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

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

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

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

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

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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

Please feel free to comment.

#Save: NBC’s The Voice and Live Social Television
Maggie Steinhauer / University of Texas at Austin

Image 1
NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster

In recent years, Twitter has noticeably intertwined itself with live television as an interactive tool through its clever integrated hashtags and corresponding custom emojis. Live performance-based reality competition shows such as America’s Got Talent (NBC), The Voice (NBC), American Idol (ABC, and the former FOX series), and So You Think You Can Dance (FOX) all utilize some form of Twitter voting, either as an alternative to calling in your vote or through a #Save promotion. Social media integration is typically hailed as an exciting, interactive feature for audiences, yet the real beneficiaries of these Twitter tactics, from an industry studies perspective, are the producers and networks. Twitter integration, in that respect, is a producer-fueled trend to encourage live viewing and boost advertising revenue by incorporating viewer and fan labor into the process of production. The ways that these features are marketed to audiences and the implications of their standardization warrant further academic attention, and The Voice ‘s success with social media integration makes it a prime example.

Time-shifted television and online streaming can spell disaster for live reality programs like The Voice, as both viewing methods allow for commercial skipping. Event television, which Idol ‘s original run used to qualify as, can be a deterrent against non-linear viewing as it creates an impetus to watch live. But as the dominant scheduling conventions of these kinds of reality programs become ingrained for viewers, the necessity to even turn on the television before the final moments’ reveal begin to fade. For example, the fixed format of FOX’s Idol eventually became unnecessary and amid falling ratings, it eliminated the results-only episode in 2014. With popularity waning all around, there was less impulse to watch live rather than catch up on DVR. Or better yet, just browse headlines on social media without ever watching.

In 2013, The Voice (and Twitter) introduced their “Instant Save,” or #VoiceSave, during season five and ushered in a new live interactive component to the genre, reminiscent of the QUBE TV in the late 70s, as discussed by Amanda Lotz. [ ((Lotz, Amanda D. “Interactive TV Too Early: The False Start of QUBE.” Velvet Light Trap. no. 64 (Fall 2009):106-107. As Lotz links to in her article, check out this unofficial “nostalgia website” for QUBE TV. ))] Previous iterations of Twitter voting on reality competition shows were surely entertaining, but they failed to achieve interactivity in the same manner as The Voice ’s #VoiceSave. With the #Save feature, viewers were “in control” for a small portion of the episode, and as a key component, they had to follow along with the live broadcast in order to participate and likely stay tuned through those commercial breaks.

Image 2
Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode

Two years prior to The Voice ‘s version, Simon Cowell’s cancelled X-Factor became “the first-ever TV series to allow voting by Twitter,” but instead of using hashtags as the other current programs do, X-Factor asked viewers to vote by private Direct Messages to the show’s official Twitter account. [ (( Hibberd, James. “‘X-Factor’ to allow voting by Twitter.” Entertainment Weekly. October 25, 2011. ))] And although not performance-based, it is noteworthy that Big Brother on CBS also experimented with Twitter as early as 2012. AGT may not have been the first reality competition program to use Twitter voting, but they were the first in this wave of Twitter-integrated programs that allowed audiences to vote by hashtag in order to save a contestant. Essentially, this method was the next logical step in television voting’s evolution, from calling in, to texting, to web votes, and then to Twitter, but without the live component. The following year after The Voice began using the #VoiceSave, Idol (on FOX) and SYTYCD instituted similar measures.

With the addition of the #VoiceSave, The Voice ‘s results segments now invite the audience to determine which contestants will be eliminated in real time. During the last minutes of the live broadcast, host Carson Daly bring ups the bottom two or three contestants previously determined by conventional overnight voting methods. He proclaims the #VoiceSave open for five minutes only and cuts to commercial. The power, supposedly, rests solely in the hands of live viewers and they are only able to take part in the decision-making on Twitter. In The Voice ‘s recent seasons, the #VoiceSave has become more streamlined through their official Twitter account, @NBCTheVoice. Daly still reminds the viewing audience about the #VoiceSave throughout the broadcast, but the instructions are relayed through Twitter simultaneously to the point where Twitter users (and non-east coast viewers) can follow the live broadcast without actually tuning in. I’ve compiled several screenshots of and links to the @NBCTheVoice account from the November 28, 2017 episode (all on EST) to illustrate how the #VoiceSave functions. Around the halfway point of the episode, before the bottom two contestants are announced, @NBCTheVoice tweets:

Image 3
8:29 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

Ten minutes later, @NBCTheVoice announces the bottom two contestants. In this episode, contestants Janice Freeman and Adam Cunningham are up for elimination and will give final performances before the live Twitter vote. After the first performance, a second reminder goes out:

Image 4
8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

At 8:50 P.M., twenty-one minutes after the process was initiated online, the five-minute voting window is officially opened via Twitter. @NBCTheVoice tweets out identical messages using the hashtags #VoiceSaveAdam and #VoiceSaveJanice that quickly begin to rack up retweets which Twitter adds up live. By 8:55 P.M., @NBCTheVoice tweets “The #VoiceSave window is now CLOSED!” and at 8:58 P.M., it announces, “YOUR TWEETS just sent @adam_cunningham to the #VoiceTop10.”

Compared to previous voting methods, The Voice ‘s iteration was a shift because it capitalized on the second screen experience and in doing so found a means to motivate viewers to watch live TV. Where the other programs had developed a “feature,” The Voice had gone interactive, in a move noted by Variety editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein as the “gamification” of reality TV. [ (( Wallenstein, Andrew. “‘Gamification’: The Way to Revive Reality TV.” Variety. January 30, 2014. ))] Wallenstein posits that such practices directly involve audiences in the action of the live programming, essentially turning segments of the program into a game for audiences, and that process may be the key to “revive” reality TV. The term is also associated with video game design researcher and scholar Sebastian Deterding. As part of a conference presentation in 2011, Deterding, et al. defined the concept as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” [ ((Sebastian Detering, et al., “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification,'” (paper presented at MindTrek. Tampere, Finland, September 28-30 2011, 13. ))] In the case of #VoiceSave and other #Save’s, the closer these processes are to games through their structure, rules, and real-time effects, the more they represent an interactivity as opposed to participation enabled by convergence culture.

Image 5
2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

There is still debate as to the effectiveness of social TV, as Todd Spangler writes. Although, Spangler does offer that the Nielsen’s social television ratings are “designed to show the total Twitter activity relating to specific shows, to help networks and advertisers figure out how to better use the social service to drive awareness and tune-in,” not necessarily to increase ratings. [ ((Todd Spangler, “Nielsen and Twitter Unveil Social TV Metrics, Showing How Little Tweets Line Up with Ratings” Variety. October 7, 2013. ))] Yet, Twitter and Nielsen released various reports detailing increased ratings, higher audience engagement, and better brand retention. For example, the first night AGT enabled Twitter voting in 2013, the show witnessed an “8x increase in overall tweets” during that episode compared to the previous week, with a total of 117,000 tweets. [ ((Liz Myers (@thisbeliz), “America’s Got Talent Viewers Vote via Twitter,” Twitter Blog. July 26, 2013. ))] And approximately a year after The Voice instituted their #Save, it aired the “most-tweeted about TV series episode since Nielsen Social began measuring Twitter TV conversation in 2011” with 1.92 million tweets reported during the May 13, 2014 episode. [ ((Adam Flomenbaum. “How Telescope-Powered Voting Helps ‘The Voice’ Set Twitter Records.” Lost Remote. May 21, 2014, “ ))] And Nielsen Social data shows that in 29% of programs, a spike in tweets influenced changes in ratings, and the effect rose to a 44% increase in ratings for competitive reality programs, specifically. [ ((The Nielsen Company. “The Follow-Back: Understanding the Two-Way Causal Influence Between Twitter Activity and TV Viewership.” Newswire. August 6, 2013. “–understanding-the-two-way-causal-influence-betw.html. ))]

Whether viewed as the last-ditch strategic maneuver of a fading industry or rather as a shrewd reflexive adaptation to existing user behaviors, interactive Twitter voting in live performance based reality competitions is becoming a norm for the genre. It opens up worthy discussions of the rise of TV’s gameificiation, interactivity, fan labor, and the connection between social TV and liveness. The specific use of Twitter for live voting in its various iterations has ushered in noticeable format changes in primetime reality tv. All this increases the stickiness of results-only episodes, and remodels the audience’s viewing labor. To these mass ephemeral programs dependent on high viewership and advertising, their ability to promote liveness and engagement remains paramount, but is continually challenged by the current post-network era. In this post-network moment, a portion of programming power shifts toward audiences as part of a larger initiative to combat a less engaged mass audience. The central question for contemporary broadcasters, especially for their prime-time reality tentpoles, is how to continue providing their product, that highly engaged mass audience, to their advertisers.

