Strangers: Using the Small Screen to Expose Mainlandization
Andrew Gilmore / Colorado State University

The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).

Set in Hong Kong, Strangers (titled White Dragon when the series appeared on Amazon Prime in early 2019) tells the story of British university lecturer Jonah Mulray. Without divulging too much of the plot, upon hearing that his wife, Megan, has been killed in a car crash in Hong Kong, Mulray travels to the city to repatriate her body. Arriving in Hong Kong, Mulray makes two shocking discoveries. Shock one: Mulray is not Megan’s only husband. Shock two: his wife’s death may not have been an accident.

After the airing of the first two episodes of the eight-part crime drama, Guardian features writer Sam Wollaston’s jocular three star review of the series focused on its plot holes and how the story compared to his own life in London. While Wollaston found Strangers to be “intriguing,” he didn’t feel that it stood “up to too much scrutiny.” I beg to differ.

Set against the backdrop of a shady police force, corrupt politicians, Western journalists attempting to uncover the truth, and teenage Hong Kongers intent on showing their distain for the city’s “democratic” process, Strangers’ plot of murder and betrayal turns into a story of whodunit and, importantly, why did they do it.

In light of its narrative, like Wollaston, I find Strangers to be an intriguing piece of television. As somebody who studies Hong Kong, however, a closer examination ofthe series reveals more. Strangers is a fascinating media text that attempts to expose the mainlandization of Hong Kong to a global audience.[ (( Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in July 1997, the citizens of Hong Kong have increasing felt the effects of the mainlandization of their city. To be more specific, in a now-deleted post (possibly providing more evidence of mainlandization), Cheong defines mainlandization as “the erosion of freedom, plurality, tolerance, and rule of law.” David Gruber, meanwhile, characterizes the term as “the encroaching influence” of mainland China. I define mainlandization, simply, as the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. For more information, see David R. Gruber, “A Beijing Wolf in Hong Kong: Lufsig and Imagining Communities of Political Resistance to Chinese Unification,” in Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, Edited by Stephen J. Hartnett, Lisa, B. Keranen, and Donovan Conley, 371-394. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2017.))] In short, I argue that Wollaston failed to join the dots and look behind Strangers’ basic plot.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, Britain’s then-prime minister, John Major, promised Hong Kongers that, despite the city’s impending return to the Communist Party of China (CPC), the city would “never walk alone.” The CPC had other ideas. Whether commenting on Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, China’s territorial control of the South China Sea, or its use of Uighur Muslim “re-education camps,” nations, including Britain and the U.S, have fallen foul of the CPC’s curt warnings that they have no place “meddling” in China’s domestic affairs.

Returning to Hong Kong, over the past two decades, the concerns of British officials have been continuously rebuked by the CPC. While British politicians have repeatedly suggested that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure,” the CPC has been quick to emphasize that, since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, “Britain has no power to intervene” in the city’s internal affairs.

In light of being warned not to comment on the events in Hong Kong, how else can the plight of Hong Kongers be communicated to a mass global audience? Perhaps, through the commission of a TV crime series set in the city. Behind its surface plotline, Strangers is littered with references to the mainlandization of Hong Kong that both Wollaston may have missed.

Depictions of Mainlandization

A major facet of the perceived mainlandization of Hong Kong—and the catalyst that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, as well as the ongoing unrest—is the CPC’s insistence on choosing candidates for the role of the city’s chief executive. In Wollaston’s review of Strangers, he draws attention to the character of Xiaodong Xo, “a property developer” that Hong Kong students “do not approve of.” As a clear representation of Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive CY Leung, however, Wollaston’s dismissal of Xo’s character is an oversight.

Throughout his time in office, Leung—himself a former real estate consultant—was plagued by controversy and
accusations of shady business dealings, illicit wealth, and deep CPC roots, all
of which draw Leung closer to the character of Xo. In Strangers, the
company headed by Xo plans to build luxury apartments on a site that is
intended for affordable housing. This element of Strangers’ narrative is not randomly placed. Instead, it highlights
another facet of
mainlandization: A lack of affordable housing available to average Hong

As Hong Kong’s property market continues to be a popular place for “rich mainlanders… to park their money,” the city has spent the last decade as the world’s least affordable place to live. With Hong Kong’s median property price over 20 times that of median household income, as a direct result of mainlandization, large swathes of Hong Kongers can simply no longer afford to reside in their own city. In extreme cases, Hong Kongers are reduced to residing in “wire mesh cages” and “coffin homes” that are too small for inhabitants to fully stretch out their legs.

As documented cases of police and judicial corruption—often attributed to mainlandization—increase in Hong Kong, Strangers’ narrative that includes a body missing from a morgue, unauthorized cremations, the doctoring of police evidence, and police protection of a known murderer communicates further facets of mainlandization. In the midst of all this drama, however, Strangers narrates the story of mainlandization in a thoughtful way that is often lacking in media texts that depict Asian culture.

Identity and Representation to (Re)Raise Awareness

While recent movies such as Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) have been accused of whitewashing, stereotyping, misrepresentation, and flawed depictions of Asian culture, Strangers impresses by casting a number of local, Hong Kong actors. Moreover, the use of Cantonese—Hong Kong’s language that is being slowly eroded as a result of mainlandization—adds another important and, perhaps, overlooked element to the plot. Strangers, then, showcases issues in Hong Kong and, vitally, does so by providing a platform for Hong Kongers to tell their own stories about mainlandization.

While I argue that Wollaston failed to join
the dots in his reading of Strangers,
this isn’t really part of his job. He watched the series for what it is: a fun,
suspenseful, and, at times, far-fetched crime drama. A closer reading, however,
reveals that commissioned TV drama’s such as Strangers can lead the way in providing a slightly more accurate
portrays of Asian culture and, at the same time, shine a light on authoritarian
regimes that continue to exert their influence over minorities.

Reviewing Strangers for online magazine Bustle, Jack O’Keeffe writes that the series isn’t based on a true story. While the surface plot may or may not be true, the overarching themes that play out in the background of Strangers are based on a very true story: the mainlandization of Hong Kong.

With almost half a decade passing since the outbreak of the Umbrella Revolution and the global press coverage that it attracted, until this summer, the plight of Hong Kongers was a fleeting moment that had been forgotten by many. When waiting to get my hair cut earlier this this year (before the recent spate of Hong Kong protests), a man sat next to me struck up a conversation about what I studied. “Oh yeah,” he responded. “The yellow umbrella protest! I’d forgot about that!” A few days later, I was in an Uber and my driver posed the same question. “So, Hong Kong got what it wanted, yeah? They won?” People need reminding about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, but communication channels need to be chosen wisely.

When writing about the media and politics, communication technology scholar Manuel Castells states that politics has become a “tragicomedy motivated by greed, backstage maneuvers, betrayals, and, often, sex and violence.”[ (( Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (2000): 13.))] Castells could be describing the plot of Strangers. Indeed, for Castells, politics is “increasingly indistinguishable from TV scripts.”[ (( Castells, 13.))] The issues faced by Hong Kongers, though, are not fiction; they continue to be very real. In an age when the CPC ties the hands of “meddling” politicians and journalists, Strangers can aid in ensuring that the situation in Hong Kong does not fade from public memory and discourse.

As has been witnessed over the past few weeks, Hong Kong’s fight continues, as does the battle faced by politicians and print journalists who seek to communicate concerns about the CPC’s handling of its disputed territories. As I write this, on-street protests have been taking place in Hong Kong for the last eleven weeks and they show no sign of abating. However, when the protesters leave the streets, either through fatigue or military force, the issues faced by Hong Kongers must remain in the public realm. To this end, a TV series commissioned by the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster that (re)draws attention—however implicitly—to Hong Kong can only be a boon to the city as it continues to feel the “heavy hand” of the CPC.

Image Credits:

  1. The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).


The Cancellation of Swamp Thing and the Precarity of DC Universe
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series

On May 31, 2019, Swamp Thing premiered on the DC Universe streaming service. A week later, shortly before the release of the second episode, the series was cancelled. To date, neither DC Universe nor its parent company, WarnerMedia, have cited any particular reason for the show’s demise, although an official post on the streaming service’s Watchtower forums—the official space dedicated to DC Universe’s updates and news items—states that they are “not in a position to answer” the questions of why at this time. As can be expected with vague or incomplete media industrial news, theories regarding the cancellation soon spread across social media and fan networks.

One particular theory that gained mild traction pointed to a potential clerical error and a misunderstanding in the tax rebates Warner Bros. would receive from the state of North Carolina where the series filmed. However, Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina film office, later confirmed that the budget discussions between his office and Warner Bros. “had nothing to do with Swamp Thing‘s cancellation.”

Additionally, the show was reported to be suffering from creative differences between various heads of DC Entertainment and WarnerMedia, the latter of which formed as a reorganized conglomerate after the completion of an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner by telecom giant, AT&T. For reference, the completion of the WarnerMedia deal in June 2018 occurred a month after DC Universe had given a script-to-series order for Swamp Thing, marking the series as one of the last to be ordered and announced for production under pre-AT&T Time Warner. One evidential sign that the series was suffering from creative differences occurred mid-production in April 2019, with WarnerMedia reducing the planned thirteen episode season down to ten episodes and abruptly halting production of the series, much to the shock of the cast and crew of the series.

