P.S. An Idol’s Pace

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

This column is something of a postscript to the last one I wrote, concerning the differential paces of television. My comments then were triggered in part by the way American television series circulate (at least officially) beyond the borders of the U.S., often with a lag of at least six months, or even one or two whole seasons behind their initial U.S. airing. Sometimes, the DVD versions may be available before the programs appear on television. In this context, I at least implied that this was the case with all American television series.

Meanwhile, American Idol is currently showing on Finnish television. This is hardly surprising since so many American television programs, including American reality programs, are available on Finnish TV: America’s Next Top Model, Playing It Straight, The Apprentice (U.S.), Survivor (U.S.), and The Amazing Race have all been shown here. Even Cheaters is shown on Finnish TV. What is distinctive in the case of American Idol is that the version currently showing in Finland is the same one currently showing in the U.S., with only a one to two week lag.

Given the prevalent distribution pattern for U.S. television in Finland, the airing of American Idol 4 struck me as somewhat surprising. At first I thought it might be related to the Internet and the ease with which one can learn about who has been cut from competition by recourse to websites, official and otherwise; ready access to this information might undercut viewership. I quickly came to my senses and realized that the same sort of information would be available for any competitive reality program, even for any television show that had episode summaries posted on some website, which means that this would be the case for virtually any American television show. But only American Idol is showing the current season. The other U.S. reality programs on Finnish broadcast or cable stations (indeed all the other U.S. series that show here) are older programs.

Finland, along with some 20-plus other countries, has also had its own version of the show, Idols Finland, which started in the fall of 2003 and concluded in January 2004. The final results episode was the third highest rated television program in Finland in 2004, with some 1.6 million viewers (in a country with a population of about 5 million people). The highest rated television program of 2004 was the same one that typically draws the largest audience every year: the live broadcast of the Finnish President’s reception on Finnish Independence Day. Given the interest elicited by the Finnish national Idols, it isn’t automatically clear that the American variant would necessarily draw the same kind of audience or interest.

It seems that the differential pace of distribution for American Idol has less to do with television per se, or with television-internet relations, than with the pace of the music industry. American Idol can best maximize global sales for the release of the already scheduled, anticipated music CDs following the televised competition if the global audience can follow the show more or less at its American television pace. It isn’t of much use to the music label if audiences outside the U.S. only decide they are interested in the music a year after its initial release, when the CDs may already be in the cut-outs bin. In Finland, at least, this reduces the programming time lag to a matter of mere weeks rather than the typical months or years. This raises a host of issues not only about the ways television intersects with other media industries, but also about television’s narrative and dramatic structures, and how they coincide (or not) with other media.

American Idol logo

Unlike dramatic series, most reality series are planned with a finite number of episodes. In this they function like mini-series or limited run programs, although successful programs can generate multiple seasons based on duplicating the basic structure of the initial limited-run design with a new array of participants. The dramatic arc is defined from the outset, based on the number of episodes, programming plan, and structure of elimination. Viewers obviously care about the outcome of these programs — in large numbers for successful shows. For American Idol the extent of this interest is registered, among other places, in the weekly voting. The competitive structure, culminating in a final outcome, clearly provides one structure of ongoing engagement and pleasure. But the ending shares these functions of engagement and pleasure with the ongoing vicissitudes of the program; as such, the process is as important as the outcome. (If the conclusion was the primary or overriding source of interest and pleasure, DVD sales of competitive reality series would be beside the point.)

As a mode of production, programming format, and even as a “genre” (using the word in a loose sense), reality programs offer an elegant balance between series and seriality, and capitalize on attracting and sustaining audiences across similarity and difference. In terms of narrative and dramatic structures, this includes a fine calibration that embraces process and outcome, peripatetic events and conclusions, the unknown and certitude, continuity and closure. Reality programs fit into television flow in these terms. While this is the case for all television series, a successful reality format — a sequence of self-contained series — makes the structure even more explicit and scaleable. But these narrative and dramatic strategies, and the resultant modes of engagement they foster, don’t necessarily directly carry over into the economies of other media. And in the case of American Idol, designed around the coalescing of television and the music industry (and digital telecommunications), it apparently results in a shift in the pacing of distribution.

Links
Mimi White, “Going Through the Paces”
American Idol
International Idols
Idols Finland on MTV3
Idols History
World Idol

Image Credits:

American Idol

Please feel free to comment.




Overhaulin’ TV and Government (Thoughts on the Political Campaign to Pimp Your Ride)

by: James Hay / University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

Pimp My Ride

Pimp My Ride on MTV

These days, the expression “overhauling” is in the air (and “on the air.”) Among journalists’ and politicians’ accounts of what the United States can expect from George W. Bush’s second term as president, “overhauling” has become the term du jour for his and fellow Republicans’ plans to achieve a broad array of reforms that will reinvent the role of government (and the role of citizens) under the banners of various slogans: Ownership Society, the Conservative New Deal, or the New New Deal. Some of the most prominent programs targeted for overhauling–for cultivating an Ownership Society — include Social Security, federal taxes, and federal and corporate-sponsored health insurance. This particular vision of reinventing government and citizenship is not necessarily new, having developed out of the “supply-side economics” or “trickle-down economics” of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” and the “welfare reform” of the Clinton administration’s second term — all of which considered decades-old national programs of social welfare to be impediments to localizing, privatizing, or personalizing the administration of social welfare in the U.S.

“Overhaul,” however, has become the operative program and plan — the key word for making sense of the circular reasoning of W’s claim in his recent inaugural speech that “in America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character [and that] self government relies on the governing of the self.” Indeed overhaul, make-over, radical surgery, and the reinvention of government all involve not only our primarily cutting back on services previously administered through federal programs, but redefining the responsibilities of government as well as the responsibilities of citizens — and (following Bush’s mantra over the last four years) “advancing freedom” in this way. In the U.S., particularly in these times, the advancement of individual rights and liberties is predicated upon the advancement of personal responsibilities — upon refining the techniques of independence, as a means to overcoming states of dependence.

Today, what exactly are, and where do we find, the techniques, technologies, and guidelines of self-government and of freedom as a private (or personal) responsibility, as a measure of good citizenship to which we are expected to “own up” in an Ownership Society? In the past weeks, several contributors to Flow have offered thoughtful accounts of the recent array of make-over programs on television. In this article, I suggest that the various political programs promising to reinvent government have had something to do with the reinvention of television (and the reivention of the “TV program”) as techniques, regimens, and technologies for self-government — for looking after and taking care of oneself, for maximizing personal responsibility, for becoming as self-directed as possible, and thus for becoming a good citizen within the current reasoning about government.

Make-over TV (the television make-over and TV’s own reinvention) is not simply about the idea of freedom, citizenship, and self-governance, it is about demonstrating the specific techniques and technologies for acting and behaving as independent, self-governing citizens, about the performance of citizenship by applying these techniques in daily life, about recognizing our entrepreneurial skills and resources, and about empowering citizens in these ways. Granted, there are significant differences between series such as The Swan, America’s Next Top Model, Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover (and its Home Edition), Queer Eye For the Straight Guy (and Girl), Renovate My Family, Judge Joe Brown, Curb Appeal or Mission Organization, Fit TV (a channel for physical fitness), Suzie Orman’s financial advice, the Food Channel’s Molto Mario, and things learned on the Learning Channel. But that is the point. We have a lot to work on, a lot to be responsible for in these times. We are asked to maximize our flexibility as workers, citizens, and viewers of TV. TV, meanwhile, has been reinvented to demonstrate the multiplicity of little challenges, the little techniques for taking care of ourselves, and the big results of making ourselves over — and in this way, to make the televisual programs of self-help relevant and matter within the political programs for reinventing government.