Image Credits:
1. NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster
2. Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode
3. 8:29 PM Screenshot of@NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
4. 8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
5. 2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

Please feel free to comment.

Some Locations Matter: HGTV’s Uneven Relationship With Spatial Capital
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University

Love It Or List It

Love It Or List It Vancouver or, as it’s known in the United States and around the world, Love It Or List It, Too

Location matters on HGTV. Given that the cable channel has become increasingly focused on the home in “home and garden television” through its expansive slate of real estate and renovation programming, programs like House Hunters and House Hunters International are built on distinct local cultures that shape episodic storytelling and offer viewers a glimpse at another city, country, or continent. However, HGTV’s relationship with what I frame as “spatial capital”—the value space and place take on within a given text across its production, distribution, and reception—is inconsistent, and reveals a dichotomy between different forms of HGTV programming. While the House Hunters franchise uses location as a central form of episodic variation, other sections of HGTV’s lineup negotiate spatial capital in two very different ways: as one group of programming erases evidence of spatial capital, an emerging set of programs are being framed as explicitly local, a choice that reveals HGTV’s brand identity as a fundamentally dislocated one.

Two of HGTV’s most popular franchises, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, are notable for their lack of engagement with location: both shows film episodes in multiple locations, but these locations are almost never mentioned explicitly in the episodes, a choice that creates a stark contrast from series like House Hunters where location is so central to the narrative. The same value that location adds to those shows—nuances of local markets, specific regional architecture details, etc.—would theoretically be valuable to these two series, but it is absent despite emerging in the Property Brothers spinoff Brothers Take New Orleans, where Drew and Jonathan Scott competed renovating homes in the Louisiana city.

Notably, however, these shows also share an origin: they are both Canadian co-productions with cable channel W Network, with many of their episodes being filmed and set in Canada (predominantly in Ontario). Although both also film episodes in the United States, the choice to elide location means that only savvy viewers who recognize Canadian brands—this is me—or catch the occasional accent would be able to identify the cross-border nature of the productions. This is achieved through vague references to “the city” or “downtown” where more specifics would be more logical, and in the case of one episode of Canadian co-production Income Property (now on sister channel DIY Network) ADR to replace Toronto with “this city” to keep from disrupting the illusion.

Although HGTV has never commented on this decision, in context it reads as an acknowledgment that the Canadianness of these series is negative spatial capital for the channel’s American audience. This is most evident in the branding of spinoff series Love It Or List It, Too, which debuted on HGTV in 2013. In HGTV’s announcement of the series’ impending launch, the distinction between the show and its progenitor is nonexistent, with no difference in concept outside of featuring two different hosts. However, Love It Or List It, Too is actually produced and distributed in Canada as Love It Or List It Vancouver, with all of its houses in and around the British Columbia city. The result is two fundamentally different versions of the same show: while the Canadian version features specific shots of the city and local product placement, these elements are excised for the U.S. version, where the pacific northwest landscapes and the presence of Bachelorette Jillian Harris—who is originally from Canada—allow American audiences to assume the show is set in Seattle or Portland.

We can contrast the erasure of spatial capital in Love It Or List It, Too to the ongoing franchising of Flip or Flop, HGTV’s house flipping franchise that also debuted in 2013. The original series focuses on houses in Southern California, with Tarek and Christina buying and renovating homes in a range of communities in and around Los Angeles. However, when the show began franchising in 2017, there was no anxiety at HGTV about acknowledging the role of spatial capital, with each spinoff named by its shift in location. While Love It Or List It Vancouver was apparently not acceptable to HGTV, the April 2017 debut of Flip or Flop Vegas, and the pending debut of spinoffs set in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, and Texas adopt identical franchising logics, suggesting that this approach is acceptable in instances where the cities carry positive spatial capital with their target audience. Location matters to HGTV, but the channel negotiates spatial capital carefully: while shows like Hawaii Life contain spatial capital that is valuable for their audience, Love It Or List It Vancouver failed to contain the value HGTV felt was best for its channel.

Flip Or Flop Promo

Promo for the upcoming localized spinoffs of Flip Or Flop—Flip Or Flop Vegas debuted in April 2017, with the rest to follow over the follow two years

Therefore, it is not that HGTV does not value location, but rather that it values particular types of locations, which does not include Canadian urban centers. Elsewhere, however, HGTV’s relationship with spatial capital is intensifying with the success of Fixer Upper and the recent launch of Home Town, series that reorient the renovation process in strongly local terms. Fixer Upper features Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband and wife team who work with home buyers in and around Waco, Texas to discover homes in need of improvement and turn it into their dream home. Home Town, similarly, features Ben and Erin Napier, who work with buyers to find homes in need of some “love” in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi and designing a renovation to give them everything they’re looking for.

Waco and Laurel are not large metropolitan centers: the former is a small city most well known for being the home of Baylor University, while Laurel is a town of only twenty thousand people. However, Fixer Upper developed a programming model in which the local dimension of the show became linked with the ability for audiences to connect with the stars: each episode begins with Chip and Joanna with their four children, either on the family farm or out and about in Waco, and episodes feature huge numbers of establishing shots of the city alongside narratives like Baylor employees looking to live close to the university. They have renovated houses for their close friends, rely on local business owners like furniture maker Clint Harper for multiple projects, and in a series-long project purchased and renovated an abandoned warehouse into “Magnolia Market at the Silos,” now a major tourist destination for the city. While Fixer Upper is not framed as a show about Waco, it has fundamentally functioned as one as it is renovated one house at a time, with an emerging AirBNB market for homes featured on the series.

Home Town, however, takes this one step further: in marketing for the new series, the series is explicitly pitched through the lens of restoring the American small town. In a 2016 blog post reflecting on producing the show’s pilot, the Napiers write that “it’s a renovation show on paper, but it’s a show about finding your place in a small town at its heart.” When the homebuyers choose a house, the Napiers’ excitement is less about the new owners and more about the fact that this particular home—given a “name” based on its previous owners—is going to finally get the love it deserves. Like Fixer Upper, the show’s homebuyers disappear almost entirely once the house is chosen, leaving it to document the Napiers’ personal quest to restore their town, which lines up with the fact they were “discovered” based on their work on restoration projects organized by local government.

Beyond creating a new, emerging HGTV tourism market for Waco, these shows demonstrate HGTV’s capacity to develop localized forms of spatial capital, creating direct links between stars and locations in order to deepen the audience’s relationship with these series. The result, however, is an HGTV lineup with a schizophrenic relationship with spatial capital: while location might matter implicitly in any real estate-based programming, on HGTV the intensely local airs alongside the placeless unknown, a channel of dislocation in it current iteration.

Image Credits:

1.Love It Or List It Vancouver and Love It Or List It, Too Promo Image (author’s screen grab)
2. Flip Or Flop Promo Image (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

La Banda: Marketing Confusion, Cultural Hybridity, and Nostalgia in Univision
Manuel G. Aviles-Santiago / Arizona State University

La Banda

La Banda, a reality music competition in search of the new Latino boy band, was Univision’s latest effort to reach millennials.

Marketing Confusion

When I heard about La Banda, Univision’s latest reality music competition, I was immediately intrigued by its promotional strategy. The show was initially introduced to the audience by its name—La Banda—and marketed as a joint effort between internationally acclaimed music mogul and producer, Simon Cowell, and Latin superstar, Ricky Martin (the latter advertised as both executive producer and judge). My immediate reaction was one of confusion: why is it that Ricky Martin, a Puerto Rican pop-music star, will co-produce and judge a show devoted to Mexican music? For those of you who are not familiar, in Spanish the term “banda” refers to “a brass-based form of traditional Mexican music [that] performs a wide variety of songs, including rancheras, corridos, cumbias, baladas, and boleros, [and is] composed of 10 to 20 members.[ ((Candelaria, C. (2004). Encyclopedia of Latino popular culture (Vol. 1). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.))]


The use of the term “banda” in the title of the show lead to confusion during the early stages of the promotion of the show. A Google search of images for the term “banda” visually defines the concept.

As I was doing some preliminary research about the show, I called some of my colleagues to gather their opinions on the upcoming reality competition. Some of them expressed their interest in it while claiming their keen passion for “musica regional Mexicana.” Others stated that even though they were not avid followers of the music genre, they would watch it just for the presence of Ricky Martin. At this point, the marketing confusion was holding captive diverse segments of the Latino audiences who were intrigued by branding innuendos of the show.

A few days later into my inquiry, the doubts were clarified when Univision released their press kit describing La Banda as a new take on the singing competition format in search of the ultimate Latino boy band. Like other music reality shows, such as American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor, La Banda consists of a series of auditions all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico followed by live shows with weekly eliminations. This process will narrow the group to five young males (14 years old and up) who will form the new Latino boy band and win a music contract under the Sony Music label.