Despite the varied yet possibly related theories on what led to the demise of Swamp Thing, fans have begun to worry that the cancellation news is pointing to a precarity of sorts for the streaming service dedicated to all things DC Comics and DC Entertainment. Shortly after the WarnerMedia deal was finalized, plans to develop and launch a major streaming service to compete against streaming giant Netflix as well as rival development plans for streaming services from Apple (to launch late 2019), Disney (to launch late 2019), and Comcast’s NBCUniversal (to launch early 2020) were announced. Additionally, in the year since WarnerMedia was finalized as a new parent company, smaller and niche streaming services under the WarnerMedia umbrella of companies—including Filmstruck, Super Deluxe, and Drama Fever—have been discontinued. This is part of Warner’s new strategy to consolidate “resources from sub-scale D2C efforts, fallow library content, and technology reuse.” [ ((John Connelly, “WarnerMedia to Launch Direct to Consumer Streaming Service in Late 2019,” Variety, Oct. 10, 2018,]

Disney Plus
Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs

Thus, many comic and superhero media fans may find that their go-to space for DC-branded content might be doomed before it can find its footing. Indeed, DC Universe has not been without their own missteps since the service was first announced in April 2017. Imagined as a central digital hub for all entertainment related to DC, including live-action television and film, animated television and film, as well as the comics and graphic novels that inspired such content, DC Universe currently still does not offer any content from DC’s two most profitable and most-visible media franchises—the DCEU franchise of feature-length films and the television franchise of DC properties airing on the CW network (colloquially referred to as the “Arrowverse” in reference to the franchise’s flagship series, Arrow). DC Universe’s plans to “supplement the lack” was to develop original programming to help lure fans to the service. Yet, the service launched without any original content readily available; DC Universe’s first original title, Titans (a live-action retelling of the Teen Titans run of comics as well as the popular Teen Titans animated program and subsequent films), released its first episode over a month after the service launched in September 2018. Nearly a year after the launch of the service, there are only three live-action series for viewers to watch, with a fourth (Stargirl) scheduled to debut in early 2020.

DC Universe Originals
DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Even as comic book and superhero properties have become highly lucrative for the contemporary media industries, superhero television has become interwoven into the tangled web of industrial strategies employed by many of the major media conglomerates, particularly Walt Disney’s Marvel brand and WarnerMedia’s DC brand. The precarity of the DC Universe service calls into question the ways media scholars have tried to understand the post-network era of television, a periodization made popular through Amanda Lotz’s The Television Will Be Revolutionized. While Lotz considers the shift of control from the networks to the viewers who “now increasingly select what, when, and where to view from abundant options,” [ (( Amanda Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, 2nd edition (New York City, New York University Press, 2014), 15.))] it might help to also note the ways in which networks—through their reorganized media conglomerates—are attempting to regain control in the distribution of their respective libraries, especially as the media industry enters what has been has been commonly noted as the “streaming wars.”

Assessing that media scholars “should consider this a period of transition for the medium,” Mike Van Esler notes that “greater emphasis and attention can be placed on the role that major media conglomerates play in developing, funding, and legitimizing new forms of television distribution, in addition to co-opting disruptive technologies and business models and at the same time hindering others.” [ (( Mike Van Esler, “Not Yet the Post-TV Era: Network and MVPD Adaptation to Emergent Distribution Technologies,” Media and Communication 4, no. 3 (2016): 132-33.))] While the streaming ecology of the early 2010s was quickly dominated by Netflix, the announcement of corporate strategies over recent months have forecasted a pending wave of conglomerate domination in streaming media. Subsidiaries and independent media companies are either bought and dissolved (in the case of Machinima) or repurposed to fit the (re)organization and (re)prioritization of parent companies (in the case of Turner Broadcasting).

In the case of DC Universe, only time will tell how WarnerMedia fits the streaming service and its productions within its larger goal of launching their still-unnamed streaming service. While DC’s rival, Marvel Entertainment, has been announced as one of five major content hubs for Disney+, it’s unclear to what extent WarnerMedia’s streaming service will include DC branded entertainment. So far, WarnerMedia’s plans have shifted from a three-tier system that would allow users to pay for specific types of content (notably categorized by form rather than brand) to one that would cost $16-17 a month (notably more than any other existing or planned streaming service) and would include HBO and Cinemax content as the central element of the bundle as well as recently-released DCEU films, such as the 2018 Warner Bros./DC film, Aquaman.

As Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia continue to develop their streaming services for launches in late 2019 and early 2020, it is clear to see that there will be major casualties in this new period of the streaming wars. Media scholars should continue to keep their eyes on what is still a transitory period for streaming, moving from the niche and subsidiary-oriented strategies to the broad and aggressive pushes by tech giants and media conglomerates themselves. The demise of Swamp Thing suggests that we as media scholars should be cautious in simplistic and reductive logics and analyses—in this case, the sustainability and profitability of comic and superhero properties for major media companies, particularly when DC’s industrial struggles are perpetually placed in conversation with Marvel’s economic successes. Rather, we should continue to view contemporary superhero television as an ephemeral moment in the transition toward a new era of conglomerate-controlled streaming media.

Image Credits:

1. Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series
2. Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs
3. DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019,] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018,] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018,] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017,]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014,] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002,] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

Please feel free to comment.

Just Saying No: Labour, Gender, and Refusal in Twitch Streaming
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Twitch streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins

Twitch streamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins

Streaming on is a massive popular culture phenomena, with top (broad)casters garnering massive fanbases and incomes. One of the best-known of these is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who shot from obscurity to the position of most followed Twitch caster when he began streaming his Fortnite play. In 2018, he briefly courted media fire when he professed to not playing with female gamers in order to avoid harassment on the basis of suspicions about flirtation and infidelity in his marriage to fellow streamer and manager Jessica “JGhosty” Blevins.

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Ninja’s motives and methods were controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which being the historical and ongoing exclusion of women in gaming culture, including within the emerging and lucrative sectors of streaming and e-Sports. The decision to not play with women was also framed as a possible hindrance to their gaining the same degree of prominence as male streamers. A less examined element of Ninja’s strategy is the question of responsibility for addressing what Sarah Jeong dubs “the Internet of Garbage“, or the normalization of sexist, racist, and otherwise hateful speech and interaction in online spaces including but not limited to gaming. When Ninja abdicated from his position to address harassment, he affirmed yet again that it is the work of already marginalized people to deal with the trash and engage in the social and affective labour of creating positive change. By shutting down harassment through the mechanism of refusing to work with women, he exemplified the gendered nature of what Sarah Sharma has called ‘sEXIT‘- who has the ability to walk away from societal problems, and who is left to engage in care work for themselves and others just to be able to participate in public life. Female streamers already face a double-standard in terms of their appearance AND their sexual availability; for instance popular streamer Amouranth was harassed after a viewer claimed to have found evidence that she was not single and that she gained an unfair advantage by not disclosing her marital status. Ninja’s solution for harassment therefore sets a dangerous precedent, particular given that he has an audience of over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 12.5 million Twitch viewers. Rather than drawing on his influence and power to make an intervention into the increasingly expected harassment of streamers as they go about their activities, the superstar steamer simply shut the door on his female contemporaries, leaving them to negotiate the incivility and abuse alone.

Streamer Amouranth

Streamer Amouranth

Ninja’s decision needs to be contextualized in both digital culture practices and historically gendered patterns of labour. The Internet’s functionality is maintained by the work of a range of people focused on ensuring and promoting specific kinds of affect, defined in local and contextual ways. Some of this is compensated work, for instance in the case of online content management teams screening out child porn on YouTube or the community managers ensuring that the relationships between game players and developers remain positive. But a great deal of this is unpaid labour, for instance in the case of activists on social media platforms raising awareness and advocating for inclusion for those disproportionately impacted by online harassment. And this already tends to be the labour of women and people of colour, who have historically been responsible for often uncompensated and unrecognized social reproduction work [ ((Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 1992, 18(1), 1-43))].

While online harassment is widespread across platforms and targets, streamers like other kinds of social media influencers are in a particularly vulnerable position because their primary task is to engage an audience, typically from the setting of their bedrooms. A plethora of tutorials online highlight that the success of a Twitch broadcaster is based not on their set-up and even necessarily their gameplay prowess but on their skills as an entertainer. Engagement is a complex, messy, and yet rarely interrogated concept in these tutorials, but tends in practice to entail tremendous scrutiny about all elements of a streamer’s life, including their appearance and their romantic relationships, and how authentic their persona is deemed to be by viewers. The pace of production for successful streaming is hyper-intense, with expectations for daily content updates and immediate response to feedback. Metrics of success are also highly granular, with the clear signalling of dissatisfaction indicated by even the slightest dip in viewer and subscription numbers directly impacting on ad revenue and status on a given platform. The overwhelming personal costs of audience engagement has resulted in mental health issues for social media influencers and streamers including burnout, leading YouTube to produce a self-care video for content producers.

YouTube's self-care video

YouTube’s self-care video

The broader picture, then, indicates that the costs of engagement for streamers like Ninja are neither gendered nor racialized per se. Indeed, invisible and affective labour is widespread in streaming as well as other forms of online community management as Kat Lo’s research highlights. But Ninja’s refusal to stream with women indicates that there remain important nuances in how this kind of work is negotiated based on privilege. Women in technology broadly have been offered the choice to ‘lean in’—a plethora of neoliberal individualized actions that communicate acceptance of exclusionary sectors or to ‘lean out‘—leaving these toxic spaces behind and starting something outside them. Both of these options have costs for those who stay and those who go, financial and otherwise, and leave unchanged the culture that marginalized women and other groups to begin with. Ninja’s withdrawal—from women rather than the toxicity of streaming and its norms—further serves to reify this marginalization and imply the inevitability of harassment and other abusive and exploitative practices in digital culture. And to add another double-standard- his decision was not even critiqued as sexist separatism in the way that women-only groups and safe spaces have been, particularly in games. As this indicates, while the affective elements of new forms of work imply forms of invisible and emotional labour for all involved, the broader structures underpinning these practices highlight the ongoing relevance of considering power and its stratifications therein.

Image Credits:

1. Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins
2. Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja
3. Streamer Amouranth
4. YouTube’s self-care video (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Representation and Experimentation: The Women of Late-Night TV
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

The Women oF Late-Night

Figure 1: Women taking control of the male-dominated late-night landscape

“Late-night” is a complicated and often confusing term in television studies. As television in the post-network era has increasingly catered to fragmented and time-shifted viewing practices, late-night programming has dramatically shifted both aesthetically and industrially. Despite these supposed advancements, though, the genre continues to lag in its representation onscreen. Broadcast networks still exclusively have white male hosts. Cable channels and streaming services have become the outlets through which “experimentation” (read: deviation from the genre’s racial and gendered norms) occurs. Women are noticeably more present on non-broadcast late-night, but their programs are constantly qualified as niche or uncharacteristic of mainstream viewing interests.