Providing for and taking care of ourselves (preparing citizens to be managers of their own security, welfare, health, and happiness, “freeing ourselves” from a “cycle of dependency” associated with older and purportedly broken vehicles of state-sponsored welfare) requires regimens, programs, and technologies designed for the body, personal finance, work habits, home organization and improvement, and entire towns (as in Town Haul) — endless retraining to enable us to lead fulfilling lives within the new reasoning about work, leisure, and self-management. The car-overhaul is one of the most important of these programs because the automobile has long been the technology, the vehicle, that liberal democracy in the U.S. has valued most–automobility as the self-reliant, self-directed, fully transported (free) self, and the fully transportable TV viewer. Tele-vision, after all, has developed through technologies of transport, portability, and automobility.

For the population that Bush’s overhaul of Social Security is most supposed to empower, Pimp My Ride has become over the last year one of the most successful programs on MTV, and has become a template for car and motorcycle make-over programs on other networks (including The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin.) In the MTV series, a young man or woman wins a competition to have a Los Angeles-based custom body shop not just rehabilitate her or his car but address her or his personal requirements for becoming self-sufficient and self-directed by enhancing the synergy between driver and her/his mode of self-transport (i.e., by having her or his “ride pimped.”) In many cases, the cars’ owners justify their need for an overhaul in terms not only of how their social mobility (their ability to find a job or to work effectively, their ability to perform routine tasks for themselves, friends or family, their ability to socialize or date), but also of how their ability to help themselves, have been impaired by the pathetic condition of their car. A primary objective of car enhancement, therefore, is providing a set of technologies for managing the everyday tasks associated with professional and social mobility in an environment that requires young workers, revelers, consumers, and citizens (viewers of MTV) to have and display the means of self-sufficiency as automobility.

In an episode from the spring of 2004 and regularly repeated, Logan, a young, African-American man, wins an opportunity to have his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme overhauled. The first part of the episode tracks various problems with the car’s appearance (its lack of paint, its dents, its having become a trash can for wrappers, soiled clothes, and uneaten food) and its functioning (a malfunctioning radio and an inoperable driver’s-side window that forces him to retrieve fast-food from drive-throughs by stepping out of his car). Not only is the condition of his car preventing him from achieving his goal of becoming a business man and of starting his own company, but he fears that travelers on L.A.’s freeways wrongly will perceive him as dangerous, “as up to no good — a drug-dealer or a gangster.” The Cutlass, he surmises, is the model of and for a 1980’s generation of entrepreneurs, and its restoration would bring him closer to that path of taking control of many facets of his life: “Back in 1986, Hugh Hefner and all the pimps were rollin in this car; it’s an American legend.” A young African-American man’s valorizing (and rehabilitating) the successful White entrepreneur as pimp is now no more strange or contradictory than the largely White consumers of MTV being instructed on the arts of self-help and social mobility by the predominantly African-American customizers and body-experts of Pimp My Ride.

Although Pimp My Ride involves an identity transformation (of driver and car), the refashioning of the car involves not simply designing but customizing and personalizing the technological vehicle for self-realization. Logan’s life may require the intervention of experts, but the TV experts’ design respects and encourages Logan’s individual requirements for self-actualization.

Of all the make-over programs, the car overhaul as a televisual program for self-realization (auto-mobility as the technology of the fully mobile self) recognizes the current technological link between driver and TV viewer/listener, between car, communication technology, and TV. Having one’s ride pimped — technologically reassembled or reconditioned — acknowledges the current requirements of video and audio in and from the car. Logan’s car is outfitted with a new CD-player/radio, dual video monitors in the backseat for video-gaming and DVDs, a karaoke system (and pop-up video screen) in the trunk, and a speaker-system that, after the car in Knight Rider (a TV series from the same era as his Cutlass), allows the driver to speak to pedestrians. And Pimp My Ride regularly features even more elaborate (though always personalized) video and audio accoutrements than Logan apparently required. Pimp My Ride puts on display and demonstrates that the practice of freedom and that the road to self-actualization (taking control of and more effectively directing one’s life) is not simply about watching TV anymore, but about applying oneself through a synergy between communication and transportation technologies, through the transformation of the car and audio-video systems into a more mobile and flexible vehicle of self-realization and self-government. Fashioning a “smart car” (a well-designed and pleasing car, as well as an assemblage of intelligent media/communication technologies) becomes a multi-media vehicle for getting where you want to go.

While The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin is more cautious (demure perhaps) about representing car-makeover as “pimping,” the two titles collectively underscore one of the important strategies of instruction and demonstration in the current reasoning about government and citizenship — a lesson not lost on Logan when he invokes a Cutlass-driving Hugh Hefner as a vital model of entrepreneurial citizenship. As I write this article while Bush delivers his State of the Union speech, I wonder whether my students are watching the speech, Pimp My Ride, or Overhaulin, whether (or how) one program matters more than the other, and whether (or how) it matters where they are watching or listening to it — in their car or their apartment. Bush concludes the State of the Union speech referring to the uncertainties and risks along “the road of providence” that leads (where else?) “to freedom”. The current State of the Union affirms predictably that overhauling is tantamount to mobilizing (or auto-mobilizing) a TV citizenry, tantamount to social mobility in a Society of (Auto-)Ownership (of citizen-drivers rather than passengers), and tantamount to “advancing liberty” along the “free”-way of televisual citizenship, even as the president’s cocky smile, and the glint in his eye, suggest that he wants to pimp my ride.

(Thanks in particular to Laurie Ouellette and Jeremy Packer for our on-going conversations about these matters.)

Further Reading

James Hay, “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere and the New Architecture of Community,” Foucault, Cultural Studies, Governmentality, ed., Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer, & Cameron McCarthy, SUNY Press, 2003.

James Hay & Jeremy Packer, “Crossing the Media(-n): Auto-mobility, the Transported Self, and Technologies of Freedom,” Media/Space, ed. Nick Couldry & Anna McCarthy, Routledge, 2004.

James Hay, “Toward a Spatial Materialism of the ‘Moving Image’: Locating Screen Media within Changing Regimes of Transport,” Cinema & Cie, November 2004.

Laurie Ouellette, “‘Take Responsibility for Yourself’: Judge Judy & the Neoliberal Citizen,” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, ed. Susan Murray & Laurie Ouellette, NYU Press, 2004.

Image Credits:

Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.




Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

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

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

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

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

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

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

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

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

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

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

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits:

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

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

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.




Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Black Zen Masters in the Dojo of Reality Television

by: L.S.Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

Typically in reality television, the host is white — famous examples include Jeff Probst in Survivor, Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, and Regis Philbin in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? whose through-the-roof ratings jump-started the reality programming watershed. But in America’s Next Top Model, The Road to Stardom, and Pimp My Ride, the hosts are African American and already stars.

In my first article for FLOW, I raised the concept of personal transformation as the underlying logic of reality television programming, particularly as it relates to race. Through an explicit display of Gratitude, a Sympathetic Back-Story, and Hard Work, reality television winners are shown to triumph, no matter what their race is. In this sort of “double-bind” (of having racial diversity on the small screen, but within a specific ideological framework), the article also points to the fact that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre in primetime. Furthermore, few (if any) other genres proffer African Americans in positions of authority and roles as knowledge-giver.

