Community Guidelines and the Language of Eating Disorders on Social Media
Ysabel Gerrard / The University of Sheffield

Content Warning: This post contains an in-depth discussion of eating disorders and includes difficult imagery.

All social media platforms have a set of community guidelines which lay out, in ‘plainspoken’ terms, how they want their users to behave and what kinds of content they think are (and are not) acceptable. [ (( Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. Yale: Yale University Press, p.76. ))] They have rules against supporting terrorism, crime and hate groups; sharing sexual content involving minors; malicious speech, amongst other acts that aim to threaten or damage certain parties, to use Tumblr’s words in the quote above. But some of these rules are harder to justify and enforce than others.

For example, in 2012, and in response to a Huffington Post exposé about the ‘secret world of teenage “thinspiration”’ on social media, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr released new guidelines about content related to eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. They said they would draw lines between accounts and posts that ‘promote’ eating disorders and those aiming to ‘build community’ or facilitate ‘supportive conversation’ about the issue.

Yet this promotion/support dialectic indicates a misunderstanding of online eating disorder communities, and in what follows I present a series of examples to provoke a discussion about the language used in social media’s community guidelines.

Locating the ‘Pro’ in ‘Pro-Eating Disorder’

The language of promotion used in community guidelines was likely influenced by the online pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) movement, formerly found in the homepages, forums and chat rooms of a pre-social media Web. The term ‘pro’ is commonly (and insufficiently) understood to denote the promotion of eating disorders, but internet users have always varied in how they operationalise this term. For example, some adopt it as an identity to break away from the medicalisation of eating disorders; some use it to embrace eating disorders and break away from stigma; some use it to create spaces of support for others; some want to find likeminded people; and yet others – though these people are said to be in a minority – use it to promote and encourage harmful behaviours in others.

While some posts do straightforwardly promote eating disorders – like ‘meanspo’ agreements, short for ‘mean inspiration’, where users agree to post cruel comments to one another to encourage starvation and weight loss – a lot of it blurs the line.

The ‘What Ifs’ of Reading Images

Several internet researchers, myself included, have shown how social media users savvily work around platforms’ rules. For example, after the Huffington Post exposé, Instagram stopped returning results for ED-related hashtag searches like #proana, but users coined lexical variants to evade moderation (e.g.,#proana became #proanaa). In a recent paper I showed how users now avoid using hashtags or other textual clues to align their content with pro-ED discourses, meaning the work of deciding whether a post promotes eating disorders has become even harder.

For example, in its community guidelines, Pinterest gives users an example of an image that does not, in its view, promote eating disorders. They claim this image is acceptable because ‘the focus is on nutrition and fitness’:

But what if Pinterest removed the text overlay – ‘it’s not a diet, it’s a way of life. FIT meals’ – and simply depicted a slender female body, perhaps in black and white, a common visual aesthetic in online eating disorder communities? Why is this level of thinness acceptable? And how do we decide if it’s ok to promote certain diets and meal plans and ‘way[s] of life’ above others?

Here are some more examples, taken from Instagram: [ (( These images are taken from the same dataset used in my latest paper: Gerrard, Y. (2018). Beyond the hashtag: circumventing content moderation on social media. New Media and Society. 1-20.))]

Would you say the above images promote eating disorders? Yes, the people’s bones are outlined and emphasised in the framing of the images, but when do they become too bony, to the point where these images are read as the promotion of anorexia or similar? Does the act of posting these images alone constitute promotion? And what might happen if these were male bodies? These are just some of the many questions that could be asked about the challenges of drawing the line between harmlessness and promotion.

‘Things You Might Love’: The Gender Politics of Recommendation Systems

Another way content circulates on social media is through algorithmic recommendation systems. In short, platforms show you what they think you want to see. This is especially true of Pinterest, which arguably functions as more of a search engine than a place to make deep connections with other users. But what we don’t know is how Pinterest and other platforms decide which posts have similarities to others.