In just the last year, Hulu launched I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman; BET debuted The Rundown with Robin Thede; and Netflix launched The Break with Michelle Wolf. Before that, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was the only late-night program hosted by a woman. While women are certainly not new to the late-night scene, their history has frequently been marked by deliberately sexist decision-making and rhetoric that re-articulates larger gendered dimensions in the comedy landscape. For instance, Joan Rivers was passed over for The Tonight Show despite her qualifications and ratings success as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson – this largely stemmed from Carson’s almighty authority with NBC and the perception of an “unruly woman” such as Rivers being unfit for broadcast audiences. [ (( Summergrad, Sophie. “Can We Talk?: A Discussion of Gender Politics in the Late-Night Career of Joan Rivers.” (master’s thesis, Boston University, 2016): 45-46. ))] More contemporary examples of women on late-night paint female comics’ transition to the nighttime genre as failures, with black women often bearing an exceptional burden: Wanda Sykes had a short-lived hour-long series on Fox followed by a short-lived sitcom on the same network; Whoopi Goldberg had a 30-minute series in syndication that lasted for just over a year; and Mo’Nique had an hour-long talk-show on BET that was cancelled within a year of its premiere. These industrial “experiments” outside of the norm and their quick cancellations perpetuated historical notions of the expected late-night audience (white men) and further validated (however irrationally) the historical placement of women’s programming in the daytime.

The recent female forays into late-night programming are significant because they push back on numerous assumptions and accepted norms within the genre. They are each aesthetically and stylistically experimental, which is inherently linked to their unique industrial positioning on their respective channels and services. Notably, late-night television is no longer assumed to be a pure promotional vehicle as its broadcast exemplars still often showcase. Instead, the genre is now, first and foremost, a form of political satire and commentary, with women often at the forefront of those shifts. Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS signaled the genre’s more politically skewed bent, and Samantha Bee’s series doubled down by formatting each episode as an extended political dialogue about the week’s current events (undoubtedly influenced by her time as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Her series is more vulgar and has drawn considerable controversy, an issue that has similarly struck comediennes like Michelle Wolf at the 2018 Correspondents Dinner. Bee’s program eschews the traditional late-night desk in favor of a monologue-heavy style that often feels like a plea with audiences at home in contrast to traditional late-night fare. This has been popularized on other cable channels like HBO, where John Oliver’s weekly series has the host delivering news almost exclusively from a desk. Oliver’s program aesthetically links to news broadcasts (inspired by his time working with Jon Stewart), whereas Bee and Wolf’s programs visually associate themselves with stand-up, a historically maligned genre.

Michelle Wolf's monologue.

Figure 2: Michelle Wolf delivering her stand-up-like monologue

Late-night television looks considerably different on streaming services, with Wolf and Sarah Silverman acting as strong examples. Wolf’s series, as mentioned, aesthetically emulates a stand-up routine on multiple occasions. Each episode begins with the comedienne walking up to the camera and delivering a few one-liners before moving into the seemingly traditional late-night monologue. Wolf is the only late-night host to wield a microphone, an action that formally connects her monologue to stand-up. The connection does not end there, though. The director and cinematographer both capture wider angles that show Wolf’s full body maneuvering around the stage, much like a stand-up special’s visual style. This distinguishes the series visually from its other late-night counterparts, which generally cut off the monologist a little below the waist. While only a minor change, this aesthetic link is a visual marker that generally only emerges when stand-up comics perform at the end of various late-night episodes.

Both Wolf and Silverman also switch up the dynamics of the celebrity interview that usually occupies much of late-night’s format. Late-night has historically been rigidly segmented in structure: an opening monologue; then, a desk segment or two; finally, multiple celebrity interviews and a musical or stand-up performance to close out the program. Both of these comediennes place their “interviews” at the end of each episode, most notably mirroring the satirical series The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. However, the visual dynamics are much different. For Wolf, she either stands with her celebrity guest and engages in a visual stunt/prepared exchange, or she sits on a couch and delivers a scripted exchange with a fellow comic like Neal Brennan or Seth Meyers. Silverman, meanwhile, always sits on a couch for her interviews, asks guided questions, and occasionally crosses her legs or makes other visually informal decisions that are fitting for casual couch conversations at home. These are striking because these women are not reserving themselves to the desk as practically every other male late-night host does (Jimmy Fallon is a notable exception, although his celebrity interviews generally start at the desk before moving into his sketches or gags). This is only a small showcase for how female comics frequently re-negotiate the visual spaces afforded to them that have long been dictated by masculine practices and dynamics.

Despite more vulgarity and expressive openness from these women, not all women hosting late-night programs are aiming to be subversive. Busy Philipps, who recently received a series order for a late-night series on E! called Busy Tonight, points out that once-a-week late-night shows are usually “more politically bent.” [ (( Gardner, Chris. “How Busy Philipps Will ‘Bring Something Different’ to Late-Night with E! Series.” Hollywood Reporter, June 22, 2018, ))] Her series, though, will be more entertainment and pop-culture focused, and she hopes that her series will air multiple nights a week to alleviate that political burden that some series face. This rhetoric falls in line with E!’s branding and harkens back to Chelsea Handler’s time on the channel before her shift to Netflix. Handler’s short-lived run on the streaming service is remarkable on two fronts: (1) Netflix’s current strategy to mass-produce content and rarely cancel programs means that the series was an industrial failure for the service, and (2) the series’ focus on celebrity interviews and promotion demonstrates how that formula does not easily translate to non-commercial services and their respective programming strategies.

Chelsea Handler's Netflix series.

Figure 3: Chelsea Handler’s more conventional Netflix late-night series

The temporality of late-night television is also an understudied area, and one that has seen considerable shifts just within the last year. Handler’s aforementioned Netflix series shifted from thirty to sixty minutes in its second season in an effort to cut down costs and decrease the number of episodes each week. Meanwhile, all of the currently airing female-hosted late-night series are half-hours, while the broadcast networks have hour-long slots for each of their hosts. In an interview with Vulture, Conan O’Brien (who has resided on TBS since 2011 after working on NBC’s late-night programming for almost two decades) commented on his series’ upcoming shift to the half-hour format by articulating that the change could shock him into coming up with new material. Importantly, his shift is not an industrial imperative but rather a creative spark; for most women aiming to host late-night, they are not afforded the privilege of changing their time slots in hopes of inspiring creativity. Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller says that she would “kill” to have just a few more minutes in each episode, but she knows that is unlikely. Female hosts also struggle with diversity in on- and off-screen representation, a problem Robin Thede pointed out despite BET allowing her to make the show she wanted to make. The Rundown‘s recent cancellation further exemplifies how difficult it can be for women of color to receive the trust and time needed for a late-night series to prosper.

As broadcast networks increasingly move their content to online platforms like CBS All-Access or NBCUniversal’s now-defunct Seeso, the late-night format will likely continue to see considerable aesthetic and formal changes that complicate our previous understandings of the genre. This industrial trend and the concurrent movement toward more inclusive representation onscreen might signify a genre-altering shift in late-night, one hopefully led by all women.

Image Credits:
1. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee‘s take on late-night.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Author’s screengrab.

Please feel free to comment.

Synergy of Attractions: Disney’s Not-So-Secret Weapon to Take on Netflix
Casey Walker / University of Texas at Austin


Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida

As The Walt Disney Company prepares to launch its new video streaming service in the fall of 2019, a looming conflict between Disney and Netflix is on the horizon. As the collision course between these two giants approaches, a study released this last April states that despite the more than six billion dollars Netflix spent on original programming in 2017, 80% of its viewership is generated from content they license from other providers, which up to this point has included not only Disney content, but content from Disney’s possibly soon-to-be acquired 20th Century Fox. [ (( Spangler, Todd. “Netflix Licensed Content Generates 80% of U.S. Viewing, Study Finds.” Variety. April 12, 2018. Online. ))] However, despite the loss of these studios’ content, Netflix will still have an enormous head start with respect to its subscriber base, as its subscriber count recently passed 125 million worldwide. [ (( Lawler, Richard. “Netflix subscriber count hits 125 million.” Engadget. April 16, 2018. Online ))] In order to compete for viewership with Netflix, Disney is going to have to pull out all the stops, including heavily utilizing its own not-so-secret marketing weapon, its theme parks. Disney has long used its theme parks Disneyland, Disney World, and others around the world to market its content through rides, attractions, and merchandising. But in anticipation of its streaming service launch, Disney is preparing an all-out blitz of new attraction construction and new content that work together to create synergy between their theme parks and their entertainment division in an effort to both promote more recent franchises like Star Wars and Toy Story, but also bolster the value of older back catalog properties like The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

To create this synergy, Disney is following a strategic plan on three fronts. First, it’s replacing theme park attractions either not directly affiliated with a Disney entertainment property or affiliated with a less successful Disney property with a mix of its new and most successful films and films from their back catalog of entertainment for which the studio wants to re-enforce the brand value. Second, Disney is planning a slate of new films based on some of its most popular theme park attractions, a tactic it’s used before, both with great success and also huge financial disappointment. And finally, rather than continuing to license properties from other studios on which to base new theme park rides, Disney is outright buying or bidding for studios with whom it currently holds such licensing agreements, such as Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Disney is hoping these three strategies will create a robust marketing synergy between its theme parks and its emerging streaming service, thus giving the company the boost it will need to catch Netflix.

