Señal 3 La Victoria: Communication in Service of the People
Kate Cronin / University of Texas at Austin

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

Inside the small house behind this banner sits Chile’s first community television station, Señal 3 La Victoria. For two weeks last May, media preservation students from NYU, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Texas at Austin, came together as members of NYU’s 2016 Audiovisual Preservation Exchange program (APEX). Together, we traveled to Santiago, Chile and teamed up with the founders of Señal 3 to inventory 20 years worth of Umatic, VHS, and Hi8 videotape and to build a fully functioning video transfer station. [ (( For a more in-depth description of our work at Señal 3 and the National Library of Chile visit the APEX Santiago 2016 blog. As a member of the APEX team I spent most of my time working to inspect, clean, repair, and digitize several collections of small gauge films housed at the National Library. Luckily, I was able to participate in a community archiving workshop at Señal 3 on May 28, 2016, where I was able to speak with both the founders of Señal 3 and my amazing APEX colleagues about their experiences organizing and implementing the inventory and a video transfer station. ))]

From the outset, the founding members of Señal 3 made it clear that their primary objective for the exchange was to increase community access to their audiovisual archive. This fervent commitment to the democratizing potential of community television stemmed from their desire to counter what they perceived as the continued exclusion of La Victoria, and other working-class Chilean communities, from meaningful participation in the public sphere. First repressed by a dictatorship, then denied access to the necessary resources to broadcast legitimately by the democratically elected governments that followed, the founding members of Señal 3 felt twice silenced by the Chilean government. For this reason, in the wake of Chile’s overlapping transitions to both a democratic government and digital broadcasting system, Señal 3 embraced their position as media pirates, emerging as a dynamic agenda-setter within their community. In the process, they became the custodians of an immense archive of human rights documentation, a distinctly undervalued contribution to the historical memory of a country still publicly reckoning with its past.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

La Victoria has historically been a hotbed of leftist political resistance and activism in Santiago, Chile. In 1970, the neighborhood threw their support behind the socialist, democratically elected President Salvador Allende, who was ousted by a US-backed coup in September of 1973 and replaced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Over the course of 17 years, Pinochet’s government forced over 200,000 Chileans into exile, tortured 28,000 in secret, executed 2,279, and disappeared 1,248. [ (( These were the figures reported by The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. ))] During Pinochet’s presidency, residents of La Victoria vehemently protested against (and were consistently repressed by) the government.

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago's Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago’s Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

Despite La Victoria’s history of political resistance, Señal Tres did not begin broadcasting until 1997, seven years after Chile’s return to democracy. The founders, most of whom grew up during Pinochet’s presidency, are self-taught journalists, cinematographers, and editors with day jobs as plumbers, electricians, and builders. They devote their weekends to Señal 3 and pay the station’s massive electric bill out-of-pocket. They started out with donated equipment and funding from international NGOs, community television partners in Europe, and even a ska band from Madrid. Señal 3 has since helped to establish several other community television stations including Canal 3-Pichilemu, a Mapuche community station. They have never sought or received state funding; instead, over the past 20 years they have developed an extensive international support network of community television practitioners. They’ve also started a local communications school where they teach community members to produce, edit, and broadcast television programs, which they then air as part of their Saturday broadcasts.

All of their production work is done in-house, using pirated software and VHS tape decks to edit their broadcasts. They air everything from protest footage, educational programming on women’s health and sexual education, segments on popular video games produced and created by local children, pirated sports broadcasts, and bootleg copies of mainstream Hollywood films. [ (( A limited sampling of some of Señal 3’s more recent programming is available on their YouTube channel. ))] They broadcast to a 9 km radius on Saturdays, reaching approximately 350,000 homes and 800,000 residents. [ (( These statistics are taken from the Señal 3 website. ))] For the better part of two decades, they have broadcast without the support or permission of the state, effectively rendering them broadcast pirates.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

Jennifer Ashley has traced Señal 3’s pirate roots back to the years of Pinochet in which clandestine media was a key tool of resistance against the dictatorship, representing both the freedom of expression and the democratization of information. Although Pinochet was voted out of office in 1990, the neoliberal communication policies of his government remained firmly in place, resulting in the privatization and globalization of Chilean media, a high concentration of media-ownership, and a limitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, something the Señal 3 station members see as a public resource. [ (( For a more in depth consideration of the neoliberal reforms of Pinochet’s presidency in the context of the Digital Television Legislation in Chile, see, Etcheverry, Sergio Godoy. “Regulatory Implications of the Adoption of Digital Television in Chile.” Communication Research Trends 29 no 2 (2010): 2-25. ))] Ashley, who spent over a year working with the Señal 3 team and living in La Victoria for her doctoral research, describes Señal 3’s relationship with the government before the transition to digital television as a form of “open secret piracy . . . a way for the Chilean state to defer, but not refuse, demands for greater media democratization” [ ((Ashley, Jennifer. “‘Honorable Piracy’ and Chile’s Digital Transition.” Popular Communications 13, no 1 (2015): 11 ))]. For this reason, Señal 3 and other community television activists organized around the national shift to digital television (beginning in 2009) as an opportunity for the state to re-distribute the electromagnetic spectrum more democratically and to legitimate their participation in public discourse. However, 2014’s Digital Television Legislation neither stipulated a significant redistribution of the electromagnetic spectrum nor allocated support for community television stations to help with the expensive transition from analog to digital broadcasting infrastructure and equipment. For community television activists, this legislation represented the continuation of a long history of excluding alternative voices and media practices from the Chilean public sphere. [ ((Ibid.(14-15) ))]

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

Señal 3 adjusted to their position within the emerging digital landscape by continuing to clandestinely broadcast an analog signal for their (many) community members who could not yet afford to make the transition to digital television. They also began to stream some of their broadcasts online. For this reason, when the APEX team arrived in La Victoria in May of 2016, our preservation efforts straddled Chile’s analog past and digital future. The founders of Señal 3 made it clear from day one that their media archive belongs first and foremost to their community. They saw the digitization and digital preservation of their archive as both a practical and a democratic imperative: videotape is an unstable storage medium with a finite life cycle, and digitization presented them with the opportunity to make 20 years of audiovisual documentation of their community, by their community, available on-demand to their community. Now in possession of an inventory of their archive and a fully functioning digitization station, the team at Señal 3 is one step closer to their goal of making the archive widely accessible to the people of La Victoria. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, Senal 3 still faces many obstacles: technological obsolescence, the steep cost of digital storage, and the lack of standardization among digital formats, just to name a few. With neither state support nor permission, they must work with their international network of community television operators to address these challenges.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot over the video transfer station.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot at the video transfer station.

