“Captive TV:” A New Reality Format

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

The deep involvement of television in the conduct of war and conflict, not just as an agency of relay but as a constituent factor in the construction of political and military “reality,” is well documented in the literature of international research. However, a new marker of its defining impact would appear to have been reached with the coverage given last month to the Royal Navy’s 15 “hostages” detained in Iran for some 13 days after their seizure in the Persian Gulf while on patrol, allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. This coverage, initially for Iranian television but broadcast selectively across the world, got eerily close to a Big Brother-style reality show in aspects of its portrayal, although how far this was by conscious design remains unclear. The implications of the styling, and of the performances that were required for its “successful” projection, continue to be a major factor in the debate about the whole incident and its aftermath.

Of course images of captives, and of hostages, have a history, one which goes back to forms of triumphal exhibition well before the availability of the symbolic currency of photography, film and television, which so crucially extends the terms and modes of display. More recently, these terms have increasingly shifted towards strategic use – the photo or video sequence as a counter in a game of pressure and sometimes negotiation often played-off in relation to a watching “public” placed by the media in the role of bystander, as well in relation to specific political and military authorities.

What was so different about this affair, this use of “display,” however, was the way in which the whole “theatre of captivity” constructed by Iranian television drew so strongly (and to a degree, persuasively) on benign framings, on the idea of the prisoners as “guests.” The open indication of subjugated status (blindfolds, signs of physical violence, ragged appearance or prison clothing) which has accompanied previous imagery was exchanged for a bizarre range of more affirmatory signs. These included performances not only of “admission” (carried out briskly in confident lecture style, accompanied by maps and pointers), but also of sociability (eating together, smiling and joking, playing chess and table tennis, watching television and reading).

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the theatricalization extended to a final performance of gratitude at release, including handshakes with the Iranian president, much open celebration among the group, interview comments into reporters’ microphones, acceptance and opening of presents and a seemingly cheerful group waving of farewell (dressed not in uniform but in civilian suits).

Not surprisingly, this all presented the British media with some challenges as to how precisely to handle the story in relation to expectation and dominant values. These challenges to tone and to reported detail affected both coverage at the geopolitical level and its routine pitching at the level of the individuals and their families. Uncertainties were latent in nearly all the reporting and explicit in some of it. Even before the captives’ release, media accounts criticising their behaviour and comparing it unfavourably with more conventional notions of prisoner-of-war “refusal” to cooperate were widespread, some issuing from journalists and some from former military personnel and not all from Britain. With the further “performance” of their release in Iran, accompanied by scenes that could, indeed, have come straight from a reality series, the talk of “humiliation” and of “embarrassment” increased.

This caused noticeable tensions in the reporting of their return, where a strong early move to emphasise the need for privacy and to respect personal feelings outside of the limited accounts offered at the press conference was quickly thrown into crisis (indeed contradicted) by the news that those involved would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in some cases for six figure sums. Such an open commodification of the captivity experience, an experience whose public representation had already been the subject of massive, strategic styling by the Iranians, opened up further lines of public opposition and dispute. However, the continuity of media logic was clear. Having been made against their will into kinds of reality show performer, the sailors and marines were being transformed into what in many ways is a now familiar kind of transient celebrity – their temporary but intensive tele-presence as “news” generating further audience “attraction,” the economic justification for a little longer in the mediasphere. Once again, established ideas of “proper behaviour” were initially no match for the volatile dynamics of mediation and the belief, by at least some senior navy officers and their political managers, that to risk playing directly into the media appetite for the story was worth it in order quickly to counter the Iranian-generated version. This phase lasted only two days, after which the earlier decision about allowing stories to be sold was reversed by the Government as a result of a huge political backlash, partly fuelled by the continuingly unflattering portrayal of events coming through from even the captives’ own accounts.

The tensions at work in media and public engagement with the incident were both political and cultural. In both cases what had been seen on television was an absolutely central reference point, even if different interpretations of its status were also part of what was being contested. That levels of duress had been applied to obtain the “performances” was hardly ever in question (although pointed reference to the established record of treatment at Guantánamo was made a comparative marker by some). However, the issue of precisely what degree of co-operation was justified in the circumstances remained in play, however mutedly or with whatever qualification.

British sailors waving goodbye

British sailors waving goodbye

How can we summarise television’s involvement in this incident, the political implications of which are still reverberating? Clearly, the main emphasis must be placed on the way in which the Iranian version of events offered a developing narrative of apparent well-being and co-operation rather than the isolated or at least sharply episodic moments of hardship, suffering and the possibility of imminent death which most previous exercises in captive or hostage images have entailed. This version was certainly not believed “straight” by most of the British audience who watched the sequences, and it is certainly possible that it was not believed (and nor, therefore, was the authenticity of the “confessions”) by many in the Iranian audience either. However, as a performance whose precise conditions of fabrication were unknown, it achieved a sufficient legitimacy of reference beyond that of the complete and obvious “fake.” It was this interweaving of doubtfulness and plausibility which connected it, if only indirectly and by disturbing parody, with the performances of mainstream reality television and which, for many viewers, made the experience of watching it, right through to the handshakes, presents and farewells, so much a matter of conflicting and perhaps alternating frameworks of interpretation and assessment.

Such a strong core of visual portrayal, watched by millions (and often used in loop format by the channels to extend its durational impact) was always going to be central to any subsequent expansion of the range of accounts. This included those short statements issuing from the press conference and follow-up interviews back in the UK (the BBC rolling news channel actually ran the Iranian-sourced “captive” footage on a split screen alongside images of the same person talking live at the British press conference).

Finally, we can note how this whole project of strategic mediatization only worked effectively within the terms of global television, its technology of trans-national relay and its dedicated news channels being quite central to the impact (varied though this is likely to have been) on distant publics.

At the UK press conference on the day following their release one of the marines remarked that the whole thing had been a “media circus.” He would not have known then quite how apt this metaphor would continue to be as the focus of managing, and attemptedly re-working, the depiction of “what had happened” shifted from Iran to Britain.

Image Credits:
1. British navy personnel on Iranian TV
2. British sailors waving goodbye

Please feel free to comment.