Synergy, the ubiquitous marketing-speak term that is defined as the combined agency of two groups working to create a cooperative effort greater than the two groups’ singular efforts, is not a new approach for Disney. Walt Disney was a believer in the strategy before synergy was even a term. This illustration from 1957 shows how the company envisioned it could utilize all of its available assets to create a multi-faceted marketing design:

1957 Synergy Map

Walt Disney’s 1957 “Synergy Map”

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner (1984-2005) was also a huge proponent of the strategy, saying in 1995, “One plus one will add up to four.” Eisner even created a position for the company in charge of handling this master plan with the job title of Director of Corporate Synergy. [ (( Greenburg, Julia. “How Disney is Making Sure You’ll Never Be Able to Escape Star Wars.” Wired. November 17, 2015. Online. ))] Eisner’s successor (and current Disney CEO), Bob Iger, would take the synergy ball and run and with it. In 2015, the Disney holdings comparable to those in the 1957 illustration would look like this:

Synergy Map 2015

The Walt Disney Company’s “Synergy Map” from 2015

Disney is hoping that all of these holdings can contribute to the synergistic whole, but it’s betting big on the efforts of its theme parks. First, the company created an aggressive plan to replace theme park attractions either not directly affiliated with a Disney entertainment property or affiliated with a less successful Disney property with a mix of attractions pushing new or popular films, franchises, and television shows. At its Hollywood Studios in Orlando Florida, gone are the Honey I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure, The Great Movie Ride, and the Studio Backlot Tour. In their place, Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be opening in the respective summers of 2018 and 2019. And at Epcot’s Norway pavilion, the Maelstrom Viking cruise has become the Frozen Ever After ride, while the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride in the Mexico pavilion looks poised to be converted into a ride based on the successful 2017 Pixar film, Coco. The park has already completely redesigned the entrance to the ride with Coco exhibits, art, and merchandise.

And while it’s not uncommon for competing theme parks like Universal Studios to bring in new attractions based on more recent and popular intellectual property, Disney is also launching attractions based on properties from their back catalog, going as far back as eighty years! In their recent renovations to Fantasyland at Magical Kingdom in Florida, they constructed a recreation of the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast (1991) (complete with a nearby Belle’s Village), Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and the Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, based on Disney’s first feature length film, released in 1937. Not only is this amount of park-wide expansion and refurbishment unprecedented for a park that has for so long rooted itself in the tradition of its classic rides and attractions, but Disney’s careful selection of which of its intellectual properties to feature in this expansion shows a concerted effort to boost the value of not only its current studio output, but also its library of films going back decades.

This doesn’t mean Disney is sweeping away all of their classic rides, however. In fact, Disney hopes to keep rides like It’s a Small World, Jungle Cruise, and Space Mountain for years to come. But how can Disney create synergy for theme park rides that aren’t a part of their catalog of entertainment content? By following their second strategy, to create films based on popular original theme park attractions. Disney tried this strategy before with mixed success. Its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, based on the popular theme park ride, was hugely successful worldwide, grossing billions. However, the successive financial disappointments of Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), and Haunted Mansion (2003) temporarily blunted this strategy. But with the impending release of its streaming service, Disney is ramping up production on a filmed adaptation of Jungle Cruise, set to film this summer with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The studio has also hired screenwriters to write an adaptation of It’s a Small World and is working on a Haunted Mansion reboot with Guillermo Del Toro, for which he has been writing a script. [ (( Celestino, Mike. “Guillermo del Toro confirms he is still writing his “Haunted Mansion” movie.” April 28, 2016. Online. ))] A Space Mountain movie is surely to follow if these film adaptations find success.

Three of Disney World’s most popular attractions, were not originally Disney properties at all. Star Tours-The Adventure Continues, Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, and Pandora-The World of Avatar were based on Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox properties. Licensing intellectual properties from competing studios for attractions based on their films is a common practice in the theme park business. Universal Studios licenses Harry Potter from Warner Bros., Men in Black from Sony, and Transformers from Paramount for popular rides at their theme parks. But Disney wasn’t content to just license the property. In 2012, the studio announced it was purchasing Lucasfilm and, in 2017, the beginning of a possible blockbuster acquisition of 20th Century Fox was made public. While it would be silly to assume these purchases only occurred for synergistic alignment with Disney’s holdings, it would be equally silly to assume it wasn’t a consideration. These acquisitions allowed Disney to cement all of its theme park intellectual property rights under the studio’s roof, and the potential purchase of 20th Century Fox allows for future theme park expansion based on Fox’s intellectual property without the added expense of licensing fees. We could soon be seeing attractions based on Titanic, Deadpool, X-Men, Independence Day, Night at the Museum, and the Ice Age franchise. The possibilities are endless. However, Disney has competition for Fox, as Comcast is aggressively battling Disney in the bidding process. Fox shareholders are set to choose between the two companies’ offers at a July 10 meeting. [ (( Tartaglione, Nancy and Dade Hayes. “Fox and Disney Set Shareholder Meetings for Vote on Merger.” Deadline. May 30, 2018. Online. ))] It should be noted that Comcast, Disney’s fellow suitor for Fox, owns Universal Studios. Apparently, Disney isn’t the only company that sees the synergistic possibilities with respect to Fox’s assets and its theme parks.

Disney takes synergy very seriously, and it’s always at the forefront of their marketing strategy. To bridge the large subscriber gap between its upcoming streaming service and its primary competitor, Netflix, Disney will have to use assets like its theme parks to serve as important marketing tools. By creating new rides based on its popular properties, creating new films based on its popular rides, and buying up studios from which it licenses material for attractions, Disney is hoping visitors to its theme parks will be immersed in the studio’s content marketing blitz and feel compelled to purchase a subscription to the new streaming platform, which will be the universal and unique source for these properties. Disney has also positioned itself as perhaps the one true competition to Netflix’s dominance, not only with its content monopoly on Disney and possibly Fox properties, but also its specific and numerous marketing tools designed to create synergy. The Verge’s Bryan Bishop commented on the impending battle between Disney and Netflix late last year and asserted, “Disney’s streaming service has won, and it hasn’t even launched yet.” [ (( Bishop, Bryan. “Disney’s streaming service has won, and it hasn’t even launched yet.” The Verge. November 11, 2017. Online. ))] Disney is wishing upon a star that he’s right.

Image Credits:
1. Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida
2. Walt Disney’s 1957 “Synergy Map”
3. The Walt Disney Company’s “Synergy Map” from 2015

Please feel free to comment.

The Future of B.C.: Vancouver as Sci-Fi Television’s Ideal Media Capital
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Vancouver's BC Place Stadium in Netflix's Altered Carbon

Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon

Earlier this year, television critic Tim Goodman noted that television has been experiencing a renaissance of sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural programming over the last few years. Indeed, many studios have begun producing more sci-fi and fantasy productions as many cable channels and streaming platforms desire to air the next Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present). Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly demanded his studios bring him his own Game of Thrones, instigating a major shift in the streaming giant’s development slate, including production on at least four new sci-fi series (Lazarus, Snow Crash, Ringworld, Culture) and two new fantasy series (Wheel of Time, The Dark Tower). Additionally, Amazon is positioned to spend an unprecedented $1 billion on its upcoming five-season Lord of the Rings small-screen project by the time series production wraps. Meanwhile, CBS has reportedly spent $8-8.5 million per episode on Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, 2017-present), a show that might be one of the most expensive in TV history yet only reaches the approximately 2 million subscribers of CBS All Access.

However, sci-fi television has not always lavished in high production budgets. As J.P. Telotte notes, “SFTV [sci-fi television] has traditionally had to work at a disadvantage.” [ (( J.P. Telotte, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008), 5. ))] From the advent of sci-fi television in the 1940s, filming other-worldly and futuristic scenes on limited budgets has typically constrained the narratives of many earlier productions. As efforts concentrated on making sci-fi more visually palatable through visual effects (VFX), studios have found other ways to save money, including relocation of productions to more affordable locations.

Blogger's photo of the set of USA's The 4400

Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400

One such location for many sci-fi productions over the past twenty-five years has been Vancouver, British Columbia. Although there were a few sci-fi productions filmed in Canada during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the debut and subsequent early success of The X-Files (FOX, 1993-2002, 2016-18) that sparked a wave of studios flocking to Vancouver to film sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural programs throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, while a 1980s-developed tourism motto for the province—”Super Natural British Columbia,” which is still used today—intended to “promote travel to the province by extolling the beauty and variety of British Columbia’s natural landscape … by the mid-1990s, the slogan became more closely associated with the fact that Vancouver was the production home of nine of the top American ‘supernatural’ television series.” [ (( Serra Tinic, On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 29. ))] Many of these productions—including Poltergeist: The Legacy (Showtime, 1996-98; Sci Fi, 1999), The Sentinel (UPN, 1996-99), Sleepwalkers (NBC, 1997-98), Harsh Realm (FOX, 1999-2000), Dark Angel (FOX, 2000-2002), The 4400 (USA, 2004-07), Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, 2004-09), Supernatural (The WB, 2005-06; The CW, 2006-present), and Kyle XY (ABC Family, 2006-09)—filmed in the Canadian city (and the surrounding area) to take advantage of lucrative provincial and federal tax incentives as well as the weak exchange rate on the Canadian dollar.

Shortly after the wave of Hollywood-financed sci-fi television, Canadian creators began to produce and finance their own sci-fi content, quickly catching the attention of executives at Syfy. Thomas Vitale—executive vice-president of programming and original movies—explained, “[w]hether it’s shows that are made in Canada for the international marketplace, or some very original shows produced in Canada, the Canadian marketplace is a terrific place for good programming in the sci/fi, fantasy and supernatural genre.” [ (( Etan Vlessing, “Syfy Bulks Up on Canadian Sci-Fi Imports,” The Hollywood Reporter, Feb. 5, 2013, ))] Canadian-produced content—as well as co-produced content—showcased Vancouver’s shift from a production capital mostly populated with Hollywood runaways to a more diverse hub full of runaways, co-productions, and domestic productions alike. Meanwhile, the number of runaway productions in Vancouver continued to rise through the 2010s, strengthening the city’s claim as the third largest production center in North America. In the essence of Michael Curtin’s assertion that media capitals “represent centers of media activity that have specific logics of their own,” Vancouver has rightfully become a unique production hub for the majority of Hollywood’s sci-fi and supernatural programming as well as an emerging destination for Canadian sci-fi production. [ (( Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 203. ))] However, as premium TV and streaming platforms continue to push the budgets of dramas and other hour-long offerings into $10-million-plus territory, it remains a curiosity why Hollywood firms continue to depend on filming their sci-fi projects in Canadian locations rather than relocating to California.

