Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sundance 2006

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Overheard on a shuttle as I traveled from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts: “the best film so far has been that midnight movie The Descent, you know the one with the chicks with ice picks versus CHUD.” CHUD, for those readers unfamiliar with the world of trashy eighties horror films, stands for “Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers.” Actually, The Descent was a pretty enjoyable film with its mildly feminist revision of the buddy film set against a plot that includes subterranean Appalachian piranha people who devour their victims while alive — a tonic against a schedule of Sundance festival films loaded with light romantic comedies and heavy-handed social issue documentaries (the second of which I like to watch, but this genre goes down a bit hard if it constitutes the bulk of one’s cinematic diet on a trip that averaged four films a day over four days). Out of the fifteen screenings that I attended, I saw several good serious films — 5 Days (a documentary detailing the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza), A Little Trip to Heaven (an Icelandic film noir with Forrest Whittaker as an insurance investigator), and Wordplay (a shaggy dog of a documentary about crossword puzzle makers and fans) were all stand outs.

But for this column I want to focus on another aspect of the Sundance Film Festival that most attendees know about but that doesn’t really rate entry into the fabled festival buzz: the coverage of Sundance by the local cable station, Park City Television (PCTV). Each day upon return to my hotel room, I unwound by watching PCTV’s fragmented, repetitious series of vignettes covering the big events of that day’s festival schedule. Modeled after the style and format of “Entertainment Tonight” or the E! cable channel — but aimed at the indie film crowd sensibility — PCTV featured segments entitled “In the Can,” “The Scene,” and “Big Mountain Adventure” (a segment that followed selected filmmakers as they ventured out to the Park City ski slopes). These PCTV segments were then packaged into a 30-minute program and aired on the Sundance Film Channel as a wrap up of the day’s events for those unfortunate enough not to have traveled to Park City, Utah in person.

Alternating with these canned-entertainment pieces were extended segments that featured video documentation of Sundance sponsored panel discussions and special events. The panel coverage that I found myself watching late Friday evening was entitled “Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theatre Experience and the Future of Exhibition.” While the panel was supposed to focus on changes in film exhibition and its consequences for independent film producers, the emphasis in the discussion was actually on new forms of distribution that generate new forms of exhibition. The panel, chaired by Bill Alpert senior editor at Barron’s Magazine, included key executives from Google.com, the Sundance Channel, Sony Connect.com, and the Wall Street Journal.

While digital cinematography and postproduction has by now gained acceptance from film producers and audiences, large screen cinematic exhibition continues to be considered the gold standard of the movie-going experience, in contrast to the diminished experience (at least for those in the film community) of the small screens of television, the Internet, or mobile phones. However, perhaps because multiplex screens have for the most part shrunken to a size not much larger than plasma TVs, or perhaps simply in response to the increasing financial pressures of big screen distribution, indie filmmakers are becoming more accepting of small screen alternatives to the standard studio distribution model, based as it is on the high costs of multiple prints and multiple theaters. The panelists on “Stay-at-Home Movies” spent most of their allotted time addressing the needs of these filmmakers — a core creative class presumed to be different from those who make Hollywood studio product — and looking at the forms of distribution enabled by the Internet and small, portable screens such as the video iPod.

The question initially raised by Mr. Alpert was, “How do content providers get paid for their product?” As the studios routinely fudge accounting and fashion deals that favor corporate ledgers at the expense of creativity, conventional wisdom states that if independent filmmakers can control distribution, they will reap a larger portion of the rewards accrued by their productions. But if small screens are the vehicles, how will filmmakers collect the cash? Of course, the model used by Google Video — in effect a video search engine (or is it a video distribution engine?) — suggests that through advertising-supported web content (the foundation of Google’s economic success), filmmakers could make, in the words of Jennifer Feikin, director of Google’s video project, “seventy cents on the dollar as opposed to the pennies on the dollar that they receive from studio deals,” implying that, as Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher succinctly put it: “the studios are screwing the makers.”

In response, Chris Dorr of Sony Connect.com flatly stated, “the nature of community is promotion.” Well, so be it. If we are discussing economies of scale and of promotion, then the economic model that is brought to the filmmaker by the Internet distribution model is one that simply reproduces the older studio model of production financing. While the artist hawking his productions on Google Video does reap much more of the proportional rewards than do his or her colleagues at Paramount, in the end the total amount of money earned through studio distribution still dictates that some, chosen by the financially secure agents of movie capitalism, reap disproportionate amounts of money for their efforts.

Bill Alpert noted this inequity in the studio system of production and distribution by bringing to the attention of his fellow panelists that filmmakers with studio support are allowed to spend considerable up-front money to make their creations, where truly indie producers potentially working within the Google Video model — which essentially pays after the fact of production — are much more constrained in their vision by the lack of up-front capital. So while the costs of production have declined significantly through the introduction and refinement of digital technology, the costs of distribution still depend on a large expensive media apparatus controlled by corporations that privilege certain ideas — those that generate the most revenue — over others — those that quaintly explore more complex and abrasive ideas. While the myth of Sundance continues to hoodwink filmmakers into believing that the odds of securing a distribution deal are in their favor, the reality is that only a small percentage of Sundance Festival filmmakers find these million-dollar deals coming their way.

As prophesied by the panelists, distribution through Internet Protocol (IP) systems — blogs using video, myspace.com-style websites, sling boxes, and portable media players — does seem to be the future of the media industry, but this future, at least at this juncture, holds no more limitless horizons for independent media producers than the current structure, as the means of distribution, if not production, are still controlled by corporations and IP distribution is still a part of this corporate system. Discussing the business end of the indie scene, it is hard not to slip into a neo-Marxist analysis of the matters at hand. As Feikin from Google Video flatly stated, “70 percent of one dollar is better than nothing.” Is that really the best that indie media producers can expect? Or should we just expect to live in the “small monitor town” where we all carry screens (Dorr’s location free television) which are supplemented by large screen experiences as they transpire at home or at the digital multiplex while still relying on large scale capital to supply the majority of high visibility media content?

These are questions I had hoped the panelists would answer, but suddenly the PCTV’s coverage of the “Stay-at-Home” panel discussion was interrupted, cutting off Bill Alpert in mid-sentence, to switch to an in-progress commercial for a hip clothing store on Park City’s main street. What conclusions panelists drew regarding the future of exhibition remains a mystery. But given the rather bleak future forecast to that point by representatives of the Sundance Channel, Sony, and Google — a future where corporations rule IP distribution networks just as they have done in the world of film and television, where voices are limited to those whose ideas fit within the intellectual space of the media industry, and those who fail, or who are incapable of “fitting in,” are relegated to producing on a handful of pennies — it seems that the next stage of media distribution is on track to reproduce the inequities inherent in those that came before. It seems that indie producers are still just “chicks with ice picks” pitted against the CHUDs of corporate media culture.

2006 Sundance Festival
Google Video

Image Credits:

1. Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

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“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI


More and more frequently the networks are scheduling encore presentations of certain television programs on nights other than when they are normally scheduled. Although it makes some sense to do this with heavily serialized programs that require repetitive viewing patterns so that the overriding story arcs can become coherent, this phenomenon is not relegated to these types of programs. In fact, it seems more common to implement this strategy with programs that are not serialized.