The formula is aimed at Univision’s goal to reach millennials, or what the network refers to as billennials—a concept formed through the symbiosis of bilingual and millennial. This term was coined by Univision’s advertising and marketing strategist team in 2015 in reference to the increasingly millennial audience that consumes their media mostly in English but grew up surrounded by Latino culture.[ ((Retrieved from:] In that regard, marketing cultural hybridity seemed like a logical step toward attracting that audience.

Marketing Cultural Hybridity


Bilingual-bicultural networks like Tr3s, mun2 and SiTV tried to reach Latino youth since the early 2000s.

Since the early 2000s, cable networks like MTV Tr3s, mun2, and SíTV have attempted to reach the bilingual-bicultural segment of the young Latino audience. For over a decade, these channels have experimented with an array of lineups consisting of primarily music and reality TV programming. As explored by Viviana Rojas and Juan Piñon (2014), the televisual landscape configured by these niche networks produced a nourished landscape of representations of cultural hybridity, particularly instances of linguistic flexibility.[ ((Rojas, V., & Piñon, J. (2014, August). “Spanish, English or Spanglish? Media Strategies and Corporate Struggles to Reach the Second and Later Generations of Latinos.” International Journal of Hispanic Media 7 (August 2014). Retrieved February 26, 2016, from] By linguistic flexibility, I refer to the variable use of Spanish, English, and Spanglish within the programing of the networks. However, the bilingual and bicultural approach of these channels was not a guarantee for success. For example, mun2 had a lack of traction with the bilingual-bicultural audience that resulted in a full rebranding of the channel into NBC-Universo, a Spanish-language channel with an emphasis on sports.[ ((Retrieved from:] Similarly, what started out as SíTV in 2004 was rebranded as NUVO TV in July of 2011 and then absorbed into Fuse, a network targeting the “new American audience”[ ((Retrieved from:] that distanced itself from the Latino-theme. Therefore, creating networks specifically for Latino millennials was not the right pathway. Departing from unsuccessful models to approach billennials, what can Spanish-language networks like Univision do to attract this complex segment of the market without losing their regular audience?

The year 2015 was a paradigm-shifting moment in the history of Univision. That was the year they realized—after more than five decades on air—that Sábado Gigante was an outdated and somewhat obsolete show. That same year, the network came to understand that marketing cultural hybridity was imperative for the network’s traction with billennials. That meant breaking the sanctity of the monolingual and Spanish-only network approach to embrace linguistic flexibility. After all, according to data from Pew Research and the U.S. Census: a) billennials represent 21% of the overall millennial population in the U.S., b) English is the predominant language in 34% of Latino households, and c) projections show that by 2020, one-third of Latinos ages 5 and older will speak only English at home. In that regard, La Banda became Univision’s most aggressive step toward marketing cultural hybridity.

In contrast to the traditional monolingual-Spanish-only approach, La Banda distinguishes itself from the regular programming of Univision by a linguistic flexibility.

In La Banda, the marketing of cultural hybridity takes center stage through the linguistic flexibility of the show. Even though La Banda is primarily in Spanish, the content is constantly dashed with instances in which the contestants, their coaches, and the judges will interact in both English and even Spanglish. The show also includes content in both English and Spanish through other media platforms, such as Univision’s YouTube channel and the smartphone app Univision Conecta. Also, the app’s element of interactivity allows audiences the power to decide if they want the contestants to sing in either English or Spanish. It was precisely through the app that the winners of La Banda were selected.


CNCO was the boy band one formed by the winners of La Banda.

At the end of the season, a Dominican-American from New Hampshire, a Cuban-American from Florida, a Puerto Rican native, a Mexican-American from California, and Ecuadorian-American from New Jersey formed the new boy band that was named CNCO. The name of the band is an intentional misspelled of the word “cinco,” which in Spanish means five but when spelled in English sounds like Spanish word. The name received mixed reactions. One fan suggested that the name Menudo would have been a better option. Why?


The name CNCO, while embraced by some fans, was highly criticized by others.

Even though the core of the show seemed to be aimed at billennials, it implicitly triggers some sort of nostalgia to those pre-billennial Latino audiences—particularly those of Generation X—to whom the notion of a boy band immediately gets associated with the name “Menudo.”

Marketing Nostalgia

The current success of groups like One Direction and its predecessors, Back Street Boys, NSync, and New Kids on the Block during the ’90s and early 2000s, reinforces the idea that boy bands have had their momentum during the last two decades.[ ((Some cultural historians may include family groups like The Osmonds and the Jackson Five in the category of boy band.))] In that regard, making a reality music competition in search of a new boy band could have made total sense marketing wise. This asseveration acquires special significance in the Latino context where Menudo, a Puerto Rican boy band that began their successful international career during the late ’70s, became a game-changer in the cultural history of boy bands for over two decades.

Menudo was the original Latino boy band. The inclusion of Ricky Martin, a former member of Menudo, triggers the nostalgia of the Menudo fans all over the U.S. and Latin America.

Just like CNCO, Menudo was composed of five teenagers known for wearing skinny jeans in coordinated flashy colors, achieved selling out national venues like Radio City Music Hall, gathered 200,000 fans at a soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro, and united over 500,000 fans in Mexico City. When discussing the notion of Latinos making a crossover to the U.S. market, Menudo should take center stage. In fact, Menudo was the platform that catapulted Ricky Martin to international stardom even before the so-called Latino boom of the ’90s. For that reason, including Martin in the entourage of producers and judges of La Banda make sense both artistically and historically. Most importantly, it triggers some sort of nostalgia for those who grew up with Menudo from the late ’70s until the end of the ’90s, when the group vanished from the public scene after legal battles between members of the band and the producers.[ ((In 1997, the rights of the name Menudo were sold and the band changed the name to MDO. This version of the group was less successful than the original band.))] Interestingly, that nostalgia has worked as a marketing opportunity for Latino media enterprises.

Making Menudo

Before La Banda, MTV Tr3s produced the reality show Making Menudo, a failed attempt to re-launched the Latino boy band.

In 2006, MTV Tr3s produced the reality docu-series Making Menudo, an attempt to re-create a Pan-Latino version of the group. Just like La Banda, the cast of the show included a second- and third-generation of Latinos from all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico. As with other MTV Tr3s productions, the show followed the bilingual and bicultural approach and aesthetic. As other Tr3s productions, Making Menudo had a very limited audience, and the formed boy band never achieved the success of the original Menudo.

However, La Banda, a concept that would never have been able to find a space in a network like Univision in 2006, a decade later managed to reach 5.1 million viewers during its finale, out-delivering networks like ABC and CBS with billennials (18-34) and adults (18-49).[ ((Retrieved from:]

Image Credits:
1. La Banda
2. “Banda”, courtesy of the author
3. Bilingual networks, courtesy of the author
5. CNCO Twitter, courtesy of the author
6. Making Menudo

Please feel free to comment.

Shark Tank and the American Dream
Chad Newsom / Savannah College of Art and Design

Shark Tank
ABC’s Shark Tank
On ABC’s Shark Tank, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their products and business plans to a group of potential investors referred to as “sharks,” multi-millionaires (and a billionaire) including Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary (aka “Mr. Wonderful”), Barbara Corcoran, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner, and Mark Cuban. On a recent episode (season 6, episode 21), a married couple presents a pillow designed to make it easier to feed twin babies. Both the wife and her husband lost their jobs in pharmaceutical sales and temporarily had no car or even a phone. The husband took a job washing cars for a friend’s business, and they both put their efforts into patenting and selling the pillow the wife had invented. As they tell their story, Mark Cuban interrupts, “Good for you because there’s going to be people watching at home, that are in similar circumstances, thinking, ‘If I only knew somebody, if I only had capital available.’ You didn’t know anybody, and you put it all on the line, and you went for it. That’s the American dream, and that’s exactly why we do this show.” Or as he told another couple on season six’s first episode, “You guys are the American dream come true. Because everybody out there now knows that your back can be against the wall, you can suffer personal tragedy, and with $700, you can be standing right [here] ….” Over the course of six seasons at, the show has featured entrepreneurs with a variety of backstories, but Cuban’s statements reveal Shark Tank’s favorite narrative: people who experience personal setbacks, start over with next to nothing, remain focused and driven, do whatever it takes to succeed (selling door-to-door, for example, always gets an enthusiastic response from Cuban), and now just need the help (money, connections, advice) of an investor to reach the next level. And as Cuban’s remarks suggest, this narrative has a pedagogic function: these stories model how to achieve success.