Take the below screenshot of Pinterest recommendations as an example. I found these images by searching for ‘thinspo’ on Pinterest (a term that has long been linked to eating disorders) and selected the first image, which had a black background and read ‘need to be skinnier for summer’ in large white letters. Pinterest listed other ‘ideas’ I ‘might love’ underneath the post:

Different kinds of content are being conflated here, as images about athleticism and getting ‘healthy’ sit alongside suggestions for ‘skinny bones disorders’. Some of these images have ‘no specific connection’ to eating disorders and yet they have been re-contextualised within a new environment that makes them seem problematic. [ (( Vellar, A. (2018). #anawarrior identities and the stigmatization process: an ethnography in Italian networked publics. First Monday. 23(6), n.p.))] So which of these posts would you say promote eating disorders, which don’t, and why?

I then selected a different image – the ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ quote shown in the post above – and these were my recommendations:

Again, which of these posts do you think promote eating disorders? Are any of them bad enough to be removed from Pinterest?

What’s interesting to me is that Pinterest’s suggestions for ‘fitness motivation’, ‘get[ting] healthy’ and spotting the signs of anorexia are mixed in with posts urging readers not to eat, and meanspo quotes like ‘not skinny enough’ and ‘you’re a slut’. Pinterest is thus conflating content related to eating disorders with posts about thinness (health, fitness, nutrition, diet plans, weight loss, and so on), reinforcing a longstanding and narrow view of what an eating disorder is (hint: anorexia isn’t the only one, and not everyone wants to lose lots of weight).

Algorithmic personalisation is making it even more challenging to draw the line between posts that promote EDs and those which promote other aspects of female body control, potentially having material effects on how people find content related to eating disorders and learn about what they are.

Getting It Right

Only a minority of users in pro-ED spaces actually promote eating disorders, yet platforms borrow this language and use it to justify their decisions about content moderation. This is precisely why we need more insight into platforms’ decision-making processes: how do rule-makers define ‘promotion’, and how is this kind of language operationalised by those whose job it is to scrub objectionable content from social media (the commercial content moderators (CCMs))?

Sometimes social media content moderation is necessary and I respect the difficulties companies face as they grapple with their desire to provide spaces for self-expression while needing to set some limits. But if platforms are going to take on the moral work of deciding what content should stay or go, especially when it comes to users’ health, they need to make sure they get it right.

Image Credits
1. Tumblr’s Community Guidelines
2. Pinterest’s Community Guidelines
3. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
4. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
5. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
6. Author’s screenshot of Pinterest recommendations
7. Author’s screenshot of Pinterest recommendations

Please feel free to comment.

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

Don Draper inspiration board

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

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

The Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking down provenance and original order

Breaking down provenance and original order

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

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

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

The Mad Men Writers' room

The Mad Men Writers’ room

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

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

Framing the #MeToo Movement: Post-feminism, True Crime, and Megyn Kelly Today
Kathy Cacace / University of Texas at Austin

Megyn Kelly Today debuted in 2017 and has become a hub for NBC’s coverage of the #MeToo movement

Television journalist Megyn Kelly is not a feminist. She has been emphatic about this point in several media interviews and dwells on it at length in her 2016 memoir Settle for More. In addition to characterizing feminism a “zero-sum game” that demands women’s rights at the expense of men, she calls the contemporary feminist movement “exclusionary and alienating.” Why dwell on “divisive issues” like abortion, she asks, when women could “do better simply to unite on female empowerment?” [ (( Megyn Kelly, Settle for More (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 194-5.))] This ethic of general female boosterism sans politics is key to Kelly’s worldview. It is also a critical component of Angela McRobbie’s theorization of post-feminism and its focus on “female achievement predicated not on feminism, but on ‘female individualism,’ on success which seems to be based on the invitation to young women by various governments that they might now consider themselves free to compete in education and in work as privileged subjects of the new meritocracy.” [ (( Angela McRobbie, “Post-feminism and popular culture,” Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004): 258.))]