In order to illustrate this claim, a quick survey of the scheduling grid from epguides.com shows us that the networks have largely abandoned Saturday night programming. NBC has scheduled a repeat of each of the three variations of its Law & Order series. CBS responds by counterprogramming repeats of Cold Case and Numb3rs. ABC shows a movie of the week and FOX has relegated itself to providing Cops and America’s Most Wanted–two shows that are very inexpensive to create. In terms of content, this night of television viewing seems to share crime and justice as a common semantic thread. Furthermore, these shows are not heavily serialized. In fact, the Law & Orders are arguably some of the least complex shows — at least in terms of a serialized narrative structure — currently on the air. Viewers do not need to concern themselves with missing episodes because they can always revisit them later in syndication. Furthermore, they simply do not need to keep up with an ongoing storyline in order to comprehend them.

More importantly, the Saturday night programming grid illustrates the networks’ unwillingness to invest in this night of the week. This unwillingness emphasizes the industry’s reliance on a specific demographic category of viewers — 18-35 year-olds. These viewers are presumed to be involved in other activities on Saturday nights. This also indicates that the industry prefers urban viewers who have more options for Saturday night activities than their rural counterparts. In short, the networks’ nearly complete abandonment of Saturday night is a strong indicator of the disappearance of the mass audience in favor of niche audiences. Cable television’s wide acceptance and presence has permanently altered the televisual landscape signaling the end of the networks’ Golden Age. The networks are quickly becoming just one more channel option among cable and satellite television’s much larger complex of offerings.

Law and Order

Law and Order

Are increased channel and program offerings enough to cause this programming strategy? The short answer is no. Commercial television always has been and will be about the commercials not the shows. It seems logical to assume that the program offerings on Saturday night are more indicative of a lack of advertising dollars than a change in programming strategies. In other words, the advertising is the cause to the programming’s effect. If this were a matter of programming, then the networks would have chosen to schedule serialized shows during these times. This would make logical sense because then the networks could help to ensure that they continue attracting a stable and consistent audience to shows that require more dedication from the viewing public than those they have chosen. The networks’ choices to not do this may also tell us something about the changing technological landscape and viewing behaviors.

Beginning with video-cassette recorders and extending with the fairly rapid acceptance of black box technologies, like TiVo, viewers have begun to wield more control over their individual or even family viewing situations. The viewers have always been in control of the vertical axis of the programming grid (schedule) with their abilities to change channels on a moment’s notice, but these newer technologies have allowed viewers to step into the domain once controlled by the industry — the horizontal axis of the grid. In short, the viewer can alter time by skipping commercials or recording programs for viewing at more convenient times. This may be particularly important to families living in time zones that have been often ignored by programmers. Shows, like CSI or My Name Is Earl, that parents might have avoided in the past because their kids were in the room at 7 or 8 p.m. CST can now easily be shifted to later in the evening when the kids have been put to bed.

This level of viewer control represents a double-edged sword for the networks. Although these technologies may allow an increase in the cumulative audience size, they also allow viewers to avoid the networks’ primary revenue source — the commercials. In effect the potential advertisers must consider whether the various ratings reports they are presented by advertising sales people actually equate to increased viewers for the spots they purchase.

This means that other advertising opportunities, like product placement or outright program sponsorship, may become more enticing opportunities for advertisers, both now and in the future. We do not have to look much further than the overt sponsorships of programs like Extreme Home Makeover and The Apprentice to see this tactic coming to fruition. If the programs that rely heavily on these tactics begin to pop up on the Saturday night schedule in the near future, then we will begin to realize that time slots for programming, like most everything else on commercial television, can easily be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. More than anything, Saturday night programming can be used as a barometer for the industry — even if it seems unimportant or currently ignored. The bottom line for critics is that we should regularly emphasize the commercial in commercial television. This is aspect that steers the industrial ship. The scheduling grid is the destination to where we, as critics and audience members, were driven to in the process.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

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Why Accurate Audience Measurement is Worth the Trouble

Arbitron\'s Portable People Meter

Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas drove home a point that has been made repeatedly in the pages of Flow — the way we engage media is undergoing radical changes. The prospect of online distribution of programs created for TV has come to pass, with more portable video players and video downloading programs emerging to compete with the Video IPod and ITunes. These developments are likely to make the Nielsens, an already woefully inaccurate audience measurement system as detailed by Jason Mittell in the previous issue of Flow, even less accurate. It may no longer make sense to track an audience without looking across media — from television broadcasts, to video-on-demand, to downloads. But changing the method of audience measurement for TV programs won’t be easy. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it might not be possible at all.

What’s clear is that there is a lot at stake. As John Gertner noted in a New York Times article last April, changing the method of audience measurement could change the entire culture industry, an industry that, for reasons both economic and ideological, doesn’t like to be changed. Indeed, these statistics hold so much sway over those shaping the American collective consciousness that it’s easy to suspect their custodians of having something other than the accurate depiction of audience desire as their MO. However, if we adopt such a distrustful view of audience measurement, if any centralized system for the measurement of audience preference is inherently susceptible to corruption, then what would be the incentive to develop a more accurate system?

There is a certain amount of faith one must have to engage in the campaign for more accurate audience data. One has to acknowledge that what is being measured — the audience for certain programs — has social and political implications that go beyond dollars and cents. While every consumer decision made by citizens impacts these spheres, its easy to see how ratings for a progressive-minded talk show might be more indicative of its consumers’ values than, say, their decision to buy Crest toothpaste instead of Colgate. Creators, distributors, advertisers and audience researchers all have socio-political agendas of one sort or another. Nevertheless, they (particularly the distributors) are motivated foremost by profit, and if people are willing to pay for a certain program, or tolerate ten minutes of advertising to watch a show, then they would like to know about it. If it really is “all about the money,” then the networks would want to know exactly what the audience wants so that they don’t miss the boat on a series that ends up being a hit on DVD or, god forbid, another network.

We have to believe that while a totally accurate picture of audience desire may never be achievable, it is an ideal that can and should be aspired to, as much for the sake of the scholar seeking a greater knowledge of how individuals engage media as for the sake of the fan crusading to keep a soon-to-be-cancelled show from going under.

Assuming that the system is broken, and that it is worth fixing, is there anything outsiders like us can do to affect change? Individual arguments for a show’s potential, no matter how well founded or articulate, can only do so much. A financial catalyst is needed, and we might just have that in the form of a la carte availability of TV episodes courtesy of ITunes. If a show with horrible ratings gets downloaded enough times, the creators, distributors and advertisers will get the message — something is seriously wrong with the way audience desire is measured. The “tipping point” referred to by Derek Kompare in his response to Jason Mittell’s article may take this form.

Just how resistant is the current audience tracking system to change? Is this stubbornness due to an inability to keep up with new distribution technology? Is it part of a concerted attempt to marginalize certain values put forth in certain programs, or is it simply a case of a large system with many players that cannot change quickly? Perhaps we’ll never have totally accurate answers to any of these questions, but that doesn’t make the search for these answers any less worthwhile.

