Exchanges of Value

Veronica Mars DVD

Veronica Mars DVD

In my previous two FlowTV columns, I discussed the aesthetic value of television programming; in this column, I’ll turn to a value that is more commonly considered within media studies: the exchange value of TV programs. We all know that in the U.S., and increasingly the entire world, television is a relentlessly commercial system in which the primary goal is profit. So what is a television program actually worth?

I began to reconsider this question over the summer, as I engaged in a different type of exchange with TV programs. As last year’s television season progressed, I began to hear positive buzz about the new program Veronica Mars, both from friends and TV critics, with the tantalizing tag of “the new Buffy.” Alas I hadn’t watched the show from the beginning — it’s on UPN after all! — and one of the show’s reputed strengths was its season-long story arc. So I was faced with a choice: start the show midstream and miss out on the long-term arc, continue in ignorance of a potential TV gem, wait until the show is released on DVD (it just was on October 11), or find another way to access the show.

This other way was through the black market realm of online file swapping — in case you haven’t heard, people use the internet to trade files, often in potential violation of copyright laws. While much of the legal and moralistic hoopla around online file-trading has focused on music and film titles, TV shows enjoy a robust circulation via peer-to-peer software, and provoke a more complicated reflection on what is actually being exchanged and/or “pirated” through these unauthorized swaps.

The most interesting — if you’re a techie interested in networking protocols, if you’re a media exec looking for new distribution strategies, or if you’re a communication theorist — of these file-trading protocols is BitTorrent, a free open-source program that offers a radically different approach to online distribution. Typically if you download a file, the more popular it is, the slower the download — as every download stream competes for finite bandwidth from the originating server. With BitTorrent, every downloader is simultaneously uploading the portions of the file they’ve received to other downloaders, creating a “swarming” cooperative distribution system in which the more popular a file is, the faster it downloads and the less burden is placed on the original “seed” file. Thus unlike typical economic systems in which increased demand results in scarcity of supply, within BitTorrent demand directly creates abundant availability. When cyber-theorists extolled the utopian collaborative model of a decentralized internet, this is close to what they had in mind.

So what does this have to do with television’s exchange value or me wanting to watch Veronica Mars? In May, I downloaded the entire season of Veronica Mars via BitTorrent, and proceeded to binge on the series over a week spent in Los Angeles. (And to briefly return to aesthetic value, it was as good as the hype, so watch the Season 1 DVDs if you haven’t seen the show.) This would certainly be viewed by the industry as an act of copyright violation, as I had no permission from either distributor UPN or producer Warner Brothers to copy the program — although I vigorously and publicly assert my fair use rights as an educator and critic to access and use material for educational purposes.

I do think there’s a reason why we’ve heard little about the television industry pursuing file traders though. The economic model of the TV industry suggests far less lost exchange value than for music or film. First off, there was simply no sanctioned way for me to watch the season from beginning to end starting in May, as UPN’s rerun strategy was non-chronological and the DVDs were not released until after season 2 started (dumb move, as new episodes refer directly to the web of mysteries solved in season 1, thereby spoiling many pleasures for late-adopters). Thus it is not as if me downloading an episode was a choice that circumvented a legitimate way of watching the episode: it was either black market or no market.

Veronica Mars on UPN

Veronica Mars on UPN

If I had been on the ball and started watching Veronica Mars from the beginning on UPN, what value would have been gained by the industry? If it’s not offered on a premium channel like HBO or a pay-per-view system, there is no direct cost incurred by watching a television program. Since I have never been a Nielsen family, my viewing habits do not factor into the elaborate exchange of audiences between networks and advertisers via the currency of ratings. The only way (at least that I know of) that I ever “count” in TV economics is via the aggregate numbers that TiVo sells to the industry on its subscribers viewing habits, and since I’ve already created a Season Pass for Veronica Mars, I’m registered within that fuzzy system. Throughout television history, broadcasters have employed the rhetoric of “free TV” to stave off competition from film, cable, and satellite industries; it is hard to see how this can be spun into an effective argument (rhetorical, not legal) against acquiring “free television” from another “free” source.

I would argue that my black-market binge actually offered more value to the industry than had I followed UPN’s schedule. Since I watch via TiVo, I don’t watch ads via either broadcast or downloaded television, so that’s a wash. Through my marathon viewing, I became a bit fanatic about the program, raving about it to everyone I could and often encouraging friends to watch an episode with me. I sat through the entire series again in midsummer, to hook my wife into the show’s numerous pleasures. And I was inspired to take advantage of my academically-sponsored role as (admittedly marginal) tastemaker, by using the show in future teaching, requesting my college’s library to purchase the DVDs, and of course writing this column.

The protocols of BitTorrent also suggest a different type of exchange value. Since download speed and availability improves with increased demand, the system encourages taste hierarchies through the practice of digital exchange. These hierarchies do not match the rankings offered by Nielsen — as reported in Wired, some of the most popular BitTorrent series also receive high broadcast ratings (like Lost, American Idol, and ), but other shows are far more popular online than on air (like The O.C., Smallville, Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, and The Daily Show). It is not surprising that download popularity also often matches success in the DVD market, as these are programs that offer rewatchability, and that viewers feel sufficiently passionate about to risk lawsuits and navigate technical difficulties. By downloading (and simultaneously uploading) Veronica Mars, I am participating in an exchange that adds value to the program through active consumption.

As Lawrence Lessig convincingly argues in Free Culture, illicit downloading may reduce revenue from those potential consumers who illicitly download rather than purchase content, but it also creates new consumers by enabling them to discover and try new content before purchasing. When applied to television, the question becomes what “purchases” might be lost by downloading television rather than watching it over the air? And might the TV industry look at purchases gained by viewers who discover and sample content online, leading to future viewers and DVD sales (a point Henry Jenkins discusses in his last Flow column)? We’re clearly in the midst of a series of transformations in the television medium and its industrial structures — personally I think the peer-to-peer distribution of programming should be viewed as part of the solution to rather than a cause of broadcast television’s potential demise.