“Miss Tyra,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, and X are key decision-makers, glamorous celebrities, and mentors. What Victoria’s Secret supermodel Tyra Banks says, fourteen wannabe supermodels do, or at least try to do, as they strive to learn the inner secrets of modeling to earn entry into the temple of fashion. Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliot is music priestess to thirteen “wannabe artists” who hope to gain immortality with a $100,000 recording contract. And Rapper Xzibit endows young dreamers with the ability to “go from dirt to pimped” on MTV’s popular show where clunkers are transformed into “tricked-out masterpieces.”

Race or ethnicity would not have been an obvious prerequisite for the job of host in these series. On the surface, a white supermodel is just as qualified to mentor and evaluate novice models, a popular white singer can just as skillfully spot a striving young artist’s talent, and a white entertainer can host a show about car culture as easily as an African American entertainer can. Is this simply a case of bringing faces of color into roles that are primarily race-neutral? Or are these roles essentially racialized, offering an alternative in the representation of characters of color as well as in the way viewers participate in racial discourse?

All three series involve multicultural, multi-racial “casts.” As with many reality programs, the characters consist of those who do the transforming and those who are transformed. (Just as Extreme Makeover, for example, has a cast of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, and personal trainers who literally transform the physical appearance of the cast of participants, Pimp My Ride has a cast of mechanics, auto body specialists, painters, and other car experts together with a cast of car-owners.) While the contestants on America’s Next Top Model and the young performers on The Road to Stardom distinctly consist of a rainbow coalition — and white singers who master the hip hop beat are especially intriguing — it is notable that the “transforming” experts (i.e., the panel of judges and advisors) are a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. And the clear masters of the game, the hosts, are African American.

In this regard, the role of host is much more than an emcee. The host is a paragon of what the contestants strive to become, and is the means — the necessary instrument — through which they can reach a higher level.

America’s Next Top Model is a tightly-constructed, smartly-paced program that involves a group of young women participating in weekly tests in their effort to get into the succeeding round of judging. Each episode is a lesson on multiple aspects of the fashion industry: photography, make-up artistry, clothing style, and publicity. Each competitor realizes she must learn how to model: how to pose, how to express emotion in a still image, how to convey that she understands the concept of the task at hand whether it is to pull off a squeaky clean Cover Girl close-up, or an edgy experimental “art shot.” There are people on the ground training the women, featured prominently are “Mr. and Mrs. J” — Jay Manuel, who helps direct the models at the shoots and just J, a very tall Black man who instructs the women on how to move down the catwalk.

It is Tyra Banks — her style, her look, her experience and expertise, her personality that is both motherly and sisterly — that is the guiding force in the program. Although her catchphrases, “The judges will now deliberate” and “Congratulations, you’re still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model” are subject to ridicule in Saturday Night Live skits, Banks’ success with the series is no joke. Moving into its 4th cycle, Tyra Banks is creator, executive producer, and judge of the hit “dramality” series, and she is also founder of Bankable Productions. She lends the wisest and most earnestly taken advice to the young women. Miss Tyra is quite literally, a model for them in her success in the fashion industry, and as a self-possessed, strong Black woman.

In the three seasons thus far, there is a running discourse about owning up to who you are, specifically for the women of color. April in season 2 who is Japanese and Caucasian made statements such as “My Mother said I could never be a model … but it’s her fault that I look this way.” Tyra advised her to embrace her looks and market herself as ‘an Asian model.’ April agreed, if not to the idea to accept who she is, at least to the strategic suggestion. In a photo shoot that transformed each contestant into a famous figure, Xiomara’s skin was made darker with body paint to resemble Grace Jones; she was clearly upset with the choice and rejected the persona. Miss Tyra later schooled the young woman, and all the women, on Grace Jones’ place in history as a beautiful, dark-skinned, “fierce” model who helped pave the way for her and other “non-traditionally beautiful” (read non-white) women.

Being non-traditional is a vital part of Missy Elliot’s achievements as a writer, performer, and producer. Her ground-breaking work as an artist who crosses and combines genres — rap, hip hop, pop, and techno — has garnered her numerous accolades. She is highly regarded among music critics and kids alike and her videos are impressive, avant-garde pieces with musical, lyrical, and political bite.

On the show, she comes across as a near mystical figure. Her aloof demeanor can be daunting. Seated and surrounded by a coterie (her dancers), beautiful and regal, clad in a phat outfit and signature baseball cap, unsmiling and sucking on a lollipop, Missy Elliot delivers such lines as, “I think you’re going places . . . just not with me.” She tells you whether you are good enough — to be on tour with her, to be a performer of her high standards. Contestants act as willing pupils, hoping to have the honor of sharing the stage with her. Unlike Miss Tyra, she does not interact closely with the contestants. Like Banks, however, she is the avatar of cool everyone seeks knowledge and approval from.

Like ANTM, TRTS also uses a multi-racial panel of judges. Among them are singer Teena Marie, producer Dallas Austin, and president of Violator Management, Mona Scott. The goal of Scott’s company is: “To better market hip hop to Hollywood . . . to successfully promote mainstream products to the urban consumer, a consumer not defined by ethnicity, but rather by lifestyle.” The website for the program also proffers the idea of cultural sharing, and the sentiment that ethnic and racial identity is not as important as style: “The next big superstar could spring from a variety of backgrounds, but what each participant has in common is amazing talent, distinctive style and fresh attitude.” A contestant’s ethnicity may or may not be immediately relevant, but the racialzed derivation of that “lifestyle,” “distinctive style” and “fresh attitude” is unmistakably Black, or more importantly, learned from a Black mentor.

Style and attitude are exactly what contestants hope to gain from Pimp My Ride. They begin their transformative journey by appealing to MTV and Xzibit for help. Many are college students (including one of my own from UCSC), driving, for example, their soccer mom’s old Nissan. There usually is some element of charity involved in each episode, not only towards the car owner, but also for another group — helping an aspiring singer drive to teach kids music lessons, for instance. When Xzibit comes knocking on the front door, the car owner goes crazy, jumping on X, acting like Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up, only more excited. There are many who dream to come face to face with this man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and cornrows.

Whether you are Black, white, Asian American, male, or female, Xzibit’s crew — the working class, minority men at aftermarket West Coast Customs — will take you from 0 to 60 in the eyes of your friends and family. These guys have pimped cars with turntables, a ping pong table, a big screen monitor, and even a fireplace in the trunk. Video games with monitors installed in headrests practically come standard.

Theme Song Lyrics
So you wanna be a playa?
But your wheels ain’t fly
You gotta hit us up
to get a pimped out ride

To what ends is the creation and representation of Black sensei figures in these reality series? It is the promotion and cultivation of respect and reverence for the African American hosts. While Miss Tyra and Missy Elliot have more to specifically teach than Xzibit (and arguably, their level of accomplishment is higher than his, his recent album has not sold well), all three are examples of Black hosts/African American figures as benefactors — bequeathing opportunities upon youth primarily, and whites often.

One could argue that this is a form of exoticism, that Black culture has long held “the cool factor” desired secretly and now openly by non African Americans. But most things on television are exotic or cool, that’s what gets them good ratings (Ex: The O.C.). I also want to make note of not only a multiculturalism that is proffered in all three of these television discourses, but a cross-culturalism: The latest season of ANTM is set mostly in Tokyo where Tyra Banks wants to educate the models about experiencing another culture; Missy Elliot’s most popular and award-winning video engages with an aesthetic that is both mystical (Chinese martial arts) and avant garde (Japanese fashion); and Xzibit essentially takes up Asian American “rice rocket” tuner culture. This is part of what I call a “Black-Yellow alliance,” which I don’t have time to expand upon here.