Much has been written about the media’s role in Chile’s transition to democracy and public reckoning with (or denial of) the human rights violations committed during Pinochet’s dictatorship. [ (( See Kristin Sorensen’s Media, Memory, and Human Rights in Chile and Claudia Bucciferro’s For-get: identity, media, and democracy in Chile. ))] However, few have acknowledged community television stations as active – albeit unsanctioned – participants in the necessary human rights discourses that have taken place throughout Chile and abroad since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. For television scholars interested in alternative media and communications policy, historians interested in historical memory, and archivists invested in human rights documentation, cultural patrimony, and community archiving practices, the longevity and wide-reaching activism of Señal 3 serves as a powerful reminder to consider the potential local, national, and transnational impact of broadcast media practitioners who operate outside the legal framework of the electromagnetic spectrum.

APEX Santiago 2016 – Señal 3 Community Archiving Workshop from Michael Pazmino on Vimeo.

Image Credits:

1. “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep,” Author’s personal collection.
2. A view of the Andes, Author’s personal collection.
3. The Wall of the Disappeared, Author’s personal collection.
4. The walls of Señal 3, Author’s personal collection.
5. A mural, Author’s personal collection.
6. APEX and Señal 3 team, Author’s personal collection.

Please feel free to comment.

“Captive TV:” A New Reality Format

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

The deep involvement of television in the conduct of war and conflict, not just as an agency of relay but as a constituent factor in the construction of political and military “reality,” is well documented in the literature of international research. However, a new marker of its defining impact would appear to have been reached with the coverage given last month to the Royal Navy’s 15 “hostages” detained in Iran for some 13 days after their seizure in the Persian Gulf while on patrol, allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. This coverage, initially for Iranian television but broadcast selectively across the world, got eerily close to a Big Brother-style reality show in aspects of its portrayal, although how far this was by conscious design remains unclear. The implications of the styling, and of the performances that were required for its “successful” projection, continue to be a major factor in the debate about the whole incident and its aftermath.

Of course images of captives, and of hostages, have a history, one which goes back to forms of triumphal exhibition well before the availability of the symbolic currency of photography, film and television, which so crucially extends the terms and modes of display. More recently, these terms have increasingly shifted towards strategic use – the photo or video sequence as a counter in a game of pressure and sometimes negotiation often played-off in relation to a watching “public” placed by the media in the role of bystander, as well in relation to specific political and military authorities.

What was so different about this affair, this use of “display,” however, was the way in which the whole “theatre of captivity” constructed by Iranian television drew so strongly (and to a degree, persuasively) on benign framings, on the idea of the prisoners as “guests.” The open indication of subjugated status (blindfolds, signs of physical violence, ragged appearance or prison clothing) which has accompanied previous imagery was exchanged for a bizarre range of more affirmatory signs. These included performances not only of “admission” (carried out briskly in confident lecture style, accompanied by maps and pointers), but also of sociability (eating together, smiling and joking, playing chess and table tennis, watching television and reading).

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the theatricalization extended to a final performance of gratitude at release, including handshakes with the Iranian president, much open celebration among the group, interview comments into reporters’ microphones, acceptance and opening of presents and a seemingly cheerful group waving of farewell (dressed not in uniform but in civilian suits).

Not surprisingly, this all presented the British media with some challenges as to how precisely to handle the story in relation to expectation and dominant values. These challenges to tone and to reported detail affected both coverage at the geopolitical level and its routine pitching at the level of the individuals and their families. Uncertainties were latent in nearly all the reporting and explicit in some of it. Even before the captives’ release, media accounts criticising their behaviour and comparing it unfavourably with more conventional notions of prisoner-of-war “refusal” to cooperate were widespread, some issuing from journalists and some from former military personnel and not all from Britain. With the further “performance” of their release in Iran, accompanied by scenes that could, indeed, have come straight from a reality series, the talk of “humiliation” and of “embarrassment” increased.

This caused noticeable tensions in the reporting of their return, where a strong early move to emphasise the need for privacy and to respect personal feelings outside of the limited accounts offered at the press conference was quickly thrown into crisis (indeed contradicted) by the news that those involved would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in some cases for six figure sums. Such an open commodification of the captivity experience, an experience whose public representation had already been the subject of massive, strategic styling by the Iranians, opened up further lines of public opposition and dispute. However, the continuity of media logic was clear. Having been made against their will into kinds of reality show performer, the sailors and marines were being transformed into what in many ways is a now familiar kind of transient celebrity – their temporary but intensive tele-presence as “news” generating further audience “attraction,” the economic justification for a little longer in the mediasphere. Once again, established ideas of “proper behaviour” were initially no match for the volatile dynamics of mediation and the belief, by at least some senior navy officers and their political managers, that to risk playing directly into the media appetite for the story was worth it in order quickly to counter the Iranian-generated version. This phase lasted only two days, after which the earlier decision about allowing stories to be sold was reversed by the Government as a result of a huge political backlash, partly fuelled by the continuingly unflattering portrayal of events coming through from even the captives’ own accounts.

The tensions at work in media and public engagement with the incident were both political and cultural. In both cases what had been seen on television was an absolutely central reference point, even if different interpretations of its status were also part of what was being contested. That levels of duress had been applied to obtain the “performances” was hardly ever in question (although pointed reference to the established record of treatment at Guantánamo was made a comparative marker by some). However, the issue of precisely what degree of co-operation was justified in the circumstances remained in play, however mutedly or with whatever qualification.

British sailors waving goodbye

British sailors waving goodbye

How can we summarise television’s involvement in this incident, the political implications of which are still reverberating? Clearly, the main emphasis must be placed on the way in which the Iranian version of events offered a developing narrative of apparent well-being and co-operation rather than the isolated or at least sharply episodic moments of hardship, suffering and the possibility of imminent death which most previous exercises in captive or hostage images have entailed. This version was certainly not believed “straight” by most of the British audience who watched the sequences, and it is certainly possible that it was not believed (and nor, therefore, was the authenticity of the “confessions”) by many in the Iranian audience either. However, as a performance whose precise conditions of fabrication were unknown, it achieved a sufficient legitimacy of reference beyond that of the complete and obvious “fake.” It was this interweaving of doubtfulness and plausibility which connected it, if only indirectly and by disturbing parody, with the performances of mainstream reality television and which, for many viewers, made the experience of watching it, right through to the handshakes, presents and farewells, so much a matter of conflicting and perhaps alternating frameworks of interpretation and assessment.

Such a strong core of visual portrayal, watched by millions (and often used in loop format by the channels to extend its durational impact) was always going to be central to any subsequent expansion of the range of accounts. This included those short statements issuing from the press conference and follow-up interviews back in the UK (the BBC rolling news channel actually ran the Iranian-sourced “captive” footage on a split screen alongside images of the same person talking live at the British press conference).

Finally, we can note how this whole project of strategic mediatization only worked effectively within the terms of global television, its technology of trans-national relay and its dedicated news channels being quite central to the impact (varied though this is likely to have been) on distant publics.

At the UK press conference on the day following their release one of the marines remarked that the whole thing had been a “media circus.” He would not have known then quite how apt this metaphor would continue to be as the focus of managing, and attemptedly re-working, the depiction of “what had happened” shifted from Iran to Britain.