When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all they way

The “Sharks”
The show openly and frequently promotes the American dream of success, but doing so reveals a tension and contradiction at the heart of the dream: your hard work will take you only so far, and you still need the help of someone wealthier and better connected than you. In one sense, Cuban accurately describes the American dream: money and connections don’t matter if you do not possess initiative and ambition. But personal drive is not enough. If Cuban’s statement were wholly true, there would be no Shark Tank; the show exists to provide networking and capital—to provide those necessary ingredients once the self-made, self-driven approach reaches its limit. Take the inventor of “Funbites,” for example, who created a device to cut food into shapes for kids (season 6, episode 18). When Robert Herjavec asks why she’s there in the Tank, she replies, “I have taken this company as far as I can go as one person. I work 24/7. I’m the hardest worker. … I know how to sell my product, but I need your help.” And by “help,” she means access to large retail chains and companies like Disney. (( This particular segment also points out an aspect of the show that’s consistently downplayed. For all its talk of the American dream, the chances of actually appearing research paper on the program put the show on par with any standard reality competition. Tens of thousands of people apply each season, but only a handful makes it on to the show. The “Funbites” inventor tried for three years to get on; when she mentions this fact, Mr. Wonderful shouts, “You made it!” and everyone shares a laugh, a laugh that glosses over the sheer luck involved in being selected to appear on the show. )) Here we see the American dream’s dilemma: you can do everything right (“I work 24/7”) and only achieve limited success. (( Many of the show’s entrepreneurs have already found great financial success, but they are still there because that success is not enough. )) Something (or someone) else is needed.

In this way, each episode stages a Horatio Alger story—and not the Alger myth most people know. In popular culture, a “Horatio Alger story” connotes the idea that diligence and hard work pay off. But that version is a misreading of Alger’s original stories: in novels like Ragged Dick, diligence and hard work take you only so far—until a wealthy benefactor intervenes. In Ragged Dick, the eponymous protagonist transitions from an illiterate bootblack who squanders his money to a “’spectable” young man with a basic education and a savings account. Alger comments, “His street education had sharpened his faculties, and taught him to rely upon himself. He knew that it would take him a long time to reach the goal which he had set before him, and he had patience to keep trying. He knew that he had only himself to depend upon, and he determined to make the most of himself—a resolution which is the secret of success in nine cases out of ten.” (( Horatio Alger, Jr. Ragged Dick. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 86. Note, as well, the didactic tone that Alger’s novel shares with Shark Tank; repeatedly, Alger emphasizes that Dick’s story is meant to teach others how to be successful. )) But despite his best efforts and meager success, Dick remains a bootblack until the last few pages of the novel. While riding a ferry, Dick saves a young boy who falls into the water, a child who happens to be the son of a wealthy businessman. The man repays Dick with a job as a clerk in his counting-room and a salary higher than he could imagine. His own efforts paid off in the sense that learning to read and write dissertation help put him in the position where he could take a job as a clerk; but he still depended upon a fortuitous encounter to realize his dream. That part of the Alger story has been overlooked because it interferes with the more heroic “self-made man” scenario. Like Shark Tank, Alger’s stories are paeans to self-reliance, but both reveal the limits of that myth.

Horatio Alger cover

A typical Horatio Alger cover
With its Horatio Alger narrative, Shark Tank harkens back to a pre-20th century version of the American dream, in which “one could realize the fruits of one’s aspirations through applied intelligence and effort,” self-motivation, and discipline. (( Jim Cullen, The American Dream (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 168-9. )) This version remains popular today because it’s been so deeply enshrined in American thought and culture for centuries, dating back to Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and even the Puritans. A new version of the dream, however, arose in the mid-19th century and eventually found its exemplar and flourished in Hollywood. Jim Cullen refers to this version as the “dream of the coast”—the California coast—and discovers its origins in the California gold rush (“Transformative riches were literally at your feet”) and in Hollywood, where personality and leisure replace character and hard work, and being famous is an end in itself. (( Cullen, 170, 176, 177. )) Unlike Shark Tank, most contemporary reality shows emphasize this newer, Hollywood version of the American dream and its emphasis on personality or chance. For example, shows like The Real World and Big Brother exist to showcase personality; as viewers, we already know what will happen when incompatible people are placed in a cloistered living situation. Personality (and the crafting of a persona) matters as well on talent competitions, such as American Idol or The Voice, where a genuinely gifted and hard-working contestant may win, but true celebrity status remains elusive. Other shows rely on gold-rush style luck: maybe this storage locker will contain unimaginable treasures (Storage Wars), or perhaps some belonging, or even the junk in my garage, has value I didn’t realize (Pawn Stars, American Pickers). Or worse—there’s a combination of personality, luck, and delusion: maybe I’ll be the one who gets the final rose (The Bachelor/Bachelorette).

While Shark Tank relies upon a different version of the American dream than these shows do, it still does not completely escape typical reality show pitfalls. The producers do sometimes select contestants for reasons of personality over product, but after all, sales requires a degree of showmanship. Also, some contestants do not expect a deal, but merely want the TV exposure that will instantly boost revenue. Yet rarely does the show feature train-wreck contestants—reality show contestants selected precisely to fail. For example, the most bizarre pitch I’ve seen was the man who proposed to surgically implant a bluetooth device behind the ear. (It’s not surprising that this segment appeared on season one’s first episode, hence the need to attract an audience). But such standard reality show techniques do not occur often. There’s tough competition to even appear on the show in the first place, and it would greatly undercut the show’s appeal if it allowed too many “undeserving” contestants with no shot of a deal. Sometimes, however, those people do walk away successful: no deal seemed less likely than the one involving a company called “I Want to Draw a Cat for You,” a business where one man draws custom stick-figure cats upon request—but Mark Cuban invested. (( At the time of this article’s publication, 18,794 cats have been drawn. ))

I Want To Draw A Cat For You
Shark Tank is still reality television, as manufactured as any other program, but I would argue that its emphasis on the “old school” version of the American dream accounts for its success, and if for no other reason, that strategy certainly helps differentiate the show from others. The show consistently achieves some of network television’s highest ratings in the 18-49 category for Friday night, a difficult time slot. (( )) Viewers tune in to see the American dream of success played out, week after week—a myth, no doubt, but like all enduring myths, neither wholly true nor false. (( Cullen, 7. ))

Image Credits:
1. Shark Tank logo
2. The “Sharks”
3. Cover of Strive and Succeed

Please feel free to comment.

When the Whole World is Watching: The Case of Celebrity Big Brother

by: Sarita Malik / Brunel University

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

Shanti Kumar provided us with a considered and thorough outline of the 2007 UK Celebrity Big Brother saga in a recent flow column. As Shanti charted, a lot has been made about the series in relation to its racialised dynamics and about what it tells us with regards to the state of local/global race, gender and class relations. Less, it seems, has been said about the relationship between the content and the broadcaster (Channel 4), although this might present a useful case study for broader discussions around the media and the state. Now that we can begin to look back at the series in less impulsive, more diagnostic ways, the major upshot – aside from a surefire boost to Shilpa Shetty’s international career following her win – should be the critical attention paid to Channel 4’s role.

Channel 4

Channel 4

CBB is on course to draw more complaints (currently over 45,000) than any other programme in British television history and has led to enquiries around the alleged racism and editorial and compliance processes that support the programme, raising some big questions – and not least because Channel 4 executives are currently lobbying for government money. Channel 4 was launched 25 years ago with an original remit for ethnic minority representation. As the only channel set up with a dedicated multicultural programmes department and commissioning editor, a unique conception of public service broadcasting was promised.

When that specialist department was shut down in 2002, Channel 4 declared that the real future of ethnic minority representation was in mainstream programming. At the time it could hardly have anticipated a more bizarre validation of ‘mainstreaming multiculturalism’ than the recent ‘race row’. Minority representation, yes. Mainstream, yes. But the international spotlight and copious complaints to their regulator about alleged racist bullying could hardly have been part of that vision.

And yet one doubts that many of those who took offence at CBB did so primarily because they felt betrayed by what has traditionally been perceived as the most ‘minority-friendly’ terrestrial channel. If so, why did they not protest as loudly when targeted multicultural spaces were axed? Or did they believe that the ‘new multiculturalism’ and plan to ‘go mainstream’, as Channel 4 executives spun it, was based on cultural intelligence rather than commercial pressure?

What about Channel 4’s continuing strategic pledge to cultural and other diversity (‘it lies at the heart of our remit’), which the rest of Europe and the world have long recognised as a perfect model of diversity-aware media? Perhaps the introduction to Channel 4’s Statement of Promises sheds some light: ‘The Channel needs commercial success in order to fund projects of ambition and risk and to support the range and diversity of its suppliers.’ If the handling of CBB was a means to an end, then what does this tell us about the broadcaster and indeed about the public service framework through which it is tasked to operate?