There is a bit of exoticism and idealism of the “Black Master” going on. But I think (I hope) there is also modeling. Viewers see African Americans in positions of authority, as lenders and gatekeepers of hopes and dreams and moreover, viewers see numerous and diverse contestants (“people just like us”) paying respect to them. And that’s something to model.

Links:
America’s Next Top Model
CBS Review, Pimp My Ride
Pimp My Ride Homepage
TV Tome — Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.




The Boob Tube

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

“It’s like Jell-O on springs!” Jack Lemmon declares as he ogles Marilyn Monroe’s fleshy derriere in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon himself is in drag, and watching this film recently for the umpteenth time, I am struck again by its strange combination of heterosexual prurience and queer exuberance. I am also struck by Monroe’s plumpness. She is roughly the size that Renee Zellweger beefs up to to play the “fat” Bridget Jones. A few days later I watch John Boorman’s science fiction bizarre-athon Zardoz (1974), in which Charlotte Rampling’s A-cup breasts frequently escape the confines of their futuristic macramé top. Amazing, I think, that thirty years ago a woman with small breasts could be represented in the media as sexually attractive.

One could come up with countless other examples to illustrate a rather obvious fact: cultural standards of the ideal female body are historically variable. No big news here. Like the 19th century woman in her bone-and-viscera-crunching corset, today’s idealized female body can only be attained through technological mediation. While one could point to Pamela Anderson and numerous other TV stars as representative of today’s technologically mediated female body, I would like to hone in on one particular television program, the E! channel’s Dr. 90210, which graphically illustrates the possibility of achieving the impossible body.

Women of the 1950s wore girdles, and women of the 1960s dieted like crazy to attain their Twiggy shapes. Today’s actresses and models (and a handful of the rich and less famous) have the bottom halves of the 1960s and the top half of the 1950s. They are, in other words, slim and stacked, a virtual biological impossibility. This body shape requires rigorous diet and exercise regimes, but it also requires the surgeon’s knife and liposuction pump to suck out the bottom and inflate the top. This is exactly what plastic surgeon Dr. Rey does to white, affluent female bodies on the reality show Dr. 90210.

Dr. Rey’s specialty is inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel, and on most shows women get implants, though Rey also performs nose jobs and other procedures. The thin dramatic tension underpinning the show hinges on the fact that Dr. Rey spends all day in the office using his knives to “empower” women by making them more self-confident about their looks, while at home he is insensitive towards his pregnant wife Haley and overly invested in his Tae Kwon Do practice. Forced to join his wife in shopping for baby supplies, Rey is side-tracked by a beautiful bra in a store window, which he admires for being both fashionable and (unlike him!) “very supportive.” Haley exclaims that not only does she own the very same bra, but she happens to be wearing it that very minute. As she repeatedly gestures to her own chest (itself notably larger than what viewers have seen in the home video footage taken of her several years earlier), Dr. Rey remains fixated on the dummy on the other side of the glass.

Dr. 90210 obviously functions as an advertisement for Rey, and the E! website provides a link to Rey’s practice. Here, dozens of before and after shots are available, mostly of boob jobs. Most shots are straight-forward, with a clinical, mug shot kind of aesthetic. We see small breasts transformed into big boobs. [Fig. 1] (Note: Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain nudity) A much smaller number of images show reconstructed breasts: women with Poland syndrome (two very differently sized breasts) are given symmetrical breasts. And saline implants then transform these breasts into porn star sized jugs. [Fig. 2] The third kind of representation of breasts pictures the models whom Rey has operated on, their after shots showing them in magazine images. Here, we see the only person of color on the website, an African-American woman. Her after shot reveals her in a pornographic posture on the cover of Black Men magazine. [Fig. 3]

Unlike on Rey’s website, on the show nipples are digitally scrambled. This seems a bit silly, since the program regularly shows the body on the operating table, about as naked as it could be. What’s more naked than having your clothes off? Having your skin off! Perhaps inspired by the CSI franchise, with its persistent visual penetration of the body, plastic surgery shows (a growing genre, of which Dr. 90210 is only one example) are not shy about showing bleeding, penetrated bodies. Notwithstanding the coyly scrambled nipples, there is a pornographic show-all dimension to Dr. 90210‘s representation of the body. What is lacking, however, is pornography’s sense of humor and giddy transgression of societal norms. Dr. 90210 shows everything: the naked body, then the naked body with surgical Magic Marker maps drawn on it, then the surgically invaded body, and then the post-operative, quivering and vomiting body. Instead of offering voyeuristic pleasure, though, the show’s images of nude and penetrated bodies are stunningly unerotic. Who knew that naked bodies could be so damn boring?

One episode, however, breaks from the boring pattern and ups the dramatic ante. This show reveals that Dr. Rey is from Brazil, and that his mother worked as a janitor to help him pay for medical school. Charity plastic surgery is Rey’s big chance to give something back to the poor; someday, he tearfully confesses, he will leave Beverly Hills behind and return to his people. (Knowing that Dr. Rey has a SAG card, as per his website, one cannot help but wonder how carefully rehearsed this scene was.) The doctor’s volunteer work is at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood, and in this episode he helps a poor Latina with a unique problem: she has four breasts. He instructs her to quit smoking to prepare for the removal operation, but she doesn’t, and suffers for it on the operating table, as her breathing becomes labored and increasingly desperate. Rey explains how dangerous it is when patients do not obey their doctors. Not allowed to stay in the hospital, the post-op patient is carted to a “recovery center” (which looks suspiciously like a motel) and then returned to her trailer home. This poor Latina has served her function, which was to show Dr. Rey’s largesse, while also portraying a rare moment of surgical imperilment, a rarity on a program that consistently ignores the dangers of plastic surgery. It appears that the only time things go wrong is when patients misbehave. Notably, this charity patient is the only woman on the show with truly “wrong” breasts. The other women want to have their “normal” breasts augmented (or, in one unique instance, reduced).

Of course, the idea of any body being normal or natural becomes increasingly fraught the more one views Dr. 90210. While it may be tempting to wax nostalgic about Jayne Mansfield’s decidedly non-anorexic chest, or Emma Peel’s more modest cleavage, mediated breasts were no more “natural” before the recent explosion of televisual plastic surgery. What is unique today is not the cultural regulation of what constitutes the desirable breast but rather the fact that the increasing number of TV representations of enhanced breasts reveals the process behind the cultural construction. We didn’t watch sitcom girls throw up and take diet pills on 1960s TV, whereas today the process of bodily construction is played out before our very eyes. And since — with the exception of an occasional mole removal from a supermodel — the plastic surgeons of reality TV work their magic on “normal” women, not real stars, the patients can only afford so much plastic surgery. Though the uplifting, therapeutic message offered is that any woman can achieve her bodily dreams, Dr. 90210 stops short of the full body Frankenstein-like reconstruction of The Swan. The result is women with big boobs but bodies that otherwise look fairly average, marked with cellulite, dimples, and wrinkles.