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

by: Sarita Malik / Brunel University

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

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

Channel 4

Channel 4

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

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

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

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

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

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

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

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

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

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

Big Brother Brazil

Big Brother Brazil

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Bigoted Brother 1, Forgotten Sisters

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

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

It caused a minor storm.

Shilpa Shetty

Shilpa Shetty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jade Goody

Jade Goody

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protestors

Protestors

We are still waiting for the outrage.

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

Yet they may do well to beware of complacency.

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

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

No wonder we are bemused.

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

And still no one has mentioned the sexism.

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

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

And, yes, we’re still friends.

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Brand Loyalty vs. show loyalty, the strange case of Virgin vs. Sky

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar

“There are flaws in the UK pay TV market which are harming the interests of the consumers” (National Consumer Council, UK)

On Thursday 1st March 2007 customers of Virgin Media digital cable service lost three channels which were owned by rival pay TV provider Sky Digital (satellite). This came after weeks of public dispute over the amount which Virgin Media pays Sky to deliver three of Sky’s key channels. (Virgin also own several channels which Sky pays for and then packages with others to their own customers – it all gets a bit confusing here). Sky wanted to increase the cost but Virgin refused suggesting it was unreasonable and would result in Virgin customers paying more. Sky television (part of the BSkyB group owned in part by Rupert Murdoch) and Virgin Media (formerly two digital cable networks merged in a takeover involving Richard Branson) each blamed the other for the dispute which, now three weeks on still has no clear resolution in sight.

The three channels involved were the 24 hour news network, Sky News, the sport news channel, Sky Sports News and the flagship channel, Sky One, which frequently aired parent company Twentieth Century Fox’s programmes, including The Simpsons, 24, Battlestar Galactica and more recently Lost.

Sky's Lost ad

Sky’s Lost ad

I’m not familiar with the situation regarding cable providers outside of the UK so don’t know if it similarly complicated, but what I find interesting in this case is how the companies regard their customers in this dispute.

Fans and general audiences have always been at the mercy of the broadcaster or service providers in the UK. We wait each year to find out who has bought the rights to which new fall shows from the US and the providers know that they can count on fan loyalty to increase their revenue. In recent years one terrestrial channel outbid another to show reruns of The Simpsons which resulted in increased viewers on the successful channel, however the audience did not lose out as all terrestrial channels are free to air and available to all. This is fine within the free to air market, but the situation changes when the pay TV market is taken into account.

In the case of Sky, they have attempted to position themselves as the provider of the best new shows by understanding audience loyalty. They successfully secured the rights of Lost and 24 over the terrestrial channels hoping the fans would follow and subscribe to their product. (They have always been able to secure the rights to expensive sporting events too). The result of this has been an increasingly segmented UK audience with Sky only available to those who can afford the extra fee each month, or indeed are willing to have a satellite dish installed. They follow each new acquisition with a heavy marketing campaign to entice viewers to take on the package in order to get their favourite shows. This type of marketing has always been quite successful for Sky and they have used The Simpsons for many years at the heart of their campaigns, emphasising the individual, popular shows rather than the whole package.

Sky's 24 ad

Sky’s 24 ad

In the dispute with Virgin, Sky launched a campaign to entice Virgin customers to switch to them by specifically advertising the shows they have now lost, using such slogans as “Don’t lose Lost, Virgin Media have dropped brand new Lost” and “Get Jack back, Virgin Media have dropped brand new 24”. These poster campaigns target the fans of these shows so deliberately that the company doesn’t even mention any other benefits of their service, as well as using ‘dropped’ to reinforce that the blame was on Virgin.

However Virgin appears to be more concerned about customer satisfaction to their service, and trying to reward loyalty to the provider rather than just the shows. In an open letter to their customers, the company emphasised the notion of ‘fairness’ and claimed to be standing up to bullying tactics. While the hit shows are no longer available to their customers, the company has secured the repeat rights of a variety of other shows, (including repeats of Lost) to be made available in their new ‘On Demand’ format. Here the companies clearly differ on what they believe the audience’s priorities are. Virgin have approached the debate recognising that technological developments such as On Demand could factor heavily in their audiences viewing habits and so market appropriately. They also emphasis a longer term strategy of customer/audience satisfaction through a good and ‘fair’ product, whereas Sky try to capitalise on the current popularity of certain programs.

We have seen the effect audiences can have on the success of shows in studies on audience reception and fandom. This supports Sky’s program driven marketing strategy as the studies have repeatedly demonstrated the loyalty of fans to particular shows, which Sky is counting on, particularly in this dispute with Virgin. However (as we have discussed in this journal), alternative broadcasting methods are increasing and giving audiences much more choice. Legal and illegal downloads, DVD box sets and the old favourite of borrowing tapes of shows from friends, are all viable methods for audiences to find alternative ways to get their favourite shows without having to subscribe to Sky’s services and they are starting to do so.

When Sky secured the rights to Lost over free to air broadcaster Channel 4 last November, television discussion forums, such as digitalspy.co.uk, were full of comments from disgruntled Lost fans, who quite pointedly suggested they would use any of the alternative methods mentioned above rather than pay for the satellite channels. Similar comments appeared from Virgin customers after the loss of the three channels, who clearly agreed that Sky were to blame and refused to switch. They were again, vocal in their support for alternative methods of reception.

Since the dispute began the viewing figures for Sky have dropped drastically on both 24 and Lost, which would suggest that the Virgin customers made up a substantial part of Sky’s audience. Ratings slumps and rumours of advertisers looking to leave the channels involved suggest that perhaps fan loyalty is not enough when the alternative broadcasting methods are becoming easier and more prevalent and that perhaps neither provider should really be further dividing the audiences with this type of dispute.

In my opening quote, the National Consumer Council suggest that the market is flawed and having an adverse effect on the audiences. I would agree that some audience members who are not yet engaged with new technological alternatives may be losing out when carriage disputes emerge between rival providers. However it may by the providers who have to take into account the new technology and begin to realise that while fans may be very loyal to their shows they will seek them out wherever they can with the easiest, and quickest, methods available to them, not necessarily from the big television providers.

Image Credits:
1. Sky’s Lost ad
2. Sky’s 24 ad

Please feel free to comment.