The viewing figures for CBB plummeted to below 3 million in the first week and gradually rose in tandem with the media focus and complaints, peaking at 8.8 million on the evening of the carefully stage-managed eviction of Jade Goody. The Big Brother brand is Channel 4’s largest money-earner, and accounts for approximately 10 per cent of its revenue. So did Channel 4 prioritise commercial success over its diversity mantra? Did it maximise profits by maximising conflict? Was it, as Tessa Jowell (Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) suggested, ‘racism being presented as entertainment’, and if so, at what cost?

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

More fundamentally, can a broadcaster that claims to champion diversity afford to take such a sluggish response to criticisms of racism, and manage any potential fallout so clumsily? How could it be that viewers were rapidly taking offence several days before the climactic ‘stock-cube showdown’, yet Channel 4 stayed quiet? (Stranger still because Channel 4 was already in some trouble with the UK media super-regulator, Ofcom, for not intervening during a ‘distressing’ incident in 2004’s Big Brother.)

Or was there, in fact, an intention by Channel 4 to expose the real face of prejudice in our midst, as Channel 4 Chief Executive, Andy Duncan, suggested when he said it was a “good thing that the programme has raised these issues”? But would any other institution (the police-force or a university perhaps) sustain a target-busting employee if they had also demonstrated bullying tendencies? Should racism or bullying – or indeed racist bullying – be buttressed or left uninterrupted on TV any more than it should elsewhere in society? Isn’t this precisely when a broadcaster should be editorially transparent? Such ambiguities sit oddly alongside the organisation’s politicised cultural diversity, and indeed public service, remit.

The so-called codes and conventions of the reality TV genre only muddle things further. At what point does the programme-maker, in a format with such broad ‘truth’ claims, step in and be seen to deliberately take control? And, as a consequence, undermine any ‘mirror on society’ hypothesis that broadcasters so frequently and expediently bandy about? These issues touch on a very important aspect when considering the relationship between media and state: which is about the nature of trust between the audience and broadcaster?

Channel 4’s apparent non-intervention as the gang bullying intensified was defended with an alibi of genre-etiquette; that is, the producers could not be seen to ‘intrude’ and spoil the natural order of things in the house. Of course, the real codes of reality TV demand that it is never left uninterrupted by the manoeuvring of those in the business of programme-making (who devise tasks, edit strategically, interview provocatively, and so on) in order to generate interest.

Big Brother Brazil

Big Brother Brazil

As reality TV expands and reality formats go global, other broadcasters – in spite of different media models and political traditions – may well face similar issues. How differently would an Indian broadcaster, for example, react if a similar situation arose in Big Boss (the Indian version of the original Dutch Big Brother, launched by Endemol)? The real ‘culture clash’ in this story is how cultural differences are negotiated and represented in the very public arena of ‘world television’. In spite of the recent spread of global formats (Big Brother, The Kumars at No. 42, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and X Factor have all been launched and aggressively marketed abroad), deep differences among world audiences exist.

Digitalisation, the internet and interactive media, as well as broadening our viewing options, are making it easier to complain, mobilise discontent and vocalise opinion internationally. For better or worse, there is real pressure for broadcasters (and indeed artists, filmmakers and other cultural practitioners) to consider not just local but global sensitivities. Channel 4, already using CBB to validate its position as the channel that pushes boundaries, will need to negotiate some of these concerns if it wants to maintain its claims of integrity, and perhaps more importantly, if it wants the world to keep watching.

— Sarita Malik writes on race and culture and is the author of Representing Black Britain.

Image Credits:
1. Shilpa Shetty
2. Channel 4
3. Jade Goody
4. Big Brother Brazil

Please feel free to comment.

Bigoted Brother 1, Forgotten Sisters

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

Anyone living in the UK in the latter part of January this year could not open a newspaper or turn on the television without being aware of the Celebrity Big Brother race row. For those of you that might not know about the furore, here is a re-cap. Channel 4’s high-profile reality-TV show haemorrhaged viewers almost from the start with its tired concept and bored-looking contestants. Enter Jade Goody and her family. The strategy was clear: bring in the underclass to create conflict and boost viewing figures. It paid off almost immediately as Jade’s mother Jackiey Budden clashed with Ken Russell and, after an altercation with Jade, he walked. But worse was to come. Jade and two other housemates – model and ‘Wag’ Danielle Lloyd and ex-pop star Jo O’Meara – turned against Bollywood film star Shilpa Shetty. The mood turned ugly as vitriol spewed. The three white working class girls joined forces in a shocking display of ignorance, as the Indian star became victim of their bullying in the worst possible way.

It caused a minor storm.

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

Big Brother’s executives were quizzed over their failure to manage the situation and Carphone Warehouse withdrew their lucrative sponsorship deal. The row shone a spotlight on the channel’s remit and its future public subsidy was called into question. The brouhaha ignited international political controversy with protests held across India hijacking a diplomatic visit to the country. Questions were raised in the House of Commons forcing the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to comment on the situation and leading Alan Johnson, education secretary, to call for teenagers to be taught ‘British values’ in schools to combat racism and ignorant attitudes. Ofcom eventually logged a record 45,000 complaints against Channel 4.

Before we go any further we need to make a confession. We have been friends for 14-years and writing partners since 2000. We may have quibbled over content, clashed over commas and parlayed over prepositions – but never have we rowed – until Jade Goody. Her appearance on a Friday night chat show threatened a potential friendship schism like nothing before it. Details aside, it was the ferociousness of our disagreement over the ‘star’ of reality TV that shocked us more than anything.

We are not alone in being passionately divided over this woman.

Jade Goody, ex-dental nurse and council estate girl from Bermondsey, is indeed a polarising figure. Champion of the chav, scourge of the middle classes, she is an easy target. Originally shooting to fame as a housemate on Big Brother 3 Goody became the subject of a frenzied media witch-hunt. Instantly christened ‘Miss Piggy’ by The Sun, she became the very definition of the modern unruly woman – slightly overweight, outspoken, ignorant, loutish and generally out of control. Her exit from the house followed news headlines like ‘Ditch the Witch. Gobby Jade is Public Enemy Number One’ and was accompanied by a mob braying ‘burn the pig’. Her life since then has been lived in the public gaze. Her pregnancies played out in celebrity gossip magazines, her on/off relationship with her children’s father fodder for the tabloids and her various moneymaking ventures turned into series for cable channels. Goody is famous for being famous.

And yet, surely this is not enough to threaten a solid (and otherwise rational) friendship. Good feminist scholars that we are, we should know that what is being played out over the figure of Jade Goody is media manipulation at its best. Is she not, above all, a figure of ambivalence straining at the margins of class, race, femininity and feminine propriety? She may be painted as white trash, as the underclass that will not shut up, but surely we understand how representation works. And, recognising the unruly woman’s liminal status we should be alert to what gets mapped onto her.

With her initial appearance on Celebrity Big Brother we found ourselves tentatively circling each other over the ‘Jade Goody Row’. Surely after the first time round she would have learnt how the Big Brother script plays. It was her mother that was the liability this time (we argued) and Goody, having been through the first media frenzy, would surely be a bit more savvy. Neither of us are avid viewers of Big Brother. In fact after the pain of Germaine Greer and the humiliation of George Galloway, we were not keen to witness another bunch of minor celebrities making fools of themselves. But once the scandal broke we, like the rest of Britain did tune in.

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

Let’s face it: Nothing justifies what these women did.

Watching Lloyd and O’Meara display appalling ignorance of Indian eating habits, Lloyd suggesting Shetty should ‘fuck off home’, and Goody calling her ‘Shilpa Fuckawallah’ and ‘Shilpa Poppadom,’ was indeed repulsive. Their comments reeked of xenophobia and, particularly at a time when the British government was preaching racial tolerance and social inclusiveness, this was unacceptable. No one could excuse their petty-mindedness but, while The Sun continued to insist that Goody was ‘a vile, pig-ignorant, racist bully consumed by envy of a woman of superior intelligence, beauty and class,’ the broadsheets began to question the debacle, digging under the headlines and concluding that the housemates’ attitudes probably said more about class and cultural inequalities than racism alone.

But in the scramble for the moral high ground, there has been barely a mention of the way these women, and Goody in particular, are talked about.

With the media storm still raging it was almost inevitable that the subject would come up on BBC1’s flagship political debating programme Question Time. The panellists were asked to respond to events still emerging on Channel 4. Edwina Currie, former Conservative MP and erstwhile lover of John Major, said of the trio of housemates, ‘They are crude young women having a go at another young woman in the most horrendous fashion. She is a beautiful young lady and they are slags.’ Her choice of words drew a few gasps from the auditorium but, in general, nobody seemed particularly shocked. Some of the audience even laughed and applauded, arguably echoing O’Meara and Lloyd’s earlier Greek chorus in the Big Brother house. Currie was unrepentant. Nothing more was said.