Image Credits:

1. Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Please feel free to comment.

What Color Is Your Scholarship?

A friend of mine has been testing out a major technology company’s new e-book, a sleek little package that aims to reinvent the ways in which we read. It’s not the first sexy, silver object of its kind, but it hopes to be a successful one. Several earlier pioneers have pretty soundly failed, crippled by a lack of available content, by technological snafus and copyright issues, and by an ongoing fondness for that ‘old’ technology, the book. After all, the book works pretty well. It’s an interface we’ve naturalized and grown very comfortable with. As folks are wont to point out, it’s easy to take to bed or bath, it never needs a power source, and it almost never crashes. And, like many other academics, I like the very materiality of my books: their smells, their inscriptions, their covers (especially those from Duke Press.)

But I have to admit to being seduced by the promise and idea of the digital book, particularly its portability and its usability. Every time I find myself lugging forty pounds of books along while on vacation or visiting an archive, I realize I’d give up the physical pleasures of ‘book-ness’ for easy mobility. Sure, I might have to forego reading in the tub or in bright sunlight, but there are gains to be had here, even beyond portability. I’ve become so accustomed to working with digital documents that I find myself stymied by the inadequate indexes of many books I read. I want to search the print book of my own accord and have it capitulate to my desires the way the reams of digital data on my desktop appear to obey my epistemophilic desires. Sometimes I want to read a book cover to cover, in full savor mode, but, increasingly, I want to cut, paste, and remix them.

the Sony LIBRIe

the Sony LIBRIe

Honestly, I guess my TiVo is partially to blame. I can’t remember the last time I watched live TV. Even during the media circus that followed the devastation of Katrina, I had my TiVo working overtime, taping hours of coverage I’d peruse later, while I logged time at my keyboard searching interactive maps (courtesy of Google mash-ups), video snippets, and blog feeds. In her now-canonical essay on television’s temporality circa 1988, Mary Anne Doane argued that information on TV “inhabits a moment of time and is then lost to memory. Television thrives on its own forgettability.” Of course, Doane wrote just as the simultaneous double whammy of the cable explosion and VCR time-shifting began to take full hold. We might read our current investments in DVRs and 500 gig hard drives as our attempt to stave off television’s insistence that we immediately forget. Today, memory is cheap.

My desktop now sports a new folder labeled “Katrina clips,” a small, DYI database of moments I want to remember, culled both from the internet and my own TiVo hard drive. These clips share memory with talks and articles I’ve written about Katrina, with emails I’ve saved from families and friends along the Gulf, and with various news stories and blog postings I’ve catalogued for future reference. While Katrina and its aftermath provoked this particular deployment of memory, the hundreds of folders on my PC catalogue more banal aspects of daily life, from family photos to tax receipts. I move this data about at will, mixing media and matching files, orchestrating new collisions of space and time.

It’s a feeling of control that impacts my interactions with both word and image, returning me to my opening thoughts about e-books. In less than 20 years (I got my first PC and VCR in 1987, shiny new tools for starting grad school), I guess I’ve succumbed pretty fully to the lure of information machines and the control they seem to promise. No matter that this control is more ideology than ontology, to repurpose Jane Feuer’s prescient analysis of television. As fond as I am of my many, many books, I feel primed for new modes of reading and of writing, for information mixes that might open up new ways of knowing and of feeling, new circuits of exchange. New media artists have been pushing the boundaries of digital expression for at least a decade, and the electronic literature crowd has an even longer track record of pushing the boundaries of linear narrative. Still, the scholarly crowd has been slow to respond. Even those of us who study electronic media for a living still largely write and publish the ‘old-fashioned’ way even as academic presses struggle to stay afloat. What might electronic scholarship (rather than scholarship about the electronic) look like?

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Flow already begins to point the way. It closes the feedback loop between publication and reply, between academic call and response, by knitting the ‘comments’ function integrally into each article it publishes. Other online publications like the Electronic Book Review , Kairos , and the now-defunct Horizon Zero have also explored how multimedia or networked scholarship might take shape. The Labyrinth Project at USC pushes even further, exploring the power of cinematic language for the database documentary and public scholarship. Vectors , a new electronic scholarly journal, only publishes pieces that can’t exist in print. (In the interest of full disclosure, I edit the last one.)

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Such experiments aim to explore modes of scholarship more fully responsive to the remix possibilities of digital culture and to the visual cultures of film, TV, and the everyday. One goal of Vectors is to investigate the potential of the different affective and sensory registers of scholarship. Can scholarship look and feel differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user. What happens to argument when scholarship goes fully networked and multimedia? How do you ‘experience’ argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space? Can you play an article? What color is your scholarship? While these questions may seem trivial or even alien to scholarship as we now know it, I, for one, am game to explore a world where the outputs of media studies participate more fully in the emergent forms and practices of the media we study and populate new devices. I’m not getting rid of my books just yet, but I wouldn’t mind putting Flow on my iPod.

Doane, Mary Anne, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1990).

Feuer, Jane. “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology and
Ideology,” in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles, CA.: AFI, 1983).

Image Credits:

1. the Sony LIBRIe

2. Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

3. Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

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Devils in the Details




It ended with just a click. I would have expected a little more, maybe a puff of smoke or a few sparks, perhaps even a forlorn sigh. But no, it was just a mundane click. On Saturday, November 19, 2005, at 6:35pm EST, my television died. It had been acting funny all day, and then in an apparent act of suicide, it simply turned itself off. I went through the expected stages of denial — it will turn itself back on! — and bargaining — maybe it’s just a fuse and I can fix it myself! But then in place of acceptance came craving, the urge that all good capitalist subjects have — I’ve gotta buy an HDTV set! So I headed out first thing the next morning (relatively speaking; it was a Sunday, so I had to sit tight til 11am), and I bought myself a new HD set.

I have been reading about HDTV for years now, and I always use a chunk of my Television History course to discuss the future of television with my students, paying particular attention to the ways in which new technologies might change what we see and how we see it. I’ve read so many predictions about the potential impact of the HD image-it will dramatically change televisual space, set designs will have to be completely overhauled, news anchors with poor complexions will have to find a different line of work, hockey will become popular — that I couldn’t wait to get a set in my living room and start working on my own projections. As I first turned it on, I was surprised that I wasn’t immediately blown away by the image. Sure, it looked crisp, I thought, but this is it? This is what the hype is all about?

But after a few hours of viewing the handful of HD channels I could get, I found myself slowly seduced by the sublime images and wholly consumed by the smallest details at the expense of, quite literally, the big picture. I must have stared for a good minute at the sheer beauty of the news logo of a bird before becoming aware that the anchor was telling me how it could kill me. During SportsCenter, instead of watching, and listening to, Dan Patrick, I found myself captivated by his reflection in the anchor desk. Perhaps most problematically, during CSI, I completely missed the backstory of the featured crime as I found myself lost in the dreamy pool of green that is Gary Dourdan’s eyes. And I’m simply captivated by absolutely anything in shallow focus; the foreground leaps off the screen, while the background colors look like a vibrant abstract watercolor. I watched a PBS puppet show for three-year-olds for about a half-hour simply because it was primarily shot in shallow focus. Is this what HDTV will be for me, a distraction of detail, a parade of shade and surface rather than characters and stories?

