OVER*FLOW: The Oscar’s Slow Lurch Toward Relevance and Diversity
Shawna Kidman / University of California San Diego

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

Some have argued that a big Best Picture winner brings big ratings, but it’s hardly an exact science. What’s clear is that the audience is in serious decline. Final numbers for the 2019 telecast came in at 29.6 million viewers.

The Academy of Motion Pictures was on a mission to save the Oscars this year. First up was the awards’ well-established popularity problem. Ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low in 2018, with only 26.5 million viewers, down dramatically from 43.7 million just a few years earlier. But numbers weren’t the only issue; the Academy is increasingly perceived as being deeply out of touch with the moviegoing public. Nominees tend to be small films (low in budget, low in box office take) that few Americans have seen, or sometimes, even head of. The Academy has been trying to solve this problem since at least 2008, when they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films; Dark Knight Returns had failed to receive a nomination, and seemingly as a result, the ratings took a hit. This year, looking to further expand the range of films recognized, the Academy leadership floated the idea of a whole new category for best “popular” film. Like their other ill-conceived announcements, including pushing cinematography and editing awards into commercial breaks, the proposal was basically dead on arrival with exasperated Academy members. Also of concern for the last several years has been the Oscars’ considerable diversity problem. In response to #OscarsSoWhite campaigns in both 2015 and 2016 (when not a single non-white actor or actress was nominated) and steady criticism for its tendency to snub films made by or about people of color, the Academy invited nearly 1000 new members this year. The explicit goal was to open its doors to more diverse voters.

At first, these efforts seemed to be paying off. The list of nominees included some very popular films—
Bohemian Rapshody, A Star is Born, and Black Panther—as well as some very diverse films, including BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and again, Black Panther. And in the end, ratings went up, by 12%. But it remained the second-worst rated Oscars ever, and the Best Picture win went to Green Book, a film criticized for being a simplistic racial reconciliation tale. A throwback to prior disheartening winners (e.g. Crash or Driving Miss Daisy), the movie reminded everyone that the Oscars’ hoped-for-changes, if they come at all, are likely to materialize very slowly. There’s also the not-so-small fact that the Academy can only give Oscars to films that actually get made (and have enough support from their distributors to receive massive awards-season marketing campaigns).

Chadwick Boseman seems to speak for the whole room when he reacts to Green Book’s win for Best Picture. Meanwhile, and not caught on camera, Spike Lee tries to storm out the back of the theater.

For this reason, Black Panther stands out to me as a particularly intriguing Oscar contender. As an incredibly popular and genuinely diverse film, it was everything the Academy wanted and needed this year. But back in early 2016, when Disney, Marvel Studios, and producer Kevin Feige hired Ryan Coogler to direct the film, they likely weren’t thinking of racking up Oscars. They had plenty of other reasons to greenlight the project though, which had been in and out of development since the mid-1990s. Marvel was facing condemnation for, among other things, its failure to build a superhero film around anyone other than a white male; around the same time, DC responded to similar criticisms by finally prioritizing Wonder Woman, which also proved very successful both critically and financially.[ ((There are volumes of blog posts, comment sections, and online articles from 2014 and 2015 (and also before and after that window) that make these critiques as well as track Marvel and DC’s responses to them. See, for example, Jeet Heer, “Superhero Comics Have a Race Problem. Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Fix it?” The New Republic, Sept 22 2015 and Monika Bartyzel, “White Spider-Man and Marvel’s Diversity Deflection,” Forbes, Jun 23 2015. Marvel announced Chadwick Boseman’s attachment to the role in Oct 2014 and Ryan Coogler’s involvement in Jan 2016.))] As Marvel tells it then (or at least as their PR machine claims), this was a relatively easy decision on the part of producers. What’s more interesting and perhaps surprising, then, is the fact that the young and extremely talented Ryan Coogler agreed to sign onto the film. Ava DuVernay had already turned down the job (she decided instead to make A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney). And Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station became a Sundance darling, and whose critically acclaimed Creed had just passed the $100 million mark, had an enviable position in Hollywood and the power to pick his next project.

He chose Black Panther, a franchise film with blockbuster potential. Although tellingly, he did not approach it like a typical comic book film. Coogler selected a mostly African and African-American cast and a diverse creative production team with experience from the indie world. It included two women of color, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who ultimately won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in two of Oscar night’s most gratifying moments. As far as the film’s creative process, when Coogler describes its conception, it’s almost always in terms of his cultural identity, his background in Oakland, and his ancestral roots in Africa. Although we can assume he researched old comics before writing the film, in interviews, he always chooses instead to point to his more significant preparation, an exploratory trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped him better understand the region’s traditions, landscapes, and struggles. In the end, he made a political film, with a progressive message about colonialism and about black life in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, as a comic book movie, Black Panther is also action-packed, visually dazzling, and brimming with witty one-liners.

The first woman of color to win for Best Production Design, Hannah Beachler thanks other members of the crew (including Ruth E. Carter and Rachel Morrison), director Ryan Coogler, and producers at Marvel, with Kevin Feige (but not Coogler) featured in a cutaway. She ends on a heartwarming note: “I did my best and my best is good enough.”

In the past, we may have expected to see a creative team like Coogler’s—filmmakers with a distinct vision and clear message—assemble around a movie in a more traditionally respectable genre (perhaps a literary adaptation or a war film), or in other words, conventional Oscar-bait. But if they had, nobody (at least outside of LA or NY) would have seen their vision or heard its message. The serious-minded mid-range films of the past, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), that won both awards and audiences, have largely disappeared; they’ve become the exception instead of the rule. The studios gradually turned instead toward tentpoles. And then, beginning in the early 2000s, they doubled-down on the strategy, building up on private equity-funded slate financing, transmedia storytelling, and IP-based franchises. Comic book films moved to the center of a new multimedia mode of production in Hollywood and they remain there today.[ ((Jay Epstein, Thomas Schatz, and Harold Vogel all discuss facets of this structural transition. See Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012); Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Mcdonald and Janet Wasko (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 13-42; and Harold Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). I also discuss this transformation, and the rise of comic book films, in my forthcoming book, Comic Books Incorporated (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).))] Meanwhile, the awards shows have been left to lower-budget “indie” films, a space that’s been relatively easy for companies like Netflix and Amazon to break into (despite an ever-evasive Best Picture win). But if a filmmaker is interested in reaching big audiences and big buzz, Netflix cannot get them there. Comic books and franchises are the only way to access the masses, largely because they’re the only products Hollywood studios will put the full weight of their considerable machinery behind. That Black Panther was the very first comic book film nominated for Best Picture shows how out of touch the Academy is, not only with the American public, but with Hollywood itself, which, as an ecosystem, has come to depend on the lifeblood of superheroes.

In the future, we’re likely to see more comic book movies on Oscar night. But this won’t be because the Academy itself is transforming (even if it does, ever so slowly, lurch toward the future). It will be because more gifted and capable filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins will choose audiences over awards, bringing their significant talents to big IP-based franchises—movies too big for the Academy to ignore. It’s a little ironic actually. Despite its blockbuster status, Black Panther was Coogler’s first significant showing at the Oscars; both Fruitvale and Creed were overlooked, with only the latter receiving a nomination, for the performance of Sylvester Stallone. I wonder how much that 2016 snub impacted Coogler’s decision not to chase a traditional awards film as his next project. It’s yet another reminder that if the Academy fails to fully transform and recognize diverse talent, it will make itself and the kinds of films it has historically supported even more irrelevant.

Image Credits:
1. The Hollywood Reporter on Oscars’ Declining Ratings
2. Twitter Reacts to Chadwick Boseman Reacting
3. Hannah Beachler’s Lovely Acceptance Speech on ABC




From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women, Pt. 2
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

This is the second part of a series. For part one, click here.

The televised awards ceremony creates its own form of melodrama: nominees’ faces filled with anxious hope, from the ingenue to the seasoned star, the surprised delight (or disappointed congratulations to the victor), and of course, the tearful often protracted narrative of the artist’s rise to this celebratory moment. At the Golden Globes this year, Regina King’s speech for Best Supporting Actress started as an alternately misty-eyed and revelatory listing of her collaborators for If Beale Street Could Talk. But then her speech took a turn as she self-reflexively noted that this was her chance to talk about issues larger than her personal experience—namely, the Time’s Up Movement. The “wrap it up” music began to play, but nevertheless, she persisted. And rather than raising the volume and cutting away from her, the song quieted and the camera remained fixed on her, allowing her to finish. The industry—at least those producing the show that night—is finally listening. They broke their time-honored policy to amplify a powerful voice that demanded to be heard.

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Changing production cultures is no easy task. And it takes not just a voice, but a vision. To want to do this work is only a small step in a complicated process. And few companies in the industry appreciate the challenges of executing systemic change better than the Lifetime Network. Lifetime’s bold executive move toward equity in its production—arguably its savviest executive decision since the creation of the Lifetime movie—brought about just such transformational change. In Spring of 2015, Lifetime launched Broad Focus, a sweeping employment strategy that aims to establish gender parity in above-the-line talent across the network’s original programming. What has made the program distinctive is that its goal has been not just to hire, but also to support and develop, the work of female writers, producers, and directors. Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Lifetime, conceived of Broad Focus as a way of doubling down on Lifetime’s mission of making television by and for women. [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))] As part of the initiative, Lifetime started scouting for talent, partnering with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and the Bentonville Film Festival, to usher at least one project a year from each through the network’s development pipeline. (Lifetime has also committed to airing one winning film from each of the festivals annually). At the time, A&E Networks’ (Lifetime’s parent company) president and CEO, Nancy Dubuc, celebrated Broad Focus as a challenge, not just for the network but to the industry. “In this day [and] age, it’s hard to believe as an industry we still struggle to fully recognize women’s talents in behind-the-camera roles, especially as directors… Broad Focus will inspire us to look deeper and in nontraditional places to discover women among those storytellers. I’m proud we are challenging ourselves and our friends in the industry to do more to support them.” [ (( Zumberge, M. 2015. “Lifetime’s Broad Focus Hopes to Find Jobs for Women in Hollywood.” Variety. May 6, 2015. ))]

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

A month after the Broad Focus announcement, Lifetime premiered UnREAL, a series in which the network went meta on itself, chronicling the scripting of a reality dating series. The idea struck a chord with audiences, garnering record ratings for the network and abundant critical praise for the show. UnREAL both parodied and fueled the wish-fulfillment storytelling formula, historically so vital to Lifetime’s own success. Up until then, the network’s track record with original scripted programming had been decidedly uneven, with only six series lasting beyond two seasons. [ (( Newman, E.L. and E. Witsell. “Introduction.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 1-17. Newman and Witsell include Any Day Now (1998 to 2002, four seasons), Strong Medicine (2000 and 2006, six seasons), The Division (2001 to 2004, four seasons), Army Wives (2007 to 2013, seven seasons), and Drop Dead Diva (2009 2014, six seasons). We also include here Devious Maids (2013-2016, four seasons) and UnREAL (2015-present, three seasons). ))]