Despite weak ratings, UPN renewed Veronica Mars for this season and Warner released the DVDs (which I’m happy to note has cracked Amazon’s top 20 for DVD purchases!). This was seen mostly as a response to strong critical responses to the show and an active online fan presence building word-of-mouth. Illicit exchange of television is part of this process, whether it’s via the efficient online distribution of BitTorrent or the older but still vibrant tape-trading community. Fans of the show hope that a summer of buzz, including from Buffy guru Joss Whedon and Clerks auteur Kevin Smith (who both seem to have seen the show through endorsed “illicit” advanced promo DVDs), can result in increased official exchange value in the form of higher ratings and strong DVD sales.

Personally, I have “gone legit,” shifting Veronica Mars off my computer and onto my TV (of course through another computer, my TiVo). But by me watching the show via more conventional broadcast methods, I have reduced the exchange value of the program — I count neither as a member of UPN’s commodity audience, nor as an uploader increasing access to other viewers. In a strange twist of logic, the exchange value of my consumption decreases by accessing the show on the industry’s desired terms, suggesting a potentially fatal flaw in today’s broadcast model.


In the brief gap between writing this column and putting it on Flow, Apple announced its Video iPod, clearly answering my question: a TV episode is worth $1.99. Further thoughts to follow.

Image Credits:

1. Veronica Mars DVD

2. Veronica Mars in UPN

Please feel free to comment.

An Analog Form in a Digital Box: Sitcoms, Mitcoms, and New Media Pliancy


A CNN Screencaputure

A CNN Screencapture

There’s a lot of static these days, in both industry and academic circles, about the ways in which new media are reshaping television’s visual field. Folks are talking about the flattening and fracturing of televisual space, the addition of overlays, banners, text crawls, and side bars to news and information programs, and the borrowing of many other techniques and aesthetics from the world of computer software.

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about the powerful influence television exerts on new media aesthetics and the methods of information delivery. In the interest of prompting more discussion, we’d like to share some thoughts on machinima, a method of making animated videos using off-the-shelf computer games such as The Sims (Maxis) or Halo (Bungie Studios), and ways machinima sitcoms (or “mitcoms”) such as The Strangerhood (Rooster Teeth Productions) represent a kind of “televisualization” of computer games.

Nuke Winter

Nuke Winter

For readers unfamiliar with machinima (short for “machine cinema”), it’s basically bricolage storytelling for the information age. The repurposed objects in this case are computer game graphics and the engines that produce them. With real-time machinima, game play is recorded as “raw footage” and then edited using a digital video editing package such as Premiere Pro (Adobe) or Final Cut Pro (Apple). Script-driven machinima, on the other hand, requires machinima-makers to input action commands directly into development environments such as the ones that sit behind Unreal Tournament (Epic Games) and Quake (id software). These commands then are translated into animations by the game’s engine.

Though machinima depends on repurposing both stock and fan-created digital assets (e.g., 3D avatars and buildings, soundtracks), as well as the techniques used to generate such material, machinimations don’t always wind up resembling the games they’re derived from. Indeed, much of the appeal of machinima is the artistic freedom it allows. Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences board member Hugh Hancock documents this point well when he lists machinima’s most significant liberties: “with ‘virtual cameras’ you can develop an entirely new language…not hampered by the constraints of the real world.” Moreover, Hancock continues, there’s “the sheer flexibility of a world where you make up all the rules of physics, the option to add interactivity…. And on. And on.” Strangely enough, machinima-makers are using this seemingly infinite creative flexibility to explore the aesthetic and storytelling possibilities of the television sitcom.

We say “strangely enough” for several reasons, not the least of which is that television sitcoms may very well be going the way of the dodo. A leaner (and definitely meaner) kind of program has appeared — the reality show — and it’s chasing the sitcom from the airwaves. Whether or not television sitcoms eventually become extinct is anyone’s guess, but there is certainly a sentiment shared by both the broadcast and cable industries that the genre’s time is running out. This anachronistic quality is, in part, what makes mitcoms such as The Strangerhood — replete as it is with a living room couch, goofy neighbors, and a laugh track — such odd ducks: they’re emerging just as the sitcom form has been declared dead (or, at least, dying an expensive and unpleasant death) by its progenitor, network television.

The mitcom also is weird because of the inherent pliancy of machinimation. If machinima-makers are not “hampered by the constraints of the real world” (which they’re not), and therefore have the opportunity to “develop an entirely new language” (which they do), why are they looking to one of the most famously formulaic modes of storytelling? Ten years ago, when the first machinimations started appearing on the Internet, serialization and an adherence to well-established genres were necessary because of bandwidth restrictions. The pipes were simply too narrow to allow much content through, meaning machinima-makers (like the early game developers before them) had to rely on well-worn and thus easily and quickly recognizable tropes and iconography to tell their stories.

Today, that’s not the case: consumer-level broadband connections and distributed, self-organizing networks with multi-source file sharing such as eDonkey (MetaMachine) and Morpheus (StreamCast Networks) make short work of even the largest video downloads. There really are no restrictions to storytelling, which makes machinima-makers’ interest in the sedimented and highly-structured narrative form of the sitcom so curious.

Granted, in the case of The Strangerhood, the sitcom form is used in part because of its antique qualities (e.g., ensemble cast, laugh track, catch phrases, and recurring plotlines). What better way, then, to both parody and critique the medium (not to mention indulge in a bit of nostalgia) than through one of its most iconic forms?

That said, The Stangerhood and mitcoms like it are more than just parodic: they’re also explorations of televisuality — of the form and function of television as a medium, an art form, an industrial complex, and a cultural force. In both borrowing from and playing with the sitcom form, mitcoms bring to the surface the nature of that form and the agential and structural networks that created it.

Of course, mitcoms as explorations of televisuality are yet nascent, but they nonetheless show the resiliency and potential of televisual forms of meaning-making across media. The pre-machinima history of computer games includes numerous examples of the television/game crossover, some of which — such as the run-a-network simulation Mad TV (Rainbow Arts) and Eugene Jarvis’ infamous parody/action game Smash TV (Acclaim Entertainment) — exercised the new medium’s pliancy far more vigorously than such ham-fisted tie-ins as The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island (Bandai America), Yes, Prime Minister (Mosaic Publishing), and ALF (SEGA Entertainment).