The Open University, Media Studies and New Times

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CHECK OUT OUR LATEST SUGGESTED CALLS FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

The Open University

The Open University

I’ve spent much of the last three years putting together with colleagues a new undergraduate media course for The Open University. Many US readers of Flow will be familiar with this British institution. Its mission is to provide part-time higher education for anyone who wants to pursue it in the form of supported distance learning. Yes, anyone. Thought up in the heyday of European social democracy by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, it goes without saying that this mission was enormously unpopular with Britain’s famously inegalitarian press when the university started up in 1970. Yet somehow the OU has survived newspaper scandal, Thatcherism and even, so far, the galloping onset of marketisation and audit culture in British universities. And it’s a non-profit, state-funded, public institution.

Why’s all this relevant to Flow? Well, the OU has had quite a role to play in the development of media studies. Even in the USA, it quite often gets a mention alongside the usual and now-tedious invocations of Birmingham cultural studies. The OU’s Mass Communication and Society (1977-1982) and Popular Culture (1981-7) courses were hugely important in Britain. Many well-known media-studies names authored teaching materials: Tony Bennett, James Curran, Stuart Hall, John Hartley and Janet Woollacott, to name some contrasting examples. Dozens more cut their media studies teeth teaching the courses at the OU’s summer schools and local centres in the 1970s and 1980s. Literally thousands of students took the courses as part of social science, humanities and other programmes. And hundreds of thousands watched the OU’s television programmes on the BBC. Communication, film and television studies barely existed in Britain before the early 1980s so these courses filled a huge hole for many who wanted to engage with the media and popular culture.

The most recent OU contribution to undergraduate media and cultural studies was Culture, Media and Identities, launched in 1997 and chaired by Stuart Hall. By the 1990s, the Open University was producing some of its teaching materials with publishers such as Sage, Routledge and Blackwell. The ‘Walkman book’ which introduces Culture, Media and Identities, and Hall’s own edited collection on Representation, have become well-known beyond the OU, along with other books in the associated series. The course also introduced the much-cited ‘Circuit of Culture’ really a development of Hall’s earlier encoding/decoding model.

The Open University system

People often ask how the OU system works. The short answer is: painstakingly. Courses (which usually form one-sixth of an honours degree programme) are produced by teams of dozens of people, including OU and external academics, local tutors from around the UK, professional editors, TV producers, website designers, technicians and others. This course team system of production is very intensive and the fact that it’s survived decades of managerialist drives for greater efficiency in the UK public sector is a minor miracle of academic autonomy.

In order to ensure that the distance learning materials are clear, cogent and academically rigorous, members of course teams read each other’s work in a number of different drafts — at least three – and make comments on these drafts at a series of meetings. And often in writing too. I remember with particular agony email exchanges of many hundreds of words about one sentence. (In defence of those of us involved, it did happen to be a sentence about Adorno and Horkheimer). To sit listening while a number of very bright people make detailed criticisms of your work is a process that is probably best described as character-building. If I said that no-one ever fell out and that each meeting began and ended with a group hug you wouldn’t believe me, and you’d be right. The process is wonderfully stimulating but unless you have a vast and impermeable ego, at times it’s also pretty terrifying.

Changing politics, changing media pedagogy

For those of us charged with the responsibility of developing a new Open University media course, its earlier achievements in media and cultural studies were hard acts to follow. One of the most interesting aspects of working on the course (which, typically for the OU, has a less-than-thrilling title: Understanding Media) has been to observe the ways in which it has ended up reflecting shifts in the field of media analysis and shifts in the big wide world beyond it.

The mandate of the Understanding Media course team was to provide a secure foundation in media analysis for a new generation of OU students – and for others reading our published textbooks. One of the major dilemmas we faced was whether, in an introductory course, to stick with the production-texts-audiences trio which is at the heart of most ways in which the field is pedagogically carved up — including Hall et al.’s circuit of culture — or whether to try to innovate beyond it, as, say, Simon Frith does in his essay on ‘Entertainment’ in Curran and Gurevitch’s Mass Media and Society. With some trepidation – we were worried that it was becoming stale through familiarity — we played safe and opted for the trio as the basis of the structure of the course.

But in other respects, we have departed significantly from what a media studies course in the 1990s would have looked like. For many years, well-rehearsed tensions between political economy and cultural studies have divided the field; and, for better or for worse, to say that this division is ‘boring’ will not make it go away. Equally important in my view have been fissures deriving from the troubled legacy of post-structuralism. All this has led to real difficulties on some undergraduate media courses in bringing these various approaches and positions into dialogue with each other. In many universities, at least in the UK, the compromise has generally been that particular modules would be taught by critical realist/political economists; others by post-structuralists and constructionists; and others by popular culture academics. Or, worse, entire courses or programmes would in effect pursue one approach, with only tokenistic recognition of competing lines of thought.

For many amongst a new generation, whatever their own preferences, an adequate grounding in media critique needs to take serious account of cultural studies, post-structuralism and of the Marxian approaches that were sometimes portrayed as a thing of the past in the 1990s. Rather than advocating a particular approach, the Understanding Media team encouraged its authors to put different critical perspectives on particular topics into dialogue. In the fourth book in the Understanding Media book series, for example, the constructionist approaches that have tended to dominate textual analysis are rubbed up against critical realist positions. Across the course, our goal was to avoid caricature and un-necessary simplification so that students gain a real understanding of the different approaches on offer. This does not, however, mean a bland relativism: the preferences of individual authors shine through in their presentation of competing perspectives.

The course reflects changed political priorities too. For all kinds of understandable historical reasons, many cultural and media studies teachers in the 1990s, like much of the left, were overwhelmingly concerned with the politics of difference and identity. The political role of ‘culture’ itself, arguably sidelined for so many decades, became central – and indeed in some accounts the realm of culture in effect came to be equated with the social, or with politics. This was the aftermath of 1989, the period where political debate was dominated by conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and by the continuing struggle for gender and ethnic recognition.