Partnering with the Broad Focus’ initiative, UnREAL‘s creative team ensured not only the hiring, but the financial support of women working on the series—including those at the bottom. Stacy Rukeyser, co-executive producer and later executive producer of UnREAL, noted the impact of subsidizing typical pay rates for assistants on the series. Doing this diversified their pool of job candidates to include those who could not normally work at such low rates without going into debt. (Assistant jobs, which often put novice talent in the same room as people who might one day help them get staff jobs, often pay little. Typically only those people who have saved up funds, or who have family members willing to support them while they take these jobs, are the only ones able to capitalize on these opportunities.) As Rukeyser said, “Paying just a couple more hundred dollars a week opens doors.” [ (( Bennett, A. “Hollywood Harassment: Best Fight ‘Is to Have Inclusion’ — Produced By.” Deadline. June 10, 2018. ))]

In January 2019, Lifetime aired the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. The series extended the promise of the network brand, moving from revealing the drama behind the melodrama of reality television to making a haunting documentary about sexual predation that amplified Lifetime’s commitment to telling more inclusive stories by women and for women. Where other networks passed on Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime believed that the series fit within their brand: this time not as a scripted biopic, but rather as a documentary told through the voices of the young black women who were survivors. But others needed convincing—including filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton, whom Lifetime approached to executive produce the series. “I didn’t want to get involved… And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story [Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B]. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly’… The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” [ (( Lockett, D. “Why Didn’t Surviving R. Kelly Happen Before Lifetime Entered the Picture?” Vulture. January 18, 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/why-surviving-r-kelly-aired-on-lifetime.html. ))]

The trailer itself moves from centering the infamous star to bearing witness to survivors’ stories.

With this move, Lifetime stepped more securely into the realm of making television that matters, with integrity, by women and for women—without going off-brand. Lifetime achieved this by greenlighting the story, enlisting Hampton to serve as Executive Producer, and relying on more than 50 interviews to chronicle Kelly’s trail of abuse and bring the stories of his survivors to light compellingly, journalistically, and respectfully. The focus of the series is bearing witness to the women, not sensationalizing the fall of the infamous star, and thus the frames shift as well, making for novel, nuanced television about the entitlements of fame and the hazards and horrors of comparative invisibility. Where other networks said no, Lifetime said yes. By opting to tell an in-progress story about justice for wronged women–rather than offering a safer, post-facto dramatization—Lifetime has expanded its portfolio of meanings to include words like bold, daring, and activist.

But to capitalize on powerful brand meanings and intentions, companies must continue to invest in talent at all levels. In an interview, we asked Carrig about the importance of economic investment to the bolstering of these initiatives. She responded: “We have to start talking about money and the flow of money and making sure women are in that path of the flow of money. It’s okay to start to talk about money. We’ve thought it’s like this dirty thing that women need to be in that line. If their time is being used—even if it is, in part, a learning experience—I believe in compensating for time.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))]

The network has continued to imagine modes of expanding its reach globally and programmatically. As the network expanded its international reach—with 122% growth in global audience from 2012-2015—executives elected to extend Broad Focus to Lifetime’s worldwide brand through investment in micro-budget content development and in engagement with female talent and audiences through local festivals and markets. Amanda Hill, Chief Creative Officer, International for A+E Networks, said at the unveiling of this plan: “[i]t’s imperative that we use the power of our reach as a media brand to break down the barriers of entry for talented women storytellers.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2015. “A+E Networks’ Lifetime Takes Broad Focus Initiative Global,” Press Release. A+E Networks. October 5, 2015. http://www.aenetworks.com/article/ae-networks-lifetime-takes-broad-focus-initiative-global. ))] In terms of sports programming, while Lifetime was an early supporter of the WNBA, it recently deepened its investment in women’s sports, acquiring an equity stake in the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, and broadcasting games starting in the 2017 season. [ (( Hagey, K. 2017. “A+E Networks Buys Stake in National Women’s Soccer League.” Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2017. ))] Then by building a nightly block around “women who pursue justice and display courage as a routine part of their work,” [ (( Littleton, C. 2018. “Gretchen Carlson to Host Lifetime’s ‘Justice for Women’ Monday Night Block.” Variety. June 4, 2018. ))] the network embraced cultural momentum related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, rebranding its Monday night programming block as “Justice for Women with Gretchen Carlson.” Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who successfully sued Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, uses her voice on Lifetime to continue her campaign—and that of the network’s—to be a strong voice for gender parity.

With Broad Focus, Lifetime made its commitment to equity, care, and corporate responsibility clear internally and externally, improving its chances of achieving employee buy-in and industry success. As Colin Mitchell notes in the Harvard Business Review: “Turning points are ideal opportunities for an internal branding campaign; managers can direct people’s energy in a positive direction by clearly and vividly articulating what makes the company special.”[ (( Mitchell, C. 2002. “Selling the Brand Inside.” Harvard Business Review. January, 2002. ))] Lifetime is now poised to become more relevant than ever as it delivers on its brand promise of making television by and for women with as much responsibility, care, and equity as it can. With this recently refocused mandate, Lifetime can ensure that a wide range of women get to tell a wide range of stories, broadening and deepening representation on its network, and validating the diversity among makers and audiences in the process.

Neither one person, nor one company, can undo long-held entitlements and the unchecked privilege of those who have dominated the media industries. To ensure that well-intentioned individual efforts are not made in vain, they must be coordinated and supported by institutional measures focused on impact and longevity. Many individuals working autonomously can make many other individuals feel cared for, but this approach results in duplicative effort, wasted time, and burnout. Lasting change is possible, but only if Lifetime and its network peers operationalize their values by integrating them into every conceivable level of their organizations and brands, investing in and supporting relevant initiatives, using more inclusive labor practices, and establishing how they will more thoughtfully and comprehensively measure success—and justice.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot from Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (author’s screen grab)
2. Lifetime’s Broad Focus




From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards

PART I

A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.
))]

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ NJ.com. January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)




Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 1
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

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The Deuce Season Two Poster Art
The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Beginning in 1977, five years on, Season Two of The Deuce extends the show’s thoroughgoing investigation of the sex industry in porno-chic New York City. HBO first advertised the new season with an image of late-1970s 42nd Street under a caption that read: “Punk, disco and porn.” Beyond signaling a certain pop culture milieu, these three words signify a sort of cipher for the show’s complex audiovisual world-building techniques. Because, from punk shows to ad hoc discos to female-directed arthouse porn to a cabaret-styled gay bar battling “noise complaint”-based zoning restrictions, The Deuce continues to present a story largely focussed on the labor of (sub)cultural production, the sonic production of social spaces, and the power dynamics of an exploitative capitalist logic working to absorb or silence them.

Similar to the invocation of Curtis Mayfield’s aestheticized sociological critique during the first season’s title sequence,[ (( Matthew Tchepikova-Treon, “What Kind of Bad?: Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce,” Jump Cut, no. 58 (2018). ))] The Deuce S2 similarly applies “This Year’s Girl” (1978) by Elvis Costello & The Attractions—a satirical number criticizing the commodification of women’s bodies through the circuits of mass media—with singer Natalie Bergman’s voice added into the multitrack master tapes from the song’s original recording for heightened tension.

Punk. The word itself reaches back centuries and even carries with it an etymological link to prostitution. In Shakespeare’s 1603 play Measure for Measure, a young woman engaging in a bed-trick[ (( A common plot device in the playwright’s early tragicomedies, see: Julia Briggs, “Shakespeare’s Bed-Tricks,” Essays in Criticism, Volume XLIV, Issue 4, 1 (October 1994): 293–314. ))] tells an inquiring duke that she is neither a wife, widow, nor maid. The duke replies, “Why are you nothing then?” Another man then follows the duke’s misogyny-whisked grouse with: “My Lord, she might be a Puncke.”[ ((William Shakespeare, Neil Freeman, and Paul Sugarman, The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type (New York: Applause, 2001), 81. ))] Centuries of varied utterances transformed the word from prostitute into a verb denoting the act of sodomy, then referent for a male homosexual, and eventually a general signifier for social ‘trash’ and debauched street youths, etc.[ ((Also see: Tricia Henry Young, Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 7. ))] Seventies punk culture, with its embrace of aesthetic excess, social transgressions, and explicit gender reformations, embodied all aspects of the word, including its attendant ideological contradictions. But further still, as Adam Krims argues in his study of music and cities transformed by “post-Fordist” modes of capital accumulation, Seventies punk and new wave also “announced different perceptions of city life, in which squalor and class-based rage could no longer be denied or contained.”

Abby’s Jukebox

The Deuce set up its engagement with punk’s historical future back in 1972, through a scene in Season One involving NYC musician Garland Jeffreys at the Hi-Hat performing the Continental organ-driven classic “96 Tears,” a song written and originally recorded in 1966 by ? and the Mysterians, whose sound and style motivated Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh to first use the term “punk rock” (in popular print) while describing the band in 1971, years after hearing them live.[ ((Creem, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1971). For Marsh, the value of the band’s “new sound” paradoxically came from its return to a street-inspired form of rock before the age of arena-sized spectacles. Charlie Gillett makes the anachronistic suggestion that “96 Tears” might have been “the last pure punk record,” probably on account of Marsh’s original claim. See: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 35. ))] During the scene, Abby mentions to Vincent that she first heard Jeffreys and his band playing a rent party down at St. Marks Place. Along with calling up the origins of “punk” in early rock criticism, this pop culture citation looks ahead to the first wave of punk bands who would soon populate the East Village, while also nodding back to 1920s Harlem and the city’s long tradition of underclass tenants organizing early blues and jazz apartment shows to battle slumlording tactics and help pay rent.[ ((See: Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89-125. ))] Such a moment demonstrates not only The Deuce’s intricate use of music-history-cum-urban-geography, but also works to identify the social stakes involved for the show’s characters.