We are completely missing the point if we condemn Dr. 90210 for offering women unrealistic, oppressive body images that will give them low self-esteem, the standard liberal feminist argument. All any female viewer has to do is look down a few inches to realize the distance between TV’s surgical cantaloupes and her own comparatively modest rack. Even the amply endowed woman will not find a televisual mirror, for TV’s completely round, enormous, man-made breast held upright at sternum level has nothing in common with the large breasts provided by genetics. (Consider Chesty Morgan’s 73 inch endowments in Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons.) What Dr. 90210‘s images of surgical breast enhancement actually offer viewers, contrary to the show’s intentions, are not fantasies of self-improvement but representations for which there is no original. How appropriate, then, that E! Online offers Dr. 90210 fans a videogame called Ka-boob!, which requires moving a character back and forth to catch falling implants [Fig. 4], with California iconography – palm trees and a Beverly Hills sign – in the stylized background. The tongue-in-check introduction invites us to “meet the docs who put the boob back in the boob tube.” The Dr. 90210 boob is ultimately a lot like California, as per Gertrude Stein. In spite of its abundant excess, there is no there there.

Links
Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.




Taming the Global on Italian Television

by: Michela Ardizzoni / Indiana University

The famous Dutch television producer, Endemol, will probably go down in the annals of history as a catalyst of standardized television programming across the globe. Since 2000, some of its innovative reality shows like Big Brother, Fear Factor, Star Academy, and Blind Faith pervade prime-time television in 22 countries, from the most liberal channels of Europe to the most conservative of the Persian Gulf.

The globalization of television programming is not a new phenomenon. Yet, the localized forms current programs take in various national contexts offer interesting insights into accepted boundaries of nationality and the pervasive notion of nation-state. The nationalistic fanfare that characterizes most prime-time television programs in Italy is emblematic of this confluence of global and local trends, which ultimately aims at reinforcing (rather than challenging) cemented visions of Italianness.

Out of a total of seven free-to-air channels, five regularly feature Endemol productions ranging from reality-based to game shows: Ready Steady Cook, Big Brother, Star Academy, and several others have become staples on public and private channels alike. While the irksome convergence of public and private interests in Italian television is luckily unique in its genre, the overwhelming popularity of these shows has colored the television scape of other European countries. France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom are only some of the many who have succumbed to the bewildering power of Endemol productions. Unlike its fellow EU members, Italian television has further demystified the appeal of these shows by donning them with a domesticated version of Italianness that suits well the socio-political climate of these years.

Fundamentally, the images and discourse that reach the viewer depict Italy as a country designed along regional lines that seem more rooted in people’s identity and more appropriate for the identifying processes enacted by television. Consider, for example, Your Business, a prime-time Endemol program aired daily on the main public channel RAI 1. Each episode of the show features a different contestant who attempts to win the largest sum of money by opening the lucky box. Unlike in other European versions where participants and their boxes are labeled by numbers, those in the Italian Your Business are labeled by numbers and regions like Calabria, Sardinia, Tuscany. Every time a contestant chooses a box, a rather folkloric song characteristic of the corresponding region is played. Often, the show’s moderator, who recently has helped RAI 1 recover control of prime-time after years of lagging behind Berlusconi’s private channel, would switch to the region’s dialect or accent in a highly stereotypical fashion. Even in entertainment, television portrays an unrelenting vision of Italianness as a composite of distinct cultural regions.

This emphasis on regionalism as the essence of national identity expands to other global products like Big Brother or Music Farm. Aside from the formulaic characterization of participants, this process elicits a contradictory conception of unified identity that is paradoxically fragmented and potentially divisive. In Italy, the presumed homogenizing impact of globalization is confronted with the permeating awareness of regional differences that are frequently accentuated rather than de-emphasized. As clearly evidenced by current news channels, media globalization — the multi-faceted monster condemned and revered by innumerable sources — has produced a sense of immediacy and simultaneity by making us part of common worlds. Yet, at the local level it has been met with deeply rooted realities that defy most attempts of standardizing sub-national experiences.

The resilience of regional identification in Italy stems from a concerted political campaign that has reached its momentum in the last few years with the ascent of a federalist party, the Northern League (Lega Nord), under the boisterous leadership of Umberto Bossi. This party, the name of which reminisces an obsolete vision of Italy split along the Po river, originally advocated ideological (if not political) separatism, dividing the Northern Padanian region from the rest of Italy. In recent years, the improbable outcome of the ethnocentric logic forced the party to channel its efforts to further empower local governments. This process has led to the creation of a ministry of devolution that has reinforced the autonomy of local governments in the areas of education, health, and law and order. The media have also been affected by the ubiquity of devolution when the second channel of the RAI public network was moved from Rome to Milan, the largest city in the Padanian region, and more airtime was slated for programming featuring an unprecedented parade of localism.

This vengeful localist turn seems an unsurprising reaction to the forces of globalization and the presumed fear of cultural contamination, but the celebration of the local as it encounters the global does not necessarily lead to a reification of unity along nationalistic lines. In a reciprocal mode, Endemol programs are made to fit the localism of national productions, as these tend to mimic the transient nature of foreign game shows and reality-based television. The way global products like Endemol’s are appropriated on Italian television leads one to question not the obvious impact of globalization on national identity, but the extent to which accepted discourses on the nation-state may conceal the primacy of regionalism as a growing constituent of identity in the media. In the case of Italy, regionalism seems to be the tool used to hunt the specter of national and global standardization.

Links

ENDEMOL
Endemol homepage

BACKGROUND ON ITALIAN MEDIA INDUSTRY & HISTORY
Museum of Broadcast Communications archives: Italy
Museo Nazionale del Cinema (English version)

BLOGS AND NEWS ON POLITICAL CONTROVERSY IN ITALIAN MEDIA
Reality TV in Italy
Italian media landscape
Silvio Berlusconi and Italian media

OFFICIAL ITALIAN NEWS AGENCIES
www.rai.it (in Italian)
www.ansa.it (in Italian)

Please feel free to comment.




Laguna Beach

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

“Oh my God, didn’t Morgan get pretty?” This was a friend’s response when I asked if he’d seen Laguna Beach, a new MTV reality show billed as “the real Orange County.” He wasn’t actually commenting on a character’s looks. Rather, like everyone with whom I’ve discussed the show, he was parodying its signature mode of dialogue: utterly banal phrases, voiced with blithe serenity, in exaggerated teenage upspeak.

I first became interested in Laguna Beach because my students were talking about it. Like them, I was amazed at the hyperbole of its Southern California teen stereotyping. But after watching a few episodes, my interest shifted. I started to ponder the place of the show — and the place of reality television more generally — within conventional typologies of television melodrama. I became convinced that Laguna Beach has something to teach us about the latter realm. Laguna Beach is only the latest example of reality TV’s resourcefulness in developing new techniques and formats for “unscripted, directorless” television. Yet it seems that regardless of its direction, reality TV remains firmly within the realm of melodrama, dependent for its appeal on the ability of characters to externalize emotions and internal conflicts through speech, expressions, and gestures. I am hardly the first person to consider the relationship between reality TV and the melodramatic imagination. What I hope to contribute, through an admittedly excessive discussion of formal strategies in Laguna Beach, is a sense of how the terms of what Ien Ang calls melodrama’s “emotional realism” are shifting. The lesson of Laguna Beach, I think, has to do with its creative mustering of techniques from the formal inventory of documentary history, techniques it recycles as tools to propagate popular melodramatic conventions.