To put it another way, though, this was the world before the WTO protests, before 9-11 and Afghanistan, before the second Gulf War. The politics of identity and difference remain key in the new course, but I suspect there is much greater attention to issues of social inequality, class and imperialism than there would have been if we had been producing the course ten years earlier. And the issue of market liberalism keeps coming back like a chorus in a pop song – especially in the book on Media Production, but not just there. For many years, consumption was where the action was felt to be in cultural and media studies, and was often understood as the privileged site of cultural creativity. Understanding Media’s book on audiences has a different inflection, and is centrally concerned with the experience of living in nations penetrated by transnational media flows. Here too, neo-liberalism, in its many guises, is a spectre haunting the teaching material.

In trying to create a media studies course for the first decade of the twenty-first century, we’ve tried to draw upon the widest possible range of critical media scholarship. Readings from over 70 authors are integrated into the textbooks, hundreds more are cited. And now that we’ve finished it seems to me that there is actually a tremendous body of critical media work to draw upon in meeting the challenge of teaching the media to new audiences. As for whether the Understanding Media course team has drawn upon this work successfully – that’s for others to judge.

Image Credits:

1. The Open University

Please feel free to comment.




Football Talk

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University, UK

Real Football

Chelea/Thailand

To be simultaneously a football fan and a critical academic is not easy. By ‘football’, I mean what Americans call ‘soccer’, which was originally an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’. It is what most people around the world call ‘football’. There are other games that call themselves ‘football’ but they do not really count, although what I have to say here largely applies to them as well. In the game that I am referring to, the player is not allowed to touch the ball by hand, that is, except for the goalkeeper, who is permitted to do so.

Why is it difficult for a critical academic to be a football fan? Well, for a start, there is so much to criticise. I know there are scholars of media and cultural studies who are not critically minded so this is not a problem for them. However, I am not one of their number. Frankly, I cannot see much point in what I do if it is not critical. There are plenty of other people outside academia actually employed to celebrate and promote prevailing media and cultural arrangements. They do not need my help. There are fewer of us in any case and we may be a dwindling band.

The difficulty here is greatly exacerbated by liking what you criticise. Perhaps ‘liking’ is too vague a word. ‘Addicted’ might be more appropriate. What is it that I like? The game itself, to be sure – I also like talking about it, perhaps even more so. Furthermore, I like listening to other people talking about it too: footballers, coaches and commentators as well as other fans. To tell you the truth, I do not much like listening to fans of other clubs than mine talking about their own teams. I do not mind so much listening to commentators talk about other clubs. I also listen to them talk about international football, especially the trials and tribulations of the England team having to face other countries that have the temerity to try and beat us. Yet, I do not generally regard myself as being particularly nationalistic or even patriotic.

Where do I listen to all this talk? On television, of course. In Britain, not unusually, there is a great deal of talk about football on television, including the older terrestrial channels and the newer Sky Sports channels, owned by Rupert Murdoch. One of these channels is almost entirely devoted to football but does not actually show any matches. Instead, it gives minute by minute reports on what is happening in football or, rather, what is being said about football. These reports are repeated endlessly with updates. Much of what is said, very often by retired footballers, about what is going on now is utterly banal, no more sophisticated than that which might be said by any reasonably competent football fan. However, when it comes to matches on other channels, Sky and terrestrial, the talk becomes very analytical. When Sky screens a live match, which it does several times a week, the programmes are usually twice as long as the match itself. There is an hour or so of talk about football before the match and, then, an hour or so afterwards. Clips are commented upon, coaches, fans and players are interviewed.

Sky and the BBC both have preview shows around Saturday lunchtime for the matches that afternoon. The BBC one recently featured Tony Blair, who spoke much more truthfully about football than he ever does about politics. Sky has a regular panel of ex-footballers who also watch the matches while they are being played on screens that we viewers cannot see; and they tell us about them. On Sundays there are discussion programmes on yesterday’s matches, one of them a breakfast session of journalists from the national newspapers talking about the issues, with them eating their breakfasts whilst pontificating. There is a great deal of talk about football on television. You can attend to it all day long if you want.

Why? Several years ago, Umberto Eco commented upon this kind of ‘sports chatter’ from an Italian perspective. He remarked, generally speaking ‘there exists only chatter about chatter about sport’. It consists of ‘evaluations, judgments, arguments, polemical remarks, denigrations, and paeans follow a verbal ritual, very complex but with simple and precise rules’. According to Eco, this was ‘the parody of political talk’. I think it is true that a great many men prefer to talk about sport and football, in particular, than about politics; quite a few women do so too, though most women usually talk about something else that is not to do with the world of official politics. It has often been remarked that people do not talk about politics because their say does not count and it’s boring anyway. As Jean Baudrillard observed, talking about politics is for the political class, not for the masses. It is ‘the evil genius of the masses’ to demonstrate their contempt for that remote discourse by being interested in and talking about something else that is much more entertaining.

However, this is troubling from the point of view of dialogic democracy. After all, if we do not talk, we do not participate. Instead, we talk about something like football. Football talk on television — and in ‘real life’ — displays all the features of a kind of dialogic democracy where everyone’s opinion counts and is violently disagreed with. Much of the talk is dialectical. People who know very little about politics and care less about it do know a lot about something else and they talk about it passionately in a keen spirit of debate. It is obvious to say, then, that football talk is not just idle chatter but, in some sense, a displacement of politics. Whether this is a safety valve or not is open to debate. No doubt it does not fully explain such fascination with sport and especially football, the pleasurable release and all that. However, it might go some way towards explaining why something that is so unimportant seems so important.

Image Credits:

1. Chelea/Thailand

Sky Sports

Please feel free to comment.




Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.

Bibliography

Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.




I WANT MY GEEK TV!

The Cast of Global Frequency

The Cast of Global Frequency

Many of us who study fan cultures have marveled at how quickly fan communities mobilize around new television series. Fan websites such as Ain’t It Cool News get early information about new series, especially those which are prone to develop cult followings. Many fans start registering domain names and forming web circles based on the first news of a fan-friendly series. And producers are becoming more adept at tapping into fan networks from the get-go. By the time the first episode airs, fans start generating fan fiction and commentary if they like what they see. We will see this scenario play out several times as the new shows hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.