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix's Lost in Space

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, Canadian production volume reached $8.3 billion, with British Columbia edging out Ontario’s provincial share of the figure for the first time ever, in large part due to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. [ (( Canadian Press, “B.C. Now Canada’s Most Popular Province For Film, TV Production: Report,” HuffPost Canada, Feb. 2, 2018, ))] Netflix and Amazon have led the pack of major streaming services investing in higher-end sci-fi filmed in Vancouver, with the former debuting Altered Carbon (2018-present) and Lost in Space (2018-present) earlier this year and the latter’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-present) forecasting the platform’s aforementioned surge into high-budget development and production of sci-fi and fantasy programming. Additionally, Netflix has co-produced two sci-fi productions: Between (2015-16)—a co-production with Rogers-owned City—filmed in Ontario, while Travelers (2016-present)—a co-production with Corus-owned Showcase—has filmed in British Columbia.

There is no doubt that Canada has become the sci-fi nation. Yet, there has been a silent shift in the role of Vancouver, Toronto, and other production centers, particularly for Hollywood-produced content. Whereas the cultural markers of Vancouver have long been erased to stand in for American (and other non-Canadian) locations in decades past, a modern, economically-forward image of Vancouver has emerged in more recent Vancouver-shot media. Much of this is due to the direct economic impact of the creative industries funding urban revitalization efforts across the Lower Mainland of B.C. In 2016, when Wayward Pines (FOX, 2015-16) filmed in the suburb of Coquitlam, the $100,000 that the city collected in service and permit fees paid for upgrades to one of the city’s parks. Surrey—another suburb of Vancouver—has recently implemented a massive economic strategy to position the city as a metropolitan center, which has identified the creative arts industries as one of five key sectors of growth. The city’s newly constructed Surrey City Centre Library (pictured below) has already been featured in a number of television series—including Continuum (Syfy, 2012-15), Travelers, and Supergirl (CBS, 2015-16; The CW, 2016-present). Much of the city’s more modern architecture—including many of the glass skyscrapers across downtown Vancouver—can easily represent futuristic locations with the help of visual effects.

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

The city boasts a vibrant industry for VFX and other post-production necessities. In 2015, the Digital Animation or Visual Effects tax credit (DAVE) was strengthened to keep post-production activities in the province. This effort to keep all stages of production in Canada helps to continue the industry’s growth and, more importantly, the clustering of various sectors in one accessible area. Today, the city claims to be the world’s largest cluster of VFX and animation studios. One such studio—Artifex Studios—has played a massively important role in VFX for many Vancouver-filmed sci-fi productions, working on Continuum, Zoo (CBS 2015-17), Almost Human (FOX, 2013-14), Travelers, The Man in the High Castle, and many others. Additionally, ever since the company began operations in the Canadian city in 2013, Industrial Light and Magic—Lucasfilm’s post-production company—has expanded many times, most recently opening up a second location in the city to meet growing demands.

Returning to Telotte’s comment on the disadvantages of sci-fi production, the influx of streaming platforms producing high-budget content marks a moment in which economic assertions of runaway productions in Vancouver must be reconsidered. First, as reports of Netflix producing 700 series in 2018 and Amazon amping up their own production slate continue to dominate industry headlines, Vancouver’s position as an essential site for runaway productions should be revisited as perhaps one of an ideal site for premium cable and streaming platforms. In other words, while some studios with tighter budgets may film in Vancouver primarily for tax incentives that lessen their financial risks—such as Warner Bros. Television, which is Vancouver’s biggest TV client—production efforts in the city from premium cable and streaming platforms may consider tax incentives simply as an added perk, packaged with the fully-clustered production hub of Vancouver and its highly-experienced crew in science fiction production. Second, as economic strategies continue to impact the visual identity of the city through urban planning and architectural developments, the city’s Vancouverness becomes slightly more recognizable. Websites dedicated to identifying Vancouver landmarks and specific locations have appeared for shows like Altered Carbon, while fans have started sceneframing—the effort of showcasing a location from a media text in the context of its actual location—much of Vancouver in reference to the multitudes of programs that have and continue to film in the city. This latter practice is, in part, a fascinating digital extension of Vancouver’s fan tourism and pilgrimage scholarship. [ (( For further reading on fan tourism and pilgrimage practices, see Will Brooker’s “Everywhere and Nowhere Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary” in International Journal of Cultural Studies, Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures, and Rebecca Williams’ “Fan Tourism and Pilgrimage” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (ed. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott). ))]

Sceneframing The CW's Arrow in Vancouver

Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

But perhaps the most important consideration is the potential impact of deep-pocketed streaming platforms continuing to film in the Canadian city. As production budgets continue to inflate and streamers attempt to produce the next big genre hit, only time will tell how much of a positive economic impact streaming platforms will have in Canadian production hubs. A recent announcement by the Canadian government that Netflix will invest C$500 million in original productions over the next five years in the country provides a glimpse into the role premium cable outlets and streaming platforms will play not only in global distribution, but also in runaway productions—particularly in Canada.

Image Credits:
1. Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon
2. Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400
3. The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space
4. Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)
5. Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

Please feel free to comment.

Transnational Television Dramas and the Aesthetics of Conspicuous Localism
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Hibana: Spark

Hibana: Spark

This semester, graduate students in my seminar and I started a Global Television Club, where we screen pilot episodes of television series from around the world. Specifically, we selected recent, high-end drama series co-produced and released (more or less) simultaneously in multiple territories. Our goal was more than entertainment or familiarity with non-U.S. television cultures: instead, we sought to identify common stylistic, thematic, and generic tendencies that might cut across these transnational television dramas, regardless of country-of-origin. Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, our investigation didn’t get far, and we are planning on continuing our investigation in the fall. Still, I include several of the observations that emerged out of the club’s viewings and discussions below.

Within the global television industries, little doubt exists that high-end transnational television drama is a new and growing phenomenon, enabled by the streaming ambitions of FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), as well as several dozen smaller streaming companies from around the world, including the BBC, Arte in France, ZDF in Germany, and iQiyi in China, to name only a few. In 2017, C21 Media, one of the leading international television trade magazines, published a report assessing the trend and examining its impact of television drama production in numerous markets worldwide.



In television studies, we have been hesitant to identify this new trend, perhaps because of the contentious status of the concept of “quality” in a field based on the idea that all forms of culture expression can be inherently valuable, and that the designation of “quality” or “artistic” acumen are mere discourses of classed, gendered, and raced social distinctions. I largely sympathize with this perspective; I find the critiques of quality in television programming that folks like Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman’s make in Legitimating Television—that many of the features of supposedly high-quality television dramas are dismissed or ignored when they appear in women’s genres—quite convincing. Nevertheless, I do believe that we are seeing the emergence of new, transnational discourse of quality television within the programming industries—what I would call a certain form of “industry lore”—that, together with the technological and economic structures of the global media industries, are ushering in an era of high-budget transnational television series. It is this trend that I want to analyze here, while bracketing for the moment questions of quality or art.

Co-produced transnational television dramas, released in multiple territories, are certainly nothing new. They have frequently featured a limited number of genres, particularly historical miniseries with characters and stories that resonate across national borders. In Europe in the 1980s, this strategy was deployed in order to leverage production budgets from multiple territories and compete with high-end, imported U.S. television programs. While this specific model of co-production led to derisive comments about culturally vacuous “Europudding” miniseries, it is also the case that a number of well-received and popular series emerged from this model.

Descendants of the Sun

Descendants of the Sun

Much the same economic and cultural logic is at work in the surge in today’s transnational television dramas as well, but several features of the current moment in transnational television drama are unique as well, most obviously the budgets. Babylon Berlin, co-produced by Sky and ARD for simultaneous streaming release in the UK and Germany, is the most non-English series ever produced. Occupied, a Norwegian political thrilled co-produced by Arte and simultaneously released in France is the most expensive Norwegian show ever. Likewise for the Korean series Descendants of the Sun, co-produced and simultaneously released by Chinese streaming service iQiyi. And so on.

The global streaming wars between Amazon and Netflix drive these budgets: this year, Netflix will put about $8 billion into original programming worldwide, as will Amazon, while HBO, Hulu, and Sky are pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars each. In addition, there are hundreds of medium sized streaming services around the world that are pouring in money as well.

Hotel Beau Séjour

Hotel Beau Séjour

All of this production money leads to a second significantly different feature on contemporary transnational television drama, what I would call “conspicuous localism.” A major part of the expense of these series comes from the variety of locations in which they are shot and the extensive use of HD cinematography to create a strong sense of place, unlike most co-productions in television’s past. The Icelandic series Trapped, co-produced with German broadcaster ZDF, features cascading shots of massive, snowy mountains; the Japanese series Hibana: Spark opens with a craning shot of pedestrian mall in Osaka with green mountains in the distance, and much of the subsequent action takes place in the Kichijoji and nearby Kami Shakuji areas of Tokyo. This conspicuous localism is further reinforced by local-language production, even to the point of shooting in subnational dialects (witness the Belgian Arte co-production in Flemish, Hotel Beau Séjour), as well as plotlines and themes that often require very specific cultural knowledge, such as the Japanese two-team stand-up comedic form, manzai, which is at the heart of the story in Hibana: Spark.

This sense of conspicuous localism is for me the most interesting cultural trend in transnational television drama today. I call it “conspicuous,” riffing on the idea “conspicuous consumption,” because I believe that this form of localism serves quite specific audience and industry needs that are all about appealing to others, much as conspicuous consumption is done to signal to others. The conspicuous localism of the cinematography, storylines, and languages of contemporary transnational television drama are, I believe designed to appeal to a cosmopolitan international audience. For subscribers to streaming platforms, dramas with a strong sense of authenticity offer cosmopolitan cultural capital to affluent viewers in a way that less conspicuously local production strategies do. Given the nationalist and ethnic backlashes against globalization and immigration in many Western nations, the consumption of seemingly authentic media culture from abroad is a way to signal to one’ self and others one’s cosmopolitanism.