The mitcom may very well be a kind of televisual future anteriorism, a seeing of what will have been, an artifact from the future documenting an interregnum. We can’t help but think of Harold Innis’ observation that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural
disturbances.” Perhaps in drawing on the sitcom, the mitcom is not only celebrating a predecessor’s aesthetic, but also subverting that aesthetic’s representations of social relations.

Our guess is that we won’t find out what will have been until we see how HDTV, digital cinema, and next-generation game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 converge. That’s likely to be sooner than most of us expect.


We prefer the term “computer game” over “video game” as the universal designation for electronic entertainment software because it privileges the medium’s inevasible technological foundation rather than its admittedly dominant but nonetheless excludable sensory element, video. There are many games that have no video at all (see Games for the Blind for examples).

Hugh Hancock, “A View from the Shack,” 1 January 2000.

Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 31.

Image Credits:

1. A CNN Screencapture

2. Nuke Winter

The Strangerhood
Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences
Red vs. Blue (Halo Machinima)

Please feel free to comment.

Teen Choice Awards: Better Than The Emmys?

Teen Choice Awards 2005

Teen Choice Awards 2005

I admit it: I am a TV Award Show junkie. I throw parties, accompanied by my annual rant on the horrible results — quickly followed (after a bit of champagne) with a follow-up rant on what was not nominated that should have been. One show that I haven’t paid as much attention to has been The Teen Choice Awards, and this summer I found myself wondering why this has been the case. I love teen television, whatever that may be, and I am routinely disappointed at how many “legitimate” award shows leave out some of the best programming we have in the U.S.

This year, I paid attention — and I suggest that as TV scholars we all start paying attention (to these awards, and more broadly, to the shows that fall into the ever-expanding category of “Teen TV”). The Teen Choice Awards are similar in nature to shows often dismissed (People’s Choice, MTV): nominations emerge and “real people” vote online for their favorites. This summer, as I tracked the nominations and then the winners, I found myself thinking: “Hey! I’m more pleased with these than the Emmys!” And I really am in no way exaggerating. In particular, these awards surpass the Emmys in four key ways that we should heed: 1) forward-thinking in terms of technology, 2) range, 3) diversity, and 4) quality.

This year, The Teen Choice Awards added a new category: The V-Cast Award. While admittedly mired in commercialism (the award emerged from Verizon Wireless), this category recognizes that TV is expanding beyond the set to include short video content available by cell phone. Short-form content for the small(er) screen is a rapidly developing area of television that is quickly becoming as integral to viewing for many teens as going online to read and talk about their favorite shows. (Note: many of the series nominated for regular categories have avid online fan bases.) The fact that the show recognizes this significant trend suggests that the Teen Choice Awards are seeing (and pursuing) a future element of “TV” that others are not — something to consider, at the very least, in terms of how we ourselves teach and write about TV.

I was also impressed by the range of the shows that were nominated. Compared to the Emmys, there was, quite simply, a lot more going on; these awards gave me a much better sense of not only what teens might be watching, but of what TV is offering to viewers in general. If one looks at the Emmy nominations, one could surmise that only a few shows (and networks) capture viewers’ hearts, minds, and spirit as they watch: we see the same series appearing on a regular basis, with some programs receiving multiple nominations in the same category. The Teen Choice Awards spread the wealth a bit (at least with their nominations). There are shows you might expect (One Tree Hill, That 70s Show) but quite a few that you might not — such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Alias, and House. I could see Nickelodeon, WB, UPN — in addition to the “usual suspects.” At the very least, this range is worth paying attention to if only to open our minds to preconceptions we may have about what constitutes “Teen TV”; it is also worth heeding because the range of nominations to a degree is honest about what people watch and enjoy and find worthwhile. I often feel that other award shows, in their rush to define excellence and quality, forget about the social, cultural, and psychological value of entertainment.

In line with range of programming, there also exists a much greater sense of cultural diversity in the nominations I saw for The Teen Choice Awards. The viewers who voted clearly represent a much more accurate sense of the diversity that exists in this country; and one can only hope TV executives are paying attention and taking notes — because in a very short amount of time, these viewers will be in that magic demographic of 18-49. I have often suspected that one reason reality TV does so well with younger viewers is the diversity of casting that exists in this genre — stereotyped though it may be. In the nominations for comedy and drama this year, I saw the names of shows and actors that many outside the world of Teen TV might not recognize — several of whom I think should have been included in the Emmy nominations (such as Donald Faison of Scrubs, Jorge Garcia of Lost, and winner of Female Breakout Performance — Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria). Especially pleasing was the inclusion of winner DeGrassi: The Next Generation (Summer Series), a show from Canada featuring one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts available on TV — and that also happens to address teen concerns in a socially realistic way (i.e., it doesn’t shy away from what occurs in the world of teens, and manages to do so without talking down to its viewers). Would that our “legitimate” awards had such diversity.

The final variation I note — that of quality — is sure to raise some debate, but so be it. To be sure, many of the nominations offered for the Emmys are deserving of it — but, as Jason Mittell as argued for so eloquently in his past columns for FLOW, there is something to be said for making distinctions (especially since awards are supposed to be about exactly that). A few overlaps exist between the Teen Choice nominations and the Emmys (Zach Braff of Scrubs, Jennifer Garner of Alias, Sean Hayes of Will & Grace for actors; Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Family Guy, and The Simpsons for series). More noticeable, in my opinion, is that several series and actors emerged in the Teen Choice lists that truly should have been there in the Emmy list. I had to turn to the Teen Choice Awards to see Gilmore Girls and its cast finally given their due (winner of Best Comedy, Actress for comedy [Alexis Bledel], and “Parental Unit” [Lorelai Gilmore, a single mother of a college-aged daughter])… Here I saw House, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, What I Like About You, and Everwood. These series might not be top Emmy picks for me (although I am still steaming mad that Gilmore Girls has been ignored, after a stunning season), but could certainly replace some of what got nominated this year. (I’ll leave that for another column, post Emmy wins.)