In 1977, with the music’s antibourgeois teeth now on full display, Season Two finds Abby managing the Hi-Hat and operating the bar as a material nexus of NYC punk’s “subcultural capital” now flowing through Manhattan alongside political influence and boffo profits from prostitution and porn. As Sarah Thornton reminds us, subcultural capital always emerges from particular social spaces,[ ((Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996). ))] and in this season’s first episode, Abby uses the bar before opening hours to meet with a young self-described “feminist dancer”[ ((The show’s writers here artfully gesture toward second-wave feminism’s important debates between anti-pornography activists and anti-censorship feminists concerning the cultural forms and social functions of porn. For a detailed account of this history and a thorough analysis of these debates, see: Linda Williams, Hardcore, 16-30. ))] experiencing “labor hassles”—which Vincent dismisses as “Chairman Mao bullshit”—after organizing strippers at the Metropole Cafe near Times Square to stage a three-day walkout. Abby suggests that they “book a band, do a fundraiser” at the bar and donate cover charges to the dancers for lost wages during the strike. After their meeting, Abby goes to the jukebox, now stocked with period-perfect records, and plays “Prove It” (1977) by Television, Richard Hell’s band forever associated with the forging of New York punk at CBGB. Throughout the season, we additionally hear The Runaways (“Born To Be Bad”), Iggy Pop (“Sister Midnight”), Wire (“1 2 X U”), Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Hong Kong Garden”), T. Rex (“The Slider”), Wyldlife (“The Right!”), The Patti Smith Group (“Ask the Angels”), the Ramones (“You’re Gonna Kill That Girl”), X (“Adult Books”), etc. Later in the same episode, recalling the Hi-Hat’s early punk permutation by way of “96 Tears,” we similarly hear a band perform the 1976 underground hit “New Rose” by The Damned.[ ((In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Elvis Costello, when asked about his cultural and discursive associations with punk music, said, “The Damned were the best punk group, because they had no art to them… They were just—nasty.” ))] The first of the London punk bands to tour the U.S., The Damned did in fact perform at CBGB in 1977, but the scene’s effectiveness comes in part from the (unanswered) question whether or not this is The Damned or another band covering their song.

A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.
A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.

Photo by Ebet Roberts.
The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977.

On the level of formal aesthetics, Abby’s jukebox and Hi-Hat concerts underscore how, through deeply informed diegetic sound design, The Deuce uses punk music as a means of sonic verisimilitude that remains attuned to the labor involved in punk’s radical cultural production writ large. However, this is no utopian enterprise. The Deuce effectively utilizes punk culture by aligning the music’s inherent contradictory impulses with, rather than against, the hierarchical forces of capitalism at work throughout the show. After all, the same 1970s media coverage that originally hyped punk’s moral panic to sell newspapers not only likewise helped sell records, but Dick Hebdige, in his classic subcultural study of punk style and society, even dates the commencement of this coverage to a particular incident in 1976, when a young woman was “partially blinded by a flying beer glass” during a punk show in London’s own red-light district.[ ((Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979), 142. ))] The Damned performed at that same show.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
The Deuce addresses punk’s vexed relationship with commerce in comedic terms at one point when Candy, in need of further funding for her porn feature, Red Hot, asks Abby, “All your friends, with their music and their film, and their gallery shows—where do they come up with the money?” Behind a side-eyed smile, Abby replies, “Most of them get it from their parents.”

Eating Cannibals

In a 1979 Village Voice column examining the shared aesthetic between NYC art-punk bands and “new wave” filmmakers (who also often shared exhibition spaces), J. Hoberman observed: “Drifting across the Bowery, fallout from the 1977 punk ‘explosion’ continues to spawn art-world mutations.”[ ((J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” Village Voice, May 21, 1979. ))] And part of what Hoberman identified was a politically powerful style “shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge” and sexual violence he compared to “the aestheticized violence of 42nd Street,” referencing both the Deuce proper and the fast-burning exploitation films of the era that circulated through its so-called grindhouse theaters. By the end of the piece, Hoberman concludes that punk’s shared cultural project, predicated on shock-and-awe absurdity, had perhaps unintentionally produced a form of social realism instead. We hear a sonic representation of Hoberman’s suspicion during a particularly affective scene late in The Deuce Season Two.

Working with former prostitute, Dorothy, to address the dangerous conditions of sex work on the streets, Abby decides reluctantly to use payout money from Vincent’s mob-backed sex parlor to fund free health clinics for the women. In due time, however, a group of pimps murder Dorothy once her work becomes bad for business. Soon after, another prostitute walks into the Hi-Hat and through tear-glassed eyes silently communicates Dorothy’s death to Abby behind the bar, the camera trained on these women’s faces. In this moment, we hear only the erratic fits of electric feedback and metallic dissonance from a punk band checking their sound off screen.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)
During Season Two’s closing montage, after Dorothy’s murder, Abby sits with envelops of cash as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sings, “Mystery achievement, you’re so unreal.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art.
2. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre.” (author’s screen grab)
3. The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977. Photo by Ebet Roberts.
4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
5. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Cataloging Authorship:Mad Men at the Harry Ransom Center
Kate Cronin / UT Austin

Don Draper inspiration board

Don Draper inspiration board, part of the extensive Mad Men collection at the Harry Ransom Center

In 2016, the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) acquired two high profile donations related to the critically acclaimed television series Mad Men: a donation of production materials, records, and correspondence from Matthew Weiner, the creator and head writer of the show, as well as a selection of props and costumes from Lionsgate Entertainment. Its provenance as the donation of highly regarded television writer-producer, Matthew Weiner, makes the Mad Men collection an incredibly rich starting place to consider contemporary television authorship. Somewhat less obviously, the donation of the Mad Men materials is also a unique opportunity to consider how institutionally specific archival best practices and individual intellectual labor within archives are informed by and contribute to popular, industrial, and academic constructions of televisual authorship.

The Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center is a unique institution. At once archive, library, museum, and exhibition center, the HRC strives to “provide unique insight into the creative process of writers and artists.” [ ((“About Us,” The Harry Ransom Center, 20 April 2017, http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/about/us/. ))] The Center’s collections span photography, literature, film, and printmaking with a particular strength in the personal paper collections of prominent creative figures. When explicitly asked how he came to choose the Harry Ransom Center, Weiner explained:

I was at the Austin Film Festival and visited the Ransom Center and its extraordinary “Gone With The Wind” exhibit as a tourist. We were at dinner that night with screenwriting team Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter and found out that Michael had overseen the donation of Robert De Niro’s archives. He gave me [Ransom Center Curator of Film] Steve Wilson’s contact, we went to the museum again, I found out that Gabriel García Márquez, Norman Mailer and James Joyce had all been recently added, and from then on it was my hope to be part of such an amazing place. [ ((Weiner, Matthew, Interview by Suzanne Krause, Harry Ransom Center Cultural Compass, 12 January 2017, https://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2017/01/12/interview-with-matthew-weiner-creator-executive-producer-writer-and-director-of-the-series-mad-men/.))]

While Weiner has long referred to long-form, serialized television as art and rhetorically positioned himself as an artist, the donation of his personal papers to the HRC is a deliberate positioning of Mad Men and of Weiner himself within a fine arts context; a calculated investment in the long-term cultural capital that will be generated by situating his personal archive among long canonized figures of the art, photography, literature, and film worlds. [ (( It should be noted that Weiner did not receive a tax break for the donation of the Mad Men materials.))]

The Mad Men collection arrived at the Harry Ransom Center as 150 banker boxes of correspondence, scripts, set plans, shooting schedules, call sheets, casting memos, outlines, notes, research binders, and press kits, as well as a selection of props and costumes. Cataloging these materials—the process of organizing and describing archival materials to most efficiently facilitate storage, access, and preservation—is an immensely time- and labor-intensive process. For this reason, it is common practice for most archival institutions to function with a significant processing backlog. However, the Weiner and Lionsgate donations of the Mad Men materials were made on the condition that the collections be processed right away and made available to the public for research as soon as possible. [ (( Lionsgate Television, a co-producer of Mad Men, provided the funding for the processing and cataloging of the Mad Men materials))]

One of one-hundred-and-fifty bankers boxes of materials to be catalogud

One of one-hundred-and-fifty bankers boxes of materials to be cataloged

The collection, like the rest of the HRC collections, has been cataloged using a descriptive standard for archives, personal papers, and manuscript collections adopted by the Society for American Archivists: DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard). DACS facilitates the 19th and 20th century archival tenets of respect des fonds, encompassing the organizational principles of provenance and original order. Provenance dictates that archives be organized around a specific individual or organization designated as the “creator,” while original order dictates that archival storage and documentation reproduce the organizational logic of the individual or organization designated as the creator. For the Mad Men collection, this means that Matthew Weiner is designated as the creator of the collection, and the cataloging of the collection will document and reproduce his organization of the collection. This descriptive practice posits that the context provided by preserving Weiner’s organizational logics will provide additional insight into his creative process.

Breaking down provenance and original order

Breaking down provenance and original order

In my conversation with the HRC Mad Men cataloguer, Ancelyn Krivack, undoubtedly the person who will come to know the collection most intimately, Krivack noted that she has been most surprised by the extensive documentation of what a collaborative environment and multiplicity of creative visions it took to create Mad Men. Weiner himself has been very vocal about the team effort it took to plan, produce, and distribute Mad Men, from the show’s initial conception to its afterlife on various streaming platforms and now in collecting institutions. When asked what he hoped visitors to the collection might glean from the archives, Weiner responded: “I obviously hope that people who are creative can retrace our steps and see how we became interested in the parts of the story we were interested in, and that the creation of the characters and storylines in the show were the work of many people.” [ (( Weiner, Matthew, Interview by Suzanne Krause, Harry Ransom Center Cultural Compass, 12 January 2017, https://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2017/01/12/interview-with-matthew-weiner-creator-executive-producer-writer-and-director-of-the-series-mad-men/.))] This plurality of creative visions that Weiner enthusiastically affirms would seem to be in direct contrast to the resolutely positivist archival arrangement and description prescribed by DACS, which, in point of fact, was never intended to describe a creative process spanning numerous companies and creative individuals.

Terry Cook has theorized this disconnect between the positivist archival standards and practices formulated in 19th and early 20th centuries, and the postmodernist archival demands of the early 21st. For Cook, archives are not static, passive, neutral repositories that preserve objective documentation that can later be used to reproduce a unified and universally accepted narrative of the past. Rather, he argues, archives should document and describe process, as opposed to reifying conspicuous authorship under the guise of objective neutrality. Cook envisions an archival context that could describe a “dynamic multiple creatorship and multiple authorship focused around function and activity that more accurately captures the contextuality of records in the modern world.” [ (( Cook, Terry, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science 1, no.1, (2001): 22.))] While this optimistic, postmodern archival schema sounds appropriate in theory, it obscures the financial, organizational, and legal challenges most archives contend with on a daily basis. Despite the scientific and systematic veneer of most archival schemas and descriptive standards, the messy reality of archival practice is a constant exercise in fitting square pegs into round holes. Moreover, postmodern archival theory significantly overstates the agency of archives and collecting institutions when it neglects to situate archives within a complex nexus of cultural, corporate, academic, and sometimes governmental interests and investments. For collecting institutions such as the Harry Ransom Center, everyday operations depend on relationships with individuals, such as Matthew Weiner, and organizations, such as Lionsgate Entertainmant, for donations, funding, support, and public relations purposes.