Image Credits:
1. British navy personnel on Iranian TV
2. British sailors waving goodbye

Please feel free to comment.

La televisión cultural mexicana

por: Florence Toussaint / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

(for English, click here)

Anuncio de un programa del Canal 11

Anuncio de un programa del Canal 11

La política cultural

Las reglas generales de la política se adaptan a las distintas esferas de lo social. En el caso de las televisoras públicas, retomaremos el concepto acuñado por Toby Miller y George Judice sobre política cultural. Dicen estos autores que la cultura se vincula con la política “en dos registros: el estético y el antropológico. En el registro estético, la producción artística surge de individuos creativos y se la juzga según criterios estéticos encuadrados por los intereses y prácticas de la crítica y la historia cultural. (…) El registro antropológico (…) toma la cultura como un indicador de la manera en que vivimos, el sentido del lugar y el de persona que nos vuelven humanos…”[i].

Señalan además cómo lo estético distingue a las personas dentro de una comunidad, mientras que lo antropológico marca las diferencias entre comunidades. Los grupos dentro de una sociedad pueden apreciar de distinta manera lo estético gracias a su capital cultural, de acuerdo con el concepto de Bourdieu, mientras que por ejemplo entre países, la lengua, la religión, las costumbres, la economía y la historia dan identidades distintas a cada uno.

De acuerdo con el país, la política cultural se materializa tanto en las acciones del Estado como en sus instituciones. Estas se convierten en el puente entre lo estético y lo antropológico[ii].

Imágen del Canal 22

Imágen del Canal 22

La política cultural del Estado mexicano, respecto de la televisión, tiene dos vertientes. Por un lado el marco legal, que ha surgido de la toma de ciertas decisiones y de la lucha de fracciones diversas dentro del grupo gobernante. De otra parte en sus instituciones, es decir en los sistemas televisivos que se han ido creando y que conforman actualmente un conglomerado con un perfil definido. Este se va moldeando de acuerdo con las políticas, generalmente sexenales. Pero también con las aportaciones que el público realiza a través de organismos de la sociedad civil, de los críticos, de los académicos y de miembros del Congreso que han participado en el debate acerca de la necesidad de que existan las televisoras públicas.

Televisión cultural

La televisión cultural se refiere a todos los sistemas que, independientemente de los contenidos que difundan, han surgido de un apremio estético, de un objetivo que apunta al uso social de una tecnología que tiene un alcance masivo. Se les denomina de distintas maneras: pública, permisionada[iii], no lucrativa, gubernamental, estatal, sin embargo atienden, para ser consideradas así, al mismo principio.

Con el surgimiento de la televisión como industria en 1950, el Estado mexicano decidió otorgar a la inversión privada, el usufructo de señales definidas por la Constitución de la República como propiedad original de la nación, para que desarrollaran el gran negocio que hoy consiste en la existencia de los consorcios privados Televisa, TvAzteca, Multivisión de alcance nacional e internacional, además de otros pequeños grupos locales.

Anuncio de Primer Plano, un programa del Canal 11

Anuncio de Primer Plano, un programa del Canal 11

Paralelamente se estableció el criterio de reservar para uso público una porción minoritaria del espectro. Esta política se hizo patente hasta la aparición, en 1958, de Canal 11. La emisora fue adscrita al Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN) y así opera hasta la fecha.

La política privatizadora y neoliberal desatada en el sexenio de Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) afectó de manera particularmente dura a los medios públicos. En 1993 Imevisión se disolvió, fueron subastados sus redes 7 y 13 y adquiridas por Salinas Pliego con lo cual aparece en el espectro TvAzteca.

Otro intento cultural, aun vigente, es Canal 22. Nació al mismo tiempo que se vendía Imevisión. Fue rescatado del paquete de medios ofrecidos a la iniciativa privada. Con todas las vicisitudes de los canales gubernamentales, ha vivido ya casi tres sexenios.

Anuncio para la nueva temporada en Canal 22

Anuncio para la nueva temporada en Canal 22

En los años 80 y 90, la mayoría de los Estados de la República, obtuvieron permiso o concesión para operar señales televisivas abiertas. Su desarrollo se encuentra vinculado con el gobierno estatal en turno, lo que ha resultado en políticas contradictorias y cambiantes; en programación que fluctúa entre la calidad y el oficialismo. Sin embargo constituyen un espacio que ha sido preservado para la cultura.

Existen 22 permisos para los Gobiernos de los Estados, 3 para las universidades, 1 para el IPN. Canal 22 es una concesión.[iv] Un total de 27 televisoras aéreas abiertas de perfil cultural. Hay que agregar además, las repetidoras.

A partir del año 2000 se abrió una posibilidad inédita en el país: contar con señales televisivas culturales que solamente circulan por medios de paga como el cable y el satélite: El Canal del Congreso, el Canal Judicial, AprendeTV y TVUNAM, el canal de los universitarios. Es decir que en la etapa que va de 1985 a la fecha, la pantalla se ha diversificado.

Y está en emergencia un fenómeno nuevo: la internacionalización de las televisoras culturales. Varios canales mexicanos han traspasado las fronteras y ahora pueden verse en algunos Estados de la Unión Americana.

Para concluir

La política cultural respecto de la televisión puede resumirse diciendo que el modelo elegido es el mixto. Pantalla chica privada y pública. Sin embargo ésta última ha transitado por diversas orientaciones, lo cual no le ha permitido madurar ni insertarse de manera definitiva en el gusto del público. Los vaivenes de la política, manifestados en la creación de sistemas televisivos para luego venderlos, en el apoyo de canales para luego recortarles el presupuesto, en el apoyo de productoras para mantener enlatadas sus series porque no hay canales de distribución, han mantenido a las televisoras culturales en un permanente desasosiego.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004, p. 11.
Op.cit. p.11.
En la legislación mexicana existen dos figuras para designar y otorgar frecuencias de radio y televisión: el permiso y la concesión. En el primer caso no se puede vender espacio. En el segundo sí.
Véase la nota 3.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004.

Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinción, Taurus, México, 1998.

Richeri, Giuseppe, La transición de la televisión, Bosch, Barcelona, 1994.

Toussaint, Florence (Coord). ¿Televisión pública en México?, CONACULTA, México, 1993.

Toussaint, Florence. Actualidad de las televisoras culturales, texto 11, Filmoteca UNAM, México, marzo de 2001.

—. “La oferta televisiva abierta en la ciudad de México (2003)” en Lenin Martell (coordinador). Hacia la construcción de una ciencia de la comunicación en México, AMIC, México, 2004.

Imágen cortesía de autor.