I will still watch the Emmys on September 19th (take note — that’s a Monday, so that it can avoid being beat in the ratings by Desperate Housewives), and I will still offer my rants to those who are unfortunate enough to accept the invitation to my party. This year, however, the rants will be informed by The Teen Choice Awards. I am a faculty member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but I don’t have voting power. I can only hope hypothetically that if teachers in the field of television were permitted voting, we might see some of what emerged when teens did the voting this past summer: forward-thinking, range, diversity, and quality.

Image Credits:
1. Teen Choice Awards 2005

2005 Teen Choice Award Winners
Gilmore Girls Official Site
Degrassi: The Next Generation Official Site
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

Please feel free to comment.


The Cast of Global Frequency

The Cast of Global Frequency

Many of us who study fan cultures have marveled at how quickly fan communities mobilize around new television series. Fan websites such as Ain’t It Cool News get early information about new series, especially those which are prone to develop cult followings. Many fans start registering domain names and forming web circles based on the first news of a fan-friendly series. And producers are becoming more adept at tapping into fan networks from the get-go. By the time the first episode airs, fans start generating fan fiction and commentary if they like what they see. We will see this scenario play out several times as the new shows hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.

Pushing this trend to its logical extreme, an active, committed fandom has now emerged around an unaired pilot. The series in question is Global Frequency. From a fan’s perspective, Global Frequency was too good to be true. Based on a successful comic book series by the wicked and wonderful Warren Ellis, adapted for television by a creative team which at various points in the process included Mark Burnett (Survivor), Bed Edlund (Angel, The Tick), Nelson McCormick (Alias), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the science fiction/action/adventure series dealt with a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who agree to pool their resources and respond as needed to a series of crises caused by the collapse of the nation states and the emergence of global capitalism. The original comic series had tapped growing interests in adhocracies, flash mobs, and collective intelligence among the most wired segments of the television viewing public.

The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights to what many thought was a really hot property, considered it for Fall 2004, before announcing it would hit the air in Spring 2005. The network was ready to make an initial 13 episode commitment when there was a shift in the network management and as so often happens, the new execs were reluctant to risk their careers on properties generated by their predecessors. Global Frequency got dumped.

Then, somehow, an unauthorized copy of series pilot began circulating on Bittorrent, where it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production. John Rogers, the show’s head writer and producer, said that the massive response to the never-aired series was giving the producers leverage to push for the pilot’s distribution on DVD and potentially to sell the series to another network. Rogers wrote about his encounters with the Global Frequency fans in his blog, “It changes the way I’ll do my next project…. I would put my pilot out on the internet in a heartbeat. Want five more? Come buy the boxed set.”

Already we can see a bunch of ways that the new media landscape is altering how traditional broadcasting operates. For starters, we can see the walls breaking down between program producers and consumers, as they make common cause against the networks. After all, the only way that pilot could have made it onto Bittorrent was that someone involved in the production leaked it and Rogers certainly was encouraging fans to rally behind his pet project.

Second, we can see large scale fan communities operating as collective bargaining units trying to make the networks more responsive to their demands. To be sure, there’s a long history of letter-writing campaigns going back at least to the original effort to save Star Trek, and most of them have failed. Yet, as the internet has enabled more rapid and widespread mobilization, fans are starting to win more and more battles. Consider, for example, the ways that the so-called “Brown-Coats,” fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, rallied behind the franchise, resulting in a new feature film extension, Serenity, which is due to hit the multiplexes later this month. Or take the case of The Family Guy, a series put back in production because of unexpectedly high DVD sales.

All of this leads to Rogers’s fantasy of media producers selling cult tv
shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the
picture altogether. From a producer’s perspective, such a scheme would
be attractive since television series are made at a loss for the first
several seasons until the production company accumulates enough
episodes to sell a syndication package. DVD lowers that risk by
allowing producers to sell the series one season at a time and even to
package and sell unaired episodes (as occurred with Firefly). Selling directly to the consumer would allow producers to recoup their costs even earlier in the production cycle. If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing — especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had “cult” written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.

People in the entertainment industry are talking a lot these days about what Wired reporter Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail.” Anderson argues that as distribution costs lower, as companies can keep more and more backlist titles in circulation, and as niche communities can use the web to mobilize around titles which satisfy their particular interests, then the greatest profit will be made by those companies which generate the most diverse content and keep it available at the most reasonable prices. If Anderson is right, then niche-content stands a much better chance of turning a profit than ever before. If you were offered a package of episodes of a televison series with an interesting concept by a reliable group of creators, would you take a chance on including it on your next Netflix order? I know I would.

Imagine a subscription based model where viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband. A pilot could be produced to test the waters and if the response looks positive, they could sell subscription which company had gotten enough subscribers to defer the initial production costs. Early subscribers would get a package price, others would pay more on a pay per view would cover the next phase of production. Others could buy access to individual episodes once the basis. Distribution could be on a dvd mailed directly to your home or via streaming media.

Keep in mind that when you use the web as your distribution channel, your market goes global. How many Americans would have paid to see the latest episodes of the new Doctor Who series, for example? And how many fans in Asia or Australia might pay to see episodes of American series as they aired rather than waiting for them in syndication?? Anime fans world wide already go through contorted means to get access to the latest Japanese series.

The first signs of such a system emerging will come when networks offer reruns on demand, a plan which would be relatively low cost and high yield in today’s media markets. Indeed, BBC Director General Mark Thompson announced a few weeks ago that starting next year, all BBC-aired programs (150 hours worth) will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. What they are calling MyBBCPlayer, is part of a larger vision for the future of British television announced by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, in October 2003: “Future TV may be unrecognizable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programs, and our viewer’s contributions. At the simplest level — audiences will want to organize and re-organize content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help.”

BBC Director Mark Thompson

BBC Director Mark Thompson

The BBC as a state-sponsored broadcaster is obviously in a good position to take some risks here. Yet, one can imagine similar services supporting distribution of media content from many other parts of the world or from independent and alternative media producers. Web-based services like Netflix are already broadening the circulation of foreign films, independent movies, and documentaries. As this system takes shape, one can imagine original content start to emerge until in the end, the primary reason that a producer would need a network would be to initially publicize the pilot. And here’s where fans might enter the picture.

