. A critical mass of Internet users now have broadband access, open-source software and cheap bandwidth that have reduced startup costs; additionally search tools have made advertising a big business. This second coming has also reconfigured the conceptual articulations of “old” and “new” media. “Web 1.0” established its revolutionary promise by constructing a binary between an old media defined by the passive, feminized viewers of a dumbed-down, TV executive-produced mass culture and a new media defined by personal choice and masculine interactivity (Caldwell; Parks; Boddy). However, in recent months “Web 2.0” has increasingly embraced the old medium of television to transition from principally a text, image and audio-based medium to a video-based one.

Let’s consider four of these recent initiatives in Internet/TV convergence. Rather than predict future developments, let’s look back to the core principles of broadcasting to see how these nascent Internet TV initiatives hold up to what we might call a broadcast ethic of TV citizenship. Despite the significant differences between public and advertising-sponsored television, each tradition shares the following goals: 1) universal affordable access, 2) universal appeal that promotes encounters across diverse groups, and 3) fair use rights to watch when and where one likes (Alvarado; Murdock; Lessig).

Ipod Lounge

Ipod Lounge

Case #1. Disney/ABC has teamed with Apple’s iTunes to offer episodes of 6 current television series for playback on a newly released video iPod. Episodes of series including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven” are available for $1.99 per episode the day after they air. The iPod provides nifty portability but is far from universally accessible and affordable, as users must have high-speed Internet service, buy Apple’s proprietary portable audio/visual devise for $300-$400, and pay for each episode. Universal appeal is limited, as only a few hit Disney/ABC shows are available. TiVo, the personal video recording service, will soon make recorded programs available for download to the iPod (and other Microsoft mobile video formats) for those who can afford the additional costs of the conversion software, the TiVo player ($50-200), and TiVo’s $12.95 monthly service charge in addition to cable/satellite subscription fees. Fair use is restricted to the iPod and 5 computers – no DVD transfers allowed. In linking proprietary content to proprietary hardware at significant costs, the video iPod is a minimal service for a privileged few.

Case #2. Warner Brothers and AOL have heavily promoted their IN2TV which early next year will offer free online episodes of old TV shows that are not currently in syndication. In its first year Warner says it will draw from over 100 of the 800 series in its vault including “Maverick,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Alice,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Babylon 5.” Episodes are organized into 6 themed “channels,” each episode includes 1 to 2 minutes of commercials. This offer is part of AOL’s broader strategy to transition from primarily an Internet Service Provider to a web portal with a particular emphasis on television, including AOL’s free live streaming of the Live 8 music concerts against world poverty held on July 2nd, 2005 in cities around the world; AOL’s coverage drew praise from those who grew irritated with MTV’s edited coverage and ABC’s limited two-hour broadcast, and scorn from those who found the unedited performances offensive. AOL and Time Warner are exploiting further synergies with an online video service that offers celebrity news and gossip produced by Warner’s Telepictures division. Regarding issues of access, just as AOL’s Live 8 coverage offered far more than broadcast and cable television for those with access to broadband, the In2TV will provide free access to TV shows that are otherwise unavailable. However, the service limits viewing to certain episodes, stratifies audiences through offering high quality resolution only to AOL broadband subscribers and provides only content owned by the corporate conglomerate. Concerning universal appeal, the vintage TV programs bring with them the contested representational politics of their time, but this look back reminds us of a time before the broadcast networks spun off their multiethnic casts and working class characters to minor broadcast networks and niche cable channels (Gray). Users can watch when they want to, but fair use is curtailed in that users cannot skip commercials or copy episodes to other devises – only excerpts can be emailed to friends and potentially transferred to cell phones. While less expensive and more extensive than the video iPod, In2TV’s linking corporate content to its Web portal creates promotional synergies rather than accessible platforms for TV distribution.

Case #3. The BBC is using file-sharing technology to test a service for 5,000 users which offers BBC programs online for up to 7 days after they air. While the BBC says it will offer 500 shows each week, only BBC-owned programs and those with secured transmission rights will be available. While this far surpasses the commercial initiatives in the US, there are limitations. In using Microsoft’s digital rights management system, users are prevented from e-mailing or copying programs to other devises. It is not clear why time-shifting is limited to 7 days. System capacity might be a reason for the limited test, but the BBC’s public broadcasting goal of providing a national service to create a sense of shared culture might also motivate a design that encourages a shared weekly viewing experience. The service is also limited to those with UK e-mail addresses, which protects the BBC’s commercial business of selling international rights to programs. (However, those outside the UK can access live streaming of some BBC channels and other international broadcast channels over free services such as Beeline TV and TV4All or subscription services such as NeepTV and Netspan TV – none of these offer time or space shifting.) While the BBC test case demonstrates the importance of public ownership for making programs available free online, critics have argued that citizens would be better served if all public and commercial broadcasts were available online through a single Web site.