DACS will, however, provide Krivack with a few significant opportunities to point interested parties towards the more collaborative authorial process documented within the collection. Krivack has created a finding aid for the Mad Men collection, that is, a document that serves as a general guide to the materials within the collection. An essential part of any finding aid is the scope and content note which provides the archivist(s) with space to direct interested parties towards the highlights and limitations of a given collection.

The Mad Men Writers' room

The Mad Men Writers’ room

If the Mad Men collection sets a precedent for the continued legitimation of television and television creators within a fine arts context, a more rigorous understanding of televisual authorship will require scholars, critics, and fans to cultivate a degree of archival literacy. A nuanced theorization of television authorship should not depend on the development of entirely new organizational schemas and controlled vocabularies within financially strapped public and private collecting institutions. Rather, television scholars have clear historiographical stakes in developing the industrial and archival literacies that facilitate a qualified understanding of how archives and archivists can at once mobilize the canonization of singular authorial voices while also (if, perhaps, somewhat more quietly) carefully documenting an inherently collaborative creative process.

Image Credits
1. Don Draper inspiration board, part of the Mad Men collection at the Harry Ransom Center
2. The Harry Ransom Center
3. One of one-hundred-and-fifty bankers boxes of materials to be catalogued
4. Breaking down provenance and original order (author’s screen grab)
5. The Mad Men Writers’ room




“Everyone’s Got Theories”: Examining the NFL’s Ratings Problem
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League (NFL) has a ratings problem. While the perennial television juggernaut’s 9.7% drop from the previous season appears consistent with overarching trends in the marketplace, the discourses surrounding such a precipitous decline for one of America’s most reliable programming staples warrant further investigation. Grappling with public relations crises involving concussion research, domestic violence cases, player protests, and recent scandals concerning the job responsibilities of cheerleaders, the NFL must increasingly demonstrate its value as both a business enterprise and a cultural institution. As a result, league representatives such as Commissioner Roger Goodell must validate the NFL’s performance as a measurable entertainment property while simultaneously defending its honor as a morally just and virtuous operation. The immense scrutiny of the NFL’s perceived ethical position by a complex web of invested parties—including networks, sponsors, carriers, tech companies, partnering organizations, audiences, and even politicians—complicates the industrial logics that attempt to make sense of and account for dwindling viewership.

Sports programming, and especially professional football, has proven relatively immune to the many pitfalls facing the contemporary television industry. As Amanda Lotz contends, “The value of live televised sports has increased because so little other programming continues to unite comparatively large audiences who watch at an appointed time and remain captive through commercials.” [ (( Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2014): 14. ))] The promise of a guaranteed audience congregating for a national television event still resonates for networks and carriers, who have committed a combined $50 billion for the rights to NFL games through the early 2020s. Despite losing 17% of its average per-game audience since 2015, the league still mustered 37 of the 50 most-watched television programs this year, along with the top two highest-rated programs in Sunday and Thursday Night Football and the most-watched cable program of the year in ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Monday Night Football

NFL programming has consistently thrived as appointment viewing

Such sustained dominance remains appealing to advertisers, enabling the NFL to withstand the unrelenting fragmentation of the television audience that has accompanied the rise of mobile technologies and the unprecedented proliferation of content. Yet even the league’s apparently ironclad advertising revenue declined 1.2% this year, the result of an increase in makegoods to sponsors anticipating more eyeballs for their commercials. Most notably, the automotive and electronics industries that historically spend the most on NFL ads cut back their spending in 2017. While the Super Bowl on NBC boasted new records for advertising revenue and the price of NFL commercial space continues to escalate, the anxieties surrounding such a glaring ratings slump have at last seeped into the strategies of once-dependable buyers.

League representative are quick to point out that professional football generates considerable activity and engagement beyond the scope of linear television. For instance, Amazon recently secured the rights to two more years of Thursday Night Football, while a five-year $2 billion partnership between the NFL and Verizon will allow smartphone users to stream games whether they are Verizon customers or not. Combined with the stratospheric popularity of fantasy football and a recent Supreme Court ruling that permits states to legalize sports gambling, the destabilization of the traditional television economy only appears to pose a superficial threat to the NFL’s overall brand. However, Commissioner Goodell’s impulse to justify the league’s ratings performance speaks to the sustained and agreed-upon role of these measurements in connoting both current and future success. When asked about the subject on the ESPN talk show Golic and Wingo, he claimed, “I’ll take our ratings any day… I think anybody in sports would say that.” Goodell has frequently shrugged off the NFL’s ratings slide as indicative of broader developments in media technologies, distribution platforms, and related consumption habits, ultimately reassuring critics of the league’s savviness in navigating those trends.

Many analysts have attributed 2017’s dramatic decrease in viewership to the product on the field, citing the failures of large-market teams (the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, e.g.) and the absence of popular athletes due to injuries (Aaron Rodgers) and suspensions (Ezekiel Elliott) as contributing factors. Responding to pictures that appeared to depict sparsely populated stadiums, Goodell noted the transition of multiple franchises to new cities and fanbases, as well as the inevitable dips in attendance that accompany underperforming teams.

Yet, as the quintessence of what Michael Newman has deemed “ethically contested media,” the NFL must negotiate these day-to-day corporate concerns with the ideological tensions that threaten its brand. [ (( Michael Z. Newman, “Is Football Our Fault?”, Antenna, Sep. 17, 2014, http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/09/17/is-football-our-fault/. ))] As Travis Vogan argues, the league’s “immense cultural and economic power is not simply a product of the games it provides… but also its cultural meanings. The sport embodies and articulates characteristics, beliefs, attitudes, and values unique to American history, identity, and everyday life.” [ (( Travis Vogan, Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (UI Press, 2014): 1. ))] Of course, these meanings have proven both dynamic and historically contingent, often illuminating the contested nature of a unified and essential American sensibility that football purportedly represents.

A steady influx of public relations nightmares has challenged the NFL’s vaunted status as a national pastime as well as its presumed invincibility as a ratings powerhouse. For instance, developing research linking tackle football to traumatic brain injuries has revealed the long-term consequences of an organizational culture that emphasizes physical toughness and self-sacrifice no matter the costs. The NFL’s complicity in burying these findings and attempting to discredit those responsible resulted in a $765 million settlement to former players and their families along with a new league mission to demonstrate a commitment to player health and safety. While critics bemoaned the effects of hard-hitting violence on the field, a string of poorly handled domestic violence cases further undermined the NFL’s efforts to flaunt its moral compass. In particular, a mere two-game suspension of Ray Rice proved untenable when video evidence captured the running back punching his girlfriend in the face. The debacle not only instigated a complete overhaul of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, but also a highly publicized new hire in vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson, who was enlisted to implement training and education programs devoted to issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Observing the NFL’s merchandise, advertising, and charitable initiatives in the context of these brand crises, Victoria Johnson interrogates the relationship between the league’s “cultivation of a broad spectrum of female fans” and the strategic “mitigation of acute public criticism.” [ (( Victoria E. Johnson, “‘Together We Make Football’: The NFL’s Feminine Discourses,” Popular Communication 14, no. 1 (2016): 12. ))] With emerging revelations concerning the labor conditions and expectations of NFL cheerleaders, the league must continue to balance such calculated appeals to a desirable demographic with mounting controversies that cast the league’s gestures of goodwill in considerable doubt.

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NFL cheerleaders have filed discrimination cases against their teams

In a season of plummeting ratings, no incident generated as much speculation and debate as the player protests during the National Anthem. Initiated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to draw attention to police brutality against African Americans and other issues of racial injustice, the demonstrations expanded when President Trump referred to those who took a knee as “sons of bitches” and declared that they should be fired for their alleged disrespect of the flag and country. As with the concussion and domestic violence crises, Goodell expressed a desire to move on from the issue and perform the NFL’s sensitivity in accommodating all afflicted parties. After meetings with the NFL Players Association, the league pledged $89 million over seven years to social justice charities. By directing significant contributions to racial equality initiatives, Goodell temporarily extinguished a potential crisis in the same public-facing manner that rule changes and Heads Up Football did for player safety, and that partnerships with NO MORE and Raliance did for domestic violence. However, recent battles over an official anthem policy for the upcoming season indicate that the NFL’s attempts to appear socially conscious will once again clash with the financial imperatives of appeasing powerful owners, skittish sponsors, and disgruntled fans.

The perception that athlete protests have directly resulted in deteriorating viewership heightens the blurring of corporate and ideological responsibilities for a once-untouchable brand. Especially considering Trump’s willingness to intervene in the future of professional football and the intensified discourses about what it should represent for the nation, the NFL’s delicate balancing act has proven increasingly difficult to maintain. Ruminating the league’s conspicuous ratings tumble, Goodell mused, “It’s something that I don’t think there’s a single reason for. Everyone’s got theories.” The fact that everyone has theories about what exactly is plaguing such a ubiquitous media property and resilient cultural institution speaks to the evolving anxieties surrounding contemporary media markets as well as the cultural tensions pervading a highly contested sociopolitical moment. The strategies deployed by an organization still heavily invested in creating media events for a national audience necessitate further examination, especially when that audience proves divided not only in terms of fan loyalties, but also in their appraisal of the league’s ideological orientation and the true meaning of America’s game.

Image Credits:

1. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
2. NFL programming has consistently thrived as appointment viewing
3. NFL cheerleaders have filed discrimination cases against their teams

Please feel free to comment.




Combating Nativist Ideology: Latinx Representation and Immigration Reform
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Families Belong Together Protesters in Austin, TX

In a June 2018 press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen accused the media of ignoring narratives of crime, drugs, and human traffickers when it comes to their reporting of Latinx migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Her comments were in response to public outrage against the current administration’s horrific act of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen’s contention is particularly frustrating to hear considering that journalistic discourses have historically treated Latinx migrants as a threat to the prosperity of U.S. citizens. [ ((See Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, 2nd Edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. and Santa Ana, Otta. Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.))] In entertainment narratives, Latinos have likewise been marginalized and discriminated against since the dawn of Hollywood. [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009., Ramírez Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002., and Valdivia, Angharad. A Latina in the Land of Hollywood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.))] Indeed, both news and entertainment media have more in common with the president’s latest xenophobic and racist round of tweets that have pushed forth Latino threat narratives than they do with calls for progressive immigration reform or better treatment of Latinxs in general.