In such a world, the fans will play an important role as niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments. The BBC has already announced a contest to encourage consumers and interest groups to develop their own alternative program guides using BBC programme meta-data. As they move more content on line, one can imagine bloggers making links directly to relevant segments in BBC programs. People are already experimenting with using closed captions as a means to index television content and Yahoo has recently opened a lab focused on making streaming media more searchable. All of that will make it easier for fan communities to share the love.

In fact, if such programs were successful, producers could begin offering funds back to active fans if they direct sufficient traffic to their sites, much the way Amazon’s Associates program rewards webmasters who promote specific books through their sites and link to the online retailer. There would be even greater incentives for producers to actively court key opinion leaders within the fan community since they could make or break a new series.

Ok, I can hear some of the other columnists reminding us of the blue sky promises of diversity and plentitude which surrounded other technological innovations. Technological innovations may hold potentials for change but social, cultural, economic, and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur.

It’s time to wake back up and see what has happened to Global Frequency. Was the WB delighted to discover that they still had the right of first refusal on a series which was already generating a cult following before it even reached the air? Were they willing to take some baby steps towards the viewer-supported model I have outlined above?

Of course not! They did the same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’s computers. As one network executive told Hotwired, “Whether the pilot was picked up or not, it is still the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment and we take the protection of all of our intellectual property seriously…. While Warner Bros. Entertainment values feedback from consumers, copyright infringement is not a productive way to try to influence a corporate decision.” A few weeks later, Warren Ellis announced via his blog, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of Global Frequency has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series. It seems that people in high places did not take kindly to the leak.” For the moment, the WB is more interested in policing its intellectual property than finding out what people want to watch.

Oh well — It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Global Frequency

2. BBC Director Mark Thompson

Please feel free to comment.

Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.


James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.

Rethinking the Digital Age

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It is 2005 and the term “The Digital Age” is as naturalized for many as a temporal marking of the dominance of a certain kind of technological regime (“the digital”) as is “the Paleolithic’s” association with certain kinds of stone tools. What does “the digital age” feel and look like in indigenous communities in remote regions of the world where access to telephone land lines can still be difficult? The dominant phrase invented to encompass such concerns — the digital divide — assumes that such cultural enclaves are simply waiting, endlessly, to catch up, yet inevitably falling further behind in the techno-imaginary universe that seems to further stratify the world, despite the utopian promises of the digerati of the possibilities of a 21st century McLuhanesque global village.

Recent developments give some insight into what it might actually mean for indigenous subjects Going Native on the Net, to borrow the title of Kyra Landzelius’ forthcoming edited book. In this column, I focus on a new project developed by activist lawyer and documentary maker David Vadiveloo in collaboration with Aboriginal youth in Central Australia. UsMob is Australia’s first Aboriginal children’s television series and interactive website, made with town camp children living on the outskirts of the town of Alice Springs in Central Australia. On the site, users interact with the challenges and daily lives of Harry, Della, Charlie and Jacquita and their Aboriginal bush community friends in the town camp of Hidden Valley, following multi-path storylines, activating video and text diaries, forums, movies and games that offer a virtual experience of the camp and surrounding deserts, and uploading their own video stories. The site, which is in English and Arrernte with English subtitles, will launch at the Adelaide Film Festival on February 25, 2005 and simultaneously on ABC TV and ABC online.

The project had its origins in requests from traditional elders in the Arrernte community in Central Australia to David Vadiveloo, who first worked with that community as their lawyer in their 1996 historic Native Title claim victory. Switching gears since then to media activism, Vadiveloo has made six documentaries with people in the area, including the award winning works Trespass (2002), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Bush Bikes (2001). UsMob is the first indigenous project to receive production funding under a new initiative from the Australian Film Commission and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative (BPI); it received additional support from the Adelaide Film Festival, Telstra and the South Australian Film Corporation.

The UsMob project was motivated by Vadiveloo’s concern to use media to develop cross-cultural lines of communication for kids in the camps.

After ten years of listening to many Arrernte families in Town Camps and remote areas, Vadiveloo explains in an interview, I am trying to create a dynamic communication bridge that has been opened by the Arrernte kids of Alice Springs with an invitation extended to kids worldwide to play, to share, and to engage with story themes that are common to all young people but are delivered through UsMob in a truly unique cultural and physical landscape.

In keeping with community wishes, Vadiveloo needed to create a project that was not fictional. Elders were clear: they did not want community members referred to as “actors” — they were community participants in stories that reflected real life and real voices that they wanted heard. To accomplish that, Vadiveloo held workshops to develop scripts with over 70 non-actor Town Camp residents, who were paid for their participation. The topics they raised range from Aboriginal traditional law, ceremony, and hunting, to youth substance abuse and other Aboriginal health issues. Building bush bikes is the focus of one of the two UsMob games, while the second one requires learning bush skills as players figure out how to survive in the outback.

Producer Heather Croall and Interactive Producer Chris Joyner were integral partners for Vadiveloo. Apart from raising finance, they wrote the project together with Vadiveloo and then final scripts were written by indigenous screenwriter Danielle McLean. Camera work was by Allan Collins, the indigenous award winning cinematographer and Alice Springs resident. The final project has been approved by traditional owners and the Indigenous organization, Tangentyere Council.

In creating this project, Vadiveloo hoped to create a television series about and by Aboriginal youth, raising issues relevant to them, as well as an online program that could engage these young people to spend time online acquiring some of the skills necessary to be computer literate. He was particularly concerned to develop an alternative to the glut of single shooter games online, and the constant diet of violence, competition, and destruction that characterize the games they were exposed to in town.

When kids play and build together, Vadiveloo explains, they are learning about community and consequence and that is what I wanted to see in the project.