Pushing this trend to its logical extreme, an active, committed fandom has now emerged around an unaired pilot. The series in question is Global Frequency. From a fan’s perspective, Global Frequency was too good to be true. Based on a successful comic book series by the wicked and wonderful Warren Ellis, adapted for television by a creative team which at various points in the process included Mark Burnett (Survivor), Bed Edlund (Angel, The Tick), Nelson McCormick (Alias), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), the science fiction/action/adventure series dealt with a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who agree to pool their resources and respond as needed to a series of crises caused by the collapse of the nation states and the emergence of global capitalism. The original comic series had tapped growing interests in adhocracies, flash mobs, and collective intelligence among the most wired segments of the television viewing public.

The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights to what many thought was a really hot property, considered it for Fall 2004, before announcing it would hit the air in Spring 2005. The network was ready to make an initial 13 episode commitment when there was a shift in the network management and as so often happens, the new execs were reluctant to risk their careers on properties generated by their predecessors. Global Frequency got dumped.

Then, somehow, an unauthorized copy of series pilot began circulating on Bittorrent, where it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production. John Rogers, the show’s head writer and producer, said that the massive response to the never-aired series was giving the producers leverage to push for the pilot’s distribution on DVD and potentially to sell the series to another network. Rogers wrote about his encounters with the Global Frequency fans in his blog, “It changes the way I’ll do my next project…. I would put my pilot out on the internet in a heartbeat. Want five more? Come buy the boxed set.”

Already we can see a bunch of ways that the new media landscape is altering how traditional broadcasting operates. For starters, we can see the walls breaking down between program producers and consumers, as they make common cause against the networks. After all, the only way that pilot could have made it onto Bittorrent was that someone involved in the production leaked it and Rogers certainly was encouraging fans to rally behind his pet project.

Second, we can see large scale fan communities operating as collective bargaining units trying to make the networks more responsive to their demands. To be sure, there’s a long history of letter-writing campaigns going back at least to the original effort to save Star Trek, and most of them have failed. Yet, as the internet has enabled more rapid and widespread mobilization, fans are starting to win more and more battles. Consider, for example, the ways that the so-called “Brown-Coats,” fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, rallied behind the franchise, resulting in a new feature film extension, Serenity, which is due to hit the multiplexes later this month. Or take the case of The Family Guy, a series put back in production because of unexpectedly high DVD sales.

All of this leads to Rogers’s fantasy of media producers selling cult tv
shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the
picture altogether. From a producer’s perspective, such a scheme would
be attractive since television series are made at a loss for the first
several seasons until the production company accumulates enough
episodes to sell a syndication package. DVD lowers that risk by
allowing producers to sell the series one season at a time and even to
package and sell unaired episodes (as occurred with Firefly). Selling directly to the consumer would allow producers to recoup their costs even earlier in the production cycle. If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing — especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had “cult” written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.

People in the entertainment industry are talking a lot these days about what Wired reporter Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail.” Anderson argues that as distribution costs lower, as companies can keep more and more backlist titles in circulation, and as niche communities can use the web to mobilize around titles which satisfy their particular interests, then the greatest profit will be made by those companies which generate the most diverse content and keep it available at the most reasonable prices. If Anderson is right, then niche-content stands a much better chance of turning a profit than ever before. If you were offered a package of episodes of a televison series with an interesting concept by a reliable group of creators, would you take a chance on including it on your next Netflix order? I know I would.

Imagine a subscription based model where viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband. A pilot could be produced to test the waters and if the response looks positive, they could sell subscription which company had gotten enough subscribers to defer the initial production costs. Early subscribers would get a package price, others would pay more on a pay per view would cover the next phase of production. Others could buy access to individual episodes once the basis. Distribution could be on a dvd mailed directly to your home or via streaming media.

Keep in mind that when you use the web as your distribution channel, your market goes global. How many Americans would have paid to see the latest episodes of the new Doctor Who series, for example? And how many fans in Asia or Australia might pay to see episodes of American series as they aired rather than waiting for them in syndication?? Anime fans world wide already go through contorted means to get access to the latest Japanese series.

The first signs of such a system emerging will come when networks offer reruns on demand, a plan which would be relatively low cost and high yield in today’s media markets. Indeed, BBC Director General Mark Thompson announced a few weeks ago that starting next year, all BBC-aired programs (150 hours worth) will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. What they are calling MyBBCPlayer, is part of a larger vision for the future of British television announced by Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media & Technology, in October 2003: “Future TV may be unrecognizable from today, defined not just by linear TV channels, packaged and scheduled by television executives, but instead will resemble more of a kaleidoscope, thousands of streams of content, some indistinguishable as actual channels. These streams will mix together broadcasters’ content and programs, and our viewer’s contributions. At the simplest level — audiences will want to organize and re-organize content the way they want it. They’ll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help.”

BBC Director Mark Thompson

BBC Director Mark Thompson

The BBC as a state-sponsored broadcaster is obviously in a good position to take some risks here. Yet, one can imagine similar services supporting distribution of media content from many other parts of the world or from independent and alternative media producers. Web-based services like Netflix are already broadening the circulation of foreign films, independent movies, and documentaries. As this system takes shape, one can imagine original content start to emerge until in the end, the primary reason that a producer would need a network would be to initially publicize the pilot. And here’s where fans might enter the picture.

In such a world, the fans will play an important role as niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments. The BBC has already announced a contest to encourage consumers and interest groups to develop their own alternative program guides using BBC programme meta-data. As they move more content on line, one can imagine bloggers making links directly to relevant segments in BBC programs. People are already experimenting with using closed captions as a means to index television content and Yahoo has recently opened a lab focused on making streaming media more searchable. All of that will make it easier for fan communities to share the love.

In fact, if such programs were successful, producers could begin offering funds back to active fans if they direct sufficient traffic to their sites, much the way Amazon’s Associates program rewards webmasters who promote specific books through their sites and link to the online retailer. There would be even greater incentives for producers to actively court key opinion leaders within the fan community since they could make or break a new series.

Ok, I can hear some of the other columnists reminding us of the blue sky promises of diversity and plentitude which surrounded other technological innovations. Technological innovations may hold potentials for change but social, cultural, economic, and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur.