Megyn Kelly Today, a talk show nested within NBC’s long-running morning news program Today and which debuted chaotically in 2017, is suffused with this post-feminist world view. Given particular industrial factors, it also relies on the true crime genre as a hook for its desired audience of young female viewers. Kelly’s dogged coverage of the #MeToo movement—loosely defined by the scope of relevant segments as the wave of sexual assault and misconduct allegations that swept through Hollywood in 2017—represents a unique confluence of post-feminism and true crime with potentially damaging ends. [ (( Though Kelly’s coverage links #MeToo to the outcry against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and other high-profile personalities, it is important to note that movement dates back to 2006. The “me too” concept and related activism were the brainchild of Tarana Burke and initially aimed to support survivors of color in low-wealth communities.))]

Promotional image for Settle for More

A promotional image for Kelly’s memoir Settle for More

Throughout Settle for More, Kelly presents workplace sexism as a systemic problem best addressed by individualized, not systemic, solutions. If a manager does not take a female employee seriously because of the high timbre of her voice, Kelly suggests “voice training; there is no better way to be instantly dismissed—other than bad wardrobe or makeup choices—than to sound like a child when you talk.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 64. ))] Reflecting on her time as a lawyer, Kelly recalls an instance when her male co-counsel used her attractive physique as an enticement for a older male judge to grant their case a preferential trial date. She “could have taken offense,” but instead “was content to be offered up to this judge like a shiny toy before a distracted baby to get what my client wanted.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 96. ))] Perhaps most directly, Kelly describes her faith in a post-feminist meritocracy when explaining her credo:

My feeling on the subject of women’s equality is that it’s better to show than tell. I believe in the Steve Martin mantra, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” …When it comes to living this just-be-better philosophy, Oprah is my role model. In her years coming up, she never made a “thing” of her gender or her race. She just wowed us all. That’s my goal: do the absolute best I can, and don’t waste time complaining. The less time talking about our gender, the better. [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 210-11. ))]

Leaving aside her erroneously colorblind characterization of Oprah Winfrey’s career, Settle for More attempts to justify its emphasis on these “just-be-better” solutions to systemic misogyny with the revelation that Kelly did file a sexual harassment complaint against Fox News president Roger Ailes, later ousted and now deceased. While I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of her experience and the bravery of any woman who reports such harassment to her employer, it is important to note that Kelly frames even this clearly gendered experience in terms of self-management and individual responsibility. A woman who is harassed at work “needs to remember that no is an available answer. Roger [Ailes] tried to have me, and I didn’t let him. I got out of his office with my self-respect intact even if I felt demeaned.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 313. ))] Further, in relation to her television program, I contend that Megyn Kelly Today strategically deploys this experience to question, police, and reframe other women’s stories of sexual abuse.

A quick industrial analysis illuminates the relationship between Megyn Kelly Today and the true crime genre, which in turn colors how the program covers stories of sexual misconduct. Entertainment trade publications scrutinized Kelly’s bumpy 2016 move from conservative Fox News, where she hosted their highest-rated news program The Kelly File, to NBC, a more mainstream broadcast network. At Fox, Kelly enjoyed a reputation as something of an independent voice on a partisan news network; she notably challenged then-candidate Donald Trump on his history of sexist tweets during a 2015 presidential debate, and Variety credits her rise at Fox to “questioning conservative stalwarts ranging from Dick Cheney to Senator Rand Paul.” However, her jump to ostensibly nonpartisan NBC highlighted Kelly’s history of racially biased reporting, including sensational coverage of the New Black Panther party and an infamous piece in which she insisted both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Slate’s political reporter Jamelle Bouie, reflecting on her career as she moved to NBC, went so far as to call her a racial demagogue.