I’m sure I’ll get used to it at some point. After all, I often show my Film History students early Lumière films like Feeding the Baby and relate the possibly apocryphal tale that the cinema’s first audiences were more fascinated with the fine details of leaves blowing in the background than the foreground action of the child being fed. Of course, after a few viewings of those Lumière films, the images of blowing leaves and workers leaving factories became pretty routine, and narratives began to be told through editing and camerawork. Today, a set of mature storytelling techniques is already in place, so how will the medium as a fictional storyteller accommodate the new possibilities of digital detail? Will the dramatic color saturation that is possible in HD be incorporated into otherwise aesthetically neutral genres like the family sitcom? Will the pacing of programs actually slow down to accommodate the kind of detail gazing that I’m now hooked on? Will dramas take the next logical step from Lost and insert narrative clues of such fine detail into their mise-en-scène that only a 1080i image can reveal them? I look forward to watching the answers to these questions unfold in crisp detail on my new television set. One other feature — the new TV makes a cute trilling chime when I turn it off. This one will go out with a beep, not a whimper.

Image Credits:

1. TV

Please feel free to comment.

Broadcasting Is Dead, Long Live Broadcasting

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

The Pondering Primate

The Pondering Primate

Internet pundits say we are witnessing the Web’s second coming. While overly exuberant venture capitalists burst the bubble in 2000 before the Internet was ready for profitable business, now it seems that conditions for the sustainable growth of a more prosperous “Web 2.0” have been established. A critical mass of Internet users now have broadband access, open-source software and cheap bandwidth that have reduced startup costs; additionally search tools have made advertising a big business. This second coming has also reconfigured the conceptual articulations of “old” and “new” media. “Web 1.0” established its revolutionary promise by constructing a binary between an old media defined by the passive, feminized viewers of a dumbed-down, TV executive-produced mass culture and a new media defined by personal choice and masculine interactivity (Caldwell; Parks; Boddy). However, in recent months “Web 2.0” has increasingly embraced the old medium of television to transition from principally a text, image and audio-based medium to a video-based one.

Let’s consider four of these recent initiatives in Internet/TV convergence. Rather than predict future developments, let’s look back to the core principles of broadcasting to see how these nascent Internet TV initiatives hold up to what we might call a broadcast ethic of TV citizenship. Despite the significant differences between public and advertising-sponsored television, each tradition shares the following goals: 1) universal affordable access, 2) universal appeal that promotes encounters across diverse groups, and 3) fair use rights to watch when and where one likes (Alvarado; Murdock; Lessig).

Ipod Lounge

Ipod Lounge

Case #1. Disney/ABC has teamed with Apple’s iTunes to offer episodes of 6 current television series for playback on a newly released video iPod. Episodes of series including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven” are available for $1.99 per episode the day after they air. The iPod provides nifty portability but is far from universally accessible and affordable, as users must have high-speed Internet service, buy Apple’s proprietary portable audio/visual devise for $300-$400, and pay for each episode. Universal appeal is limited, as only a few hit Disney/ABC shows are available. TiVo, the personal video recording service, will soon make recorded programs available for download to the iPod (and other Microsoft mobile video formats) for those who can afford the additional costs of the conversion software, the TiVo player ($50-200), and TiVo’s $12.95 monthly service charge in addition to cable/satellite subscription fees. Fair use is restricted to the iPod and 5 computers – no DVD transfers allowed. In linking proprietary content to proprietary hardware at significant costs, the video iPod is a minimal service for a privileged few.

Case #2. Warner Brothers and AOL have heavily promoted their IN2TV which early next year will offer free online episodes of old TV shows that are not currently in syndication. In its first year Warner says it will draw from over 100 of the 800 series in its vault including “Maverick,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Alice,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Babylon 5.” Episodes are organized into 6 themed “channels,” each episode includes 1 to 2 minutes of commercials. This offer is part of AOL’s broader strategy to transition from primarily an Internet Service Provider to a web portal with a particular emphasis on television, including AOL’s free live streaming of the Live 8 music concerts against world poverty held on July 2nd, 2005 in cities around the world; AOL’s coverage drew praise from those who grew irritated with MTV’s edited coverage and ABC’s limited two-hour broadcast, and scorn from those who found the unedited performances offensive. AOL and Time Warner are exploiting further synergies with an online video service that offers celebrity news and gossip produced by Warner’s Telepictures division. Regarding issues of access, just as AOL’s Live 8 coverage offered far more than broadcast and cable television for those with access to broadband, the In2TV will provide free access to TV shows that are otherwise unavailable. However, the service limits viewing to certain episodes, stratifies audiences through offering high quality resolution only to AOL broadband subscribers and provides only content owned by the corporate conglomerate. Concerning universal appeal, the vintage TV programs bring with them the contested representational politics of their time, but this look back reminds us of a time before the broadcast networks spun off their multiethnic casts and working class characters to minor broadcast networks and niche cable channels (Gray). Users can watch when they want to, but fair use is curtailed in that users cannot skip commercials or copy episodes to other devises – only excerpts can be emailed to friends and potentially transferred to cell phones. While less expensive and more extensive than the video iPod, In2TV’s linking corporate content to its Web portal creates promotional synergies rather than accessible platforms for TV distribution.

Case #3. The BBC is using file-sharing technology to test a service for 5,000 users which offers BBC programs online for up to 7 days after they air. While the BBC says it will offer 500 shows each week, only BBC-owned programs and those with secured transmission rights will be available. While this far surpasses the commercial initiatives in the US, there are limitations. In using Microsoft’s digital rights management system, users are prevented from e-mailing or copying programs to other devises. It is not clear why time-shifting is limited to 7 days. System capacity might be a reason for the limited test, but the BBC’s public broadcasting goal of providing a national service to create a sense of shared culture might also motivate a design that encourages a shared weekly viewing experience. The service is also limited to those with UK e-mail addresses, which protects the BBC’s commercial business of selling international rights to programs. (However, those outside the UK can access live streaming of some BBC channels and other international broadcast channels over free services such as Beeline TV and TV4All or subscription services such as NeepTV and Netspan TV – none of these offer time or space shifting.) While the BBC test case demonstrates the importance of public ownership for making programs available free online, critics have argued that citizens would be better served if all public and commercial broadcasts were available online through a single Web site.



Case #4. PBS has been slow to make their programming available online but it has recently initiated a series of Web-exclusive one-on-one video interviews with technology gurus including Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Because the appropriately named NerdTV is distributed under a Creative Commons license, viewers can legally copy episodes to other devises, email them to friends and edit their own versions. Public ownership under open source licensing clearly surpasses the other cases in realizing our broadcast principles. However, the racial and gender politics of geek TV were manifest when in the 9th episode the program’s host admitted that viewers had criticized the series for interviewing only white males on its first 8 episodes – the show interviewed the tech savvy fashion model Anina in the 9th episode.