While the battle was being fought over whether Goody was racist or not, headlines reading: ‘”Ugly” Jade not so Goody’ slipped under the radar. And comments such as Currie’s went un-remarked.

Let us be clear about this: racism in any society is abhorrent. The media should demand its eradication. And it is admirable that broadsheet journalists expose any class issues. But something has gone terribly awry when there is no mention of the sexism inherent in the Celebrity Big Brother media coverage.



We are still waiting for the outrage.

Today’s women may be ‘growing up in a generation oblivious to the gender struggles of the past’ but they ignore today’s gender issues at their peril. Warns writer Ariel Levy, ‘just because we are post doesn’t automatically mean we are feminists … simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that [does not] mean everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda.’ This is clearly the case as women on both sides of the Atlantic struggle with an uneven status quo. Many express no need for feminism. With equal access to a good education, successful career and unlimited choice, there is particular stratum of twenty-thirtysomething women who enjoy the gains of the feminist movement without ever having to engage with its politics.

Yet they may do well to beware of complacency.

And ask why it is necessary to constantly compare themselves with ‘boob-enhanced trophy Wags … so iconic for doing absolutely nothing but sleeping with a footballer and applying self-tan.’ And what of the antagonism this provokes? According to Susan Faludi, this is precisely how patriarchal backlash works, by employing: ‘a divide-and-conquer strategy: single versus married women, working women versus housewives, middle- versus working-class. It manipulates a system of rewards and punishments, elevating women who follow its rules, isolating those who don’t’ (emphasis added). Looking back over the Shetty vs. Goody spectacle and the resulting media storm it is clear that the Big Brother controversy exposed a paradox at the heart of twenty-first century womanhood. In this televisual instance of backlash the upper middle-class Bollywood film star is pitted against the lower working-class British reality TV star; one has a first-rate education and is skilled in the art of representation, and the other clearly is not. We do not need a crystal ball to predict the winner in this particular game of divide and rule.

And we may do well to heed Susan Faludi’s warnings when she tells us that despite the fact that backlash is not an organized political movement, this too works to its advantage, ‘It is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges inside a woman’s mind … until she begins to enforce the backlash, too – on herself.’ If there is any doubt that the Shetty vs. Goody row has touched upon a raw nerve for British women then the words of one young Oxford Graduate should send a chill down our collective feminist spines: ‘on the one hand you have this post-feminist message about achievement and on the other, there’s the message that the quickest, most secure route to wealth is going on Big Brother and having your boobs done. … Maybe that’s just yet another aspirational drive of my generation.’

No wonder we are bemused.

Big Brother maybe able to paper over the cracks and Shilpa Shetty may draw a line under her part in the affair, but things are not that easy for Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara. Within days of leaving the Big Brother house, all three were reportedly on the verge of nervous breakdowns: Lloyd lost bookings and her boyfriend; O’Meara collapsed; and Goody, facing a career in tatters, checked into a private clinic suffering from depression and stress. Police have now questioned all three over their part in the Celebrity Big Brother race row.

And still no one has mentioned the sexism.

Such is the fickle face of television celebrity that Mary Riddle, looking back over the debacle remarks, rather depressingly, ‘the spectacle … has licensed a campaign of abuse and bullying against a reality show star manufactured and destroyed by venom.’

And as for us? We stand united. Bruised and battered maybe, hung-over from the fall-out of Celebrity Big Brother and sickened by its ramifications. But ever more alert to the stealth of patriarchy, and the power of the media to institute sexism that empowers women while at the same perpetuating oppression.

And, yes, we’re still friends.

Barbara Ellen used this phrase in her critique of the Big Brother debacle: 21 January 2007.
Mary Riddle, The Observer. 21 January 2007.
Stuart Jeffres, The Guardian. 24 May 2006.
Thursday 18 January 2007.
Even Germaine Greer’s usually strident and unapologetic feminism seems diluted. With an air of resignation she observes: ‘it’s a funny old world, to be sure. You can call her [Shetty] a “dog”. Sexism is fine. What you mustn’t do is call her a “Paki”. As if to be Pakistani was to be worse than being a dog.’
Louise Carpenter. The Observer 11 March 2007.
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press. 2005: 5.
Carpenter op cit.
Susan Faludi. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, 1992: 17.
Faludi 16.
Carpenter op cit.
Riddle op cit.

Image Credits:
1. Shilpa Shetty
2. Jade Goody
3. Protestors

Please feel free to comment.

Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.

Watching TV Poker

Watching TV Poker

a TV poker table

You may win, you may lose, but there’s always something you can learn.

— Former World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer, promoting

The current moment seems an appropriate one for the much-hyped mainstreaming of poker as popular pastime, endorsed by the electronic embrace of TV and the Internet. Gambling and the risk society make a natural pair. Our president wants us to bet our social security pensions on the stock market while legal gambling has become a redevelopment tool of choice, state lotteries rake in regressive taxes, and casino gambling lies at the heart of the latest political lobbying scandal.

The trade-off of the zero-sum wager: vicarious pleasure in the prospect of a large payoff for the few in exchange for the willing sacrifices of the many fits neatly with the current administration’s fiscal policy, its western swagger, and its bluff-and-guts political tactics.

While the pundits continue to ponder the question of whether poker counts as a legitimate sport or not, there is a reasonable case to be made for situating it within the recent reality TV trend. It features the unscripted interactions of real people – some of whom were only recently recruited from the viewer ranks – along with the unfolding of (admittedly truncated) interpersonal dramas, and the promise that a lucky random fan might capture a piece of the multi-million dollar prize pool.

By way of contrast, football and baseball fans don’t, for the most part, watch the games for tips that might help them join the NFL. Poker shows, on the other hand, lay claim to the zeitgeist of interactivity by highlighting the participatory character of the revamped poker tours and offering how-to instructions sandwiched between advertisements for Internet sites where viewers can practice what they’ve learned.

As the publisher of one poker magazine put it, “One of the reasons why poker has become so popular is that anyone can be a poker player, anyone might be the next millionaire…I’m never going to play right field for the San Francisco Giants, but I might be one tournament away” (King, 2005).

A recent episode of the World Poker Tour cited the New York Times claim that some 50 million people in the US play poker regularly, and the televised tournaments are reportedly the third most watched “sport” on cable TV after car racing and football.

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

The recent success of TV poker shows has been attributed to two developments: the “lipstick” spy-cams that provide behind-the-scenes access to players’ cards, and the proliferation of satellite games both online and off that offer amateurs and unknowns an inexpensive, long-shot bid for a tournament seat.

A recent episode of the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, for example, featured a segment about poker fans who parlayed their satellite buy-ins into lottery-sized cash prizes, prompting host Shana Hiatt to observe that, “Playing poker can be a dream come true for anyone.”

One of the staple narratives of the World Poker Tour is the back story of the amateur made good or the rags-to-riches pro. In this respect the show combines the appeal of big-prize game-docs like Survivor with the bootstrap narratives featured on celebrity reality shows like MTV’s Cribs.

Between edited segments of play, the World Poker Tour includes interview highlights with both amateurs and pro-players like Scotty Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant from an impoverished family who, as co-host Vince Van Patten put it, “went to help his family in the only way he knew how: he played poker in the street,” before coming to the United States and working his way up from busboy to poker pro with more than $2 million in winnings.

Poker shows hype the instant version of the American Dream even as its more prosaic version confronts the reality of increasing economic inequality and politicians hacking away at the social safety net. In this respect, the popularity of the spectacle of instant wealth continues the trend that saw the state lotteries work their way back into legality in the late 1960s and early 70s alongside the erosion of the post-war settlement and its attendant run of prosperity.

The current poker boom is also unmistakably a creature of its cultural moment – that of a generalized, reflexive savviness and a passion for debunkery that reduces every discursive claim to a ruse of power. The poker shows cater to the skepticism of those who seek to master the art of visceral literacy – ostensibly bypassing the manipulations of discourse to read the signs of the body. An instinctive “read” takes precedence over deliberation when everyone is assumed to be lying – and when the truth operates as one more ruse. The oft-repeated mantra that in poker “you play the people, not the cards” frames the commentators’ extemporaneous tutorials in mutual monitoring, detection and people-reading.

TV final table

TV final table

As in the case of many reality formats, the poker shows promise to entertain the viewer while educating them. Home viewers are schooled in the art of “the tell.” Slamming your chips into the pot aggressively, for example, is a tell. Leaning back is a tell, as is leaning forward; a show of strength means weakness, and vice versa. As Celebrity Poker Showdown host Phil Gordon, put it, “looking directly at your opponent is a sign of weakness. You’re trying to look at your opponent to look strong; but if I have a good hand, why would I want to intimidate my opponent?”

The goal is to learn the significance of signals that are supposedly harder to control than words – to believe only your own eyes, never the other players’ words.