And rather than assuming that the goal is that Aboriginal children in Central Australia catch up to the other side of the digital divide, based on someone else’s terms, he wanted to help build a project that dignified their cultural concerns. This is charmingly but emphatically clear in the first encounter with the UsMob home page which invites you in but, as it would be if you visited them in Alice, notifies you that you need a permit to visit:

Everyone who wants to play with us on the full UsMob website will need a permit. It’s the same as if you came to Alice Springs and wanted to visit me and my family, you’d have a get a permit to come onto the Town Camp. Once you have a permit you will be able to visit us at any time to chat, play games, learn about Aboriginal life, and share stories.

We love going out bush and we’re really looking forward to showing you what it’s like in Central Australia. We’ll email you whenever we add a new story to the website. We really hope you can add your stories to the website cos we’d love to learn about your life too.

UsMob and Hidden Valley suggested another perspective on the digital age that invites kids from “elsewhere” to come over and play on their side.

Adelaide Film Festival
Aborigine News

Please feel free to comment.

Sculpting a Digital Language

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

A number of responses to my last Flow column wondered what form the “digital language” I advocated might take. The question took me back to a very non-digital experience. It was a singular moment — unexpected on two levels. First, it was surprising that the show, featuring more works by Auguste Rodin than had ever been gathered in one place, was at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Second, as a lifelong Rodin-groupie, I didn’t expect to see a “new-to-me” work. But I turned the corner and there it was, Fallen Angels. It was love in an instant. Totally blind-sided, I stood and stared. I wanted to laugh and cry. Breathing was difficult, but what little air I could inhale seemed like Spring. I put out my hand and a museum guard quickly materialized, fixing me with a restraining glare. I returned to the show many times, spending hours just gazing at the Fallen Angels. It seems paradoxical that that ecstatic experience has come to define for me what we must avoid as we seek a new language for the digital environment. But, let us begin at the beginning.

I believe in Louis Sullivan’s assertion that form follows function — in skyscrapers, scissors and language. Language should be con-formed to its essential function: manifesting the perceptual-conceptual moment. And what, you ask, does that mean? Good question.

I often ask my students to consider the most powerful moments in their lives: when they fell in love, or realized that love had left; the birth of a child, the death of a parent; the moment they sensed a divine presence, or came to believe they were alone in the universe. Then I ask them to define what kind of a moment it was. A text moment? A picture moment? Tactile or olfactory? Musical? Eventually we agree that it was all of those at once. It was a multimodal moment.

Next I ask them where this moment occurred. Not the physical location that stimulated the perception, but where the perception bloomed. After a seemingly mandatory detour through the idea that a person with an artificial heart can fall in love, we fix this multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment [MPCM] in the brain; locked within us. Yet, we cannot leave it there. Often these peak MPCMs are communicative crystallizations, internal personal epiphanies that we are driven to share. That is the function of language. But what kind of language?

In the previous column I asserted that the evolution of communication technology is a bartered negotiation between cultural needs and technological capacity. Language, too, grows from a negotiation between society’s communicative needs and the capabilities of the media that hold language. It is most often a negotiation in which the medium — the language container — dominates; “form follows function” turned upside down. The functional ability of the container determined the form of the language. Paper holds words and numbers and images, stone and wood hold carving, instruments hold music. Thus, we began a millennia-long drift away from the ideal of a holistic representation of the MPCM. Instead we inclined towards language containers that held powerful unimodal expressions of the MPCM. The innate inflexibility of the container drove the drift; but there were other important factors at work. Among them were the tyranny of task and the hegemony of the marketplace.

Tyranny of task is the temporal pressure that accompanies every communicative need. If my sudden need is to communicate to my hunting partners that there is a mastodon the size of Montana around the bend, and I don’t want to alert the critter; sign language gains immediate primacy. If I need contracts and trade records to maintain the viability of my commercial interests, writing swiftly ascends. Painting and sculpture are effective in conveying the teachings of mystics to an illiterate populace. From the beginning of human time to Tuesday’s faculty meeting, we have always needed tomorrow’s communication tools yesterday. The driving need to get the task done puts the buggy beta version of the language swiftly into our hands. The crafting of language has never been a leisurely, reflective undertaking.

The hegemony of the marketplace becomes apparent when we realize that language systems and media do not merely facilitate commerce — they are themselves commodities. The wealthiest man in America is not Sandberg’s “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” He is a communication broker — a trader in computer hardware and software. Dominant corporations no longer fabricate steel, they stretch fibers of pure glass and fill them with messages designed to amuse and beguile us. Communication — the tools that facilitate it; and the words, sounds and images that define and construct our truth — has become the primary commodity of the 21st century. And the languages that dominate in that marketplace are not those that best express the MPCM; they are the ones — from computer operating systems to blockbuster films — that generate the most revenue.

And finally, there is the intimidation of genius — which takes us back to Rodin’s Fallen Angels. Genius uses a single mode expression to instigate a multimodal perceptual cascade in the mind of the audience member. Rodin’s sculpture, O’Keeffe’s painting, Mozart’s music, Balanchine’s choreography — all communicative acts from previous centuries that pour such power and perception into a uni- or bi-modal communication container that, in a kind of holographic transformation, we respond as if we were suspended in the totality of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. These are acts of expressive genius that recreate the holistic MPCM from a fragment of its parts. They leave us with the notion that such communication is “normal,” when, in truth, it is rare beyond imagining.

These, then, are the barriers that stand between the languages we have inherited, and the language we should create to fully express the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment in the digital environment:

∑ A history of unimodal languages developed to conform to the capabilities of existing communication containers.

∑ The tyranny of task prompting a “crisis-management” approach to language development, which favored quick and dirty language solutions over elegant expressive tools.

∑ The hegemony of the marketplace that currently fosters the development of technologies, languages and content that gain primacy based on profit.

∑ The heritage of genius that implies that we already have the expressive tools we need, if only we had the necessary “gift.”

Those are daunting obstacles indeed. Which is why I advocate simply walking away and starting all over. Seriously. I look around my campus and talk with colleagues near and far, and see little chance that we will succeed in “evolving” a new language for the digital age. The old barriers are simply too high. The tyranny of task confronts most academic endeavors: Use technology to solve the pedagogical challenges we cannot fix with bricks and mortar, right now! The purely expressive endeavors — art, music and animation (even in the rarefied atmospheres of Annenberg and MIT) — presume levels of funding that only government or industry can provide. Not surprisingly those efforts often result in products that primarily profit the military, the government, or the media cartel.