Florence Toussaint es profesora en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Favor de comentar.

by: Florence Toussaint / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Cultural Policy

General policy regulations are adaptable to distinct social spheres. In the case of public television, we find useful Toby Miller and George Judice’s concept of cultural policy. These authors state that culture links to policy in two registers: the aesthetic and the anthropological. In the aesthetic register, artistic production arises from creative individuals and is judged according to aesthetic criteria delimited by critical and cultural interests and historical practices. The anthropoligical register understands culture as indicative of how we live our lives, our sense of place and self that make us human.[i]

They also point out how the aesthetic register is used to distinguish between people within a community, while the anthropological marks differences between communities. Groups within a society may have differing aesthetic tastes, dinstinguishable by their cultural capital as in Bourdieu’s model, while between countries, for example, language, religión, traditions, economics, and history foster distinct identities in each.

Accordingly, in each country, cultural policies are evident equally in actions at the State level as at the level of its institutions. These actions mark the bridge between the aesthetic and the anthropological registers[ii].

With respect to television, Mexico’s cultural policy has two facets. On one side, legal frameworks have arisen based on various rulings and out of diverse government factions. On the other side, institutions, which constitute the television system, have been created which operate as a conglomerate with its own agenda. The latter structure changes in accordance with political changes, roughly every six years [when major election cycles in Mexico take place]. But it also changes through actions taken by the public through special interest groups, critics, academics, and Congress persons who have participated in debates about the need for public television outlets.

Cultural Television

Cultural television refers to systems that, independently of the content they air, have arisen out of urgent need, with an objective of putting to social use a technology with the ability to reach so many. It has been labeled alternately “public,” “state-licensed,”[iii] “non-profit,” “goverment,” “state,” while all the while, at the core, reflecting the same goal.

As the television industry grew rapidly in 1950, the Mexican State ceded to private investment the use and profit of the signals defined as the rightful property of the nation by the Constitution of the Republic. This resulted in the grand business scheme that exists today as the private consortiums of Televisa, TvAzteca, and Multivisión, with national and international interests, as well as other smaller, regional, groups.

At the same time, a small part of the spectrum was reserved for public use. This policy was realized most obviously through the creation of Canal 11 [Channel 11] in 1958. The station was attached to the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) and continues to operate from there to this day.

The neoliberal policies of privitization unleashed during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) were especially troubling for public media outlets. In 1993, Imevisión was dissolved and its networks 7 and 13 were auctioned to Salinas Pliego with which it now appears on the TvAzteca spectrum.

Another long-standing effort towards cultural television, is Canal 22 [Channel 22]. It was created at the same time as Imevisión’s sale. It was rescued from among the others which were offered to the privatization initiative. Canal 22 has managed to survive the ups and downs of almost three governmental changeovers.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of Mexican States were able to obtain licenses (public or private) to operate open broadcasting television signals. Their development has been intricately linked with the state governments, which has resulted in contradictory and inconsistent policies; their programming has alternated between quality and state propaganda. Nonetheless, they do provide a space which is reserved for culture.

There are currently 22 permits for state goverments, 3 for universities, and 1 for IPN. Canal 22 operates under a private license.[iv] This means that there exist a total of 27 cultural television signals. In addition, we must also recognize the existence of an associated network of TV relays.
Since the year 2000, another possibility has arisen that has not yet been fully accounted for: the transmission of cultural television signals which circulate entirely through subscription services like cable and satellite. Goverment stations such as El Canal del Congreso and el Canal Judicial, AprendeTV, and the university channel TVUNAM. We should recognize that since 1985 the screen has been diversifying.

Yet another phenomenon is on the rise: the internationalization of cultural television. Many Mexican channels challenge international borders and may be watched from within the United States of America.


With respect to television, cultural policy often ends up supporting a mixed model. The small screen as private and public. Nevertheless, the latter has existed in so many incarnations it has not been permitted to mature nor has it managed to definitively cultivate a loyal audience. Inconsistent policies, evident in the process of creating television networks just to sell them, in funding channels just to yank away their budgets, in supporting producers just to shelve their work “in the can” because there are no distribution outlets, have left cultural television in a permanent state of anxiety.

Toby Miller y George Judice, Política Cultural, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004, p. 11.
Ibid, p. 11.
The term here is “permisionada,” which in Mexico refers to a station that is state-owned but is licensed for non-commercial use.
The term used here is “una concesión.” “Concesionada” is contrasted to “permisionada” in that the former is a privately-owned license. Additionally the former license permits the sale of ad time, while the latter does not.

Click here to see the author’s Bibliography

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
Images provided by author.

Author: Florence Toussaint is a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Translator: Jean Anne Lauer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and a Senior Editor of Flow.

To Watch a Predator

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

To Catch a Predator screenshot 1

Views from outside a Dateline house

This essay is not a defense of pedophilia. But on Tuesday nights I find myself pondering the plight of reality television’s latest celebrities — men who are the unsuspecting players in Dateline: To Catch a Predator, investigative journalism’s response to America’s Most Wanted and Big Brother. Their broadcast debut is always framed by a dramatic dialogic volley between co-anchors Ann Curry and Stone Phillips. On the February 13, 2007 episode their exchange opened with the remark, “Some have seen it, now they’re on it, and our hidden cameras are all over it,” before moving on to the provocative fragment, “The teacher, the oil man, the ex-cop.” NBC’s Tuesday night lineup has become the occasional home of To Catch a Predator, which periodically joins the evening’s legal drama pairing of Law & Order: CI and Law & Order: SVU. First aired in November 2004 as a Dateline segment titled “Dangerous Web,” and with an undercover operation located in New York City, To Catch a Predator has since traveled to Washington, D.C., California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, and Texas in the first ten installments of the investigative series.

My fascination with the series stems from the obvious questions associated with the network’s collaboration with law enforcement, and the common legal questions posed about this liaison. Are these participants the victims of a multilayered plan of entrapment that leads from chat room decoys, to hired actors, to correspondent Chris Hansen? Do these suspects have any right to privacy, or can they be freely featured as part of the flow of network television? In light of the serious nature of the potential offense (the victimization of children), these questions are often assumed to be irrelevant. Yet the show’s popularity, borne out by its ratings (Predator installments peak the Dateline viewership) and its entrance into popular discourse (parodied on YouTube and quite recently by Conan O’Brien at the Emmy Awards, and now in a stage of self-aggrandized historicizing with Chris Hansen’s recent book culled from his experiences on the series), makes an analysis all the more pressing. What are the cultural implications of a program that circulates information about an assumed public crisis?

To Catch a Predator screenshot 2

Views from inside a Dateline house

In his discussion of epidemics — one form of crisis situation — Michel Foucault points out that the determination that a situation is epidemic is typically a political determination, one made by those with access to statistical data and the authority to make and circulate such determinations. Such an authoritative discourse governs NBC’s investigations of Internet predators, calling forth the dispensation of resources and the justification of tactics of surveillance and regulation as part of the broadcast serialization of pedophilia. Children are indeed being victimized, but the labeling of the situation as a crisis has depended upon the collection of data—tabulated and interpreted by “experts.” As part of this evidentiary process, visibility is simultaneously a problem and a solution. The show’s visibility has focused public concern on the crisis (in a sense bringing the crisis into existence by making it visible—though the program is certainly not responsible for the incidents themselves, and is only one flashpoint for its being called out) and allowed the authoritative discourse to take hold (made manifest in the mobilization of dollars and resources and the willful embrace of the network as protector of the public interest); indeed as part of this movement, citizens willingly surveil each other, and watch others being surveilled, perhaps part of the general neoliberalist spin down that once again turns the public interest over to private industry (consider, for example, the teen lingo cheat sheet on, written to help parents understand the acronyms their kids use on the Web), and the unsurprising result of a neoconservative turn that gives information technologies significant leeway as tools of surveillance and discipline in the name of national security — “no privacy, no problem!”