It’s time to wake back up and see what has happened to Global Frequency. Was the WB delighted to discover that they still had the right of first refusal on a series which was already generating a cult following before it even reached the air? Were they willing to take some baby steps towards the viewer-supported model I have outlined above?

Of course not! They did the same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’s computers. As one network executive told Hotwired, “Whether the pilot was picked up or not, it is still the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment and we take the protection of all of our intellectual property seriously…. While Warner Bros. Entertainment values feedback from consumers, copyright infringement is not a productive way to try to influence a corporate decision.” A few weeks later, Warren Ellis announced via his blog, “It’s my current understanding that the bittorrenting of Global Frequency has rendered it as dead as dead can get as a TV series. It seems that people in high places did not take kindly to the leak.” For the moment, the WB is more interested in policing its intellectual property than finding out what people want to watch.

Oh well — It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Global Frequency

2. BBC Director Mark Thompson

Please feel free to comment.




The Seeds of Doom?

by: Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

Doctor Who
Doctor Who

The BBC’s revived production of Doctor Who has been, by all accounts, a smashing success in Britain. Brought back to life on television after a fifteen-year sojourn in various non-television media forms, the series has captured sizeable audiences and copious media coverage to a degree not seen since the heyday of Tom Baker in the late 1970s. Writer-producer Russell T. Davies has managed to make Doctor Who (2005) simultaneously classic and contemporary, serving up equal portions of adventure, wit, and fear in lightning-paced episodes.

While the series has taken off in the UK, however, the official reception of the new series in the United States has been much cooler. Despite an otherwise successful global sales effort, and a fair amount of US fan interest, the BBC has not yet sold the series to any US television outlet, whether broadcast, cable, or satellite. US Doctor Who fans have been left in a holding pattern of sporadic announcements of “ongoing negotiations,” and rampant online speculation as to where the series might wind up. The only publicly acknowledged rejection of the series came in late February from the Sci-Fi Channel, who, according to reports, cryptically claimed to have found the series “somewhat lacking.” This phrase, which has considerably heightened fan anxiety, frames the overall debate about the new series, and highlights the gaps of media globalization, i.e., the cultural, economic, and legal boundaries that still exist between national media regimes.

“Boundaries” are structural issues (in both the theoretical and material senses), marking off categories. In this case, as with most others in global media, the key structures are distribution networks. While the legitimate, “official” network of transnational media trade has thus far failed to bring Doctor Who to the US, the illegitimate, “unofficial,” and rapidly growing network of online file sharing has provided the series from the get-go. High-resolution video files of episodes are posted online within minutes of their UK broadcasts, mostly via BitTorrent, the radically non-centralized file distribution method that has shifted peer-to-peer file sharing into a higher gear. Unlike older P2P systems, BitTorrent is designed for optimum network efficiency, actually escalating file-sharing speed as traffic increases. Users must “seed” (upload) and “leech” (download) bits of the same file simultaneously, producing a so-called “swarm” of data as dozens, or even thousands, of computers swap file parts. When coupled with increasingly ubiquitous broadband connections, BitTorrent can deliver gigabytes of data in a matter of a few hours. The much anticipated (or dreaded, from the perspective of the copyright industries) “Napsterization” of video data is here.

Thus, we have a significant differential between distribution networks: one functions through the long-established, top-down models of audience flow, media capitalization, and copyright, while the other simply serves up media on demand. In an era where this differential will only increase, it is worthwhile to understand the logic of each.

Television programmers across the planet value genre and predictability. That is, even in an age of otherwise diverse forms of television, programs should look, sound, and “feel” like established programs. Even something as iconoclastic as Lost still “feels” like a standard ensemble drama in its narration, characterization, design, and cinematography. The BBC’s failure to find a US buyer for Doctor Who, despite early courting before the series even entered production, and despite decades of BBC programs on US TV (including the original Doctor Who), is, as unlikely as it sounds, probably a cultural misunderstanding on these grounds. Accordingly, the Sci-Fi Channel’s alleged “somewhat lacking” comment can be understood in several different ways. From a US programmers’ perspective, the new Doctor Who is lacking in stable generic markers: it is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy, comedy, character drama, and social allegory. While this might not always be fatal (see Lost), the fact that the series is British (even more so than the original) further separates it from typical US fare. Both the Ninth Doctor (played by the Mancunian Christopher Eccleston as decidedly “Northern”) and his companion Rose (played by Billie Piper as a working class shopgirl), have quite specific British accents and demeanors that do not correlate with anything else on US commercial television at this time.

Ironically, these very factors which have thus far doomed the series in the US have arguably ensured its mainstream success in the UK. For example, the early decision to clothe the Ninth Doctor in black jeans and a beat-up leather jacket — rather than the usual “eccentric” Edwardian ensemble of frock coats, bow ties, and hats — is a clear attempt to create a contemporary, urban feel to the character. Similarly, the series’ language is not the “BBC English” of the original, but more modern and varied in its idiom and accents. The generic framing of the series as “family television” also aims for a specific, longstanding UK TV sensibility, as television that works at different levels, suitable for many ages. There simply is no counterpart to this formulation in the US, so the series is at once too chaste and playful for prime-time drama, and too arch and sophisticated for the likes of Nickelodeon. The fact that the series is shot not on film, but on standard definition video (albeit “filmized” in post-production), a format alien to US prime-time drama, is the icing on this particular aesthetic cake.

Moreover, Doctor Who is also almost certainly “lacking” any of the typical financial and proprietary inducements that abound in this post-Fin-Syn media world. While virtually every program on US TV has some sort of co-production, syndication, video distribution, or sponsorship arrangement as part of its package, the BBC wished to sell Doctor Who “old school,” as in: here’s the show. No co-ownership, no ancillary distribution rights, no product placement. No wonder it has yet to run here.