Babylon Berlin

Babylon Berlin

Meanwhile, for creative industries around the world, conspicuous localism is a way to promote local tourism, as well as to spotlight and expand local creative industries. For the nation-of-origin, high-end television dramas serve nationalist ends that are similar to the opera houses of the 19th and 20th centuries. Much as opera houses and locally-produced operas in the national language became markers of a nation’s modernity in earlier centuries, so are transnational television dramas markers of the maturity of a nation’s creative industries in the 21st century.

Image Credits:
1. Hibana: Spark
2. Trapped
3. Descendants of the Sun
4. Hotel Beau Séjour
5. Babylon Berlin

Please feel free to comment.

Showtime’s The Chi and the Surge in Black-Cast TV Dramas
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Cast of Showtime's The Chi

Cast of Showtime’s The Chi

Showtime’s new series, The Chi, has drawn countless comparisons to HBO’s The Wire. Set in a South Chicago neighborhood, The Chi has many of the same themes as The Wire, an ensemble cast, and relies on extensive on-location shooting to create a strong sense of place. At the same time, while The Wire addressed the institutional and economic causes and conditions of black inner-city poverty, The Chi explores the interiority of lives lived alongside the day-to-day grind of poverty, violence, and social decay. Perhaps even more interesting, in its characterizations, its cinematography, and its sound track, The Chi manages to find hope, dignity, and even beauty in back urban life in a way that The Wire never did.

Despite some complaints that the social critique of The Chi is not as sharp as The Wire, the series manages to tell a unique story and, in African American media studies, telling unique stories has long been considered an objective good. Moreover, one could argue that the sympathetic exploration of the characters and their lives reflects the unique standpoint of its African American female showrunner, Lena Waithe; that, at both a narrative and a stylistic level, the series exhibits a distinctly black feminine sensibility.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Chi is that it launched in an era of abundance for predominantly black-cast television dramas. Even five years ago, a new, well-funded black-cast drama series would have caused a splash, but today, we barely take notice. To name only a few prominent examples, there’s Power (2013-present) on Starz, Dear White People (2017-present), She’s Gotta Have It (2017-present), and The Get Down (2016-2017) on Netflix, Atlanta (2016-present) on FX, Being Mary Jane (2013-present) on BET, Black America (expected, 2018) on Amazon, and Empire (2015-precent) on Fox.

Promo for FX's Atlanta

Promo of FX’s Atlanta

Still for Netflix's The Get Down

Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Alvin Poussaint, among others, has noted that African American characters on television have largely been restricted to comedy. Before 2013, the only predominantly black-cast dramas in U.S. television were the ABC miniseries Roots (1977), the Showtime series Soul Food (2000-2004), and HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008). Why have we seen this recent explosion in black-cast dramas, when for nearly 70 years of TV history, they were absent, and what might this new slate of black-cast dramas tell us about current state of African American television culture?

One popular narrative explaining the surge in black-cast series attributes it to a growing number of nonwhite showrunners who often seek creative talent from outside of traditional TV circles. But major changes in the portrayals of African Americans on television have always been linked to broader changes in the commercial institutions that produce, fund, and profit from American television. In the 1980s, competition from cable, combined with growing African American purchasing power, led to a growth in network sitcoms focused on predominantly black casts (Gray, 1995). [ ((Gray, Herman (1995) Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.))] In the 1990s, Fox Broadcasting’s efforts to start a fourth network focused on underserved African American audiences in large urban markets, leading to a host of distinctly black situation comedies produced and written by African Americans (Zook, 1999). [ ((Zook, Kristal Brent (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.))]

In exploring the industrial dimensions of the changing fortunes of black-cast dramas, the first thing to note is that several are high-budget series offered through subscription services – a significant departure from the past, when black-cast series had low budgets compared to white series. Among these subscription series, some, like The Chi, can truly be called auteur TV.

How might we explain the sudden willingness of the television industry to invest money in black-cast series? For one thing, African Americans tend to spend more on subscription television than other U.S. racial groups. However, as I noted in a previous Flow post, African Americans also undersubscribe to subscription streaming services: while urban black subscriptions to video-on-demand services are 10% higher than average, subscriptions to streaming video-on-demand services are roughly the same as other racial groups. Moreover, Horowitz Research’s State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition reports that, while African Americans watch a disproportionally large amount of TV drama, they watch only an average amount of original streaming dramas.

These statistics suggest that the African American market for subscription streaming services remains somewhat untapped, and that original television dramas may a good way to attract them. With competition for subscribers growing, it should perhaps come as no surprise that black-cast dramas helmed by African American creatives have proliferated. We saw this competition on display last summer when the new HBO series Confederate, a counterfactual history series from two white creators based on the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War, spurred strong opposition from African Americans. In the wake of the controversy, Amazon immediately announced its own Civil War counterfactual series, Black America, which narrates the story of a separate black nation created within the borders of the United States and is produced by Will Packer and Aaron Magruder.

If I am correct that subscription television services, particularly streaming services, have begun to use black-cast dramas to increase African American subscriptions, some important questions remain. Are these services targeting all black viewers equally, or are certain members of the African American community more desirable? And, how important are non-black viewers in the decision to create black-cast television dramas?

My answers to these questions are speculative. They are rooted in the notion that, much as among white Americans, African American taste cultures tend to divide along class lines, with the proletariat classes preferring content that is rowdier, gaudier, and more visceral than the refined, intellectual culture that their bourgeois counterparts enjoy. Within African American studies, class-based taste differences in comedy and humor have been well documented, going back to Mel Watkins 1994 classic book, On the Real Side. These differences in class-based taste cultures, however, are less well theorized when it comes to television and film drama.

Returning to The Chi, one of its most noteworthy aesthetic elements is its conscious and effective use of stylized editing and camera techniques. In the first sequence featuring a young man named Coogie biking through the neighborhood, past bright graffiti and blighted buildings, we see several jump cuts that unsettle the viewer and prime us for his eventual discovery of a dead body. In episode three, when Coogie’s older brother get involved in a shooting that threatens to ruin his romantic relationship and his budding career as a successful chef, the narrative continues to circle back over and over to the dark, posterized scene of the shooting until we realize who the true shooter is. There are several moments in the series that are highly stylized, with the camerawork, lighting, and editing all working together to reveal the stark beauty of the urban landscape.

In other words, the artistry of the series is clear. At the same time, it is an artistry primarily born of film schools and art house cinemas, rather than the rich visual history of black popular culture. By contrast, the Afrofuturist aesthetics of a film like Black Panther into a populism that transcends class-based African American tastes cultures. Of course, my point is not that working class and poor African Americans can’t get textual pleasure from watching The Chi. However, I would argue that The Chi’s aesthetics appeal to a decidedly middle-class, liberal subscriber, regardless of race.

For much of the history of African American television, series combined bourgeois and proletariat aesthetics in an effort to appeal to both working-class and well-off African Americans. To be viable, broadcast series needed to maintain as many black viewers as possible, while also incorporating white viewers. Not that every series achieved this balance, but most black-cast series tried. By contrast, today’s high-budget black-cast dramas seem designed to splinter the African American audience along class-based taste culture lines in an effort to cobble together an affluent multi-racial subscriber base.

Image Credits:
1. Cast of Showtime’s The Chi
2. Promo for FX’s Atlanta
3. Still for Netflix’s The Get Down

Please feel free to comment.

The Algorithmic Audience and African American Media Cultures
Tim Havens / University of Iowa

Audience measurement has been a longstanding (if not terribly sexy) issue in African American media studies. For decades, audience numbers were reported as Gross Ratings Point (GRPs), or the aggregate percentage of metered homes that watched a particular broadcast. As early as the 1977 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, entitled “Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television,” observers began to point out that the broadcasting industry’s reliance on GRPs made it tough for anything that is non-mainstream, non-hegemonic, non-supremacist, and non-patriarchal to find its way on air. In the fallout of this report, Nielsen began over-representing black households as a percentage of their panels in order to move the needle at least a little bit when black and white tastes diverged substantially.

As Ien Ang has argued, no audience research ever measures real viewers’ and their tastes. [ ((Ien Ang, Desperately seeking the audience, Routledge, 2006.))] Instead, they construct a particular picture of audience that is deeply influenced by the technologies used to measure them. When measurement techniques change, Eileen Meehan has shown, so does the dominant image of the audience. [ ((Eileen Meehan, “Why we don’t count: The commodity audience,” Logics of television (1990): 117-37.))] This dominant image, moreover, circulates among programming executives who make production and acquisition decisions based upon that image.

By the time the Commission on Civil Rights’ report was published, the networks had already begun to integrate demographic considerations into their understanding of the audience, thanks to advances in Nielsen’s audience measurements. As the 1980s and 1990s progressed and the networks began to shed viewers to cable channels, they began to focus much more on their core 18-49 year old white family audience; since then, as Herman Gray argues, the networks have considered African Americans as political subjects capable of causing political turmoil for the networks, but not as economic subject worth targeting consistently with relevant programming. This set-up created a predictable dynamic between African Americans and the networks, as the networks inevitably dropped black-oriented shows for poor overall ratings, followed by political agitation on the part of African American and other minority-based political groups, which led to a brief surge in minority programming. [ ((Herman Gray, Cultural moves: African Americans and the politics of representation, University of California Press, 2005.))]

Today, we have seen another revolution in audience measurement with the explosion of digital data and the development of data-mining algorithms that make sense of viewers, tastes and behaviors in new ways. While the industry long lived in an era of scarcity of audience data, today there is an overabundance.

How might these new forms of algorithmic audience measurement shape the media culture we inhabit? I have primarily begun to think about this question through the streaming service Netflix. Netflix exhibits an odd contradiction: it exhibits a range of programming about (and sometimes by) African Americans and other minority groups, including Dear White People, Orange is the New Black, and Narcos, but it also has a reputation among some subscribers and independent producer as insensitive and closed to minority tastes and content producers. Among some African American subscribers, it has become a commonplace that, once they watch a single black-cast television series or film, they are suddenly inundated with every other black-cast offering on Netflix. Seemingly, the algorithm thinks that black people are only interested in black-cast content, and that everyone who watches a black-cast film or TV series must be black. There’s even a sentiment that circulates among some African Americans that Netflix’s black-cast offerings, as compared to their predominantly white-case offerings, are inferior in quality and steeped in stereotypes.