“This is a lesson for the players at home,” is the repeated refrain of the show’s hosts, who understand that the TV episodes double as advertising for a booming ancillary market in learn-to-play products, and for the tournaments whose jackpots increase in proportion to the number of participants they draw from the audience ranks.

The promise of participation in this context serves the opposite function of that associated with risk sharing. Rather than cushioning the effects of misfortune, it pools loss to generate a large payoff for those who finish “in the money.” Its alibi for regressive wealth redistribution is the democratic character of chance: the fact that no amount of skill or training can dictate the fall of the cards – and even the longest shot sometimes defies the most carefully calculated odds.

Despite this irreducible uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), the message is not the irrelevance of training and preparedness, but rather the need for their cultivation.

The credo of the well-tempered poker player, invoked by World Poker Tour co-host Mike Sexton is “In poker, as in life, you make your own breaks.”

The absence of any guarantee serves as incitement to ongoing training – and helps to displace an undermined faith in communication and risk sharing onto the blind justice of chance.

King, Peter (2005) “Everyone’s a Player in Poker’s New Deal. The Los Angeles Times, July 17.

Image Credits:
1. TV Poker Table
2. “Lipstick” Cam Monitors
3. TV Final Table

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.

Spouse Exchanges: I Know the Perfect People …

Wife Swap

Wife Swap

I’m intrigued by what I call the spouse-exchange sub-genre of reality television — specifically, Fox’s Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and ABC’s Wife Swap. I was very skeptical at first, though, suspecting that these programs (like their Survivor-type predecessors) did nothing more than exploit people’s baser instincts. In fact I’ve found that the contrasts between the families selected for these shows reveal a great deal about both human nature and Americans’ entertainment preferences. So I’ve enjoyed them in general and have followed their development. When I started watching just over a year ago the shows seemed pleasantly spontaneous (even if this made some portions a little boring); the contrasts tended to emerge in the course of the program’s narrative, helped along by skilled editing. Since then, the differences between the families participating have become sharper and more polarized. At least that’s how they’re promoted these days. It seems as though the producers have sifted through numerous applications from people wanting their “fifteen minutes” in order to pair the most obvious opposites. The online applications do ask some provocative questions, such as whether or not there has been any feuding in the applicant’s family.

Moreover, participants, now familiar with the shows’ premises, surely have done some self-casting as well–in the ways they choose to describe themselves in the applications. At this stage the shows really don’t seem scripted, but they do seem staged. The planned contrasts make for good promotions and teasers, drawing potential viewers to watch: dogmatic Catholic trades with a Wiccan; woman from Harlem trades with affluent woman from suburban Boston; wealthy, conservative housewife goes on the road with a family band. What really keeps me watching are the unplanned contrasts — the evidence of how very difficult it is to hide your true personality when thrown into an unfamiliar and stressful situation. It helps me to look more critically at some of those nagging stereotypes I carry around in spite of my liberal do-gooder façade. (Besides, the voyeurism is just plain fun.)

Recently, for example, I watched an environmentally conscious (obsessed?) man living in a co-housing community (“commune”) trade families with a tattooed biker on Wife Swap (“Husband Edition”). I let down my guard and figured the biker was an intolerant redneck, who would quickly lose patience with the “namby-pamby” lifestyle of the environmentalist. He wouldn’t last! But I wasn’t exactly rooting for the environmentalist, either. He was over the top — having changed his name from Bill to Zeb (for some reason having to do with spirituality, I think), devoting an inordinate amount of time to recycling and composting (without showing any real sign of having a remunerative job), and beginning family discussions with asinine songs about peace and love. Even though his values are ones I basically share, the intensity with which he pursued and expressed them seemed like nails on a chalkboard. But I figured he’d triumph in the end simply because he’d consider it a personal failure to lose patience with the biker’s family.

Ha! A rather different contrast emerged, and this actually determined the outcome of the exchange. By this I mean that if one person could be identified as the episode’s “loser” — and one loser usually does emerge — it would be the environmentalist, not his wife or children, and not the biker or any members of his family. He just came across as weird and inflexible. He apparently made little effort to understand the family he had joined; he bluntly identified things he was unhappy with, such as a litter box odor in the family room; and would settle for nothing less than extreme changes in their lifestyle. It actually was the biker who emerged as the episode’s hero — to his own family as well as to the environmentalist’s wife and children. He patiently adhered to the family’s existing routines (making occasional barbed asides to the camera) and tried to figure out specific ways in which they would benefit from his lifestyle and values. The children learned to appreciate junk food and amusement parks, while the uptight mother discovered her “wild side” by wearing leather biker gear and waitressing in a biker bar. Then, when the biker arrived back home at the end, his previously distant stepdaughter suddenly loved and appreciated him, thanks to the horrible experience of living with the environmentalist. Perhaps we’re all either normal or crazy after all? We do tend to live by the stereotypes we’ve selected for ourselves — based on desire and need to fit in — but these seldom hide more basic personality traits.

People like the ones featured on spouse-exchange shows really could be part of my everyday life. In fact, they are. In fact, whenever I watch these shows and ponder the lessons learned, I think of my colleague Bonnie Peterson — someone I consider an ideal potential participant in one of the spouse-exchange shows, especially since she’s such a fan of them. A year or so ago I found out that Bonnie and her husband Joel were Survivor “addicts.” So I asked her if they also liked Wife Swap and Trading Spouses. Her look of (feigned) affront led me to think that perhaps she hadn’t yet heard of these shows. She was intrigued with the premise I explained, though, and told Joel that evening. They immediately took to these programs, and now all three of us watch them regularly.

Trading Spouses\

Trading Spouses

Bonnie hardly seems like a biker or a fanatical environmentalist or any of the other “types” I’ve seen on the shows — but then, unlike the other people I’ve watched on the shows, I know her already. She is someone with some very pronounced personal attributes that would serve the publicity needs of spouse-exchange shows. These surely would cause people who had never met Bonnie to predict a certain outcome, especially if the family pairing were done with the cunning I’ve seen recently. Yet Bonnie’s underlying personality (and Joel’s as well) would quickly draw attention from those features and provide interesting, even engrossing, substance for an episode. Bonnie teaches in my department. She also chairs the Academic Staff committee on our campus — a major responsibility. Before becoming a college teacher, she worked in the non-profit sector, including as a state-level policy analyst on issues related to the blind community. Bonnie herself is blind. Overall I would describe her personality as energetic, outgoing, and forthright. I don’t know Joel very well, having only met him once or twice. He is a former police detective, whom Bonnie describes as self-disciplined and “very conservative.” Bonnie and Joel live with three very large dogs — which she thinks would be one of the biggest challenges a “new spouse” would face in her home.

Actually, it turned out that Bonnie and Joel had already been speculating about the experience of being on a spouse-exchange show. I obviously had my own ideas about their qualifications, but decided to let Bonnie speak for herself on the subject. Bonnie says she appreciates the shows at different levels. She is the first to laugh at the extremes, and she emphatically repeats dialogue from pivotal points in the episodes (such as those selected for promotional teasers). But she also thinks there are a lot of positives in the shows. She explains that, “The negative examples lead to the positive examples…. Seeing people’s errors helps you to see that you shouldn’t be so extreme, and seeing what really good they’re doing for people is kind of nice. It’s amazing how they blend people.” Bonnie even speculates about ways in which the generation represented by most of her students has been influenced positively by watching reality TV, explaining that they seem more open than her own (baby boomer) generation to discussing personal and family problems.

When I asked about her applying to participate on one of the shows, Bonnie first made it clear that she no longer has children living at home — which she sees as a significant factor in getting one of these gigs. Somehow she didn’t seem convinced that this would necessarily preclude her participation, though, so I pushed it a bit. “What if they did an empty-nesters episode or something like that?” I asked, and here’s some of the conversation that followed:

Click here to listen to part of my conversation with Bonnie
Click here to read a transcript of this portion of the conversation

Enough emerged in this conversation to confirm my notions about what the television audience generally would get from watching Bonnie and Joel.

Being personally acquainted with a “picture perfect” spouse-exchange candidate, and having some ideas about the surprises she and her husband would offer the television audience, lends new perspective to this sub-genre of reality television — perhaps even to reality television in general. I still prefer fictional dramas in which the surprises are planned and positioned by skilled writers. But I am starting to appreciate the new type of program discussed here as well. As Bonnie points out, not even the most narcissistic and conditioned spouse-exchange “wannabe” can prepare him or herself adequately for the surprises, conflicts, and stresses of trying to fit into an unfamiliar family. And while spouse-exchange producers enjoy the privilege of being able to have the raw footage from the exchanges edited so as to bring out a storyline with heightened drama, they still can’t entirely predict what they’ll have to work with. Old-fashioned fictional television drama can be so very predictable by comparison. If outstanding dramatic writers are hard to come by these days, and riveting television dramas fewer and fewer, perhaps spouse-exchange shows can help keep me close to my small screen.