In this article, I consider Hector Amaya’s work on citizenship excess to explore current Latinx representation in entertainment television. According to Amaya, citizenship excess is an understanding of citizenship as an uneven distribution and accumulation of political capital along ethno-racial lines. [ ((Amaya, Hector. Citizenship Excess: Latino/as, Media, and the Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2013, pg. 2.))] In other words, citizenship excess explains the longstanding exclusion of Latinx voices from a majoritarian public sphere and how the media can empower a nativist hegemony that paints Latinx populations (and immigrants in particular) as a threat to prosperity of white U.S. citizens. In media specifically, citizenship excess is a “pushing down” and “pushing away” of Latinx participation in media discourses and industries. [ ((Amaya, pg. 3.))] Latinxs are pushed down by the use of stereotypical narratives or exclusion from representation in English-language culture and pushed away “through processes of ethnic and linguistic balkanization that separate Spanish-language media” into a Latinx public sphere that is marginalized from the dominant. I note that the current popularity of Latin American drug war narratives in television is contributing to an increased pushing down of Latinx populations. We are beginning to see, however, increased visibility for Latinx creative voices in the television industry that are complicating or combatting these narratives.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix's Narcos
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos

In the past 10 years, Latin American drug cartel storylines have helped drive the plots of border-state set dramas, such as AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), FX’s The Bridge (2013-2014), USA’s Queen of the South (2016-) and AMC’s upcoming Mayans MC (2018-). However, Latinx cartel characters have not been limited to border state settings. Veteran Puerto Rican actor Esai Morales, who once scored leading roles in popular Chicano films in the 1980s including La Bomba (1987), has most recently only found work as a Mexican Cartel leader trafficking drugs and money in season one of Netflix’s Missouri set Ozark (2017-) and as a more mysterious Latino villain in ABC’s Philadelphia set How to get away with Murder (2014-). Netflix’s Narcos (2015-), while mostly set in Colombia, begins with a depiction of a once sunny Miami dragged into the darkness after the infiltration of cocaine from South America in the 1970s. Latino drug-runner stereotypes, however, are not limited to television dramas. They can also be found in dark comedies like Showtime’s Weeds (2005-2012) and HBO’s Barry (2018-). Together these shows promote imagery of a Latino threat that is boundless and omnipresent throughout the U.S. This abundance of programming contributes to a one-size fits all representation of Latinos as tied to criminal or illegal activity. While these shows are not specifically immigrant narratives, they are often the most visible acting roles available to Latinxs and lend legitimization to discourses of the dangers of insecure borders.

Two counter examples to these images of violent criminal activity would be recent citizenship arcs on The CW’s Jane the Virgin (2014-) and Netflix’s One Day at Time (2017-). While these shows do the work of humanizing Latinx immigrants, it is significant to note that in both programs, only elderly Latinx characters gain U.S. citizenship. Put another way, it seems the image of young Latinxs gaining citizenship might be too threatening to be accepted by mainstream television viewers. Although, One Day at a Time critiques this view by juxtaposing Lydia (Rita Moreno) becoming a citizen with that of white male character Schneider (Todd Grinell), a Canadian, receiving his citizenship decked out in U.S. Flag clothing.

One Day at a Time
Schneider in Patriotic Clothing

Lydia is given her citizenship exam by a soft spoken and calm man who is charmed by her flirting and Cuban accent. Despite passing her test with ease, Lydia is forced to wait outside after the agent discovers an unspoken issue with her application. Schneider, on the other hand, is given his test by a terse woman who is uncharmed by his own flirting. Despite insulting the woman’s daughter and home state, as well as admitting to a prior case of public nudity that he later shares with her on YouTube, he is granted citizenship without much visible hesitation. While Lydia waits in the reception room, her granddaughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), remarks, “This is because you’re Latinx. The white guy goes in there and cruises to citizenship despite having nothing to offer this country.” Indeed the show depicts the lack of scrutiny given to Schneider’s application, while a tiny error in Lydia’s papers is enough for the agent to move from flirtatious and friendly to serious in tone. The scene also highlights the stakes of a citizenship test for Latinxs, who may fear deportation and are more likely to be racially profiled by immigration enforcers than a white male.

In closing, I question whether the current state of Latinx representation is enough to counter the nativist hegemony that Amaya argues has made it nearly impossible for a pro-immigration movement to enter the majoritarian public sphere.[ ((Amaya, pg. 85-86.))] On the one hand, the proliferation of drug war narratives is undeniable. However, it is heartening to know that the latest productions, such as Queen of the South and Mayans MC have Latinx showrunners or executive producers who may be more capable of telling nuanced stories that complicate past simplified narratives. Further, outside of drug dramas, there are more shows that offer representation of various Latinx experiences, such as One Day at a Time, Starz’ Vida (2018-), and Netflix’s On my Block (2018-). Combined these developments suggest an industry where Latinx voices are combatting the pushing down that citizenship excess enables.

OneVidaAtaTime participants
The Participants in the #OneVidaAtATime challenge

Further, as Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts has noted, these Latinx centric shows can help launch future producers and stars. [ ((Sanchez, Felix. “Latinos thrive in radio and TV despite Trump.” CNN. 11 June 17. https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/10/opinions/latinos-thrive-in-tv-and-radio-despite-trump-sanchez/index.html))] This has rung true for Gina Rodriguez and Pedro Pascal, who have used their television stardom as launching pads for film roles and producing their own content. Lastly, the recent #OneVidaAtATime challenge to raise money and awareness for pro-immigration organization Raices offers one example of Latinx voices being able to push Latinx issues into dominant industrial discourses. While the challenge began as a way for the writer’s rooms of One Day at a Time and Vida to challenge other Latinx creators to donate to the cause, it soon spread to dozens of other shows, including those with little connection to Latinx storytelling.

Given the nature of rapidly changing news cycles, it is important that we not let coverage of the current Latinx immigration crisis fade. I also believe, however, that in entertainment media, recent developments point to the potential of not just narrative television, but also music and other forms of popular culture to bring more inclusive and pro-immigration discourses into a majoritarian public sphere in order to combat the nativist hegemony that is currently driving immigration policy.

Image Credits:
1. Families Belong Together Protesters
2. Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar
3. Author’s Screengrab
4. The participants in the #OneVidaAtATime Challenge

Please feel free to comment.




:30 Spot on Life Support?: Considering Media Advertising Options
Justin Wyatt / University of Rhode Island

:30 Spot on Life Support?

When viewers are asked about their sources of awareness for a new TV show, almost without fail, ‘television commercials on the network’ emerge as the leading response. Intuitively, it makes sense: viewers of a particular network are ‘captive audiences’ to be exposed to promos for new shows, and, with any luck, the like-minded show being advertised fits with the show being watched. In 2014, reviewing results from an audience questionnaire, I found that ‘social media’ had supplanted TV promos as the key source of awareness for a particular new show. Suddenly even one of the most trusted adages of television marketing needed to be thrown out the window. Of course, the exciting – and terrifying – aspect of the period was how many other truisms of television marketing were being revised, reformed, and sometimes simply rejected by the new variety of options for TV consumption. I want to consider one specific battleground from this arena: the role of digital vs. television advertising. [ ((Brian Steinberg, “Do TV and Advertising Belong Together,” Variety, September 18, 2014,
http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/do-tv-and-advertising-still-belong-together-1201308758/.))] Rather than push to conclusions on the relative merits and liabilities of each, I am interested in the ways through which the media industries have negotiated a dialogue over these advertising forms. This dialogue enacts certain strategies of resistance against the encroachment of digital advertising, but, over time, even this resistance has become frayed. More recently, some industry leaders have made a larger argument that is probably more relevant: what role does advertising play at all for consumers, viewers, and audience members?

Markers in the Timeline

Going back to 2007, Ryan McConnell’s Advertising Age article, ‘How the Ad World Is Dealing with the Decline of the :30,’ focuses on the financial accommodations being made in TV advertising to create spots at a lower cost. [ (( Ryan McConnell, “How the Ad World’s Dealing with the Decline of the :30,” Advertising Age, 78.45, November 12, 2007: 14.))] This shift toward online video and alternate platforms paralleled the economic downturn at that time to privilege more cost effective ways to connect with consumers. Digital ad spending grew year-by-year until, by 2017, it finally outstripped TV advertising ($209 billion for digital and $178 billion for TV). [ (( Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, “2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV,” Recode, December 4, 2017, https://www.recode.net/2017/12/4/16733460/2017-digital-ad-spend-advertising-beat-tv. ))] Looking solely at the US market, eMarketer forecast that the percentage of TV ad spend would be topped by digital ad spend in 2017, with increases leading to a 12% gap by 2020. [ (( “Digital Ad Spending to Surpass TV Next Year,” eMarketer.com, https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Digital-Ad-Spending-Surpass-TV-Next-Year/1013671.))] The death knell for television advertising is confounded by the simple fact that TV advertising is still, in fact, slowly growing. Brian Steinberg reported that the 2017 network ‘upfronts’ demonstrated a 3-4% gain for advanced advertising commitments compared to 2016. [ (( Brian Steinberg, “How TV Tuned in More Ad Dollars: Digital Doubts, Drugs and Desperation,” Variety, July 13, 2017, http://Variety.com/2017/tv/news/2017-tv-upfront-advertising-measurement-1202494620/.))] Further, the pace of digital advertising growth has slowed, making the ‘threat’ less of an immediate concern.

US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total) — Projection

Strategies of Resistance

The trajectory of revenues for digital and television ads is only so interesting. In our consumer society, goods are there to be sold and bolstering awareness, image, and consideration through advertising and communication, of any form, remains absolutely central. More thought-provoking are the ways through which the industry has attempted to shape the image for TV vs. digital advertising. The model of television advertising has been crucial to commercial television since the days of single show sponsorships. It is hardly surprising that the industry has marshaled a robust ‘campaign’ on multiple fronts to protect TV advertising as a form.

One of the fronts for this resistance has been quantification. The standards for evaluating and counting the experience of watching an online video ad have been in process, with several purveyors offering ways to understand volume, sentiment and engagement with online video. Given that Nielsen ratings are the accepted currency for TV ratings among content providers, agencies, and consumer brands, this monopolization makes for an easy and reliable way to understand audience, even if there are serious and ongoing debates on how Nielsen has accounted for quantifying cross-screen viewing. The multiple options for online measurement, with Nielsen just one of many players at the table, encourage questions on the efficacy of digital advertising: how long do people watch? What’s the context of their viewing? How does engagement differ compared to encountering :30 spots on TV?