The idea that Netflix is largely insensitive to African American tastes is only one perspective, and it may well be a minority one at that. Still, at a time when the fate of cultural diversity on screen is in the hands of algorithms, the people who program them, and the people who interpret their findings, it is worth asking how they are shaping the diversity of the media content available through streaming services.

Here, I sketch out a typology of how to study the role of algorithmic audience analysis in commercial African American streaming culture, including questions of recommendations and user interface, content availability, and programming decisions. What results is a sort of research agenda, parts of which are certainly much easier to research than others.

Racial bias and exclusion in recommendation algorithms can happen at different moments in the process. At the input moment, it’s possible that African American are absent (or nearly absent) from the universe of subscribers in the first place. Indeed, Horowitz Research, who in 2015 published a report titled State of Cable & Digital Media: Multicultural Edition, found that African Americans tend to watch more television than other ethnic and racial groups, just as countless other research studies have shown for decades. In addition, they found that African Americans living in urban areas oversubscribe to premium television services, compared with other urban ethnic/racial groups. However, Horowitz also found that African Americans undersubscribe to Netflix, even as they purchase more pay-per-view programming and oversubscribe to Hulu: while 57 percent of all urban viewers subscribe to Netflix, only 56 percent of African Americans do. Granted, the difference is small, but it’s three percent less than white urban viewers, and in every other category of programming, percentages of African American viewers exceed those of white and other ethnic groups. In other words, African American under-subscription to Netflix certainly stands out in the report.

Why do African Americans subscribe to Netflix at lower rates than other groups? This of course is a much tougher question. One might suspect that broadband internet penetration rates might be to blame: for cost reasons, African American broadband penetration rates do tend to lag a few percentages points behind most other racial and ethnic rates. However, if that were the sole cause, we would also expect undersubscription to Hulu, which isn’t the case. Instead, there may be content issues with regards to Netflix that explain African American subscription rates as well.

It may also be the case that the Netflix library offers little of interest for African American viewers, driving undersubscription rates because those potential subscribers know there will be little content for them. Content bias is of course the linchpin of the question of racial bias in Netflix’s algorithm, since relevant programming is at the heart of longstanding concerns about race and media. Empirically, this is a difficult topic to study, given the vastness of the Netflix library and the company’s licensing arrangements with content owners, which can cause programming to come and go from the library quite frequently. Finally, no good quantitative measure of what might constitute “programming for African American subscribers” has ever been developed, nor could it ever be.

If content diversity is a difficult object to fix methodologically, it is less difficult to imagine how we might study how Netflix executives use algorithmic data to make programming decisions. However, given the proprietary nature of algorithmic audience data and Netflix’s tight-lipped approach to releasing data and discussing content acquisition decisions makes addressing this question directly thorny as well. In the absence of such information, we can rely on some extant data that suggests that Netflix’s original programming, at least, is probably not designed with African Americans primarily in mind. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, streaming television series creators, directors, and writers (the vast majority of whom, at the time, must have been working on original Netflix series) are substantially whiter than their counterparts in cable or broadcast television. Of course, original programming is only a fraction of Netflix’s content, and may not be a main factor for deciding to subscribe to the service. Nevertheless, since original programming is both signature content and a loss leader for streaming television, the fact that such series seem to be designed mainly for white audiences lends credence to the impression that Netflix’s overall content acquisition practices may privilege white subscribers as well.

By way of closing, I want to talk a little about some new research I’ve been working on with an interdisciplinary team of humanists, social scientists, and computer scientists. We have been looking at the racial/ethnic discrimination in recommendation and filtering algorithms. Recently, we have started examining the question of input bias in streaming media service by interviewing subscribers and non-subscribers of various races and ethnicities about why they choose to subscribe to Netflix or not, and what their experience with Netflix’s offerings and recommendations has been. In addition, we are planning more systematic probing of how differential input into the Netflix system results in differential output, and whether we can find any pattern or logic in the personalized results. We have used a similar design to show that Google News personalizes search results based upon a user’s social media activity, but the complexity and variability of the Netflix user interface will create a good deal of unexpected problems.

This remains very preliminary research, and it requires a substantial amount of time, a range of expertise, and the development of new research methodologies. At each moment in the streaming media process – the input, the algorithmic processing, and the interpretation of the data – we have very little reliable information available, and we need to be creative and collaborative if we hope to find good ways to get more. Still, if the main questions that have animated African American media studies since the days of broadcasting are going to continue to concern us in an era of streaming, we will need to develop these new tools and modes of scholarship. It is a big job.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Banner image

An LGBTQ Netflix: Productive? Restricting? Lasting?
Chelsea McCracken / Beloit College

Logo for Revry

Logo for Revry

In March of 2016, Revry debuted a streaming subscription service that prides itself on providing content that includes a range of LGBTQ perspectives. By August of 2016, several sources had dubbed it the “LGBT Netflix” and “the Gay Netflix we need,” and questioned whether niche streaming sites could “take on” larger companies like Netflix and Amazon. In the history of independent LGBTQ filmmaking, distribution has often proved to be one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome. Failing to find a distributor meant your film would not play outside of local screenings or film festivals. Even films that did secure distribution were often limited to short runs in large cities with active arthouse theaters. With the development of streaming video technologies, even a relatively small scale operation can reach people around the world, connecting films with audiences to reach a broader, targeted market. This exciting development has yielded utopian visions alongside frustrating realities.

While streaming services have opened up new possibilities for worldwide distribution, niche distribution of LGBTQ media is not new, having occupied a distinct niche market for decades. A substantial infrastructure of publications, activist groups, film festivals, and LGBT production companies formed around this market beginning in the late 1970s, allowing LGBTQ cinema to flourish within American independent cinema. Distributors who focus primarily or exclusively on LGBTQ films began appearing in the 1980s and include Wolfe Video (1985-present), Water Bearer Films (1988-present), Strand Releasing (1991-present), and Ariztical Entertainment (1994-present). The longevity of these niche distributors suggests that the market supports them, even as many comparably sized independent distributors have undergone changes in ownership or gone bankrupt in the shifting indie landscape from the late 1980s to the 2000s.[ ((During this time, over 20 independent distributors went out of business (Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006): 258.).))]

Viewers searching for LGBTQ content today have an assortment of options. Behemoths like Netflix include an LGBTQ category in their content browsing options. Established home video and theatrical distributors, including Wolfe Video, have made the transition to Video on Demand, as has HereTV, “America’s only LGBT TV network.” Other distributors license their films through digital distributors, as Water Bearer did with FilmRise. Established distributors have a firm foundation in the move to digital distribution—a library of films, continued income from hard-copy sales, and/or support from a conglomerate parent company.

The lower costs of digital distribution and the revenue potential from streaming media to worldwide audiences created an environment for small distribution companies to form. In addition to Revry, there are other newcomers to the field, such as Dekkoo, a site launched in 2015 that specializes in gay content. Inexpensive means of distribution theoretically allows access to unlimited content, and the market has seen increases in LGBTQ media being offered. However, streaming distributors also act as curators for this content. They select what they consider to be the best available media that fits their brand identity, producing, as Revry calls it, “queerated” content. Streaming services have a great deal of control over what work gets shown, which in turn shapes the direction of LGBTQ media.

Wolfe Video Logo

Wolfe Video Logo

Some companies, like the relatively short-lived BuskFilms, attempted to build streaming distribution platforms that did not last. BuskFilms, formed in 2011, offered worldwide digital distribution of first lesbian and then a full range of LGBTQ media, and boasted viewers in around 160 countries. [ ((Andrea Wing, interview by author, 22 March 2013.))] Sadly, Busk ceased VOD services in 2014. While Busk did decent business and had an interested audience, the numbers were not strong enough to continue operating the site. The closing of Busk brings out the question of whether this mode of distribution is sustainable and highlights concerns over the endurance of smaller, niche streaming companies. Can these businesses find long-term, sustainable financial models? And what does the future viability of these distributors mean for LGBTQ media makers?

While the developing trends in digital distribution come with idealized possibilities, there are pitfalls and dangers involved with this mode of distribution. In independent filmmaking, distribution often comes into play before a film is complete. Historically, independent filmmakers have relied on pre-selling distribution rights for domestic and foreign theatrical release, home video, and/or television. These pre-sales provide essential production funds. While there is a lot of potential for using digital distribution to monetize distinct niche groups and for producers to recoup a larger percent of the profits from sales or rentals, there is also the danger that media makers may not break even. And even if they do eventually make back their money, filmmakers would not have access to the pre-sale lump sums needed in order to finance the large negative costs of production. One way around this is for subscription sites to use the “Netflix model” and become producers that fund original content, an option that Revry is exploring. This option, however, can be an expensive, risky endeavor.

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Can distributors like Revry and Dekkoo survive? They can, if people support them. The call for community support of LGBTQ media has been renewed continually. As a 1981 article put it, “You can have gay media but you have to support it… Gays will pay $5 to see Ordinary People but won’t pay to see a gay film. It doesn’t come with the trappings—the Hollywood seal of approval, or Robert Redford.” [ ((Sheila Roher qtd in Stefan Pevnik, “Gay Filmmakers Confront Media Homophobia in the U.S.” The Advocate 331 (26 November 1981): 37.))] The accusation that the LGBT community does not support its own media recurred, harshly, in 1990 with a bitter article by Vito Russo who, towards the end of his life, berated gays for accepting homophobia in mainstream media and not supporting independent works like Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986). Russo writes, “Most gay people have turned out to be nothing but a bunch of Americans who just want to be entertained for two hours and not have any hassle. It stinks. They should be ashamed of themselves.” [ ((Vito Russo, “Malice at the Movies: A Critic Gets ‘Bad,’ Mad, and Just Plain Fed Up With Bigots and Spineless Gays,” The Advocate 552 (5 June 1990): 60.))]