Postscript: It might be a while before Bonnie and Joel get to participate in a spouse exchange. One area family already is appearing on Trading Spouses on January 6 and 13. Interestingly, one of their stated reasons for self-selecting was that they were just a “normal family,” not an extreme. We’ll see…. Read about them in the Racine Journal Times.

Image Credits:

1. Wife Swap

Author’s own

2. Trading Spouses

Please feel free to comment.

What a Long, Bad Trip It’s Been

Temptation Island

Temptation Island

When the giant data-mining company ChoicePoint announced its plans to sell background-check software at Sam’s Club, private investigators complained the company was threatening their livelihood by making the tools of the trade available to the masses. They may have been bucking a trend: ChoicePoint’s open invitation to the public to become amateur P.I.’s represented just part of the proliferation of technologies, products, and services for do-it-yourself spies, ranging from background check Websites to keystroke monitoring software, home spycams, and even downloadable voice-stress analyzers. This multitude of peer monitoring tools, many of which piggy-back on new communication technologies, caters to a reflexive savviness about the staged character of our public personae and offers a default strategy for getting behind the façade.

The omnivorous trend-digesting genre of reality TV has picked up on the theme of peer investigation, spawning a variety of shows that feature friends, family members, and significant others spying on, investigating, and videotaping one another – all in the name of extracting a moment of authenticity, even if that moment merely highlights the inevitability of artifice. Such shows add one more reflexive twist to reality TV, insofar as they stage the search for behind-the-scenes reality, sometimes in the guise of a reality-show-within-a-show. Temptation Island, Average Joe, Room Raiders, and One Bad Trip, all feature segments in which cast members watch “backstage” footage of one another, sometimes with the added element of forensic searches, hidden cameras, and disguises. We, the viewers, watch a second audience engaged in practices of investigation and verification.

The point of lining up examples of what might be called techniques for peer investigation alongside their representation in reality TV is not to suggest that TV encourages viewers or trains them in the pursuit of such practices (nor is it to rule out this possibility). Rather it is to propose an angle of approach to the critical interpretation of media texts that sidelines the effects question construed in the broadest sense. My own recent experience of reality TV discussions has been that the tendency is to yoke together interpretation and effect. An interpretation of what takes place on a show – its portrayal, for example, of surveillance strategies for minimizing relationship risks – can be readily assimilated to an “effects” question: are audience practices and/or attitudes affected by exposure to such shows? Anna McCarthy invoked such questions in her FLOW article on TV and governance when she asked whether “the pedagogical voice of reality TV [is] actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule.” Similar questions of effects, again, in the broadest sense, propel a familiar merry-go-round of debates in media studies (at least in some quarters; in others they’ve largely been settled, albeit in opposing ways). Their persistence derives not just from the depth of their roots in the field – and in ongoing popular and political debates – but also, it seems, from persistent concerns about the purpose of critical interpretation. Why bother studying texts, if not to consider issues of broader social import? How else to avoid the pathology of Rorschach interpretation, which exhausts itself in the repeated discovery in texts of the theories we bring to them?

Perhaps one useful alternative critical approach for an analysis that focuses on textual content is what might be described as a symptomatic analysis. From such a perspective, the split between media and culture or society remains solely one of interpretive convenience. The point wouldn’t be to ask how culture affects itself, still less to ask what media texts do to audiences, or what audiences do with (and to) texts, but rather what such texts, viewed hologrammatically through the lens of theory, can tell us about the society from which they emerge. The test of such an approach would lie in its fruitfulness – the extent to which it illuminates hitherto un-remarked patterns and connections and extends the analysis not solely of media texts, but of the society within which they emerge.

By way of a brief and underdeveloped example, I’m going to focus on MTV’s One Bad Trip – and in particular the changes undergone by the format once cast members figured out the show’s gimmick. One Bad Trip is a parasitic show: producers tell cast members they’re going to be on an episode of something called MTV’s Ultimate Party Show, which documents the hijinks of the young and judgment-impaired at play in well-known party destinations. The twist is that, unbeknownst to the partiers, producers bring along their family members or significant others to spy on them as they let it all hang out for the cameras. The show’s gimmick is that it stages the scene of surveillance: a behind-the-scenes look at people peering behind the scenes. We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of two fathers spying on their college-aged daughters as they frolic on Lake Havasu, drinking, making out with one another, flashing the crowd, and so on. “This might be too much information,” says one father peering through binoculars from a nearby boat, “I don’t think she’s going to end up being a school teacher.”

The show invokes the anxiety catered to by the promise of peer-to-peer monitoring technologies: that since self-presentation is always a performance, it can double as a form of deception – one to be thwarted (along with its attendant risks) by adopting the techniques of the do-it-yourself private investigator. If, as the background-check Website puts it, “most people lie a minimum of 25 times in a single day,” we are invited to wonder along with the promotional blurb for the reality show Fake Out, which teaches lie detection techniques, “Is your teenager being untruthful? Is your spouse not telling you the whole story? Is your employee late to work again the fifth time because of a car accident on the road? Can you spot a lie?” A savvy mistrust of representation – what Slavoj Zizek (1999) has described as the erosion of symbolic efficacy – coincides with a default to empirical investigation: don’t trust what people say, see what really goes on when you’re not there. Protect yourself. Order a spy-cam. Sign up for One Bad Trip … or not. The point is not to suggest (or deny) that TV trains us but to consider what we might learn from representations of peer-to-peer surveillance about an era that witnessed the transformation of Google from proper noun to verb.

From MTVs One Bad Trip

From MTVs One Bad Trip

By staging the scene of surveillance, One Bad Trip foregrounds not only the façade of self-presentation, but also the use of reflexive strategies for getting “behind” the façade. After its first season, the show’s producers found that the kids they recruited had figured out the gimmick: they’d seen the ads for the show and had read about it on MTV’s Web site, and they suspected they were no longer on the Ultimate Party Show. In response, the producers “flipped the script” as they put it, adding one more twist. They let the partiers in on the fact that their family members or significant others were spying on them, and then helped set up the spies by staging outrageous scenarios for them to react to. So, for example, a young lady whose parents had signed up to spy on her Las Vegas trip pretended that she was eloping and marrying her boyfriend in a Vegas wedding chapel.

The “script flip” resulted in wholesale role reversal: the investigated became the investigators, the spies were on display. And it is this reflexive reversal that suggests two aspects of contemporary peer-monitoring practices. The first is the default of the voyeur/spy to exhibitionist: the watcher engaging in the process of verification with an eye to the gaze of an imagined audience to which s/he strives to avoid appearing as a dupe. It suggests, in short, the internalization of the discipline of surveillance not just by the watched, but – in an era of reflexive savviness and generalized risk – by the watchers. Perhaps the reality on offer in a show like One Bad Trip is that it stages the redoubling in the figure of the do-it-yourself spy of the imperative to watch and of submission to a monitoring gaze: the default of voyeurism to a desire to be seen as not being fooled.

The second suggestive aspect of the show, which might be described as the George W. Bush moment, is its portrayal of the default of savvy skepticism to a point of fixation that ostensibly bypasses the pitfalls of mediation – the resuscitation of gut instinct as the obverse of generalized savviness. If representation is not to be trusted, we need direct access to presence via cultivation of the kind of x-ray soul vision that Bush famously invoked to gauge Putin’s character (and that his supporters repeatedly invoke to gauge his own). The same faith-based access to authenticity is invoked in the debriefing sessions of One Bad Trip‘s post-flip season. In the first season the spies were exposed to behind-the-scenes realities portrayed as both surprising and troubling (the conservative father who saw his daughter pouring hot wax on S&M entertainers in a Miami bar; the woman who saw her boyfriend hitting on other women). The final debriefing portrayed the impact of this reality upon the watchers – how would they absorb the shocking truth behind the façade?

By contrast, finales in the post-“flip” season revealed this shocking truth as just one more façade. The result was not the universalization of skepticism, but rather an incitation to declarations of trust that bypassed the debunked realm of representation. We see a man explaining to his girlfriend that the very fact that the scene of his infidelity was staged should prove that he would never cheat on her. Those who engaged in outrageous activity used the fact that it was all a set-up to suggest that they would never really engage in such acts. In this respect the show staged a second aspect of contemporary savviness – its correspondence with the promise of direct access to the real: the default of the mistrust of mediation to a desire for the immediate. This staging reflects and perhaps reflects upon its cultural context – a society in which savvy debunkery of media representations, political deliberation, and scientific discourse coincides with the rise of Intelligent Design and the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. One bad trip for the rest of us.

Image Credits:

1. Temptation Island

2. From MTVs One Bad Trip

Citations: (2005) Psychological and personality profiles. Web site. Retreived 2 November at:

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

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