So here is how I would start over — if I had Bill Gates’ money. I would build a Digital Language and Expression Development Center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why there? Because I like it there. This is my fantasy. Initially, there would be two populations at the Center. Since the function of digital language is to manifest the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment, I would find the most creative traditional artists I could — in all the arts — and bring them to the Center. They are already manifesting the MPCM with damaged languages. They bring function. Then I would bring the best programmers in the world to the Center. They would be responsible for creating the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artists. But the artists would lead — form follows function, remember?

The artists would spend their days doing art, and the programmers would watch. At breakfast and lunch the artists and the programmers would negotiate the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artist’s medium. The programmers would be responsible for making sure that the various expressive digital palettes would be integrated: Musicware works with Artware with Filmware with Textware with Sculptware, etc. Eventually we get Expressionware — an open-source digital language that can contain all the elements of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. Over dinner we would do “show and tell.”

Next we would conduct workshops for people from all different walks of life, painters, politicians, pursers and publicans — and jobs that start with other letters too. Each workshop would explore how Expressionware could be used in that arena, expanding it to include new or unique concerns and requirements. And thus, over the years, we would sculpt a new digital language, thoughtfully and reflectively.

I, naturally, would live at the Center, wandering, wondering, watching, and learning — because it is my fantasy.

Auguste Rodin biography
North Carolina Museum of Art
Slacker HTML

Please feel free to comment.

10,000 Years of Media Flow

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It’s one of those unseasonably warm Saturdays in November,a beautiful autumn day in New York City that competes with the films being shown in darkened rooms during the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival. Staunching my impulse to turn into Central Park,I enter the American Museum of Natural History, the site of the festival. At the 77th St. entrance, I am greeted by the famous replica of a Kwakwaka’wakw war canoe,then walk past the towering totem poles and dioramas that punctuate the cavernous space of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. This is the Museum’s oldest exhibition, based on its first major field expedition, made just over a century ago and led by Franz Boas, known as the “father of American anthropology”. This seems the right pathway to take to the screening I am attending, part of the festival’s focus on Native Voices, featuring new media work from Native communities from the American Southwest and the Northwest Coast, complementing the Museum’s most recent exhibition,Totems to Turquoise: Native Jewelry from the Northwest Coast and the Southwest.

A far cry from the mute, traditionally clothed figures in the life groups created by Boas, the indigenous producers in this session have a lot to say to each other and the rest of us; to do that, they have turned to contemporary media forms and a range of distribution strategies. The work they showed ranged from Native Pride (2004), small format rap style video youth media shown on Seattle’s KCTS, to Rez-Robics for Couch Potato Skins (2003) a comedy with native actors who also delivers deadly serious health information on videos that circulate free of charge in “Indian Country”; to the New York premiere of Raven Tales: How Raven Stole the Sun (2004), the first of a series of experiments in digital animation by Simon James (Kwakwaka’wakw)and Chris Klentz (Cherokee), that create new versions of centuries-old stories to be shown across Canada on that country’s Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Mead Festival curators, Elaine Charnov and Kathy Brew, wanted the program to reflect the range of work coming out of indigenous communities, from local community-based work, to health initiatives, to more high-end productions that are making it onto the international film circuit. Native Pride, a rap-influenced short digital video piece, was made by a group of 25 Swinomish youth who came into Seattle from their reservation to work on Native Lens, a new program made with the 911 Media Arts Center, and shown on Seattle’s KCTS. For the kids who made it, perhaps its most important venue has been its screening on reservation cable TV, where their poetic declarations about their dreams and identities have the greatest resonance.

Rez Robics features two prominent Native actors, Elaine Miles (Utamilla), known for her work in Northern Exposure and Smoke Signals, and Drew LaCapa, the Apache comedian, who calls himself “300 pounds of love”. Together they draw successfully on the understated and self-deprecating Indian humor associated with “the rez” to help address the deadly epidemic of diabetes facing their communities. In this case, with their public health goal of spreading the word, video’s low cost and easy replicability is a plus. As they point out, there is no FBI warning preceding the programs; rather, piracy is invited in the opening title: “Please make copies and give them to your friends and relatives.”

The premiere of the 22 minute, Raven Tales, was the hit of the afternoon, and testimony to the curators’ commitment to showcasing innovative animation works. This work in particular was selected for the way it has brought to life the famous Northwest coast myths from Kwakwaka’wakw, the Squamish, and Haida peoples — bringing the comical raven trickster figure to life, along with eagle, frog, and the first humans. It includes voices ranging from well-known native actors such as Evan Adams of Smoke Signals fame to the voice of Hereditary Chief Robert Joseph. Cutting across both centuries and generations, it uses the playful spirit of animation to visualize and extend the lives of these myths. These stories and the distinctive look of Northwest Coast design have been proven, as producer Simon James joked during the Q & A, by “10,000 years of local market research”.

Spicing up these stark and complex traditional stories with some contemporary humor and the wonders of digital animation is always a risk. But, clearly it was a risk worth taking, judging by the collective gasp of the audience when the murky darkness of the Myth Time is suddenly (and digitally) transformed from barren smoky greys to brilliant greens, the result of the Raven’s theft of the gift of light, and its release into the world. Raven Tales premiered last month in Los Angeles at the National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival, which gave the project completion funds, the only digital animation in that project. It is slated to air on Canada’s APTN aboriginal TV network in February 2005.

At the end of the Q & A session, the animator Simon James’ father, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist, who had been one of the elders who helped in the ceremonial opening of the Totems to Turquoise show a few weeks earlier, came on stage with his drum, which was embellished with the distinctive raven design. Inviting today’s storytellers onto the stage, he sang, Wiping the Tears, to remember those who have come before and are gone, and to praise the work of this new generation. When Pam Belgarde, the Chippewa woman who produced the Rez Robics tape came up, he dressed her in the traditional black and red regalia, a stunning full-length button cape with appliqués of wild roses, and a regal fur hat.