In addition to industry concerns, questions arise around the utility of niche distributors, whether their presence opens or restricts the potential of LGBTQ media. One could draw comparisons to the debates that have brought the role of LGBTQ film festivals into question. [ ((These are most thoroughly seen in Patricia White’s “Queer publicity – A dossier on lesbian and gay film festivals.” GLQ-a Journal of Lesbian And Gay Studies Vol.5(1) (1999): 73-93. This spawned the later: “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take one.” GLQ Vol.11(4) (2005): 579-603. “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take two.” GLQ Vol.12(4) (2006): 599-625. and “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take three.” GLQ Vol.14(1) (2008): 121-137.))] In 1991, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar was calling the gay and lesbian festival circuit “key” to her work, while others like Derek Jarman were speculating on whether their usefulness was at an end, that “maybe life in the ghetto now offers diminished returns.” [ ((B. Ruby Rich. “New Queer Cinema.” Sight and Sound 2(5) (September 1992): 32.))] Some defend the lasting benefits of these institutions, claiming that they are critical in creating spaces for the continued growth of LGBTQ filmmaking and the visibility of non-heterosexual identities onscreen. Others see them as an outdated institution that continues to marginalize these films. Similar arguments could be made of the work done by streaming distributors.

So, do we need an LGBTQ Netflix? I would say that we do not want to need it. Ideally, we would live in a world where distribution and exhibition opportunities were as readily available for films with LGBTQ content as those without. A world in which Netflix offered abundant options for queer viewing, perhaps even options that were readily accessible in integrated genre categories, rather than isolated in its own niche. We are moving towards that day, but it still seems distant. In our current media moment, I see a great value in streaming distributors who connect viewers to LGBTQ works and provide a support network that cultivates future LGBTQ films. If you want to see more diverse media, you have to support it. And in low-budget indie media making, a little goes a long way.

Image Credits:
1. Revry Logo
2. Wolfe Video Logo
3. Dekkoo Promotional Image

Please feel free to comment.

“Blim and Chill”: Telenovelas and Class Ideologies in the Online Streaming Wars
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez / University of California, Santa Barbara


Netflix crying over losing telenovelas to Televisa’s Blim.

In February 2016, Mexican broadcasting giant Televisa announced its streaming service Blim, the company’s attempt to compete in the country’s online streaming ecosystem. The new platform created another competitor to existing services such as HBO Go, ClaroVideo, and Netflix Mexico. It also meant that, starting on October 1st, Netflix would lose the licenses to Televisa’s catalog, which had been key to the platform’s control of 39% of the Mexican video-on-demand (VOD) market share. While Blim would capitalize on Televisa’s decades-old slate of programming, the loss could prove significant for Netflix’s success in the second largest VOD market in Latin America. The U.S.-based streaming platform did not let the event go unnoticed.

In the lead up to the removal of Televisa’s series from its service, Netflix ran online video spots mocking the new venture. In one, a young man cries in front of the television because his favorite series has been removed from Netflix. A friend comes in to comfort him and asks what series is gone. Is it Orange is the New Black? Breaking Bad? Narcos? The sobbing man finally admits that it is Rebelde (2004–2006), the popular Mexican teen telenovela that launched the careers of its six protagonists and their music group RBD. (( Josh Kun, “We Are a Band, and We Play One on TV,” New York Times (July 9, 2006), )) The friend’s reaction betrays the expected response from the audience: who cares if Rebelde is gone when the aforementioned series are still there? By mocking a fictional consumer who relied on Netflix to watch his teen telenovela, the U.S. company disavows this type of user and preemptively mocks their departure from the service.

Netflix’s promotional spot mocking the new streaming platform Blim.

Noteworthy in this advertisement is the inclusion of Breaking Bad along with Netflix’s original series, implicitly attaching the AMC show to the streaming platform’s own brand. While U.S. broadcast networks have succeeded in maintaining their brand markers on the shows they license to Netflix, this is not the case in Latin America. Moreover, when announcing that a new show is streaming on the platform, the Netflix social media team superimposes its logo or the iconic “N” to a screengrab from the show. With this two-step approach, evidence of a show’s original network disappears in favor of a homogeneous Netflix brand effort. A series on Netflix can readily become known as a Netflix series.


Netflix Latin America re-branding The Vampire Diaries in its social media promotion.

At the same time, the video spot does the work of demarcating a “quality” differential between Netflix’s and Blim’s streaming library. The female friend lists only shows that have come to be considered part of the contemporary “Quality TV” cannon as representative of the selection that Netflix’s library will retain. The male consumer’s complaint, in contrast, emphasizes the type of undesirable content that Netflix (purportedly) does not mind losing: telenovelas, a television genre often derided as feminine and in poor taste. As Michael Newman and Elana Levine have argued, the cultural legitimation of television continuously depends on the establishment of taste hierarchies that distinguish good from bad in terms of class and gender. ((Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. New York: Routledge, 2011. )) This tendency remains in the arena of online streaming. Given the ways Netflix re-brands its catalog for Latin America, the rhetorical move pursued by the American streaming platform in these video spots transfers the discourse of “quality” from television shows to streaming platforms.

A second promotional spot emphasizes this point. It features a montage of close-ups of women from Televisa’s telenovelas as they cry profusely and in an exaggerated manner. Over these shots appear the phrases Es difícil decir adiós. Muchos las extrañarán. Otros no tanto. [It is hard to say goodbye. Many will miss them. Others, not so much.] This second spot reinforces the gendered distinction that the first one gestures at. In the first, casting a man as the undesired, telenovela consumer and a woman as the preferred, quality-TV connoisseur contributes to shaming the former for watching content meant for women and teenagers. In the second video, the wailing, disheveled women from Televisa’s shows contrast with the composed female lead of the Spanish series Velvet (2014– ) seen in the final shots. The spot ends with a cut to the male lead in Velvet smiling at his love interest when the words Otros no tanto [Others, not so much.] appear. The last shot returns the gaze to the male character as the decider of which women to miss and which to forget.


Replicating “quality platform” rhetoric in anti-Blim news coverage.

In their coverage of these anti-Blim spots, online news outlets used an accompanying image of Kevin Spacey and Eugenio Derbez as a metonymy of the Netflix-Blim distinction. On the left side, Kevin Spacey is dressed as his character Frank Underwood from House of Cards, rolling up the sleeves of this dress shirt and staring seriously into the camera. Eugenio Derbez, in contrast, is dressed as his character Ludovico from La Familia P.luche, sporting the character’s iconic plush, oversized electric blue coat and a tacky tie. The image succinctly repeats the “Quality Platform” rhetoric of the Netflix spots, setting up the American streaming platform as serious and professional against the ridiculous and crass Mexican platform.

The picture taps into a popular meme that first arose in February 2016 when Televisa announced it was developing Blim. Throughout social media, users created and shared images that juxtaposed a screen grab from a show or film from Netflix with one from a Televisa telenovela. It was not long before the meme acquired classist tones. Pictures signifying Televisa were often those of the lower-class characters in its series. The Netflix-Blim meme became shorthand for high-production value aesthetics worthy of praise versus low-quality stills worthy of mockery. Further, poor people become the punchline for an elitist online content turf war. The popular resignification of Televisa’s programming as an undesirable, low class aesthetic is in some ways unsurprising. The broadcasting empire has long profited from conservative programming that perpetuates the nation’s class distinctions, devalues rural and working class ethics, and sets up social mobility as attainable only through heterosexual marriage. (( Ana M. Lopez, “Our Welcomed Guests: Telenovelas in Latin America,” in To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World, edited by Robert C. Allen, 256-275. New York: Routledge, 1995. )) These memes then perpetuate the ideologies of class endemic to Televisa’s programming by extending its hierarchization transnationally to the distinction between Netflix and Televisa programming.


Poor people become the punchline in the turf war between competing streaming services.

What remained unremarked in mainstream reactions to the release of Blim was the fact that, with the licensing lapse, Netflix lost access to a popular type of programming, Telemundo’s super series like El Señor de los Cielos (2013– ). Super series are reformatted telenovelas broken up into multiple 70-episode seasons instead of a single run of 120 episodes. They have succeeded in increasing Telemundo’s domestic market share in the United States, especially with younger and male audiences, and they attract the digital-savvy audiences that Netflix tries to court in countries like Mexico. (( Juan Piñón, María de los Ángeles Flores, and Tanya Cornejo, “The Hispanic Television Industry in a Crossroad,” in Obitel 2015: Gender Relations in Television Fiction, edited by Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes and Guillermo Orozco Gómez, 405-436. Porto Alegre: Sulina, 2015. )) Telemundo has also mobilized the Quality TV rhetoric as a marketing strategy to differentiate these series from traditional telenovelas by emphasizing their higher production budgets, on-location shooting, and action sequences. Netflix’s strategy of mocking telenovelas and the people who watch them did little to obfuscate how important a section of this television genre is for the streaming service’s market dominance in the Mexican VOD market.

It was not long before Televisa struck back with its own promotional spot mocking Netflix. Featuring two actors with an uncanny resemblance to those in Netflix’s ad, the male consumer in the Blim promo celebrates that he can watch Rebelde once more while his friend mourns losing El Señor de los Cielos from Netflix, only to be reassured that it is available on Blim as well. The last laugh may be short lived since a new agreement between Telemundo and Netflix would give the latter licensing rights to the U.S. network’s new seasons, including upcoming ones for El Señor de los Cielos. Still, Netflix’s initial reaction to the release of Blim remains a pointed reminder of the class markers latent in issues of genre and platform branding at a transnational scale. The video spots speak both to Netflix’s ongoing struggles to secure content when seeking new markets and to its increasing efforts to build a “Quality Platform” brand. That the opponent in this instance was Televisa reminds us that the entire affair is a race towards monopoly. As one critic noted, it would be great “to see Latin American services giving Netflix a run for their money in their home markets… just not Televisa.” In the end, this streaming war between Netflix and Blim comes down to two media giants slamming each other yet devaluing their users in the process.

Image Credits:
1. Netflix Crying
2. Vampire Diaries
3. Punchline