The subject matter of Laguna Beach — the everyday lives, loves, and rivalries of rich white teenagers — makes it difficult at first to notice the show’s unique formal presentation. According to its producers the show attempts a cinematic style. What does the term cinematic mean in this instance? It seems to involve several stylistic choices, a number of them derived from the conventions of fictional drama on television. The show is not shot on film, but its widescreen aspect ratio suggests an anti-video sensibility. Unlike other reality shows it uses elaborate lighting setups. Blonde hair and tanned skin emit an especially painterly glow in Laguna Beach, distinguishing its interior scenes from the high key studio look of shows like The Real World. In further contrast, many scenarios are clearly staged for the camera. We see teenage boys squirm and mumble as they endeavor to carry on a group conversation on a set topic: will they stay in touch after graduation? And we witness both ends of telephone conversations, a strategy that signals the show’s commitment to narrative form and continuity over the pretense of spontaneous action. These staged moments position the teenage cast as improvising actors rather than sociological subjects. Together with the show’s lush cinematography, they forge a connection between Laguna Beach‘s “real Orange County” and the dramatic show it aims to supplement: Fox’s lavishly shot teen soap hit The O.C.

But there is more to the show’s stylistic project than visual references to celluloid TV drama. The meaning of cinematic in Laguna Beach clearly exceeds conventional usages. At once highly particularizing and endlessly flexible, the term embodies the semiotic promiscuity that, as John Caldwell notes, suffuses almost all of the TV industry’s aesthetic categories. For Laguna Beach‘s producers, cinematic means more than simply the high production values of TV drama. Paradoxically, it also seems to refer to their interest in the rigorous codes of objectivity, as opposed to emotional manipulation, that define documentary form. In this respect, the term seems to carries on its overburdened chassis connotations of seriousness and higher purpose. These connotations are reflected in some strikingly unconventional aesthetic choices. Most reality shows rely extensively on hand held camera. Laguna Beach, in contrast, features an unusual amount of footage shot with a tripod. What’s more, the camera tends to maintain a discreet distance from the interactions it observes, capturing moments in long shot, with one long take. The result is a sense of Wisemanesque detachment, underscored by naturalistic “unsweetened” sound, that seems to invite viewerly comment on the teenage dramas that play out onscreen in such prosaic arenas as the family meal, the bitchy conversation, getting ready for prom, and aimlessly driving from one place to another.

This dependence on the long take and the long shot is more than a nod to documentary tradition. It enacts the promise of unmasking suggested in the “real Orange County” tagline, a promise embodied most concretely in the show’s editing. Take the beginning of the prom episode, where a noticeably unconventional audio transition brings us from the credits to the action. The visual track shows aerial views of palm trees on the coast, followed by an eye-level shot of the cloistered arches of an upscale strip mall where Lauren and Lo shop for dresses. It would be typical in TV editing to de-emphasize this transition from the credits through an audio crossfade in which ambient sound at the mall gradually replaces the theme music. But instead we get an abrupt sound edit, synched to an image cut, in which the white noise of traffic suddenly splices in at the same volume as the Spelling-style theme music that came before. It’s not so different from the sound editing techniques that defined another So-Cal melodrama: Todd Haynes’ Safe.

Indeed, this kind of intrusive editing is the principal technique through which Laguna Beach marks its difference from other reality programs. Time and again the rhythms of Cinema Verité govern the choice of when to cut. In the graduation episode, Kristin tells her friends that she and Stephen will stop seeing each other when they go to college. Although she insists that she’s happy with that decision, a delayed edit allows the camera to linger, exposing this sentiment as rationalization. Similarly, the producers choose to retain elements of the action that The Real World‘s production bible would prohibit, most notably moments when cast members look at the camera. Often, these moments lead us to question the sincerity of the emotions playing out onscreen, as in the scene where Lo’s seemingly loving attempts to comfort her mother, distraught at the prospect of her daughter’s graduation, are undercut by the sly glances she cannot resist stealing at the camera. In such moments, the show reminds me more than anything else of An American Family. Regularly refusing the release of the edit, and focusing on the gestures through which people bottle their emotions (The tight-lipped, pleasureless manner with which Pat Loud sips her drink and Lauren’s brittle, affected laugh, finely calibrated to torture Kristin) forge connections between Laguna Beach and the august history of television documentary.

How, then, does Laguna Beach contribute to the shape of television melodrama? The answer has to do with its instinctual combination of teen emotional preoccupations with Verité style. For Peter Brooks and subsequent critics, melodrama hinges on characters’ ability to articulate their interior states through speech and, at least in the classic formulation, music. The figures of melodrama are immediately self-knowing, fully capable of expressing their feelings to others. When they repress or distort these feelings they communicate that fact too, through gestures and facial expressions. Emoting without mediation, they hold nothing back in their efforts to act out personal history and form ethical insights on the deeds and behaviors of others.

This sounds a lot like what goes on in the tortured and hungry world of The O.C. The difficulty of achieving such emotional facility without a script may explain why reality shows in the past have relied upon interviews or devices like the video confessional as a tool for emotional reflection. In the The Real World, cast members use the confessional to articulate with adolescent confidence their total and complete understanding of themselves and those around them, but especially themselves. Characters in traditional melodrama don’t need the prompt of a video camera to spur their confession — everything they say is confession.

Laguna Beach‘s promise of emotional realism hinges on its ability to achieve melodramatic expression without the confessional, and indeed on its refusal of the artifice of confessional speech in both teen drama and its reality TV predecessors. This refusal is embodied in the graduation day episode, where we encounter the show’s own version of a stock teen melodrama character: the budding filmmaker who confronts people with a camcorder and gets them to say what they’re feeling. Like Brian Austin Green in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, videographer Claire (clearly a plant) follows the protagonists around asking them how they feel about graduating, what they think the future holds for their generation, and so forth. But direct address to the camera visibly fails as a melodramatic technique in Laguna Beach. Stephen, Lauren, Lo, and the others comply with the request, but what they say bears little resemblance to video confessionals we’ve seen before. Instead of emotional display, their responses range from noncommittal evasions to meaningless platitudes.

Eschewing such conventions, Laguna Beach turns to a tradition that established itself as the opposite of melodrama’s cheesy formulae: the rigorous observational modes of independent documentary film. Is this still melodrama? Yes, in that it results in candid and acutely drawn portraits of emotional conflict. In calling their approach cinematic, the producers imply a desire to connect their work to both the emotional depth of classical Hollywood melodrama and the sociological depth of observational cinema. The show’s thesis might ultimately be phrased this way: true melodramatic engagement emerges not from the speeches that characters make but rather from the degree to which we are allowed to analyze these speeches, reading emotional realism in gestures and acknowledging the fraught subtexts of everyday speech. If this is the direction reality TV is headed, I am happy to leave the flaccid theatrics of The Real World behind.

Links
Laguna Beach Info
MTV Laguna Beach site
I Love Reality

Please feel free to comment.




Race and Reality…TV

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz; UCLA

A prime-time line-up without reality television programming seems a lifetime ago. But it has only been three seasons since the last of the major broadcast networks added its first reality series. Just a few years of proliferation has splintered the form into subgenres, showering viewers with nightly lineups of alternate realities. But the more reality changes, the more it stays the same.

America’s historical love of self-help guidebooks and self-invention stories – the touchstones of the American Dream – have materialized in shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Trading Spaces, Trading Spouses, Renovate My Family, and mentioning the unmentionable, The Swan. Horatio Alger tales are retold through as seemingly diverse fare as The Apprentice, American Idol, and even America’s Next Top Model. The trend began as contests of social politics leading to a cash prize (for the survivor of Survivor, one million dollars). New prizes include a job, a recording contract, a spouse. What the prize – and the moral of the story – really is, though, is personal transformation.