NerdTV

NerdTV

Case #4. PBS has been slow to make their programming available online but it has recently initiated a series of Web-exclusive one-on-one video interviews with technology gurus including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Because the appropriately named NerdTV is distributed under a Creative Commons license, viewers can legally copy episodes to other devises, email them to friends and edit their own versions. Public ownership under open source licensing clearly surpasses the other cases in realizing our broadcast principles. However, the racial and gender politics of geek TV were manifest when in the 9th episode the program’s host admitted that viewers had criticized the series for interviewing only white males on its first 8 episodes – the show interviewed the tech savvy fashion model Anina in the 9th episode.

Considering these 4 cases of Internet/TV convergence, if Web 2.0 no longer frames the Internet’s video potential in opposition to the old medium of television, these nascent examples reveal that the promises of television over the Internet could learn much from the ethics of television’s broadcasting past. Rather than as an old medium that breeds passivity and low uniformity, let’s embrace television for its ethics of universal access and broad appeal, and for its ideals of commonly held resources and spirit of cross-cultural encounter. Web 1.0 hailed from a neo-liberal ethics of venture capital speculation, government deregulation and a spirit of individual choice and personalization widely encapsulated in the classical economic speak of “video on demand.” Web 2.0 frames Internet TV very differently, as is exemplified in the words of this journalist: “[c]onsumers are rushing to hook up high-speed broadband connections like it is a vital new utility. And in many ways it is – a sight, sound and motion utility becoming as important to consumers as electricity or as TV” (Oser and Klasseen). Broadband, electricity and TV are the public utilities of the Web 2.0 age. Let’s treat them as such and continue to advocate for universal access to broadband, fair use in audio/video, and the public initiatives to ensure this –from continued support for public broadcasting to municipal-run broadband systems. One of the reasons for Web 1.0’s demise is that the internet provided so much free content that users were loath to pay for it. In that spirit let’s all just say no to the video iPod, even if your favorite TV show is “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives.”

Bibliography

Alvarado, Manuel. “Public Service Television: Challenge, Adaptation and Survival.” Contemporary World Television. John Sinclair ed. London: BFI Publishing, 2004. 7-9.

Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caldwell, John. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 41-74.

Gray, Herman S. Culture Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 77-130.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Murdock, Graham. “Rights and Representations: Pubic Discourse and Cultural Citizenship.” Television and Common Knowledge. Jostein Gripsrud ed. London: Routledge, 1999. 7-17.

Osser, Kris and Abbey Klaassen. “Cable Ledaing Long-awaited convergence of Internet and TV; Web ‘Arrives’ as Medium for Content Delivery as Viacom, Scripps, Others Put Shows Online.” Advertising Age (25 July 2005), 48.

Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 133-61.

Image Credits

1. The Pondering Primate

2. Ipod Lounge

3. NerdTV

Please feel free to comment.




Living Life in TiVo Time

TiVo

Like most people, it usually bugs me when I am wrong. However, this time I draw some comfort from what I now think may have been an erroneous conclusion. You see, I was afraid that the world was slipping mindlessly into boorishness. Perhaps because I have now lived in the South for a quarter of a century, I set significant store by manners. You really do open doors for others male or female. You say “please” and “thank you” always. Someone may set every nerve in your body on edge, bless their heart, but you smile and ask how they are. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe that my adopted region of the country is any less intolerant than the rest of America. But here in North Carolina, when regrettable human inclinations do rear their ugly heads, they are usually expressed far more gently and with greater grace than I was accustomed to in my native Midwest, the brusque environs of the Northeast, or the rustic West. The New South gilds the rank lily of social discord.

So I was distressed to note, over the last few years, what seemed to be a decline in that tradition of gentility. I teach a large undergraduate class in Communication and Technology about two hundred students. At the beginning of each semester we talk about the fact that we don’t have much time together, and that disruptive behavior deprives their classmates of the opportunity to absorb content that is, a) of important to their education and will, b) in their eyes, more importantly, be on the test. I tell them if they cannot resist the urge to chat among themselves to just not come to class. I don’t want them there. It is a strategy that drops attendance, but increases the quality of my interaction with the students who show up ready to shut up and pay attention. This semester there seems to be a heightened disconnect between those instructions and class behavior. They come, but still chat among themselves with no semblance of restraint, let alone shame or remorse. They do not see their behavior as aberrant.