These question underline a recurring theme of resistance: to suggest that the online video ad experience is qualitatively different than the TV ad experience. In 2016, Geri Wang, then ABC Sales President, offered a vigorous examination of digital advertising. [ (( David Lieberman, “ ABC Tells Advertisers That TV Spots Sell Better Than Digital Ones,” Deadline, May 17, 2016, http://deadline.com/2016/05/abc-tv-ads-sell-better-than-digital-1201758341/.))] Her position was that the concept of prime time equals a ‘promise of quality.’ So, in effect, the television advertising experience is bolstered by this preferential screen. The pitch was accompanied by a report from Accenture, a high-profile consulting and strategy firm. The benefits of multiplatform advertising were proclaimed, with the distinct ‘halo effect’ of television spots over the rest of the advertising package. For digital, marginal rates declined quickly and the value of long-form (=TV) vs. short-form (=online) video were identified. The bottom line was that ‘TV drives sales,’ digital was seen as a useful, but secondary, augment. Separate from the ABC position, a variety of limitations have been leveled against digital advertising: click fraud, ad blocking, and the placement of video next to objectionable content to name just a few of the complaints.

Steve Whittington (Executive Director, Consumer Data & Analytics, Disney/ABC TV Group) Discusses the Accenture Study

The other broadcast networks also have made a spirited defense of TV advertising. NBCUniversal Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Chairman Linda Yaccarino presented evidence that premium video delivers 4 times the brand awareness as social media and 11 times more than short-form video. The message is that premium video is essentially a different product than digital advertising. The value and engagement levels make digital a much less appealing prospect. [ (( David Lieberman, “NBCU Ad Chief Blasts Digital Platforms For Links To “Objectionable” Content,” Deadline, May 15, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/05/nbcu-ad-chief-blasts-digital-platforms-links-objectionable-content-upfront-1202093635/.))] CBS Research chief David Poltrack in December 2017 offered an even stronger position by asserting that TV is in a growth period, arguing for the health of TV advertising. [ (( Dade Hayes, “CBS Research Guru David Poltrack Sees “Bright Future Ahead” For Broadcast TV,” Deadline, December 4, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/12/cbs-research-guru-david-poltrack-sees-bright-future-ahead-for-broadcast-tv-1202219492/.))] Admitting that measuring audience is still a challenge, Poltrack argued that ‘digital powerhouses’ (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix) are still placing their marketing money in television. [ (( Jeanine Poggi, “CBS Has a Much Different Forecast for TV Advertising Than Agencies Do,” AdAge, December 4, 2017, http://adage.com/article/media/tv-ad-sales/311508/.))] Vouching for the value of TV advertising, Poltrack commented, “Why would you fund your new experimental work with money from the element of your marketing program that has proven to lift return on investment higher than other parts?” [ (( Brian Steinberg, “CBS Makes Pitch To Keep TV Advertising Dollars From Moving To Digital,” Variety, December 8, 2014, http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cbs-makes-pitch-to-keep-tv-advertising-dollars-from-moving-to-digital-1201373770/.))] The point is a valid one, but swipes aside a set of other issues: how has cross platform viewing impacted engagement and brand recall of TV advertising? What are the demographic differences (especially among millennials) present in consuming TV advertising? How do ‘cord nevers’ even expect TV advertising to be part of their entertainment equation?

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television

‘That’s (TV Advertising) Entertainment!’

Being loyal to their company or optimistic about the future of a medium which has shaped multiple generations is, of course, entirely acceptable. And perhaps the issues surrounding digital advertising are warranted. The real argument may not be digital vs. television advertising, but rather how our contemporary society engages with advertising as part of their media consumption. The days of considering how DVRs impact ad recall and viewership seem quaint in comparison. Speaking at a forum in December 2017, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt offered a harsher assessment of television advertising: “Consumers hate advertising. People are running away from advertising in droves, and so that, to me, is the crux of the problem. How do we stop that from happening?…We have to figure out a ways to make those interruptions a lot more palatable, a lot more entertaining, a lot more relational, or they’re going to keep going. And going and going and going.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt: “People Are Running Away From Advertising In Droves,” Deadline, November 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/11/nbcs-bob-greenblatt-people-are-running-away-from-advertising-in-droves-1202215615/.))]

NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Greenblatt’s call-to-action is inspiring since it renews the proposition that advertising, television or digital, needs to have an entertainment quotient as well as a communicative one. What are the implications of this? Clearly, advertising should be compelling on the level of storytelling and emotional engagement. Those are just points of entry for any advertising. Even more persuasive are those moments when advertising can break free of the formal qualities, TV or digital. Experimenting with single show sponsorships, in-show sponsor-related content, and limited commercial interruptions illustrate the ways through which a network can balance internal brand building and alignment of the entertainment brand with the commercial brand. These kinds of formal experiments with program, advertising, and venue may at least lead toward shifting the model of viewer, advertiser, and program content. Perhaps they will also enhance advertising effectiveness beyond the silos of television and digital advertising.

In some limited ways, these experiments in the model of viewer, advertiser and program are already ongoing. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, for instance, focuses on the long-term brand building of network through its shows rather than on Nielsen ratings. As Landgraf comments on his strategy, “I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “FX Chief John Landgraf: ‘I Remain Skeptical About Social Media’ Driving TV Viewing,” Deadline, September 28, 2017, http://deadline.com/2017/09/fx-landgraf-skeptical-about-social-media-1202178980-1202178980/.))] FX launched FX+, through Comcast, in September 2017 allowing viewers to watch commercial free versions of FX shows at the same time the shows are airing on FX. In addition, FX’s past series are also available as part of the service. [ (( Josef Adalian, “FX’s Subscription Service FX+ Is a Big Step Toward TV’s Unbundled Future,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/fx-announces-streaming-subscription-service-fx.html.))] Following an earlier experiment by AMC (AMC Premium), FX+ offers consumers an alternative to commercial entertainment without any delays or dilution to the brand. The FX/FX+ example is offered not as a prescription to solve the issues with advertising consumption, but just as one strategy to reconsider how viewers interact with content and advertising within media. Further trials in the form and structure of advertising are needed to ensure the development of media advertising. The scuffle of television vs. digital advertising should not replace the more global issue of how advertising will function in the context of mass media entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. eMarketer’s Projection: US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total)
2. BeetTV: Project By ABC, Accenture Sees Understatement Of Multiplatform TV ROI
3. David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television
4. NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Please feel free to comment.




Liberal Women, Mental Illness, and Precarious Whiteness in Trump’s America
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

UnReal Season 2

This essay is the first piece of a larger project we are mapping through articles on Flow that examines the ways in which white, liberal, middle-class, educated elites—a demographic that closely overlaps with the target audiences for so-called “quality” TV and streaming content—are complicit in the maintenance and promotion of white supremacy. The press has done some of the work of unpacking the economic and political reasons behind the now-infamous statistic that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. We want to add to that conversation by analyzing a sizeable programming cycle we call Horrible White People shows that has emerged on television in the last 2-3 years.

Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows

We see this representational trend as intimately tied to recession, the emergent mainstreaming of feminism(s), the unmasked visibility of racial inequality and violence, and changes in TV production and distribution models. This column focuses on the cycle’s white women in emotional distress or facing mental illness—women who distract viewers from the plight of minorities most impacted by Trump’s policies and broader political agenda. Like all Horrible White People, these female characters work together to televisually foreground a supposedly precarious, threatened, middle-class whiteness. In the Trump era and on these shows, people are confronted for the first time in several decades with the failure of their white middle-class identity to grant them the privilege of stable or easy-to-find jobs, accessible home ownership, and long-term relationships. The range of emotional distress these characters face is broad, from grief (Fleabag) to pervasive ennui (Divorce, Catastrophe) to textually diagnosed and treated mental illness as on You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and UnReal. Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), the central character on Lifetime’s behind-the-scenes-of-reality-TV soap opera, gives us one of the most overt examples of the racialized dynamic of these sad white women (see also You’re the Worst s3e12, “You Knew it was a Snake”).

The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal

In the first season of UnReal, Rachel, a producer on the Bachelor-clone show-within-a-show, Ever After, returns to work after an on-camera breakdown and several months in hospital under psychiatric care. The slogan on the t-shirt she wears on her first day back, This is What a Feminist Looks Like, becomes ironic in the shot above where a resigned-looking Rachel is photographed through the open sun roof of a limousine, lying on the floor of a car filled with evening gown-decked postfeminist girls looking for love on reality TV. The show’s first season is an often incisive satire of a complex cultural moment in which mainstream postfeminism clashes with the language of (re)emerging feminism coming out of the mouths of Rachel and her mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer). The first season is even self-aware about the racial exclusivity of that emerging feminism and the work that supposedly trashy popular culture like the Bachelor or Ever After does to maintain patriarchy and white supremacy. [ ((See for example, Rachel E. Dubrofsky, “The Bachelor: Whiteness in the Harem,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23.1 (March 2006): 39-56.))] Indeed, it’s those tensions, between Rachel’s expressed progressive politics and her complicity in maintaining and celebrating the status quo via being a very skilled reality TV producer, that leads to her relapse into mental illness (she is pictured in hospital, in therapy, and taking medication, but never given a specific diagnosis in the show) in the backstory leading up to the show’s first season.

The critically panned second season attempts to take the show’s engagement with white supremacy further, but instead re-encodes the centrality of white women’s suffering. Promoted to showrunner, Rachel casts a black suitor/bachelor and textually acknowledges using her racial privilege and position of cultural power to, in her own words, “change the world.”

A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal

You can see just from this promotional image that while the black suitor is centered in the frame and in the text of the show-within-a-show, it is really the two white women flanking him that audiences should be interested in. Rachel, in jeans on the left, stands slightly behind but also above the suitor with a walkie in one hand and the other resting possessively on the suitor’s shoulder. Quinn, opposite in the black suit, leans casually against Darius’s (B.J. Britt) other shoulder. Its casualness makes the pose an eloquent gesture of power. The two women make eye contact with each other, further setting Darius apart and illustrating—for those who know the premise of the show—their control over his performance. Rachel and Quinn’s eye contact also prioritizes the relationship between the two white female frenemies as the most important relationship on the show. So while Rachel directly states her intention to promote black representation, the show’s narrative structure centralizes white women and Rachel’s trauma and sadness over the victimization of black people rather than actually working toward more equitable representation in front of and behind the camera.

UnReal’s second season offers a rare, explicit representation of a liberal white feminist’s efforts to ameliorate racial injustice and her simultaneous complicity in racist cultural structures, including mainstream television. Rachel’s initial recognition of her position of cultural power, both as a white person and as the showrunner of a highly rated reality television show, creates the potential for good ally-ship—using one’s privilege to create spaces where those with less access to power can speak and be heard. But Rachel’s mental illness and resultant erratic behavior instead turns a narrative about police violence against black men into one about white women’s health.