Considering these 4 cases of Internet/TV convergence, if Web 2.0 no longer frames the Internet’s video potential in opposition to the old medium of television, these nascent examples reveal that the promises of television over the Internet could learn much from the ethics of television’s broadcasting past. Rather than as an old medium that breeds passivity and low uniformity, let’s embrace television for its ethics of universal access and broad appeal, and for its ideals of commonly held resources and spirit of cross-cultural encounter. Web 1.0 hailed from a neo-liberal ethics of venture capital speculation, government deregulation and a spirit of individual choice and personalization widely encapsulated in the classical economic speak of “video on demand.” Web 2.0 frames Internet TV very differently, as is exemplified in the words of this journalist: “[c]onsumers are rushing to hook up high-speed broadband connections like it is a vital new utility. And in many ways it is – a sight, sound and motion utility becoming as important to consumers as electricity or as TV” (Oser and Klasseen). Broadband, electricity and TV are the public utilities of the Web 2.0 age. Let’s treat them as such and continue to advocate for universal access to broadband, fair use in audio/video, and the public initiatives to ensure this –from continued support for public broadcasting to municipal-run broadband systems. One of the reasons for Web 1.0’s demise is that the internet provided so much free content that users were loath to pay for it. In that spirit let’s all just say no to the video iPod, even if your favorite TV show is “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives.”


Alvarado, Manuel. “Public Service Television: Challenge, Adaptation and Survival.” Contemporary World Television. John Sinclair ed. London: BFI Publishing, 2004. 7-9.

Boddy, William. New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Caldwell, John. “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 41-74.

Gray, Herman S. Culture Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 77-130.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Murdock, Graham. “Rights and Representations: Pubic Discourse and Cultural Citizenship.” Television and Common Knowledge. Jostein Gripsrud ed. London: Routledge, 1999. 7-17.

Osser, Kris and Abbey Klaassen. “Cable Ledaing Long-awaited convergence of Internet and TV; Web ‘Arrives’ as Medium for Content Delivery as Viacom, Scripps, Others Put Shows Online.” Advertising Age (25 July 2005), 48.

Parks, Lisa. “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 133-61.

Image Credits

1. The Pondering Primate

2. Ipod Lounge

3. NerdTV

Please feel free to comment.

The Cost of Not Selling Out

Old Radio

Old Radio

Radio? What’s that?

I recently discussed radio in a media technology class and found that it was largely irrelevant to my students, all of who were between the ages of 19 and 21. I asked them how they discovered new music, aside from the recommendations of friends. Many of them said through advertisements or placement on television shows. How is that, I asked. They replied that when they heard an intriguing song in an ad or program, they would catch a snatch of lyric and “google” the phrase to determine the title of the song and artist. In fact, they actually preferred to hear music in ads rather than on the radio: “You can hear the best parts of the song sooner that way.”

At the next meeting I distributed an article from the Los Angeles Times describing former Doors drummer John Densmore’s refusal to allow “Break On Through” to be used in a campaign for Cadillac Escalades, although his surviving bandmates had agreed after GM dangled $15 million in front of them. “Artists and corporations working together, that’s the 21st century. That’s the true Age of Aquarius,” said keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Densmore countered, “On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That’s not for rent.”

What did the students think? The students (including several aspiring musicians) all thought Densmore was a chump and a fool. And why should they believe otherwise? They’ve been steeped in an economic fundamentalism all of their lives, a fundamentalism in which virtually everything they see and do has been subsumed to the logic of the marketplace, a logic in which society serves the needs of economics rather than vice versa. They’ve never known anything else. If it makes money, it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with selling out; indeed, there’s no such thing as selling out, since no alternative exists.

So I went home that evening and listened to a compilation of unreleased live performances by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967 as a straightforward blues band. I always thought that the notion of “virtuosity” in playing blues was essentially meaningless, akin to “virtuosity” in saying Mass, but these recordings go a long way toward proving otherwise. Although Green trafficked in the traditional braggadocio of a bluesman, his work was marked by an understated power and otherworldly lyricism. Green may have been an unschooled musician, but he was innately aware of a principle in Indian music called the “unstruck,” in which the note you don’t play is as important as the note you do. Like Miles Davis and a few others, Peter Green knew that one note can speak as much as 20, that silence can say as much as sound. On one of these recordings, Green begins a song with five notes, as soft and dexterous as a lover’s caress, that summon a collective, involuntary gasp of pleasure from the audience.

But blues is more than a series of notes; it means accepting a life that you cannot escape, a life for which you are only partially responsible. Growing up poor and Jewish in the East End of London, Peter Green understood the blues better than most of his colleagues. His best work had a stoic sweetness streaked by a blade-cold despair. You can hear it in the loving bite of “Need Your Love So Bad” and so many others, but you hear it best in the terrible, shattered peace of “Love That Burns,” which conveys a heartbreak so devastating that it edges into nihilism.

By late 1969, Fleetwood Mac was hugely successful in Britain and making inroads into America. That year they won Melody Maker’s listener poll as the most popular band in England, edging out the Beatles. And then the clouds rolled in. Confused by the contradiction of sudden wealth and a working-class background, Peter Green grew increasingly disillusioned with success. He became obsessed with religion and began appearing onstage bedecked in long white robes. Green donated all of his money to charity and tried to convince the other band members to follow suit, but they refused. A bootleg tape from this period features a coda to perhaps his best-known song, “Black Magic Woman,” and it is the most terrifying music I have ever heard. Green races ahead of the band, his guitar screaming in rage and pain, until the band gradually drops out. Green plays a simple line high in the register over and over, an icy, spectral phrase that shimmers like the Aurora Borealis, until it too fades away. Five seconds of silence follow, the audience too stunned to respond.

Peter Green

Peter Green

Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in May 1970 for life as a solitary ascetic, giving away his possessions and laboring as a gravedigger and hospital orderly. He was institutionalized in 1977 for jokingly threatening to wield a rifle against his one-time manager in an attempt to stop royalties from his former life. By the early ’80s Peter Green was living as a recluse in West London. He had grown four-inch fingernails to ensure that he couldn’t play, paying penance for his stature as the greatest bluesman of his time. A decade later he made a brief comeback. I saw him perform in Chicago. He shuffled onstage (a writer later described him as “Dickensian”) and was greeted by a standing ovation. He left most of the solos to his colleagues, still uneasy with his talent. At the end of the beatific instrumental “Albatross,” however, he allowed himself a shy, quiet smile.

Eric Clapton, not a man noted for his loquaciousness, once said about Jimi Hendrix,

“I think that that is probably the curse of genius, you know, that you are alone . . . Nobody can understand the depths that you go to when you reach down inside yourself to play or to express — you can’t take anyone with you to these places, and sometimes you find things that are very scary. And I think you have to survive that on your own, and that’s a very lonely experience and it’s not something you choose. It’s not something you would necessarily go after, it’s something you inherit with your gift . . . ”

Like Hendrix, Peter Green had this gift in abundance; like Hendrix (and Kurt Cobain), it was his undoing. I’ve been listening to Peter Green’s recordings for over 30 years now, and I still listen to them at least once a week, and I’ll do so for the rest of my life. And every time I listen to them, I remember how much it can cost to not sell out.

Image Credits:
Old Radio
Peter Green

Image Credits:

1. Old Radio

2. Peter Green

Please feel free to comment.