Perverted Justice thong

From the Perverted Justice gift shop

Concern about the online exploitation of children has created a new growth industry of its own, with a complete line of products related to helping parents monitor the activity of their children. For its part, Dateline calls on the services of Perverted Justice, an organization that exposes men who sexually target minors online. Perverted Justice works as a consultant for Dateline (and is paid a fee for its services), setting up computer profiles and populating chat rooms with volunteers pretending to be underage teens interested in sex. The dystopic and utopic discourses about new technology converge in the Dateline narrative, as we are once alerted to the dangers of cyberspace yet told a tale in which technology is deployed as a productive social instrument. The paranoia of online identity as deceptive role play is displaced by the positive yet parallel action of the Perverted Justice decoy that plays a part to lure the predator. Predator and savior use parallel tactics that have evolved in tandem, and are positioned as the yin and yang of the digital age.

Chris Hansen - To Catch a Predator book cover

Correspondent Chris Hansen as author

With such a paradigm in mind, we are asked to accept surveillance as the principle raison d’être of certain new technologies, though in this climate the technology must be read as not politically or ideologically neutral. Reflecting on Predator’s development over its ten investigative installments, Hansen recalls, “The first investigation was very slick. I mean we had five or six cameras. And they set up a mini control room in like a little back room in the house. And they’re all huddled in there with the monitors.” Tracing the show’s development, one of the volunteers with Perverted Justice adds, “… We went from Frag [Dennis Kerr, the group’s Director of Operations] and I being perched on a single desk in a hallway at the top of the staircase—to having an entire room set aside where we’ve got our Web cams up, and we’ve got our phone verifiers in position. And we’ve got all these new technologies that we’re using. And Frag has gone from having a hallway window to look out of, to having something like 7 monitors pyramided around him.” The show is a testament to visibility, both in its guiding mission (to put faces on sexual predators) and its aesthetics of technological oversaturation. The undercover house in Long Beach, California, the set of its February 6, 2007 episode, featured fifteen hidden cameras, while the program itself split the viewing screen repeatedly, at one point offering home viewers four vantage points, plus those additional screens within the televised screen of the surveillance room.

NBC and have expanded the Predator franchise to Catch an ID Thief and Catch a Con Man and package safety kits for each series. The Predator safety kit includes a family contract for online safety, culled from, asking parents to pledge, among other things, that they “not use a PC or the Internet as an electronic babysitter” and reminding kids to “be a good online citizen and not do anything that hurts other people or is against the law.”

Brian Massumi notes in his preface to The Politics of Everyday Fear, that “fear is a staple of popular culture and politics.” American social space has been saturated by mechanisms of fear production, a process perhaps hastened by the role mass media has come to assume in this country. Fear and the public sphere are illusive (and intimately bound to one another). But what Predator rather nonchalantly points out, as it produces “the teacher, the oil man, [and] the ex-cop,” is that fear is not simply outside the home, but down the hallway. These men are quite often (though not always) identified as family men, with wives and children. What public service is the network doing for their families? It is the very (virtual) nature of fear and of the public sphere that drives us toward empiricism, toward our need to know, to see, to find the sexual predators among us; yet what we may finally discover is that what we fear most is lying beside us.

Image Credits:

1. Dateline: To Catch a Predator aired 2-6-07

2. Dateline: To Catch a Predator episode aired 2-6-07

3. Perverted Justice


In a recent installment, Chris Hansen asks one subject, “Have you seen the show before?” “And what do you think of the stories?” “Did you ever think you’d be on one?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 23.

Brian Massumi, “Preface,” in The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), vii.

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Do Good TV?

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigge Crane and Rigging

Bigge Crane and Rigging

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

2. Bigge Crane and Rigging

Please feel free to comment.

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.



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.

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

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Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.


Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.

Everything Will Flow

by: Will Brooker / Richmond University

Scuba Diving

Scuba Diving

In an article from 2000, seeking a word to describe the cross-platform convergence of early 21st century popular culture – the spilling from one type of screen to another, the alliance of TV or cinema texts with interactive websites where the fiction opens up into interactive simulations – I fixed on “overflow” as an update of Raymond Williams’ 1974 coinage, “flow”. Williams was describing the disruptive, dreamlike experience of watching American television, with its constant flash-forwards of promised shows to come and flashback reminders of stories gone before; its snatches of teaser-trailers for current affairs sliced into the middle of drama series, and its lack of obvious distinction between commercials and programmes. Glossaries of cultural theory suggest two other common uses of the same term, from Deleuze and Guattari (1983), describing subversive energies that are repressively channelled and structured by bourgeois society, and Manuel Castells (1997), discussing the transit of wealth, information and finance in contemporary communication networks.

There is, however, another definition of “flow”, distinct from yet in some ways relatable to Williams’ use of the term. It is the central concept in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and according to Csikszentmihalyi it provides nothing less than the key to human fulfilment. Flow, in this context, is the pleasurable sensation of losing oneself in an activity – work, a game, a physical or mental challenge – and becoming immersed, with everything perfectly meshing in a harmonious state where goals are set and satisfyingly met. Flow, or “optimal experience”, involves a paradoxical balance between structure and release, between control and surrender, between heightened awareness of self and a sense of connection with others, between concentrated focus on a goal and a feeling of automatic effortlessness; time contracts or stretches and the individual merges with the activity, totally absorbed.

This sense of immersion, where the everyday is transcended and the participant enters a different state of being, a form of communion with a text, a process and sometimes with other participants, seems to offer a fascinating approach to the experience of watching television: in particular the more intense viewing practiced by fans with their favoured shows. When a devotee of 24 unplugs the telephone and disconnects the doorbell ten minutes before the programme begins; when Twin Peaks cultists prepare coffee and cherry pie for a group screening; when a viewer of Dawson’s Creek wears her Capeside High t-shirt during the episode and plays one of the show’s soundtrack CDs afterwards while participating in the virtual community at, these viewers are engaging in a ritual experience that aims for, if not a total absorption in the diegesis, then at least partial immersion and a liminal state of existing between the real and the fiction, temporarily removed from time and place. The sensations described by Csikszentmihalyi’s research subjects, from mountaineers through chess and basketball players to dancers – “that’s all that matters” (p.58), “it becomes your total world” (p.58), “your concentration is very complete” (p.52), “the concentration is like breathing – you never think of it” (p.53), “your comrades are there, but you all feel the same way anyway, you’re all in it together” (p.40) – could surely apply equally to the TV fan at the moment of closest engagement with his or her favoured show.