As he draped the cape across her shoulders, he explained: “When we meet someone we are honored to meet, we dress them to show that we are willing to go cold in order to keep our guests warm.” Simon began to beat the drum, and asked us to look at the empty seats in the theater and think of those who came before; the media producers on stage lowered their eyes. At the conclusion of his song, he addressed the audience and said, “All our ceremonies need witnesses. And as witnesses, we ask you to be part of that tradition, and go and share with others what you have seen today.” The path from the canoe to the century-old totem poles to this room — and between very old and very new media — suddenly became very clear.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network
Margaret Mead Film Festival
Reviews of The Rez

Please feel free to comment.

Undecided Voter

by: Chris Anderson / Indiana University

Squirrel hunting once was a lovely way for a man to pass an autumn afternoon. Solitude discovered in a lonely glen. Falling leaves gently cradled by golden sunlight. The stillness of a warm breeze broken only by the report of a gun, echoed and reechoed through the valley. On such a day a man could get lost, gloriously lost, in nature’s autumnal embrace, the travails of daily life forgotten for a few enchanted hours. It was on such a day long ago that a man, his thirst quenched by more than one draught of ale, his senses overpowered by the beauty of his surroundings, fell into a deep sleep … and slumbered peacefully for twenty-odd years.

Upon awakening, that man, Rip Van Winkle, had become America’s first undecided voter.

Yes, the legend of Rip Van Winkle — a tale told to generations of American children over the past two hundred years — is a story about the making of the latest American archetype: the undecided voter. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to read the legend in the unsettled autumn of ’04, as I struggle to comprehend the mystifying breed of American who hasn’t yet decided between John Kerry and George Bush.

When Rip Van Winkle roused himself from slumber and walked back into town, he discovered that a revolution had taken place without his notice. The townspeople had been royal subjects when he entered the woods with his squirrel gun, but they now were in the midst of an election, and he found himself engulfed by an unfamiliar, roiling crowd. In author Washington Irving’s description of the town, “the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.”

As Paul Starr notes in his recent book, The Creation of Media, poor Rip had stumbled into a second revolution — a revolution in communication — that accompanied the political revolution of 1776. Printing presses unleashed a flood of pamphlets, handbills, sermons, sheet music, books, and, most importantly, newspapers into American society, helping to circulate information, to democratize knowledge, to produce a new type of American, a democratic citizen. The democratization of knowledge was essential to the project of making citizens who were capable of participating in a democracy and governing themselves.

But the tale of Rip Van Winkle reminds us just how difficult it can be to stay afloat in the flood of information that pours forth in a democratic society — even in the current produced by the first of the republic’s “new media.” Plunged unwittingly into the 18th-century media revolution, Citizen Rip listened in amazement as “a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens — election — members of Congress — liberty — Bunker’s Hill — heroes of ’76 — and other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” And then the crowd’s attention turned to Rip, the disheveled newcomer in their midst. “They crowded around him, eying him from head to foot, with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired ‘on which side he voted?’ Rip stared in vacant stupidity.”

With that, Washington Irving introduced the first -– and quintessential — undecided voter. A man who had fallen off the path of history. A man uncontaminated by the media of his day. A man for whom all political discourse was gibberish. Of course, he had an excuse. He’d been in a drunken coma for twenty years.

It’s a sign of my own shortcomings, I suppose, but in this particular autumn, when the choices are stark and the tone disputatious, I’ve had very uncharitable thoughts about undecided voters. If these people haven’t been asleep in the woods for twenty years, why must the media offer them to us as paragons of civic virtue?

Why are they given security clearance, allowed to attend a presidential debate and to question the candidates? Why must I watch as they, gathered together by reporters, view the debates on television so that we, ignored by those same reporters, have the privilege of witnessing their excruciating indecision? And why must I listen as they struggle mightily, under the reporter’s reassuring gaze, to explain why they — after watching three debates, hundreds of news reports, thousands of commercials, and HAVING LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS! -– are still seeking some elusive piece of the puzzle before discharging their solemn duty as citizens. I’ve had a nervous breakdown just trying to decide between American Idol contestants, but these people are hopeless. They don’t need a public forum; they need medical care.

And yet….

There are times when I feel like Rip Van Winkle. In place of Irving’s “lean and bilious-looking” fellows, we have our plump and -– come to think of it — bilious-looking pundits. Their pockets may not be full of handbills, but their blogs are loaded with hyperlinks. Their jargon, if not Babylonish, is still bewildering. The flood of information may be greater than in Rip Van Winkle’s day, but the effect is still the same: the consequential tangled in the trivial, the truth entwined with lies, and the torrent never ceases. I’ve made my own decision, but I’m certainly not wise. I have my beliefs — essentially moral sentiments about social equality or the use of military force or whether a man of presidential bearing ought to snigger like Beavis and Butthead during debates (“heh…heh…heh”) — but I can’t begin to explain how one might set about fixing the health care system or Social Security. I could live a thousand years, and I’d get no closer to understanding these issues by watching television. More often than I’d like to admit, I stare at the screen, like Citizen Rip, in vacant stupidity.

And there are times when I wish that I were as fortunate as Rip Van Winkle. Not even my friends at PETA could stop me from shooting at squirrels if I had the faintest hope of falling asleep and missing this benighted political season. The fantasy of being lost, well and truly lost — cut off from all communication, fallen off the path of history — is more powerful in our hyper-networked age than it was in the days of Dafoe, or Golding, or Gilligan. But that’s a topic for another day. Today looks like the perfect autumn afternoon for a ramble in the woods. And I’ll get to it in a minute. But a guy on CNN just said something about the Bill O’Reilly sex scandal. Could this be another of Karl Rove’s devious schemes to distract voters? I wonder what Fox News has to say…. Now where did I leave the remote control?

Links of interest:

1. Rip Van Winkle

2. American Research Group: Political Polls

3. “Undecided Voter? Try This Quiz”

4. This Modern World: The Undecided Voter

Please feel free to comment.