Living Life in TiVo Time


Like most people, it usually bugs me when I am wrong. However, this time I draw some comfort from what I now think may have been an erroneous conclusion. You see, I was afraid that the world was slipping mindlessly into boorishness. Perhaps because I have now lived in the South for a quarter of a century, I set significant store by manners. You really do open doors for others male or female. You say “please” and “thank you” always. Someone may set every nerve in your body on edge, bless their heart, but you smile and ask how they are. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe that my adopted region of the country is any less intolerant than the rest of America. But here in North Carolina, when regrettable human inclinations do rear their ugly heads, they are usually expressed far more gently and with greater grace than I was accustomed to in my native Midwest, the brusque environs of the Northeast, or the rustic West. The New South gilds the rank lily of social discord.

So I was distressed to note, over the last few years, what seemed to be a decline in that tradition of gentility. I teach a large undergraduate class in Communication and Technology about two hundred students. At the beginning of each semester we talk about the fact that we don’t have much time together, and that disruptive behavior deprives their classmates of the opportunity to absorb content that is, a) of important to their education and will, b) in their eyes, more importantly, be on the test. I tell them if they cannot resist the urge to chat among themselves to just not come to class. I don’t want them there. It is a strategy that drops attendance, but increases the quality of my interaction with the students who show up ready to shut up and pay attention. This semester there seems to be a heightened disconnect between those instructions and class behavior. They come, but still chat among themselves with no semblance of restraint, let alone shame or remorse. They do not see their behavior as aberrant.

“Rude, foolish undergraduates,” I thought. And then I went to my graduate class. Seventeen students, most over thirty years old, most employed, adults, you know what I mean? Even in that group there are several that see nothing wrong with striking up “parallel conversations” during class. “Very weird,” I thought. And then I went to a faculty meeting — twenty or so PhDs, all of whom are deeply invested in the business being conducted. But they, too, feel entitled to address issues of concern with the colleague sitting next to them, regardless of whom actually “has the floor.” “What the hell is going on!?” I thought, “Is civility dead?”

Then I realized it may have nothing to do with manners, it is all about TiVo, technology, and the fracturing of interpersonal time and space. Think about it. TiVo is not about the digital recording of video. That is only part of it. TiVo commercials tell us that TiVo is all about being able to “pause live TV.” We can be watching something unfolding “in real life,” — a hurricane striking the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the Hurricanes playing hockey — and then a parallel real life” intrudes. Your spouse needs help, a child cries, the dog scratches at the door, the phone rings, whatever. No problem, you hit a button and the “live event” on the TV screen freezes. You then tend to the more immediate reality. Afterwards you return to the screen, hit a button, and resume the frozen reality.

It is an increasingly common scenario with very uncommon implications. The notion of the “here and now,” that usually seems so solid, just got a bit strange. The question of “Which ‘real life’ do you mean?” is no longer the sole property of philosophers or absurdist playwrights, it has wiggled its way into our living rooms and our classrooms, into the coffee shop and the faculty meeting.

Here is what I think is happening. Reality now flows around us in a variety of different streams. There is the physical reality of my location and the events unfolding in that location, but there are also the parallel realities outside that location that are now in accessible electronically, digitally. My computer, my cell phone, my pda, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Bluetooth prosthesis, all let me select a preferred experience from among those intertwining realities. And TiVo goes one step further, letting me choose which time to designate as “live.”

The power to select from a rack of potential realities makes the designation of “here and now” an idiosyncratic option. I choose my reality on the fly, and utilize the communication protocols appropriate to that choice. The results are not always polite. When varying individual realities share the same physical space there is inevitable friction.

Ipod Guy

Ipod Guy

Consider the person standing next to you at the metro stop who has chosen the reality of their hands-free, ear-bud cell phone. He cradles his hands in his face moaning, “Baby, how can you say that? She means nothing to me.” You sidle down the platform a bit and sit beside a suit enmeshed in Blackberry. Her fingers flicker over tiny keys while she mutters phrases that sound, at the very least, confrontational — in a language you do not understand. You move again, and find yourself the unwilling partner of an iPodded youngster, moving in what you can only hope is sympathetic rhythm to the music in his head. And, as Sonny and Cher asserted decades ago, the beat goes on.

It is, I believe, this phenomenon of the unthinking selection of incompatible social realities that results in what I initially interpreted as rude and boorish behavior — in my classes and among my peers. The problem, of course, is that rude and boorish behavior is always a matter of perception. If your behavior is perceived by those in your immediate physical environment as being rude and boorish, then it is — no matter what your intention — still rude and boorish.

Social norms and mores, of which manners are an irrefutable part, have one primary function in human society — to smooth the inevitable conflict between personal inclinations and the comfort of the group. The current 21st century technology-enabled environment gives us unparalleled personal power to pick and choose the reality of the moment. It advantages the unique reality of the individual. It inclines me to “suit myself.” That invites conflict with the more social, group-centered norms of the 20th century — norms that emphasize social cohesion and personal restraint, norms with which most folks over 30 were socialized. The resultant friction is both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

What we need is a conscious reconfiguration of communicative etiquette for the 21st century. Increasingly we focus on the mechanical efficiency of digital communication systems, but at the expense of human sensibilities. We need a set of guidelines for respectful interactive behavior in an increasingly complex — from both an existential and a technological perspective — world. We need new social conventions that will simultaneously acknowledge and employ the increasing communicative power of our interactive environment, while retaining the grace of softer times. I do not know what that should look like, but I strongly advocate one guideline: courtesy. Acceptable communication in the 21st century, mode notwithstanding, should attend to the comfort of the other, every bit as much as it champions the choices and expressions of the individual.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo

2. Ipod Guy

Please feel free to comment.

Cybernetic TV

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-“, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

American Candidate

American Candidate

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.

Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Image Credits:

1. Andy Dick on The Reality Show

2. American Candidate

Please feel free to comment.

Reconsidering the Technological Limitations and Potential of Large Format


Shuttle on IMax

Shuttle on IMax

The first large format film, Tiger Child, was screened at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, and was the culmination of innovations in film, camera, projector and screen technologies. Shortly after the film’s premiere, Roman Kroiter (1970, 799), one of the founders of the IMAX Corporation, was quoted as saying that “Artistically it will have to be breaking through new frontiers, not the millionth re-hash of the same old cliches. The world isn’t going to stand still, and the movies won’t either.”

Today, as then, this largest of film formats offers incredibly high-resolution images that make the viewer feel like they are part of the action. However, some would argue that large format films have not achieved the full expression of their technological potential, primarily as a function of the format’s association with educational facilities such as museums and science centers, where the emphasis is on creating an educational film, not a film that extends the potential of this medium. The need of museums to sell film tickets — as these theatres are often much-needed sources of operating revenue — means that the content of large format films must align with consumer needs and the museum’s mission statements. This historically limited market niche for large format films also means that filmmakers’ products must be acceptable for the distinct market segment represented by the museum visitor. Artistic films, that is, films that stretch the boundaries of what is normal and acceptable to the majority of viewers (either through content or technological innovation), are not considered to be films that will attract an audience of schoolchildren and educators.