The only obstacle to applying this fascinating model to the experience of TV fandom is Csikszentmihalyi’s attitude to television. He doesn’t merely fail to mention TV viewing in his discussion of flow activities; he deliberately excludes it, denying it any such potential and only referring to it as a negative example, a contrast to more worthwhile practices. “Dance, theatre and the arts in general” are dignified as the category of mimicry, “in which alternative realities are created” (p.72); pretending or dressing-up as someone else, connecting with another identity, is praised as “stretch[ing] the limits of…ordinary experience”, and compared with tribal masking rituals. (p.73) Reading is “the most often mentioned flow activity around the world”, and studying a work of art can transport the viewer symbolically to “a separate reality” (pp.118-119) Sex and eating can be transformed from biological urges into flow experience with the right kind of discipline and discrimination. (p.101, p.114) Even trench warfare and criminal activity such as vandalism or joyriding are, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s respondents, potential sources of flow (p.68). The audience at a live concert is in a prime situation to experience flow through joint participation; yet Csikszentmihalyi allows that listeners to recorded music at home can also reach a state of flow through active engagement. These sophisticated listeners “begin by setting aside specific hours for listening. When the time comes, they deepen concentration by dousing the lights, by sitting in a favourite chair, or by following some other ritual that will focus attention.” (p.111)

This is, of course, precisely the kind of ritual that TV fans regularly engage in to prepare themselves for the experience of participatory immersion, whether as a group or solitary activity, in a visual text. Yet Csikszentmihalyi refuses to discuss television viewing as anything but a passive, brainless, numbing act – rejecting all the well-known research into active viewing and viewers’ abilities to construct their own meaning from television shows, and clinging to surprisingly primitive, old-fashioned and shamelessly unsupported prejudices about the medium. Television is like a drug, keeping “the mind from having to face depressing thoughts” (p.169) “The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although TV requires the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required.” (p.30) “While people watch television, they need not fear that their drifting minds will force them to face disturbing personal problems.” (p.119) “Watching TV is far from being a positive experience – people generally report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it…” (p.169)

Csikszentmihalyi’s unapologetic hostility towards television is, on one level, frustrating, because his theories of flow would otherwise seem to offer productive insights into the experience of immersive viewing. However, other researchers have, equally unapologetically, drawn selectively on his work and subjected it to a “negotiated reading”, taking what works and ignoring what doesn’t. Roger C. Aden’s 1999 study, Popular Stories and Promised Lands, for instance, refers frequently to Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow, modified in turn through Victor Turner’s use of the theory. Turner applied Csikszentmihalyi’s concepts to the experience of pilgrims visiting the religious site of Lough Derg (p.137-8), arguing that their involvement in structured ritual and the loss of self in community chanting clearly echoed the pattern of Csikszentmihalyi’s non-religious flow activities. Aden uses the same definition of “flow”, but relates it to “symbolic pilgrimage” – including the practice of watching The X-Files.

“Scully and Mulder’s adventures are envisioned as releases into the liminoid flow of an alternative world…The X-Files offers a sacred place where ‘real’ time and space are excluded, much the same way in which pilgrims experience the liminoid of communitas ‘as a timeless condition, an eternal now…'” (pp.160-162) “The deep sense of involvement these fans report,” Aden goes on, “is also similar to the ‘flow experiences’ reported by pilgrims. These experiences are moments of ‘ordered existence’ that are ‘relatively lasting and totally absorbing'”. (p.164) These last quotations are directly from Csikszentmihalyi, Aden apparently seeing no problem in citing an author who pointedly kept TV viewing off his extensive list of potential flow experiences.

Turner, as we saw, brought his study of religious pilgrimage to bear on Csikszentmihalyi and convincingly showed that “flow” could apply to religious communitas. Aden’s work on symbolic pilgrimage echoes both Turner’s research into physical journeys and Csikszentmihalyi’s notions of flow through reading and music, arguing that individuals can experience a pilgrim’s transcendence of time and place, the same sense of travel into liminality, without even leaving the room. Csikszentmihalyi, on the basis of his 1990 work Flow, would resist this latter use of his own theory, but his contempt for television and denial of its role in flow experience seems unsupported by any survey of viewer activities, whereas Aden provides interviews from his ethnographic research to illustrate his assertion that The X-Files can enable an immersive ritual experience.

Further investigation of this kind could explore the flow experiences associated with various television texts, asking for instance how a group viewing differs in this respect from individual involvement, whether science fiction and fantasy genres offer particular opportunities for symbolic pilgrimage to altered states, how repeat viewing of a beloved, intimately familiar text differs from the first, suspenseful encounter with a brand new episode of a show, and how the experience of television flow relates to that of home movie viewing and the more obviously “active” process of playing video games.

It remains to be asked whether the use of Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas to elevate and celebrate the potential of television would be in any way unethical or inappropriate, whether the benefits of applying the “optimal experience” model to a medium Csikszentmihalyi clearly scorns outweigh our duty to the original author’s beliefs and intentions, and whether we have the right to contradict and correct his cultural prejudices in expanding the limits of flow.


Roger C. Aden. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages, Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1999.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Classic Work on How To Achieve Happiness, London: Rider, 2002.

Victor Turner and Edith L.B. Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Raymond Williams. Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London: Fontana, 1974.

“Flow” & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
More on Television Theory

Image Credits:

Scuba Diver
Please feel free to comment.

Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.

Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.

The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).

While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.

This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.

Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”

Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.

The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.

If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.

Please feel free to comment.

“Citizen versus Consumer”: Rethinking Core Concepts

by: Michele Hilmes / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Obama for President

Projecting into the future

Every so often a core concept emerges in an historical or theoretical field that serves a purpose at the time of its invention but slowly loses its explanatory power while continuing to crop up as something “everybody knows.” Eventually, it no longer clarifies but actually obscures: everybody knows George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, America is the best democracy in the world, women are more sensitive than men, Saddam Hussein had links to terrorists, etc. Or, in the field of media, Hollywood tried to ignore broadcasting in hopes it would go away; US media produce audiences, not programs; and public service broadcasting serves citizens living in communities while commercial broadcasting addresses itself to consumers living in markets. There are many more (skip to the bottom of this piece to post your own favorites – I hope we can compile a collection.)

It’s the last statement above that I want to address here, with hopes of returning to the second one later. Like the “Hollywood ignored television” myth (which provided me with a dissertation topic some years ago, and my entrée into the world of media scholarship), the “consumers vs. citizens” diad emerged during a period of tension, but drew on a much older and more embedded set of historical assumptions and concepts. The distinction between “citizen” and “consumer” linked to the media can be traced back to the very earliest years of broadcasting, as social forces and groups struggled over how to define and control the myriad “radical potentials” that the new technology and its earliest practitioners offered.