Given this new scrutiny on her past reporting and following a series of missteps in her early shows (most notably grilling Jane Fonda about her plastic surgery), Megyn Kelly Today found it difficult to secure celebrity guests. It is my assertion that without this morning show staple, alternative formats like the true crime story became the means to fill the hour with television that is compelling to viewers that “skew younger and female.” Representative true crime segments on Megyn Kelly Today include “Survivors of Columbine and Colorado theater shootings tell their stories,” “Meet the man who discovered his grandfather was a prolific serial killer,” and “‘Golden State Killer’ victim speaks out on Megyn Kelly TODAY: ‘I am grateful to be alive.’” Following Laura Browder’s dissection of true crime generic conventions, these segments are to be enjoyed “not for plot, but for detailed descriptions, and for their linear analyses of what went wrong.” [ (( Laura Browder, “True Crime,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, ed. Catherine Nickerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 225. ))]

Megyn Kelly interviews Van Barnes

Kelly interviews Van Barnes, who accused actor Jeffrey Tambor of sexual misconduct

Kelly’s Today hour has become NBC’s de facto home for coverage of the #MeToo movement and, crucially, a typical Kelly interview with an accuser follows the true crime generic conventions Browder identifies. For example, the video of Kelly’s interview with Jeffrey Tambor accuser Van Barnes is titled “Tambor accuser details her allegations of sexual misconduct.” While a more holistic story might consider Barnes’ biography, her experience as a transgender woman working in Hollywood, or even her well-being after Tambor’s alleged misconduct, I contend that Kelly uses true crime framing to keep the nearly seven-minute segment zeroed in on the titular “details” of Barnes’s allegations.

The true crime conventions of Kelly’s #MeToo segments when combined with a post-feminist framing can have troubling discursive consequences. I want to briefly visit a portion of Kelly’s December 2017 sit-down with actor Alec Baldwin to demonstrate the insidious mingling of these two factors.

This interview was conducted shortly after Baldwin published a handful of controversial statements on Twitter about the #MeToo movement. His tweets were read as a defense of actor Dustin Hoffman, who had been accused of past sexual harassment, and in them he attempts to define Hoffman, who “deserves forgiveness,” against Harvey Weinstein and other predators for whom we should “conserve our judgement.”

Kelly directs the conversation in two notable ways. First, in accordance with true crime storytelling, Kelly brushes aside the discussion of Hoffman’s alleged harassment in favor of discussing the more salacious details of Weinstein’s alleged crimes. She dwells, for example, on actress Rose McGowan’s corroborated assertion that Weinstein had ex-Mossad agents follow her around to report on her actions and whereabouts. Second, Kelly asserts her post-feminist ethos when she attempts to transition the conversation from allegations to solutions. She asks Baldwin what needs to change in Hollywood, and he somewhat clumsily references the tendency for men to speak over women in meetings and wonders if some sort of “quota” system might be implemented to make sure everyone gets to speak. Kelly interjects with the following advice:

“Men do do that, but—it’s a very effective tool, and I encourage all women to use it [raises her palm to Baldwin’s face]. I’m not finished. It works like a charm. My husband taught it to me. It comes easily to men, but now I’ve got it. [Raises her palm again.] I’m not done. And then just keep going. Okay, there you go, solved.”

I contend that Kelly’s tip for women is more than just a segue from one section of the segment to another. It is a post-feminist intervention akin to her repeated advice in Settle for More that demands women take individual responsibility for solving systemic misogyny. It is also colored by her own well-publicized experience with Ailes at Fox News, giving her guidance the authority of personal wisdom, not political spin—threads which can be easily teased apart in a post-feminist age. To declare that the problem, defined throughout the previous segment as violently predatory behavior, is “solved” by equipping women with a confident hand gesture places the onus on women to prevent their own assault and leaves open the possibility for blame when they cannot. The combination of true crime storytelling and post-feminist framing on Megyn Kelly Today thus skirts real solutions in favor of a discourse that threatens to reproduce the sort of predatory criminal behavior the genre, and programs that rely upon it, requires as fodder.

Image Credits:
1. Megyn Kelly Today
2. Facebook
3. NBC via YouTube
4. Megyn Kelly Today

Please feel free to comment.

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

The Women oF Late-Night

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

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

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

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

Michelle Wolf's monologue.

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

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

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

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

Chelsea Handler's Netflix series.

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.