“Rude, foolish undergraduates,” I thought. And then I went to my graduate class. Seventeen students, most over thirty years old, most employed, adults, you know what I mean? Even in that group there are several that see nothing wrong with striking up “parallel conversations” during class. “Very weird,” I thought. And then I went to a faculty meeting — twenty or so PhDs, all of whom are deeply invested in the business being conducted. But they, too, feel entitled to address issues of concern with the colleague sitting next to them, regardless of whom actually “has the floor.” “What the hell is going on!?” I thought, “Is civility dead?”

Then I realized it may have nothing to do with manners, it is all about TiVo, technology, and the fracturing of interpersonal time and space. Think about it. TiVo is not about the digital recording of video. That is only part of it. TiVo commercials tell us that TiVo is all about being able to “pause live TV.” We can be watching something unfolding “in real life,” — a hurricane striking the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the Hurricanes playing hockey — and then a parallel real life” intrudes. Your spouse needs help, a child cries, the dog scratches at the door, the phone rings, whatever. No problem, you hit a button and the “live event” on the TV screen freezes. You then tend to the more immediate reality. Afterwards you return to the screen, hit a button, and resume the frozen reality.

It is an increasingly common scenario with very uncommon implications. The notion of the “here and now,” that usually seems so solid, just got a bit strange. The question of “Which ‘real life’ do you mean?” is no longer the sole property of philosophers or absurdist playwrights, it has wiggled its way into our living rooms and our classrooms, into the coffee shop and the faculty meeting.

Here is what I think is happening. Reality now flows around us in a variety of different streams. There is the physical reality of my location and the events unfolding in that location, but there are also the parallel realities outside that location that are now in accessible electronically, digitally. My computer, my cell phone, my pda, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Bluetooth prosthesis, all let me select a preferred experience from among those intertwining realities. And TiVo goes one step further, letting me choose which time to designate as “live.”

The power to select from a rack of potential realities makes the designation of “here and now” an idiosyncratic option. I choose my reality on the fly, and utilize the communication protocols appropriate to that choice. The results are not always polite. When varying individual realities share the same physical space there is inevitable friction.

Ipod Guy

Ipod Guy

Consider the person standing next to you at the metro stop who has chosen the reality of their hands-free, ear-bud cell phone. He cradles his hands in his face moaning, “Baby, how can you say that? She means nothing to me.” You sidle down the platform a bit and sit beside a suit enmeshed in Blackberry. Her fingers flicker over tiny keys while she mutters phrases that sound, at the very least, confrontational — in a language you do not understand. You move again, and find yourself the unwilling partner of an iPodded youngster, moving in what you can only hope is sympathetic rhythm to the music in his head. And, as Sonny and Cher asserted decades ago, the beat goes on.

It is, I believe, this phenomenon of the unthinking selection of incompatible social realities that results in what I initially interpreted as rude and boorish behavior — in my classes and among my peers. The problem, of course, is that rude and boorish behavior is always a matter of perception. If your behavior is perceived by those in your immediate physical environment as being rude and boorish, then it is — no matter what your intention — still rude and boorish.

Social norms and mores, of which manners are an irrefutable part, have one primary function in human society — to smooth the inevitable conflict between personal inclinations and the comfort of the group. The current 21st century technology-enabled environment gives us unparalleled personal power to pick and choose the reality of the moment. It advantages the unique reality of the individual. It inclines me to “suit myself.” That invites conflict with the more social, group-centered norms of the 20th century — norms that emphasize social cohesion and personal restraint, norms with which most folks over 30 were socialized. The resultant friction is both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

What we need is a conscious reconfiguration of communicative etiquette for the 21st century. Increasingly we focus on the mechanical efficiency of digital communication systems, but at the expense of human sensibilities. We need a set of guidelines for respectful interactive behavior in an increasingly complex — from both an existential and a technological perspective — world. We need new social conventions that will simultaneously acknowledge and employ the increasing communicative power of our interactive environment, while retaining the grace of softer times. I do not know what that should look like, but I strongly advocate one guideline: courtesy. Acceptable communication in the 21st century, mode notwithstanding, should attend to the comfort of the other, every bit as much as it champions the choices and expressions of the individual.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo

2. Ipod Guy

Please feel free to comment.




Cybernetic TV

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-“, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

American Candidate

American Candidate

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.

References:
Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Image Credits:

1. Andy Dick on The Reality Show

2. American Candidate

Please feel free to comment.