Elites in the industrialized nations most prominent in broadcasting’s development already recognized, by the 1920s, that the influx of increasingly organized market forces in media such as newspapers, magazines, film, and popular music had led to an upsurge of popular – what they called “mass” – culture, which encouraged values that intellectuals and leaders on both the left and the right found disturbing. In Britain, one look at the already highly commercialized radio situation in the United States led to the construction of a public service broadcasting system, the BBC, in which “public service” was defined as first and foremost not commercial and not competitive, and in fact adamantly opposed to marketplace (popular, “mass”) values.

A publicly funded monopoly, aimed at citizens, not consumers, was needed to hold the vulgar forces of marketplace capitalism at bay – even though, as I have argued elsewhere, this stemmed not so much from deeply-held philosophy at the point of its earliest iteration, 1922, than from a desire to resist the “American chaos” that its founders observed abroad.[1]

This context also demonstrates how closely debates over “public” and “citizens” are tied to concepts of national identity construction, and how markets are perceived as threatening to those constructions, both internally (in terms of hierarchies of citizenship) and externally (in terms of preserving national cultures from “foreign” influences).

The BBC model eventually became standard in Europe and in Europe’s colonial possessions. Many groups in the US advocated for it as well, from a variety of perspectives, and indeed its basic precepts can be found in early US broadcast regulation, despite the prevalence of commercial interests. The roots of the “citizen versus consumer” diad can be traced to this nexus, finding articulation on both the left and the right in the 1930s and 40s: from the Frankfurt school’s condemnation of the “culture industries” (though they held no brief for the state-dominated systems of Europe, having seen what happened in Germany), to the Leavisites and their Arnoldian disparagement of market-based culture on the right. Although the word “consumer” was not widely used at this time, it was clear to such observers that markets created a debased culture inimical to the uplift goals of the educated elite, whether progressive or deeply conservative. “Public” intervention was necessary to control such chaotic tendencies and to link broadcasting to the interests of the nation/state.

When Jurgen Habermas wrote his postdoctoral dissertation in the 1950s, tracing the transformation of the mediated public sphere by impinging state and market forces, he drew on this tradition. It should be noted, however, that Habermas (like Chomsky after him), worried as much about the interventions of the state as the market sector (as well he might post-war), in fact created a history in which market-based interests operating at the dawn of democracy built a sphere of citizen discussion and debate outside the machinations of the state. Though more focused on coffee houses than tea parties, Habermas described the world of private, commercial – though not commercialized, a more complicated concept – media and markets as a crucial ingredient in resistance to the overweening state. It was the later intrusion of the state into private life, as well as private interests into affairs of state, that equally worked to create the “refeudalization” of the public sphere that Habermas deplored.

This was not the aspect of Habermas taken up when the “citizens vs. consumers” dichotomy reached its fullest expression, in 1980s Britain, though he was frequently invoked. In 1982 Philip Elliott seminally wrote, “The thesis I wish to advance is that what we are seeing and what we face is a continuation of the shift away from involving people in society as political citizens of nation states towards involving them as consumption units in a corporate world.”[2]

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pursued deregulatory policies and the 1986 Peacock Report sketched out a more competitive and commercialized future for British Broadcasting, unfavorable comparisons with US broadcasting again became central to defending public service broadcasting via the citizen/consumer diad, exemplified by Graham Murdock’s conclusion in a 1990 article, “American commercial television is about promoting mass consumption not about providing resources for citizenship.”[3]

“Citizen or consumer,” as Duncan H. Brown’s 1994 article was entitled,[4] became the increasingly Manichean choice. In each case, it was the citizen model (ie, European, not American) that was empowered by the comparison – almost without overt argument, since to be a “citizen” is so clearly preferable to being a “consumer” for those arguing in this tradition. As Justin Lewis summarizes, consumption begins to be conceived as opposed to citizenship: “Unlike the citizen, the consumer’s means of expression is limited: while citizens can address every aspect of cultural, social and economic life (operating in what Jurgen Habermas called ‘the public sphere’), consumers find expression only in the marketplace.”[5]

But as Habermas would remind us, both the market and the state work together to define and delimit the public sphere; citizen and consumer are not opposite and contradictory identities but always and inevitably entwined in a capitalist society. Moreover, this dualism’s implications for the definition and construction of the public itself, and the internal social hierarchies it conceals, go unexamined. Most noticeable is the citizen/consumer diad’s hidden referencing of a gendered distinction: the normatively masculine citizen versus consumerism’s normatively feminine subject. Hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity are also concealed: citizenship has been a privilege initially confined, since the Greeks, to a small minority (masculine, property-owning, native-born) sector of the public and only very recently and imperfectly enlarged to include the majority: women, working classes, and non-native or nationally “othered” groups; it always excludes those residents of a state not legally entitled to citizen rights, such as recent immigrants, sans-papiers, guest workers, and resident aliens.

Other assumptions reveal themselves through closer scrutiny. The concept of “citizen” implies a “nation” whose public exists in a relationship of legal rights and status and whose appropriate activities are defined in terms of his relationship with the state. The “consumer”, on the other hand, is a stateless, rootless subject whose activities consist of acts of selection and purchase in a market where products of all nations jostle for shelf space. Further, by precepts of liberal democratic thinking, all citizens are equal; citizenship is a homogeneous, unified status that ideally makes no distinctions between citizens, who remain undifferentiated and “equal under the law.” Consumption, on the other hand, is usually conceptualized as a highly individualizing activity, by which markets identify and capitalize on – even create, if they can – distinctions of class, gender, age, region, taste, etc. in an address that thrives on differentiation and segmentation. So, conceptually, the public as citizen is masculine, homogeneous, and national; the public as consumer is feminine, differentiated, and hybrid.

It is easy to see, then, why “public service television for citizens” can stifle some forms of expression and marginalize some groups, and why “commercial television for consumers” can be politically and socially empowering under certain circumstances, as with women’s programming in 1930s US radio, television under Franco in Spain, or Asian satellite TV in Britain. It neglects the very real cultural, legal, and economic power that consumers can exercise over the circumstances of their lives, even – especially – if they are disempowered as citizens. We need to rein in the citizen/consumer diad, not to argue for a heroic market model along Rupert Murdoch lines, but to point out that it has roots in a long history that needs re-examination, and to face the fact that avoidance of commercialism via public funding will not always produce inclusive, representational, empowering media any more than the mere presence of commercialism will subvert all public sphere-building activities – and that neither can avert the intervention of the state. It’s much more complicated than that. But we cannot begin to think it through using concepts that conceal more shady assumptions than they provide enlightenment.