Top Model Logo

America’s Next Top Model logo

Personal transformation – whether from ugly duckling to “swan” or from poor country-bumpkin to rich, sophisticated entrepreneur – is integral to the grand American myths of race. It lies at the heart of how immigrants and their children are expected to assimilate. It also animates the expectations of those who believe in a “color-blind” approach to racial minorities, particularly African-Americans. It is telling, then, that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre of primetime program. Furthermore, Reality TV is the only place in primetime where one can regularly watch integrated casts.

In stark contrast to the segregated nature of sitcoms, reality programs almost universally begin with a mixed cast of contestants. First, let’s deal with some terms here, like “contestant.” Certainly these shows are contests, but they are dramas, too. Stories are narrativized. Through the magic of editing, contestants are transformed into characters in what can best be described as an “ensemble cast.” The misnomer “reality” in “Reality TV” is a paper topic unto itself, but it suffices to say that from the viewer’s perspective, the participants on reality television programs are not mere contestants in a game show but well-developed characters in an unfolding story, rendered all the more dramatic by the fact that they are “real” people. The distinction is important. The color of a contestant on a classic game show like Wheel of Fortune may be irrelevant to the country’s racial discourse, for culturally-informed personality traits are of little import to the outcome of the game. Those traits are at the heart, however, of the social politics forming the contests on “reality shows.” Furthermore, producers shape our perception of these individuals. Editing, promo teasers, even the very unreality of the set-ups (e.g., fourteen beautiful women living together in a castle trying to woo a millionaire, or a man they think is a millionaire) mean that the personas we see depicted on our screens may or may not be accurate facsimiles of the contestants in real life.

Not only are characters of color present in reality television series, sometimes they even win. Vecepia Towery on Survivor: Marquesas, Jun Song on Big Brother 4, Ruben Studdard on American Idol, Harlemm Lee on Fame, and Dat Phan on Last Comic Standing are some recent examples. Winners are not determined objectively (another departure from the game show model), but by judges, by the voting television audience, or sometimes by fellow contestants, always based on subjective evaluations.

Indeed, the structure of the genre relies on the absence of objective standards of victory. For reality programs, the selection of the winner generally follows certain unspoken rules:

1) Show of Gratitude. A successful or compelling player must be grateful for the text, e.g., by praising and thanking the show (or God) for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his/her dreams come true. Those receiving makeovers must give heartfelt thanks to “the dream team” of doctors, dentists, trainers, and stylists for giving them (and by extension, their families) a new life. Bachelorettes must repeat their appreciation of the experience of being on the show and emphasize that they believe in “the process.” If you treat the show as a joke you won’t win, no matter how talented you are. You will be perceived as disrespectful. But of what, exactly? Reality TV? The audience? Or the myths that underlay the genre?

2) Sympathetic Back-Story. A Reality TV contestant may be popular, talented, and winsome, but s/he must have a good pre-existing story, one that follows a Horatio Alger and/or immigrant tale. Viewers love to see a rags-to-riches story, so if a contestant is poor, the odds are improved that s/he will make it past the preliminary rounds and into the finals. Both Ruben Studdard and Adrianne Curry lived in cars with their single mothers (in the South and Midwest, respectively) before becoming the dramatic winners (in Hollywood and New York City, respectively) on American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. On the other hand, “having it all” (intelligence, talent, good looks, and having been born into privilege) is almost inevitably a losing hand. Perhaps this is the most unreal aspect of Reality TV.

Top Models

Top Models

3) Good Work Ethic. The winner of a reality television story must work hard. The opening theme song for Fame, a singing-dancing-acting talent contest, had the contestants sing: “We’re here to work-work-work!” Survivor contestants work and starve. Fear Factor contestants work and eat terrible things. Even if the work itself is contrived and meaningless, American viewers must see these people exerting energy and emotion in order to be worthy of becoming the winner or hero of a reality television text.

With these unspoken standards for achieving victory, Reality TV gives us heroes who uphold, reflect, and affirm core American values of equal opportunity for social and economic mobility in a democratic capitalist society through hard work, chutzpah, and a little talent, too. The talent may be the gift of being able to belt out a pop song, the skill to manipulate others to get them to achieve your aims, an ability to seduce a millionaire (bachelor) or impress a billionaire (bachelor) with your business acumen. Americans take comfort knowing (and seeing) that in Reality TVland, if not in real life, race is of no consequence with regard to possessing such skills and achieving such goals.

The very artifice of the “realities” created on the shows, together with the youthfulness of the genre, allow for multi-cultural casts that play out these myths. In contrast, from the birth of television, situation comedies have been set primarily within families, whether actual nuclear families or familial cohorts like Friends. The very structure of the sitcom genre was – and remains – inevitably segregated. Workplace dramas have offered greater opportunities for integrated casts and storylines, but the preponderance of police series risks the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of minorities. Because Reality TV is a relatively new invention (though of course it has its antecedents), Reality TV doesn’t have the same historical constraints and audience expectations of those other genres. In fact, notions of race and ethnicity actually play to the genre’s underpinnings – what better example can there be of self-reinvention with Gratitude, Backstory and Hard Work than that of a talented yet unthreatening member of a “model minority”?

William Hung on American Idol

William Hung on American Idol

Of course, not all reality series are alike and even the same program can be contradictory in its racial politics. While being open and possibly innovative in negotiating racial discourse, there are still racial tropes that capitulate to the lowest common denominator. Glaring examples include William Hung, the ‘Asian geek’ whose dance moves (and virginity) were exactly what we would expect them to be, or the derogatory character type of ‘the black –itch’ embodied (and edited!) so well in Omarosa.

But because Reality TV literally mixes up the usual television order-of-things, there is a bit more latitude in the ways in which characters of color can emerge. One can complain that the starting casts of reality shows seem too neatly to be “rainbow coalitions” of mere tokens, but there is no denying that in a largely segregated television universe, Reality TV proffers racially integrated casts. Mimi White brought up the idea of liking and disliking the same program at the same time. Likewise, can a viewer (and television scholar) praise and critique a television program or genre simultaneously? Admire its inclusiveness of race, class, gender, and sexual difference, but boo its conventional range of ideological values? I believe we can be both pessimistic and optimistic about television. This mode is in some ways, the very mode of television criticism. Reality television as hybridized and intertextual does not invoke simple viewing or simple pleasures, and it demonstrates that “getting real” (the tagline for The Real World) with racial difference is not such The Simple Life.

Links:
Home page for Fox’s The Swan
Home page for Fox’s American Idol
Home page for CBS’s Survivor
Home page for NBC’s Fear Factor

Image Credits:

1. America’s Next Top Model logo

2. Top Models

3. William Hung on American Idol

Please feel free to comment.




Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?

Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.

Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.

In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.

In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.

In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.

Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.

In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.

A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.

As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.

The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.

Links
America’s Next Top Model/UPN
Reality Television forum
Reality TV information
Race, class, and gender in media
The Partridge Family

Please feel free to comment.




Affective Economics 101

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Apprentice

The Apprentice

How many different ways is The Apprentice involved in branding?

1. The Brand as Protagonist: The Donald casts himself and his corporate empire as the series protagonists. In the Sept.23 episode, the Donald ascends down the escalator to a trumpet fanfare and then directs our eyes upwards to enjoy the splendors of Trump Tower. [Play Video]

2. The Brand as Task Master: So far this season, contestants have been asked to design and play test toys for Mattel, to develop new ice cream flavors for Ciao Bella, and to market a new Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste for Proctor and Gamble.