Museums have thus served as gatekeepers for the large format film, providing feedback regarding the films in order to maximize profits and to meet their obligations for informal education. Fueled by the fact that “the quest for audiences in order to recoup capital investment has meant that achieving the real has tended to privilege the more real than real, the “realistic” (Wollen, 1993), themes of nature, travel, and broad themes of science and exploration have dominated and continue to dominate the large format film lexicon. Films that fall outside of these categories, which are sometimes the most popular films (in dollar terms, and generally those that have been repurposed from 35 mm) are not always selected for showing, or are shown only after closing hours as their themes are not mission-based. The choice of films shown may also be limited to those which don’t conflict with the particular audience’s foundational beliefs, as occurred when the film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea was not shown in certain museums due to its reference to evolution (Dean, 2005).

Much has also been written of the limitations of the technology due to issues with cassette length (the canister that holds the raw film), lighting needs, projected image size, and screen shape (films may be shown on either domed or flat screens, up to 80 feet high); all of which have been used as justification for creative decisions related to the structure of these films. It is believed by many filmmakers that close-ups, shot/reverse-shot and other editing conventions are impossible within the medium due to these issues. Panning is avoided in large format, and medium or long shots dominate as there is not only concern that the sight of an 80-foot human face would be disconcerting, but that the intense lighting required for such close-ups “make actors irritable” (Sherrill, 1983). Shots are paced at longer intervals in order to allow time to assimilate visual information, which in turn affects the acting, dialogue and emotion needed for dramatic scenes (Wollen, 1993). Narrative action is thus limited to point of view shots and composition within the frame, which take the place of the rapid cuts and sequential juxtaposition common to the traditional 35 mm film (Wollen, 1993).

IMax Theater

IMax Theater

But the example of films such as Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, would seem to indicate that the perceived need to create educational films in a particular style — and not technological limitations — has been the major force in limiting the full expression of the potential of the large format film. Without words, this award-winning film uses images to tell the story of sound and rhythm. Extensive use of close-ups loosens the boundaries of what have been considered inviolate limitations in the large format. These close-ups are not only effective in conveying the film’s message of diversity and rhythm, but demonstrate that the technological limitations of large format may be perception and not reality, especially since the filmgoing audience has expressed appreciation for the film through their continued attendance.

But can one promote innovation in large format when filmmakers are still to a great extent obliged to the needs of the museum industry for educational films? It may be that today such a shift is happening to the industry, not necessarily by the industry. The development of stand-alone large format theaters, combined with the digital remastering (DMR) of 35mm Hollywood films into large format, is shifting the concept of large format away from the museum-based educational experience towards an entertainment experience, which has greater possibility for innovation and experimentation. These shifts would appear to allow large format to fulfill the new visual frontiers as predicted by Roman Kroiter.

However, the remastering of films begs the question as to what exactly is large format, and what differentiates it from other film formats? Predicated on a particular quality and size of image, the remastering of Hollywood films into large format means that the unique characteristics of this medium are lost in — so to speak — translation. Although DMR technology restores the filmic structures that have been avoided or eliminated in the creation of a large format film, allowing for greater latitude for experimentation in filmmaking, this translation also eliminates the uniqueness of the large format camera and film and its attendant effect on the capture and display of the “all-engulfing, panoramic images” (Acland, 1998, 434) on which the format is based. These changes may open the possibility for the extension of the large format technology, but they may eliminate the uniqueness of the medium of large format; that is, once we can define exactly what is large format.


Acland, C.R. “IMAX Technology and the Tourist Gaze.” Cultural Studies 12.3 (1998): 429-45.

Dean, C. “A New Screen Test for Imax: It’s the Bible vs. the Volcano.” New York Times. 19 March 2005.

Kroiter, R. “IMAX at Expo 70.” American Cinematographer 51.8 (1970): 772-99.

Sherrill, N.H. “Behold Hawaii.” American Cinematographer, 64.12 (1983): 62-67.

Wollen, Tana. “The Bigger the Better: From Cinemascope to IMAX.” P. Hayward and T. Wollen, eds. Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen. London: BFI, 1993.

Image Credits:

1. Shuttle on IMax

2. IMax Theatre

Please feel free to comment.

Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: The Supermarket

As I enter my neighborhood supermarket, I pass beneath a television monitor mounted about five feet above my head. I glance up at the screen and see myself enter the store, the sliding glass door to my back and a rather bored looking young security guard, arms crossed leaning against the lotto machine, to my side. A small camera attached to the base of the monitor provides a continuous stream of images throughout the day. I suppose this screen must serve to warn any potential thieves that they are being watched. As a subject of the camera and its screen, I am now either a dissuaded thief or, perhaps most likely, an oblivious innocent as I notice that most shoppers entering through this door fail to look up at the surveillance screen. Whatever intention the store managers had in displaying this screen at this location, it goes for the most part unseen. I only notice this surveillance screen because I have come to this store with the express intent of seeing the screens that I normally ignore or overlook.

I grab a shopping cart and begin my trip through the aisles. At the rear of the store, past the bottles of organic juice, baggies of instant salad, and cartons of lactose free milk, stands a bank machine idling next to a full service teller window for a large bank chain. Whereas the shopper in relation to the screen display at the store entrance is given over to the identity of proto-thief or would-be bandit, the screen of the bank machine performs a routine function — dispensing cash, accepting deposits, informing on account balances, and the like. While the bank screen differs from the surveillance screen in that there is no starring role for the subject on the screen itself, the user does become the focus of the screen during the transaction. Thescreen directly addresses the user by delivering an instruction or by asking a series of questions. Insert card. Instant cash? Do you want to print a statement of your last ten transactions? Graphics appear on the screen, short animations that serve to entertain — if you can call it that — and to provide the user with a logo-like branding of the bank’s identity. Figure 1 provides a sample screen shot of the image as it flits past the viewer/user. To this screen, I am one of the bank’s valued customers.

Bank Machine Screen

Figure 1: Bank Machine Screen

Concluding my business at the bank machine, I load my shopping cart with food and arrive at the checkout line. The final screen that presents itself is a flat screen monitor mounted on a pole above the cash register about eye level with me as I transfer my food selections to a conveyor belt leading to the cashier. This screen rather loudly advertises items for sale in the store, local businesses, and upcoming programs on the Food Network while providing recipes for shoppers who have remembered to bring their notepads to the line. This “check-out” screen signals the eventual demise of the ubiquitous, decades old magazine rack located at the end of most cashier aisles (Figure 2). While in the past one has been offered the opportunity to glance through, and hopefully purchase, Time, Newsweek, or the Weekly World News, now one may gawk at a video screen conveniently placed for consumption. I recently became excited by the teaser for the season premier of Emeril Live and learned how to cook a nutmeg flavored, orange glazed ham (although I failed to bring my pocket notepad, so I have forgotten several of the steps in the process).