Normalizing Subversion: The Comedy Approach of ‘Take My Wife’
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin


Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989

In 1989, despite network pushback, executive producer and comedian Roseanne Barr’s self-titled comedy sitcom, Roseanne (1988–1997), aired an episode in which her character’s 11-year-old daughter experiences her first period. This was the first time a network television show addressed the topic of menstruation, and the series included several punchlines about Darlene’s period that make the physicality of the “cramps” and “blood stains” that accompany menstruation tangible. Along with her excessive speech, laughter and liminal status, this is an example of how Barr’s comedy style in the ABC sitcom unsettled social norms in the ’90s; now widely acknowledged to be racist, Barr was considered one of the titular unruly women of her generation of comedy voices. [ (( Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 50-91. ))]


Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively

As stand-up comics have transitioned from stage to television over the past few years, a range of comedic styles has unfolded. Many women on television today are boldly challenging social and gender boundaries through comedy. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Samantha Bee, for example, carry Barr’s unruly comedy torch as much as any of their contemporaries. These comics are providing deeper and more complex representations of women on television; however, not all comedians are bringing their brash stand-up humor from the stage to television. Compare Barr’s insistent inclusion of jokes about menstruation on her sitcom with the contemporary television series, Take My Wife (2016–), which was distributed nearly three decades later on the subscription streaming service, Seeso. In this sitcom, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher eschew graphic descriptions of their bodies in order to focus attention on their conventional domestic and professional lives together. Instead of landing punchlines about menstruation, they are simply two comedians who happen to menstruate. Esposito certainly does not hesitate to use her period as comedy fodder in her stand-up, illustrated in a video of a live performance in 2015 that she shared on YouTube, “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” The stars of Take My Wife simply repackage their unruliness—in the case of Esposito and Butcher, their queerness—into a less attention-grabbing representation on their television series.

Cameron Esposito performing stand-up live, published on YouTube, 2015

Couched within the formulaic narratives of the sitcom genre, the comedians situate their characters precariously within modern neoliberal multiculturalism. Their messages can be interpreted as subversive to societal norms, particularly by audiences—women and queer—that identify with the characters. For them, these stories and representations may prompt reflections on societal misogyny and bigotry, albeit without resolution. Rather than challenging social norms from the margins, these comedians stealthily center themselves on screen and in doing so, reposition their LGBTQ+ identities as conventional, further normalizing their subversiveness. This strategy is distinct from assimilationist storytelling, which tends to erase non-normative identities, and conventional post-feminist storytelling, which as Angela McRobbie describes, operates on the assumption that equality between the genders has been achieved. [ (( McRobbie, Angela. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.” Interrogating Post-Feminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 27-39. ))] The strategy described here does not make this assumption, nor does it portray women or gender non-conforming persons in opposition to cis maleness, which de-centers their intersectional identities. Instead, it centers their existence, relationships, and experiences within the text, framing them as “the norm” in order to then introduce new and original content related to their queer identities.

Take My Wife

The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke”

The portrayal of Cameron and Rhea in Take My Wife is reminiscent of the charming awkwardness of another comedy predecessor, Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’ comedy differs from that of her bawdy and bitchy peers of the ’90s; her inoffensive and “feel good persona” [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014, p. 94. ))] helped make her character on Ellen (1994-1998) relatable and beloved by hetero- and homosexual audiences alike. There are many similarities between Esposito and Butcher’s performances and that of DeGeneres: both tell their stories using the traditional sitcom format, perform endearing portrayals of their on-screen characters, and attempt to frame their queerness as conventional. The television medium has changed since Barr’s and DeGeneres’ iconic series; it is no longer the monolithic network medium of thirty years ago. In this era of post-network niche audience targeting, why would the show’s creators be concerned with broadening the appeal of the characters in the series?