3. The Branding Process as Entertainment: On the Sept.23 episode, contestants demonstrated ways of linking brands and entertainment (circuses, the New York Mets) in order to create buzz for Crest. [Play Video]

4. The Brand as Helper: Frequently, the contestants consult with smaller companies (such as the Alliance Talent Agency [Play Video]) who aid them in their tasks in return for exposure. (see Vendor “Suite”).

5. The Brand as Prize: In many cases, Trump rewards contestants with access to himself and his “things” or to luxury meals and services (such as a caviar feast at Petrushian’s). [Play Video]

6. The Brand as Personal Statement: Some of the contestants can be seen wearing t-shirts promoting brands (such as Goizuetta Business School), seen as Kevin answered the phone in one episode [Play Video]) with which they feel a strong personal connection.

7. The Brand as Tie-in: Following an episode where the contestants designed ice cream, viewers at home were able to order samples of the flavors online.

8. The Brand as Community: Through a tie-in between the Apprentice and Friendster, fans can assert their affiliation with specific contestants and the producers collect real-time data about audience response.

9. The Brand as Event: Following the Sept. 23 episode, with its focus on thinking big, Trump launched a sweepstakes competition with Yahoo! Hot Jobs, whose 25k award is designed to encourage new initiatives.

These examples scarcely exhaust the roles brands play in the series (for example, the various ways NBC is using the series to revise its own brand identity). The importance of reality television goes well beyond its specific ratings successes. Reality television is the testing ground for convergence and branding strategies at an important moment of media in transition. The temptation among media-savvy people is to dismiss The Apprentice as nothing but one big product placement, but this would not adequately explain its popularity. The Apprentice is popular because it’s a well-made show and the brand tie-ins work because they are linked to its core emotional mechanics.

Let’s consider some important data points:

Right now, 43 percent of all households skip commercials. Tivo and other digital video recorder users skip between 60 and 70 percent of advertisements. These numbers are producing panic within the consumer economy. Many worry that the effectiveness of a spot during a top rated television show will be about the same or less than the clickthrough rate on the web. Yet, there are other ways of reading these figures. It isn’t that 70 percent of Tivo users skip commercials altogether; people use Tivos to decide which commercials to watch. Marketers are trying to understand what kinds of commercials people choose to watch and why. More generally, they are looking for ways to more powerfully link brands and entertainment content. These approaches include product placements, but also context-specific commercials, such as this spot for the Trump board game which ran during a commercial break on The Apprentice [Play Video] and this spot for Pringles which wraps Survivor-specific content around a commercial for their canned chips. [Play Video]

Brand managers are fusing entertainment and branding content both to grab the attention of ad-skippers and to reshape our emotional bonds with brands. Here’s former Coca-Cola CEO Steven Heyer speaking at a gathering of advertising and entertainment industry insiders last year: “We will use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. In that order. We’re moving to ideas that elicit emotion and create connections. And this speeds the convergence of Madison and Vine. Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold… whether movies or music or television… are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.” Or here’s Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, talking about what he calls “lovemarks” (brands that inspire cult followings): “the emotions are a serious opportunity to get in touch with consumers. And best of all, emotion is an unlimited resource. It’s always there, waiting to be tapped with new ideas, new inspirations, and new experiences.”

Industry researchers are discovering that the most valuable viewers may be loyals (or what we call fans). For most shows, less than 5 percent of all viewers regard the program to be a favorite. For some shows (and these including many cult and reality television programs), the numbers may reach 40 or 50 percent of viewers. Loyals are significantly more apt to watch the entire show each week, seek out additional information, watch advertisements, recall brands, and talk about them with others. Marketers, then, are seeking programs which will generate high concentrations of loyal viewers, even if those programs do not necessarily enjoy high ratings overall. And networks are seeking to slow the erosion of their own viewership to cable competitors or digital media. Reality shows may be one of the few remaining forms of appointment-based television.

Brand loyalty is the holy grail of affective economics because of what economists call the 80/20 rule: for most consumer products, 80 percent of purchases are made by 20 percent of their consumer base. A generation of cultural and media scholars had equated the active spectator with audience resistance, but now, corporate America is embracing audience activity as the golden gateway into more reliable patterns of consumption.

Marketing researchers speak about “brand communities,” trying to better understand why some groups of consumers form intense bonds with the product and through the product, with fellow consumers. These ethnographers research specific groups of highly committed consumers (such as Harley-Davidson riders, Apple computer users, or Saturn drivers) or what they call “brandfests,” social events (either commercially sponsored or grassroots) that pull together large numbers of consumers. As these brand communities move online, members are able to sustain their connections over long periods and thus to intensify the role the community plays in their purchasing decisions. Companies seek to move more casual consumers towards links with these brand communities and count on what they call “inspirational consumers,” in effect, fans of brands, to advocate on their behalf. Advertisers are drawn towards the audience participation surrounding reality programs because they can help fuel the growth of online brand communities.

Marketers want to understand the relationship between fan communities (the most committed consumers of an entertainment franchise) and brand communities (the most committed consumers of a branded product). What happens when the two are brought face to face? Do brand messages become part of what people talk about when they discuss the show? Can advertisements gain greater currency by becoming vehicles by which fans can get more program-specific information?

At the same time, consumer companies are trying to figure out what kinds of links to the entertainment properties consumers will accept or value and which links alienate viewers. For example, has frustration over the voting mechanisms in American Idol last season rebounded and left people feeling more negative towards ATT, the company which has used the show to broaden the market for text messaging? And if people are feeling more negative to ATT, how does this impact Ford and Coca-Cola, two companies that are also closely associated with the program content? The unpredictable character of unscripted programming increases the risks in some cases: a product placement for Stolichnaya Citroena during Big Brother several seasons ago went seriously awry because one “houseguest” was an alcoholic who was stealing other people’s booze, getting sloppy drunk, and required an intervention, not exactly the messaging the company intended.

Before we write all of this off as simply an insidious new marketing strategy, consider a few more implications: Such arguments strengthen the hands of fan communities lobbying producers to keep their favorite series on the air. High favorability may trump high ratings in the new affective economy. The brand communities often emerge as important sites of consumer activism as those most invested in a brand seek to hold corporations more accountable.

Consumer products companies are not the only groups trying to tap popular interest in The Apprentice to shape our emotional responses to their messages. Consider this anti-Bush commercial created by the political organization True Majority to reach younger voters and circulated virally. Is this a form of ad-busting or is it itself an ad, given the fact that Ben Cohen, one of the group’s leaders, is CEO of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream . In the marketing world, they now talk about Citizen Brands — brands that build greater consumer loyalty by tapping into our political commitments. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s or the Body Shop (on the left) or Coors (on the right) were early explorers of the relationship between consumers and citizens. At the end of the day, both Ciao Bella and Ben and Jerry’s are in the same business — selling ice cream.

The example of Citizen Brands should help us rethink of own knee-jerk responses to these marketing strategies. The product placements work because they are tied to something people care about — whether it’s how to defeat George Bush or who is going to the boardroom. If the brand campaigns interfere too much with what draws people to these programs, they fail. We may chuckle over the heavy-handedness of The Donald’s self-promotion, but at the end of the day, he makes great television.

Links of Interest:

1. NBC’s Apprentice site

2. Village Voice article on the art of Trump branding

3. An exploration of cult branding

Image Credits:

The Apprentice Logo

Please feel free to comment.