Meanwhile, episodes blaze across the Atlantic via the Internet in multiple forms every Saturday night (after their airing on BBC1). Given the sheer number of file-sharing options, precise totals are difficult to come by, but one fairly well-known BitTorrent tracker recorded roughly 50,000 downloads of each episode of the new Doctor Who thus far. However, the bulk of online TV traffic parallels the trajectory of most “legitimate” global media traffic: outward from the US. Studies released in the past six months noted the growing volume of television programs available online, and reached similar conclusions about its growing scope, particularly in the UK (which represents nearly one-fifth of global television downloading), Australia, and Scandinavia, where tens of thousands of copies of episodes of 24, Lost, The O.C., and Desperate Housewives routinely head right after their US broadcasts, months before their debuts overseas. While 40,000 downloads (to take a figure cited for the UK downloading of Desperate Housewives) is clearly dwarfed by the 4 million viewers who catch the series “legally” there on Channel 4, the trajectory of file sharing is clear. At least one European network, Norway’s TVNorge, has publicly claimed that downloading of US TV is costing them thousands of viewers on the episodes’ eventual broadcasts.

Studies of file-sharing also routinely take the copyright industries to task for fighting, rather than adapting to, the new distribution networks. This advice has been slow to penetrate the capital-entrenched practices of the media industries, who will likely continue to seek cultural, legal, and technological means to maintain their status quo. However, some major firms are taking steps towards the online, on-demand world. While US broadcast and cable networks continue to offer the same piecemeal level of online video content that they’ve had for years, the BBC is actively developing extensive online distribution networks. Each of their radio networks is available as a high-quality live stream, and immense amounts of past radio programs are available as archived streams and even podcasts. This approach is being adapted to the higher-bandwidth requirements of television programming. Indeed, live test streams of four BBC TV channels (including both terrestrial channels) were briefly available worldwide in April, and the BBC is developing an ambitious video-on-demand system that will take advantage of P2P technology.

The ongoing fate of the new Doctor Who reveals a great deal about the uneven “gears” of cultural globalization. The model of centralized audience flow still retains immense cultural, economic, and legal powers, but its authority in each of these areas diminishes with each new broadband account and BitTorrent tracker. What power will remain when media users no longer have to wait for the differences within the old distribution network to work out? Even the corporate marriage of content and distribution is souring, as the Apples, Sonys, and Googles of the world also challenge the old regime’s boundaries. Still, even in the emerging on-demand world, myriad conceptual boundaries will likely continue to produce gaps and differentials in the global mediascape. All media will still be “somewhat lacking,” somewhere.

Image Credits:
1. Doctor Who

Please feel free to comment.




New to You?: NBC’s The Office and the Remake of a Cult British Hit TV Series

by: Richard L. Edwards / St. Mary’s College

Ricky Gervais Steve Carell

The Office stars: Ricky Gervais (left) and Steve Carell (right)

When I first heard that there was going to be a US remake of The Office, I thought about the various ways in which NBC would get its version of The Office all wrong — as if any US television executive was going to understand what is funny about David Brent with so many of them being David Brent-like themselves. How was any actor going to fill Ricky Gervais’ shoes and pull off his singular charm? Moreover, the writing was funny and quotable, the ensemble acting superb, and it was a fresh take on the faux cinema verite documentary. However, I do not want to compare the two versions. NBC’s version is not as terrible as I feared and it has some genuinely funny moments. Rather, I wish to understand why an award-winning, short-run, cult British television series such as The Office is an attractive remake candidate for US television, considering that NBC’s broadcasting model requires them to successfully produce four times as many episodes a year for a much larger and different American audience.

NBC’s profitability, during its heyday as “Must See TV,” was anchored by blockbuster sitcoms from The Cosby Show to Seinfeld. Their prime time shows still capture the most prized advertising demographic: 18-49 year-old viewers. In the last few years, NBC has remade several BBC situation comedies with disastrous results, such as Cold Feet, Coupling, and Men Behaving Badly. Given so many attempts at recycling British sitcoms, there is a trend at work here. While there are famous examples of successful British sitcom adaptations in the 1970s (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Three’s Company being the most cited), lately NBC seems desperate for an imported sitcom remake to satisfy its core audience, but misses the mark every time. Furthermore, something about NBC’s BBC remakes seem reminiscent of an earlier NBC marketing strategy.

In the late 1990s, NBC ran a summer ad campaign with the tagline: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” The idea behind the campaign was that a rerun is only a rerun if someone saw the original airing of the show. It transformed the concept of the rerun from an industrial designation (the second time a show airs on a network) to a question of audience reception (it is only a rerun if the viewer watches it more than once). In an age of channel surfing, NBC was hoping that people who missed the initial airings of “Must See TV” shows would watch them during their off-peak summer broadcasts for the first time. Therefore, “Must See TV” received a corporately blessed time shift from which it never fully recovered. The network’s key slogan in the 1980s and 1990s was a viewing imperative: “Must See TV” meant you must watch when the network says you watch. But in a nod to its time-shifting audience (armed then with VCRs and remotes and now increasingly with TiVo and digital hard drives), the rerun mentality of “new to you” became the newest NBC mantra. I would argue this broadcasting sensibility feeds into the slew of British remakes at NBC, of which The Office is merely the latest attempt. Therefore, it does not really matter whether The Office is a good, bad or indifferent remake, because NBC is not marketing the show as a remake, or even trying to capitalize on the American fan base of the UK original. NBC is hoping that its version of The Office will be “new” to its prized 18-49 demographic.

From this perspective, what lessons might be learned from the remake/rerun strategies fueling Coupling, Men Behaving Badly, Cold Feet and The Office? There are two lessons I wish to highlight. The first is the contradiction of a remake that is “new to you.” I doubt that The Office is really new to the average media consumer. This is different from what was happening during the 1970s British television remake cycle. How many viewers of All in the Family were familiar with its UK source material, Till Death Do Us Part? But today, the proliferation of TV shows on DVDs and cable/satellite broadcasting (along with other communication channels like the Web) means that there is a greater likelihood that these British sitcoms will be well known (and possibly beloved) by key segments of the American audience. Shows like NBC’s The Office will inevitably be compared to their UK originals, and often pale by comparison.