The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life

Esposito and Butcher’s queer identities—both comedians identify as lesbians and Butcher as genderqueer—complicate the portrayal of their characters on television in a time in which half of the country elected a Vice President with a record of opposition to gay rights. It is not surprising that the LGBTQ+ creators and stars would explore more modest representations of their identities on a television sitcom as DeGeneres did twenty years earlier. For Esposito, framing her identity and critique of mainstream culture as lighthearted joking has been a necessary strategy from early in her career. She explains, “I’m tiny and smiley. I think a lot of it comes from creating safety for myself because as a queer person, I was just very unsafe. Then as a survivor, I feel really unsafe all the time. I think something that I did without knowing it was about introducing myself to people, to be like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’” [ (( Robinson, Joanna. “The #MeToo Movement has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.” Vanity Fair. 23 May 2018. ))] Esposito has intuitively attempted to make herself palatable to heterosexual audiences and recognizes how others like DeGeneres paved the way for her with a similar approach, “Ellen has to exist in people’s house during the daytime so that people aren’t so scared, and then I can get married. That has to happen.” [ (( Kravitz, Melissa. “How Cameron Esposito Plans to Revolutionize Comedy in 2018.” Broadly. 22 December 2017. ))]

Thus, in spite of the often subversive nature of their stand-up performances, Esposito and Butcher chose the traditional sitcom format to convey their stories on the television series. The two queer characters, Cameron and Rhea, are portrayed as conventional specifically through conformity with familiar aspects of the sitcom narrative, an emphasis on the couple’s domesticity, and the downplaying of their gender and sexual identities, a contrast with the more candid approach of their other media projects. This strategy positions the comedians as the non-normative leads of the television series, which allows the writers to introduce discourse from the point of view of its queer characters. The comedians then subtly address the struggles of gender non-conforming persons in our gender binary culture, assault and rape culture, as well as present novel, intimate, and authentic storylines for the show’s queer characters. In the second episode of the first season, for example, the comedians address the topic of sexual assault. The topic of rape is first raised indirectly as the comedians take to the stage to interrogate whether rape jokes are funny given the likelihood of sexual assault victims present in the audience. The following sequence in which individual characters in the show say “me too” to the camera is powerful, though, it should be noted a great deal more nuanced than Esposito’s recent #MeToo stand-up set in Rape Jokes (2018), “a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it” in which the comedian explicitly shares her personal story on stage. [ (( Fox, Jesse D. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture. 28 May 2018. ))]

Rape jokes

Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016

Take My Wife should be celebrated for its authentic portrayals and for taking on the everyday aspects of lesbian existence after coming out, while acknowledging that it is also consistent with the marketing plans of a growing number of over-the-top platforms creating niche content that is geared toward distinct subsets of viewers. In this series, the show’s creators offer novel representations of real and intimate queer characters on screen to LGBTQ+ viewers, and more broadly, two inconspicuous lesbian characters, unthreatening to the heteronormative status quo. Gilbert has noted that female comics’ use of self-deprecatory humor can be interpreted as either subverting the status quo or affirming oppressive gender norms; likewise, in the case of Take My Wife, “it is up to the audience to interpret any form of cultural representation.” [ (( Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 139. ))] This palatability of the series’ humor is not without potential drawbacks where the queer community is concerned; the tokenism of DeGeneres [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” Critical Studies in Media Communications 18.2 (2001): 123-140. ))] and homo-normativity in many popular contemporary series with queer characters [ (( Doty, Alexander. “Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism.” Flow Journal, 12.9 (2010). ))] are cautionary tales of the appeal of similar comedic approaches of series on broadcast networks. It is too early to know if the normalizing strategies described here will contribute to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and progressivism, either on- or off-screen, in the current post-network context.