Emirel Live

Emirel Live

While each of these supermarket screens participates in the ritual of grocery shopping, each serves a different function and ascribes a different subjectivity to the shopper. The screen mounted overhead at the entrance door serves to warn away shoplifters. Its image is silent, blurry, and continuous. The bank machine screen interacts with the shopper signaling activity through a series of beeps and music. Its image is both fragmented and functional. Finally, the checkout screen serves to distract shoppers as they wait in line to pay for their chosen food stuff. It is bright, sharp, loud, and rapidly edited. If the other two screens dissolve into the designed environment of the supermarket — each item for sale and each surface for display beckons to me while feigning a ubiquitous naturalness — then this final screen proclaims its need to seduce and distract me. In so doing, like an insecure performer on stage, it displays its newness to the supermarket scene. The design of product packaging and display advertising draws on a lineage leading back to the beginnings of consumer capitalism, while this checkout screen stands uneasily as a bastard hybrid of the magazine rack, the candy display, and the television commercial.

As media theorist Vincent Mosco suggests: “the real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communications, or end scarcity, history, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal.” Public screens, even as they address us, attempt to blend in, to deflect our attention. During my previous trips to this supermarket, I had ignored the surveillance screen, cursed the bank screen for non-responsive buttons, and shielded my eyes from the checkout screen. Yet, nevertheless, each of these screens had called to me and I had on previous trips responded with the subjectivity that they — or to be less anthropomorphic, their designers — intended for me to display. What this micro-ethnographic glance — a frame of mind rather than a research method — reveals to the subject of these screens (in this case myself) is that these screens make us do things — refrain from shoplifting, withdraw cash, bake a ham.

Work Cited
Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 19.

Urban Screens Conference
Surveillance and Society

Image Credits:

1. Bank Machine Screen

2. Emeril Live

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Sim City or Dream City? Computer Imaging in the Reconstruction of Iraq

3D City

3D City

A couple of days after checking into the Hotel Erbil in Hawler (the name preferred by the Kurds for their city), I noticed a display of cityscapes mounted on boards on the mezzanine across the lobby. But my mind was on other things so at first I didn’t check it out. I was to meet Slí­man Faiq Taki, the Dean of the Cinema Department of the University of Salahaddin, to talk about a media department curriculum. The interim head of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Buland Dizayi, an environmental engineer pressed into service while another Dean was scouted up, drove me across town to the building which temporarily housed his office. He was worried that we hadn’t been able to reach Dr. Slí­man on the phone, but as luck would have it, we encountered him trudging across a parking lot in the scorching heat. He joined us in Dizayi’s office so we could talk. It turned out Slí­man Taki wasn’t much interested in a media department with its vertical silos of journalism, electronic media, media studies, and cinema studies. He was, however, very interested in building up a cinema department. But first, he had to find a building.

The university here has 17,000 students (including night classes) but not enough facilities. So facilities are being reclaimed from government buildings abandoned by Saddam’s regime. Buland Dizayi mentioned with a dark streak of Kurdish irony, that some classes now were held in the same buildings where Saddam’s troops used to torture Kurds. The building in which we were meeting was a former dormitory with chipped linoleum floors and intermittent electric power.

Dr. Slí­man Taki’s department consisted of a staff, basically his sons and his wife, who are artists or technicians. He had 25 students, but no equipment, and no building. He had spotted another government building that no one was using on a nearby lake and was planning on talking with the President of the University, Dr. Mohammed Sadik, about the possibility of claiming it. He outlined his own vision for his department, starting with scriptwriting and directing areas in which he specialized, acting, make-up, costume, (his wife’s speciality), cinematography and 3D design (the interest of his sons). He was clear about how he wanted to proceed.

But finding a building and getting his department up and running was only the first tier of a long term plan. He telephoned his son, Safin S. Taki, who arrived wearing an Euro cut black jacket over a grey T-shirt and carrying a laptop. They talked about their lives as part of the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden and Dr. Slí­man Taki’s own interest in producing a 3-script fictional narrative about the dislocations of life for Kurdish young adults into a film. They spoke of their frustration with finding backers. When they came to Iraq and spoke with Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish autonomous region, however, they found an interested party. He pledged some funds toward the film department and encouraged them to stay in Kurdistan.

They said that Barzani understood the power of film. They had visions even beyond building a department and producing their film. They wanted to build a studio and already had plans simulated in a hyperreal space of 3-D animation. Safin flipped open the laptop to demonstrate a DVD they had created showing their vision for a new northern Iraqi (i.e. Kurdish) studio.

The DVD simulated the studio using the programs that an architect’s office might use. The opening shot of the building helicoptered in an arc in the approach of the building. The lobby was suitably grand. A John Williams type score swelled as background music. (Iraq is not a nation adhering to copyrights just yet.) Classrooms, edit rooms, make up rooms, and a foley studio, complete with SFX of glass shattering, demonstrated the future technical capabilities of the studio. A screening auditorium capable of holding hundreds of patrons was the final location that we cycled through. I asked where the studio would be built. Slí­man Taki is an expansive man. He suggested somewhere out in the countryside near streams and mountains. He is excited by his vision and sees no reason why Kurdistan cannot have a studio one day. He pointed out that the early Hollywood studios were developed simply because filmmakers thought the location was better than New Jersey or San Antonio. (And who would have thought a Mid-East rival to CNN, Al Jazeera, could be constructed in the middle of Qatar?) For now, at least, the simulation technology and his son’s expertise on a laptop are all he has.

That experience propelled me back to the lobby to examine the architectural renderings with similar computerized programs of a new Dream City (the actual name) being constructed outside of Hawler. Various models of homes were available, with floor plans. Some were designs of Turkish, UAE, Egyptian, Iranian style houses. Prices ranged from $160,000 US though most are closer to half a million in US dollars. The blow ups of computerized housing were complete with virtual families consisted of images of smiling mothers, fathers, and children, although closer examination showed some of them to be disproportionate in size from one another, some European appearing — images pirated from some other web site or scanned from a publication and pasted into the computerized simulation of the model.

The Dream City houses also appear in televised ads here. In reality, a drive just outside of Hawler reveals Dream City to be miles of empty acres elaborately walled and gated, with bricked sidewalks. According to the spokesmen, only the central fountain and a few houses have begun construction. A supermarket along the lines of a MaziMart (a Dohuk-based enterprise similar to Target or WalMart) has broken ground next as a part of the development as well. In fact, another Dream City has already been constructed in Dohuk. While the acres appear empty now, the power of computerized imaging has fleshed out the dream for Iraqis and made it virtual reality at least. A fellow academic who traveled with me from the U.S. also came to talk with University President Dr. Sadik about new architectural design for a system of primary and secondary schools. Despite his moorings in the high-tech US, he carried only architectural drawings on paper. Meanwhile, the energetic Kurds have already picked up their laptops and started imaging and designing their own future.

A haze of the dust of reconstruction hangs in the air over this city of over a million and everywhere houses are under construction. New retail facilities, offices and streets are torn up as plumbing and electricity is upgraded or installed. Iraq is a nation that is in the middle of reconstruction at least in the relative calm of the Kurdish north. But the visions of a possible prosperous future for a “Kurdistan” — within Iraq or outside it– are everywhere on laptops, on television, pointing to a dream, which, though simulated for the moment, seems to propel energy, hope, and, if the Kurds are lucky enough, investment.

Image Credits:
1. 3D City

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