In episode 207, “Ambush,” Darius needs to blow off some steam after being sequestered on set for weeks. He and his friend/manager, along with two of the white female contestants, borrow a car from set and go joy riding. Rachel, seeing the opportunity for dramatic television, calls the police and reports the car stolen. She and another member of the production team state outright that calling the police on two black men in a supposedly stolen car “isn’t going to end well.” Rachel and the other producer hide behind bushes filming the incident as police pull over the car, ask Darius and his manager to step out of the vehicle, and eventually point their weapons at the two black men. Rachel, thinking she can de-escalate the situation, runs out from behind the bushes, startling the cop into shooting both Darius and Romeo (Gentry White).

The rest of the season then shifts not to a representation of unjustified police violence against black men, but instead focuses on Rachel’s deteriorating emotional state as she tries to deal with her culpability in getting two men shot.

In this cycle generally, mental illness does more than represent female oppression, often creating character development and offering insight into a character’s interiority. But taken together, the existence of this trope across a large programming cycle suggests a broader cultural function to the mentally ill horrible white lady character. Rachel’s distress in season 2 parallels the contemporary context of middle-class white women’s hurt or confused responses to criticisms of their version of feminism. Mental distress in these programs, then, doesn’t function as a metaphor for personal or even gendered containment (think Stepford Wives or Gaslight). Rather, it seems to be part of a dystopic vision of the world that includes economic precarity (whether from a gig economy like on UnReal and You’re the Worst, divorce on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, or failed entrepreneurialism on Fleabag and Casual) for the traditionally stable white middle- and upper-classes. Economic precarity is further paired with political upheaval and a relatively rare self-awareness of white privilege and recognition of the ineffectiveness of white liberal politics that these female characters don’t know how to rectify.

This narrative move, centering Rachel’s experience and indeed her control over the entire situation, both foregrounds the power that comes with her whiteness, and offers a fictional version of the ways in which white middle-class feminists so often center their own emotional responses to violence and inequality experienced by others instead of searching for intersectional political responses. So rather than mental illness being a way to contain white women, it’s a way for Rachel to explain her incompetence and actually deleterious contribution to dismantling structural racism. White women’s mental illness then becomes a way to re-contain or control black characters while it alleviates responsibility for structural oppression or indeed for correcting those structures from sad white ladies.

Image Credits:

1. UnReal season 2
2. Just a few examples of Horrible White People Shows.
3. The opening sequence of “Return,” season 1 episode 1 of UnReal (author’s screen grab)
4. A promotional image of season 2 of UnReal.

Please feel free to comment.




A Rose is A 장미 is A 장미 꽃: Translating Television Across Streaming Services
Amanda Halprin / University of Texas at Austin

Different words, same meaning

Different words, same meaning

The Internet has allowed television to go global. Although foreign language content has been a part of American television for decades (e.g., Telenovelas), almost all content aired on American television is in English. As Netflix and other streaming services grow their portfolios and reach, programs in a wider variety of languages are becoming accessible to US audiences. However, the content of these programs varies from service to service, even when the programs themselves are the same, as different services provide different translations. To demonstrate how these services can translate the same content into different phrases, let’s look at 응답하라 1997, a Korean drama available on Netflix, DramaFever, and Viki.

There is already a linguistic difference before you press play. Netflix and Viki translate “응답하라 1997 ” as “Reply 1997,” while DramaFever translates the title as “Answer Me 1997.” Although both of these titles convey the same general message, “reply” and “answer me” have different connotations, the most obvious being the figure and lack of figure. “Answer me” presents a specific person to the audience: there is a “me” asking for an answer. With “reply,” the speaker is less concrete. A viewer presented with the “answer me” translation might expect the show to have one main protagonist, while a viewer presented with the “reply” translation might not have this same expectation.

The difference in translations is also significant on a more superficial level. Titles are a key component in both drawing in audiences and pushing them away. Although there isn’t a distinct correlation between bad show titles and cancellation rates (as “bad” titles are subjective), bad titles are often cited as one of the contributing factors for low ratings that lead to cancellations (see: Trophy Wife, Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23, etc.). While most English speakers do not have a strong reaction to the words “reply” or “answer” there are some cases where one translation of a word would be preferable over another translation. For example, many people have an aversion to the word “moist.” According to a study published in PLOS One, as many as 20% of American English speakers find the word displeasing.[ ((Thibodeau, Paul H. “A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds.” PLOS One, vol. 11, no. 4, 2016. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153686.)) ] So, when describing something as “slight or moderately wet,” it’s probably best to choose “damp” over “moist” because “damp” has fewer negative associations. Although the words have the same meaning, viewers process them differently.

Subtitles

  • Top Left: Viki
  • Top right: DramaFever
  • Bottom: Netflix

The way viewers process subtitles also affect how they process content. The pictures above all capture the same line of dialogue, found one minute and nine seconds into Reply/Answer Me 1997 ‘s first episode. In this scene, a man (Sung Dong-il), his wife (Lee Il-hwa), and their daughter (Sung Shi-won) are performing karaoke in a singing room. Their time is almost up, so Shi-won decides she wants to sing a song. In the pictured line, her father tells her not to pick a song with English lyrics, as he doesn’t care for them. While Viki and DramaFever fit the whole line into one frame, Neflix splits it into two frames. Putting fewer words on the screen allows viewers to process other visual information in this image, such as the actor’s facial expressions, as opposed to just focusing on the subtitles. DramaFever’s subtitles take the same consideration into account. However, instead of splitting the line into two frames they condensed the content contained in the line. DramaFever’s version cuts out Dong-il grabbing Shi-won’s attention by yelling “Hey!” and removes his threat to “kill her” if she picks an English song. Removing these two components changes how the viewer is first introduced to Dong-il’s personality: “Hey” shows the casual nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s relationship, while “I’ll kill you” (which, it should be noted, is not a literal threat) demonstrates the combative nature of their banter. Both Viki and DramaFever drop the question contained in the line, which again stresses the casual yet combative nature of Dong-il and Shi-won’s banter, while Netflix drops the descriptor “loud” from “English song,” slightly changing the context of their argument. Viki and DramaFever’s use of “loud” is meant to explain that Dong-il doesn’t want to hear an annoying song, while Netflix’s translation could be interpreted by a viewer as Dong-il having an aversion to all English-language songs. All three of these translations are valid.

Translation Chart

Different methods of translation

There is no one “correct” method of translation. The chart above demonstrates different methods of translation divided into two categories: methods that prioritize the initial content of the source language (SL) and methods that prioritize reception of an utterance once it is translated into the target language (TL). The methods of translation chosen depend entirely on the translator’s preference and objectives. Netflix, Viki, and DramaFever have different positions on the translation process. Netflix built on its background of algorithmic matching to develop HERMES, a translator test and indexing system described as “emblematic of Hollywood meets Silicon Valley at Netflix.”[ (( “The Netflix HERMES Test: Quality Subtitling at Scale.” Netflix Technology Blog, 30 Mar. 2017, https://medium.com/netflix-techblog/the-netflix-hermes-test-quality-subtitling-at-scale-dccea2682aef.)) ] Potential translators take the HERMES test and are assigned an identifying “H-number,” which Netflix uses to monitor the number of translators working on any given language and to figure out which translators should be assigned to which genres. The system’s ultimate goal is to “use [HERMES’] metrics in concert with other innovations to ‘recommend’ the best translator for specific work based on their past performance to Netflix,” similar to how Netflix recommends specific content to its users.[ ((Ibid.)) ] Viki’s call for translators emphasizes the fan communities around the shows being translated. Instead of making translation seem like an isolated activity, Viki advertises it as a way for translators to “make new friends” and “meet people from around the world.” They invite those interested in translating to submit language self-evaluations; in addition, potential translators can directly message a “channel manager” (the person who oversees the translation team for a particular program) if they want to write subtitles for a specific show. Viki’s translation teams also include editors, who review the subtitles, moderators, who manage the translators and editors, and segmenters, who cut the videos into segments to prepare them for translation, in addition to the aforementioned channel managers and translators. As with the translators, anyone with access to Viki’s site is able to apply for these positions. DramaFever’s approach to translation is less overt than the other two approaches. In 2014, the site posed an article encouraging users to sign up for WeSubtitle, a “subtitling community” where users could get paid to translate DramaFever’s shows based on factors such as translation ability and schedule availability. However, the website is not taking on new translators as it is currently “at capacity.” DramaFever has not put out a call for translators since 2014. Furthermore, DramaFever’s current advertising strategy emphasizes that its subtitles are written by “professionals.”

Viki

Viki

HERMES

Netflix/HERMES

DramaFever

DramaFever

Although advertising its translators is not part of Netflix’s marketing strategy, this is a major component of both Viki and DramaFever’s strategies. As previously mentioned, Viki positions its subtitles as written for fans by fans, presenting the website as a community where fans can bond over the same content, regardless of language barriers. Viewership communities are also a component of DramaFever’s overall experience, but its subtitles are presented as a separate element, created for fans by professionals. However subtle these differences and their outcomes may seem, these factors push users to choose one service over another. While rose is a rose is a rose, if you asked Google Translate, a rose is a 장미 is a 장미 꽃. The medium may be the message, but so is the messenger.

Image Credits
1. Different words, same meaning
2. Author’s screengrabs
3. Different methods of translation
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Author’s screengrab
6. DramaFever promotional photo

Please feel free to comment.




The Homogenized Queerness of Historical Television
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Borgias 6
A queer seduction in Renaissance Italy on The Borgias between Micheletto (Sean Harris) and Pascal (Charlie Carrick).

How much does historical representation matter? On television, it is in a grey area at best.[ ((Aspects of this topic were originally presented at the Film and History conference in Madison, Wisconsin and QGRAD at UCLA. My thanks to all those who gave feedback there and elsewhere.))] Although many historical series are conceived of as prestige productions, their fidelity to the eras they depict is hardly by-the-book.[ ((As one measure of prestige, 18 of 32 Emmy nominees for the Drama Series Emmy in the past five years (2012-2016).))] In a much discussed, example, The Tudors decided that Henry VIII didn’t need to grow round as he aged. With the exception of the occasional diehard historian, though, most audience members don’t see significant harm in these changes – and perhaps rightly so. The setting, historical or present-day, is ultimately a stage on which the characters and stories play.

If we change the question to how much LGBT representation matters, though, the stakes are exponentially higher. In spite of increased numbers of LGBT characters on television overall, the quality and diversity of their representation remains spotty at best, with the Spring 2016 “Kill Your Gays” [[http://ew.com/article/2016/06/11/atx-bury-your-gays-trope-lexa-100/]] epidemic serving as just one recent example. [ ((4.8% of series regulars in 2016-2017 were LGBT, a 60.4% increase over 2011-2012, according TO GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV reports.))]