A second lesson to consider is how these remakes could be differently “faithful” to their UK roots. Right now, the failed remakes share the characteristic of being almost too faithful in their transpositions of the source material. The US producers identify American correspondences for locales, characters, acting styles, premises, class structures, attitudes, and jokes and rebuild these shows from the top-down with these replacement parts (it does beg the question whether all British comedy has an American equivalent). This has been a failed strategy so far. One potentially counterintuitive suggestion to create better US remakes is by changing them less and keeping more of their UK flavor. Not all British TV imports are homogenized and Americanized beyond recognition to their UK counterparts. Many shows retain their British sensibility along with their UK stars. Three high profile examples are Weakest Link (Anne Robinson), Supernanny (Jo Frost), and American Idol (Simon Cowell). In fact, one could argue that American equivalents of the British shows, Supernanny or Pop Idol, would not have connected with American audiences outside of the charisma and attitude of its British leads such as Frost and Cowell. And while I recognize that different remake strategies should be in place for situation comedies versus reality television series, an attempt to keep some elements of British comedy might succeed better on US television. Tepid remakes like The Office and Coupling suggest that creators should at least try something new rather than retain an unimaginative fidelity to scripts relocated to [US City or Town Most Like the One in the Funny British Show], USA.

Note
Ricky Gervais makes a similar insight in his discussions about trying to get The Office produced and being asked why David Brent wouldn’t just be fired for being incompetent. Gervais mentions the bosses working at TV networks as a case in point. See Gervais’ comments at The Office on the BBC. Last Accessed on 22 April 2005.

Links
NBC
NBC’s The Office
BBC
BBC’s The Office

Image Credits:
1. Ricky Gervais
2. Steve Carell

Please feel free to comment.




I’m A Celebrity – Analyse Me: The Appeal of Celebrity Reality TV

by: Kirsty Fairclough / University of Salford, UK

The sight of author and feminist icon Germaine Greer entering the Big Brother house was surely a signal that celebrity reality TV is firmly entrenched in the television landscape in the UK.

Over the last few years we have seen various C-list celebrities desperately attempting to revive their flagging careers by appearing on the UK’s celebrity focussed reality shows, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV), Celebrity Big Brother (Channel Four), Celebrity Fit Club (ITV) and Hell’s Kitchen (ITV), but the surreal sight of a woman who had publicly vilified reality TV four years earlier gleefully entering the house was somewhat surprising. In fact, Greer had previously publicly stated in The Observer in 2001,”Watching Big Brother is about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child’s bedroom door.” Yet in 2005 we see her become part of the phenomenon of reality TV that currently pervades our culture. What can we make of Greer’s participation? Is it shameless self-promotion or a shift in the character of celebrity culture? Greer is well known for her outspoken attitude and love of the spotlight, but an esteemed academic appearing on Celebrity Big Brother? A step too far or a sign of the times?

The appeal of celebrity reality television is easy to see, from the carefully constructed facades of C-list celebrities quickly disintegrating to the voyeur factor providing a quicker hit than the slow character build up of the unknown wannabes seen in traditional reality shows. Whatever the specific appeal for individual viewers, celebrity reality shows are naked television. There is a certain perverse pleasure in watching the fragility of the celebrity ego stripped of its usual indulgences and take a beating during its incarceration process in the house or the jungle.

Certainly, the choice of C-list caricatures explains some of its success. The contestants for the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother saw, amongst others, Kenzie, a 19 year old boy band member; Brigitte Nielsen, known to most UK viewers as Sylvester Stallone’s ex-wife; John McCririck, an eccentric 60-something horse racing commentator; Caprice, a 30-something model, and, of course, Greer herself. Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this series was that the producers of Big Brother appeared to take one step further into the contestants’ “private” lives when Nielsen’s ex-mother-in-law, Jackie Stallone, whom Nielsen had not seen for twenty years, entered the house a few days in. This move was clearly meant to create conflict, but actually backfired when the two made amends by the time Stallone left, with Stallone even going so far as to say that she wanted Brigitte to win.

The fact that most of the participants are vaguely familiar rather than instantly recognised faces seems, at least in part, to be the key to celebrity reality TV’s success. Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, which makes Celebrity Big Brother, states that in fact, the C-list factor has become an essential part of a celebrity’s credibility for reality TV and that people with problems are far more interesting than those whose careers and emotional lives are under control.

“With Celebrity Big Brother we got Jack Dee and then put in a couple of people – Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz – whose careers had gone into reverse,” says Bazalgette. “The papers were saying ‘Is that all you could find?’, but it became far more clear than we’d realised that people whose careers are going down rather than up are more interesting because of the crises in their lives.” (The Guardian Mon 9.2.04) Since its inception, reality TV has made a specific claim to expose the process of the construction of fame, whether in terms of following hopeful wannabes from the audition stages to their entry into the media, or by offering the viewers unprecedented “access” to existing celebrities by stripping away the celebrity facade. Indeed, the last series of Celebrity Big Brother took this idea of access a step further by probing the celebrities past in order to find a weakness that would ensure explosive television.

What remains interesting about celebrity reality TV are the increasing numbers of celebrities inclined to laying themselves emotionally bare and in the practice of confession and disclosure on national television. There is inevitably a focus upon exposing a sense of the celebrity’s “true self,” which in turn ensures discussion of their personal lives. Celebrity Fit Club (ITV), for example, presents celebrities willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny and often humiliation about their eating habits and lifestyle.

Indeed, there appears to be a quest for self-validation in this type of programming, which in turn makes the celebrities appear somehow “ordinary.” There are, of course, financial interests at work in seeing celebrities on screen in this way. Celebrities are commodities and are often intensely aware of this fact, and it is this awareness which is entertaining for the audience to observe. The appeal for celebrities clearly lies in the possibility of reviving a flagging career as we have witnessed with Tony Blackburn (winner of I‘m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here Series 1 [ITV]). Yet the public emotional unravelling of television presenter Vanessa Feltz on Celebrity Big Brother Series 1 (Channel Four) illustrates how problematic this can be. What was interesting was her failure to understand how she might be represented. In most cases celebrities are only too aware of the manipulative nature of television, yet careful editing can acutely alter the public perception of a celebrity, making appearing on Big Brother and the like always a personal and financial risk.

What celebrity reality TV offers as opposed to its celebrity-constructing counterpart is not the transformation of the “ordinary” person into the “extraordinary,” but the opposite trajectory. Indeed, it is in the transformation of “celebrity” into “ordinary” person, through which his or her “extraordinary” status is incongruously reaffirmed.

Links:
Big Brother
ITV

Please feel free to comment.




Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.