Michele Hilmes, “Who We Are, Who We Are Not: Battle of the Global Paradigms,” in Planet Television. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar, eds. New York UP, 2003.
Philip Elliott, “Intellectuals, the “information society,’ and the disappearance of the public sphere,” Media, Culture, and Society 4 (1982): 244.
Graham Murdock, “Television and citizenship: In defence of public broadcasting,” in Consumption, Identity, and Style: Marketing, meanings, and the packaging of pleasure, ed. Alan Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 1990. 99.
Duncan H. Brown, “Citizens or Consumers: U.S. Reactions to the European Communitiy’s Directive on Television,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1994): 1-12.
Justin Lewis, “Citizens and Consumers,” in The Television History Book ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI, 2003.

BBC Online
Jurgen Habermas Resource Page

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My Big Flat Screen TV

by: Sharon Strover / University of Texas at Austin

Our household finally succumbed to the lure of the big flat screen TV. Because I teach technology-related classes, many people assume I have a subscription to TiVo and the latest integrated computer-TV-sound system available, but in fact I am a latecomer to the latest round of television-related innovations even though I’ve been closely watching them develop over the past few years.

As in many families, our big screen was just one piece in the newest generation of home theatre innovations. An improved sound system came first (linked to our computer’s CPU with its digitized music tracks), which ultimately “demanded” a high definition digital picture accompaniment, which in turn logically led to an upgraded cable subscription (the digital tier) plus the personal digital video recorder capability. Now issues of the consumer-oriented magazine Sound and Vision (successor to High Fidelity) arrive at our house regularly. The prospect of adding TV-centric furniture pictured in the magazine — LaZBoys with drink and remote control pockets — prompts some lively discussions at home. But more broadly, I wonder what we’ve brought into the house that may not be as obvious as the big screen itself.

Big Screen TV1 The new home theater system

The first sessions of home theater experiences included movies with booming you-are-there soundtracks, Blue Crush‘s thundering ocean waves, Amelie‘s mood-setting music and surprising sound effects, and other fare that had won awards for best sound. We are now into the months of bone-crunching professional football, the injuries and insults reverberating in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. It is less appealing to go out when theater-quality audio and crisp digital pictures are right here, but what exactly are we giving up?

Whether we call this “cocooning,” Faith Popcorn’s 1980s term for hunkering down in living rooms during one of the domestic crises, or whether this is another logical stage of what Raymond Williams describes as “mobile privatization,” an industrial command and control system to better channel social communication, big screen TVs and DVRs create a kind of hybrid personal space. We listen to music, watch TV and movies, play games in tailored, private environments, often choosing the living room over engaging a diverse and unpredictable public in the open spaces — the cinema, the theater, the concert hall or club, even the game arcade. Big screen TVs usher in a large investment in home entertainment systems with all the ancillary technologies that properly outfit the 21st century living room, but maybe the package is a deal with the devil.

I know of at least one person who uses Dance Dance Revolution, that most public and group-oriented of video games, as a workout tool in the privacy of his own home. Sales of small, portable DVD playback devices (including Playstations, of course) have soared as people take their personal viewing spaces with them. Cars embed screens to quell the attention demands of children in the backseat, and WiFi sites multiply in cafes, bars, and other gathering places, inducing a curious key-tapping ambience into venues once marked by conversation’s conviviality. Third generation (3G) mobile phones can download television news, sports games, and other live entertainment.

While the status of the movie theaters and the clubs as public spheres can be questioned, there’s no doubt that the technologies that enable people to design their information and entertainment environments drive them into their homes and introduce a very private element into formerly public spaces.

Plasma TVPlasma TV

Systems that join television and movies to the Internet, both in physical networks — the infrastructure — and in content cross-promotion and reinforcement, are now the norm. The big screen TV and its circulatory system of computer, cable, remote controls and sound system signal some new possibilities for viewers/users as well as for industries. Television programs and movies are wedded to Internet sites, and all are bound to advertisers. So too as people watch, play, engage the television and computer screens, they are locked into the cycle. Whether it is encouraging people using cell phones to text message their votes for favorite American Idol performers, cultivating TV show fan bases through Internet sites, sending radio listeners to websites for extended versions of news stories, or establishing “star” personality blogs, media industries are creating new, integrated ways of cultivating our attention and interest. Raymond Williams’ notion of flow has a very different meaning in this space that moves across platforms and across people and products so seamlessly. The way academic and critics talk and think about “TV” or “film” or “the Internet” just is not up to the fluid way we experience technologies or media. In addition, that connected fabric of media interactions is penetrated with mechanisms that allow industries to obtain data about us that is far superior to what was available under the conventional television or cable model, giving us a glimpse of the less desirable qualities of the connected environment.

Nielsen people meter and diary data cannot compete with the sorts of profiles that are compiled through new communication technologies; the capacity to track viewer/user attention, communication and consumption behavior are now built into hardware and software. DVRs yield extensive pictures of viewing habits, sortable by zip code and, under some circumstances, address. When TiVo reported earlier this year that its users had watched the Janet Jackson Super Bowl episode three times more often than any other moment in the broadcast, TiVo users expressed shock that their viewing behaviors were scrutinized so closely. Data mining is plugged into all communication systems, and as two-way devices proliferate in the living room, collection and manipulation of that data will become an art form. As we’re increasingly tethered to systems that gather information about us — what we’re watching or doing, for how long, and who we are, where we live, what we purchase, how we entertain ourselves, who we talk with, our personal profiles — businesses are able to target their marketing efforts with precision.

Flat Screen TVFlat Screen Plasma TV

Interactivity used to be the word used to describe the future of television, but the interactivity accompanying the large HD televisions isn’t exactly what the hawkers originally had in mind. This year Nielsen is crunching viewer data from TiVo to figure out how detailed viewing data can mesh with marketing purposes, and even though TiVo insists their data have been anonymized, somehow I am not entirely reassured given the frequent reports from all corners on database hacks and security breaches. Even the interactivity built into DVRs that allows viewers to fast-forward over commercials is controversial within the industry. One media analyst recommended in all seriousness that DVRs be regulated to eliminate any commercial-skipping or fast rewind capability, likening this in importance to federal legislation on tuning VHF channels, or closed captioning requirements. Interactivity is fine only if it does not conflict with market goals.

Maybe my big TV doesn’t directly present privacy threats, reduced social contact, and questionable levels of insularity by itself. And insofar as a lot of those big screen TVs (really most TVs) are sold around the time of the Super Bowl with all the event’s attendant parties, it’s clear that big screen TVs can be vehicles for sociability. Media and technology enthusiasts repeat that all these new technologies are about collaboration, social interaction and access to knowledge, and they may well be all about that. But equally they are just one piece of a larger enterprise that embeds us in intensified networks of video, audio and data flows. The push-pull of control over the networks will continue at least for a while as we figure out the significance of four to six major companies controlling all the backbone networks in the country and media conglomerates that continue to merge, consolidate and joint venture. Meanwhile the big flat screen TVs will keep slipping into our living rooms.

CNET News “TiVo watchers uneasy after post-Super Bowl reports”
PC World “TiVo Compiles, Sells Users’ Viewing Data”
Nielsen Media Research

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1. The new home theater system

2. Plasma TV

3. Flat Screen Plasma TV

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