It is at the intersection of historical and LGBT representation, then, that we find a curious (or, shall we say, queer) niche: same-sex-oriented characters in non-modern contexts.[ ((Given the brevity of this article, and the paucity of representations in that category, I will not be discussing transgender experiences, although I wish to stress the importance of and need for such representations on the air.))] While little explored, these kinds of representation are arguably even more important than contemporary portrayals of queer experiences.

Yes, portraying modern, everyday queer experiences has great socio-cultural importance. But it’s also important to remember that, historically, the nature of queer experiences have been an especially difficult to track. Across many periods and cultures, people who pursued same-sex attraction often faced dire ramifications for their actions, legal or otherwise. This illicit connotation means that, while historical accounts do exist for the eagle-eyed researcher to find, the archival record of queerness is often hidden from view.[ ((See the revised preface and introduction of Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark collection of primary sources, Gay American History (New York: Meridian, rev. ed. 1992) for further discussion of the trials of writing queer history, as well as that history’s diversity.))] By depicting queer figures in history, then, television has the power to break through this seeming invisibility, and give queerness a voice where many assume it had none.

These historical same-sex experiences, though, are far from equivalent to the present-day concept of homosexuality. Indeed, the Western concept of binary sexual orientations – i.e., of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive and immutable categories of personhood is of radically recent vintage.[ ((Most historians of sexuality more or less support Foucault’s argument that, in the Western context, the contemporary understanding of a “homosexual” as a “species” of person did not begin to take shape until the nineteenth century. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 43.))] And neither this nor any other unified definition of homosexuality has applied throughout history. Quite the opposite: the meaning and experience of same-sex desire has shifted radically across periods and cultures.

Yet many historical television series apply our contemporary understanding of gender and sex to their period, ignoring the ideas unique to that era and culture. This trend is most obvious on shows set in the distant past, beyond the easy recollection of our parents or grandparents. A sampling of such shows featuring queer experiences is in the chart below. By applying a homogenous, contemporary framework to the varied past, these series provide a misleading portrayal of the ever-shifting concept of sexuality in culture.

Distant-Period Series Chart

For example, The Borgias follows the titular clan’s schemes for ever-greater power across the Renaissance Italian city-states. Renaissance Italy was relatively tolerant of same-sex relations, generally speaking. Men often did not marry until their thirties, and then took brides barely in their teens. In this culture of bachelors, sexual relationships often formed between older and younger men.[ ((See here and Laura J. McGough, Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: Disease that Came to Stay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 27.))] The practice became so common that one reformer moaned that “[t]here is no distinction between the sexes or anything else anymore,” and “to Florence” was slang for sodomy in sixteenth-century Germany.[ ((Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Routledge, 1998), 150; Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), 11.))]

Borgias Website 4

Borgias Website 5
The Borgias‘ website frames Micheletto as a tragic figure.

The Borgias does not reflect this historical reality, instead portraying a binary conception of sexual orientation, as well as an idea of undifferentiated intolerance of same-sex actions. Micheletto (Sean Harris), an assassin for the Borgias family, tells his lover Angelino (Darwin Shaw) that the latter’s impending marriage “will be a lie.” Angelino replies that he must proceed anyway, given the punishment for their relationship would be to be “disemboweled and burnt.”[ ((The Borgias, Season 2, Episode 5.))] What’s more, the show’s website describes Micheletto as having a “sexual orientation that has no place in Renaissance Italy.”

A similar transposition of contemporary ideas occurs on Reign this time to Elizabethan England and France. At this time, neither country thought of “homosexuals” as a defined minority (in fact, that term had yet to be invented).[ ((Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop, 29 (1990), 1-19.))] That era of Christianity considered sex between members of the same sex sinful largely because it could not lead to reproduction. Thus “sodomy” was more closely linked to “debauchery” than “homosexuality.”[ ((See N.S. Davidson, “Sex, Religion, and the Law,” in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe Tom Betteridge, ed., Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.))] Yet on Reign, when Mary, Queen of Scots is told that her lady’s suitor prefers men “in bed,” she immediately understands this to mean that he is unfit to marry a woman. The lady in turn unequivocally rejects him, as she sees any romantic connection between them as impossible: “I’d be living a lie forever with no chance of happiness.”[ ((Reign, Season 1, Episode 15.))]

Reign 2
Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) shows shock and instant understanding of a man who “prefers men…in bed.”

A more subtle, but still troubling, example occurs on Taboo, set in 1814 London. Georgian London was home to molly houses or clubs, where men met to make romantic connections as well as to cross-dress. At this time, “molly” meant an effeminate man, but did not necessarily connote same-sex interest.[ ((See Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), and Charles Upchurch, “Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era: Speculations on a Framework,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19.3 (2010), 409-431.))] It is significant for a practice so specific to a historical queer subculture to get representation on television.[ ((Molly houses have also recently appeared on Ripper Street and Dracula.))]

When Delaney (Tom Hardy) discovers Godfrey (Edward Hogg), a childhood acquaintance, at one such club, however, their conversation is still shaped by modern ideas of the closet and gay male identity. Delaney remarks that Godfrey “hasn’t changed” since they knew one another, and Godfrey replies that he was formerly in love with Delaney, a fact Delaney “of course” knew, and the experience of which was “torture…exquisite.”[ ((Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.))] Thus, Godfrey is not understood as merely effeminate, but as having always been imbued with gay male identity, a fact readily apparent to all around him. His association “straight” boys was torturous because crossing the divide between the two categories was wholly impossible.

Taboo 2
Godfrey (left, Edward Hogg) admitting his hopeless love for Delaney (right, Tom Hardy) on Taboo.

While these differences in presentation versus history seem more extreme in distant-period shows, they are still significant in more recent-set historical series.[ ((See here for a list of twentieth-century period programs featuring queer experiences.))] The Halcyon is set in London during the Blitz, a city and time with a fast-developing queer subculture, but which still did not entirely sentence “gay” and “straight” persons to opposite sides of the fence.[ ((For more on the historically distinct queer subculture of early-twentieth-century London, see these books.))] On this show, when the clandestine affair between a well-to-do man and a waiter at his family’s elite hotel is discovered, their discoverer states that, “in my experience, a man doesn’t choose who he falls in love with.”[ ((The Halcyon, Series 1, Episode 6.))] It is perhaps possible that he would have turned a blind eye. It is very unlikely, though, that he would have used the twenty-first century “love is love” and “born this way” rhetorics, and that the couple would have readily understood such language, thus naturalizing it as part of that historical environment.

At first glance, this argument may seem an inconsequential quibble over historical accuracy, akin to the squabbles over Mad Men’s typewriters. However, these representations have much more dire effects than a Remington.[ ((The intention of the writers in making these choices is too big a question for this study, although some preliminary thoughts on the matter can be seen here for further consideration of this issue.))].

First and foremost, these representations homogenize queerness. Queer characters are presented as equivalent to modern homosexuals, with little room spared for bisexuality or any other form of queerness. The place of same-sex experiences within culture is shown as entirely undifferentiated, essentially one long slog of oppression and tragedy. While different types of oppression were the reality in many eras and places, leveling all historical periods minimizes the unique struggles of those who lived through those eras. It is a pity to obscure the multiplicity of ways in which same-sex experiences were navigated in specific environments, and how queer people carved out their own subcultures.

Furthermore, by creating this faux-modern, unvarying slate of queer characters and experiences, these shows frequently fall back on today’s standard queer tropes, most of which reinforce negative stereotypes. The “tragic queer” and “kill your gays” appear constantly: i.e., queer sexuality is a burden that causes personal unhappiness, misfortune, and even death. The seemingly-accepting man on The Halcyon quickly resorts to blackmail. On The Borgias, Micheletto discovers his new lover Pascal (Charlie Carrick) has been selling his secrets. The Borgias order Micheletto to kill Pascal, after which Micheletto flees the city in grief – and permanently exits the show.[ ((The Borgias, Season 3, Episode 9.))] Men seeking sex with other men are shown as predators and rapists (Outlander) or straight men in a easily-dismissible, one-time “experiment” out of “curiosity” (Da Vinci’s Demons).[ ((On Outlander, Captain Randall rapes Jamie in the first season, and the Duke of Sandringham is essentially a villain, revealed to have been secretly orchestrating the misfortunes of the protagonists. Granted, the author of the original book series, has described Randall as a “pervert” and “sadist” as opposed to having a sexual preference, but this distinction is not clear on the show itself. And despite historians’ near-certainty of Da Vinci’s sexual preference for men, on Da Vinci’s Demons, he prefers to sleep with women, with his one-time male-fling a failed experiment.))]

This homogenizing trend is significant beyond the confines of historical series. Rather, it points the broader ability of media to win praise for fleetingexclusive gay moments,” no matter how brief or problematic.[ ((Queer audiences also fall into this trap, such as when the queer media outlet NewNowNext.com (formerly AfterElton.com, now owned by the queer-focused Logo channel) celebrated the scene of queer erasure cited above in Da Vinci’s Demons, for despite the damning context, it contains a kiss between men.))] The question should not merely be quantity of representation, or even quality. As trite is may sound, it is about equality: queer characters should be constructed with equal care as their straight counterparts. Bickering about historical television may seem silly. But given that these shows’ audiences care enough to rage over Henry VIII’s haircut, they must take a stand on an issue with much higher stakes, and demand halfway-decent historical queer representation.

Image Credits:
1. The Borgias (Showtime, 2011-2013), Season 3 Episode 7 (author’s screengrab).
2. Chart created by author.
3. The Borgias official website (author’s screengrab).
4. Mary, Queen of Scots on Reign (The CW, 2013-2017), Season 1, Episode 15 (author’s screengrab).
5. Godfrey and Delaney on Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.

Please feel free to comment.




Primetime Pedagogies: Racism, Primetime TV, and the Limits of Dissent
Phoebe Bronstein, University of California, San Diego

Blackish Cast Photo, courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s Blackish

In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy [ ((Belafonte, Harry. My Song: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, pp. 209-210.))] The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” [ ((Salmaggi, Bob. “Madison Avenue is Dead End,” Los Angeles Times. (November 18, 1960): A12.))]. In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast. [ ((Belafonte, 220.))] Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.

In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.

Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].” [ ((Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin. The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, Sixties Television and Social
Conflict. Eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel. New York: Routledge, 1997, p.11))] As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.

As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” [ ((Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 37))]. Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” [ ((Spigel, 84))]. This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.

The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” [ ((Classen, Steven D. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, p.94))]. Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.

Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” [ ((Spigel and Curtin, 8))]. Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.

Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)

The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation.

Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” [ ((Giroux, Henry. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.” Cultural Studies (14:2, 341-360). 9 November 2010. p.342))]. From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.

Image Credits

    1. black-ish cast
    2. Stepin Fetchit (author’s screen grab)
    3. Bow and Ruby (author’s screen grab)

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