Image Credits:

1. Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989.
2. Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)
3. The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke.”
4. The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life.
5. Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Moving From The Margins: Blackness, Podcasts and Racialized Audio Space
Briana Barner / University of Texas at Austin

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Podcast research must expand who the imagined podcast listener is

Podcasts are a vastly growing medium, with no slowing down in sight. According to a study done by Edison Research, in 2018 monthly listenership grew 26% (an increase of 2% from the previous year). The study also found that podcasts are the number one audio source based on the time of consumption among podcast listeners. This is presumably due to the proliferation of apps that make podcast listening more accessible. Gone are the days of listening to a podcast solely on an iPhone, or worst, a computer which made mobile listening difficult. The new podcast listening apps have opened up podcasting to non-Apple users and therefore new audiences.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the assumption that the average listener of podcasts is White. According to the Edison Research study The Podcast Consumer 2018, the average listener is highly educated (34% of monthly consumers have either advanced degrees or some form of graduate school); employed full-time, and is a man (52% of monthly consumers are men as opposed to 48% of listeners being women). The study does not account for the race of this idealized consumer, but elsewhere it has been imagined that this listener is White. Scholars Morris and Patterson [ ((Morris, J.W. & Patterson, E. (2015). “Podcasting and Its Apps: Software, Sound, and the Interfaces of Digital Audio.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22(2), 220-230. Doi: 10.1080/19376529.2015.1083374))] summarized that the average podcast listener is “often dominated by older, educated, white professional males. Consumption also skewed toward the well-educated and affluent.” [ ((Morris and Patterson, p. 222))] In another study, McClung and Johnson [ ((McClung, S. and Johnson, K. (2010) “Examining the Motives of Podcast Users.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 17(1) pp. 82-95, DOI: 10-1080/1937652100371931sx))] sought to find the motives of podcast users, and their findings indicated similar demographics. For the purpose of this article, race will be the primary lens that shifts the discussion of podcast consumers but surely future research should consider other factors. These identity markers impact not only how a consumer engages with the podcast, but also how the host(s) imagine and structure the show. In not considering other races as imagined listeners of podcasts (or ignoring race altogether, as was the case in the Edison report), Whiteness is centered and podcasts are constructed as White spaces. Next, I will discuss just how the podcast (and public radio) space is constructed as a White one.

Growing attention has been paid to the perceived Whiteness of both podcasts and public radio, largely due to an article written by scholar and hip hop artist Chenjerai Kumanyika in 2015. In reflecting on a radio piece for the Transom Traveling Workshop on Catalina, Kumanyika did not recognize the voice he was writing in, or the voice that he was speaking in. Writing about this experience, Kumanyika [ ((Kumanyika, C. (2015) “Vocal Color in Public Radio.” The Transom Review, (15)2, 1-26))] would later realize: “…I was…imagining someone else’s voice saying my piece. The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koening. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people.” [ ((Kumanyika, p. 2))]

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Chenjerai Kumanyika caused a panic when he reflected on using his authentic voice during a radio piece

This reflection sparked a larger panic within the podcast and public radio spheres. The larger questions that shaped the conversations questioned if Kumanyika was on to something: is there a particular radio voice, and is it White? There seemed to be a consensus among those participating in the conversations that yes, there is a specific voice common in public radio (referred to as the NPR voice amongst some) and yes, it does sound like it belongs to a White person. A commenter on Kumanyika’s piece echoed this, stating, “I too am a huge fan of public radio though I have found that the “flat Mid-Atlantic” accent is becoming more and more prevalent on that band too.” [ ((Kumanyika, p. 7))] The sound of the NPR voice is a familiar one: calm, soothing and void of any regional accent or other identifying factor that lets the listener know who the speaker is. Although the NPR voice is void of a distinct accent, it calls to a specific kind of speech and tone that signifies Whiteness (hence the panic and anxiety around Kumanyika’s reflection).

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Tweet using the #pubradio hashtag, which circulated during the discussions about Whiteness and public radio

It is important to deconstruct the Whiteness of public radio. It impacts not only the kinds of stories told, but also who tells them and what these stories sound like. What stories and perspectives do we lose if that standard is upheld? Nuance, emotion, regional dialect, and most importantly, identity is lost. There are podcasts created by people of color that push back against this style of tone. Florini, [ ((Florini, S. (2015) The Podcast “Chitlin’ Circuit”: Black Podcasters, Alternative Media, and Audio Enclaves.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22(2). 209-219.))] writing about Black podcasts, states that they: “largely eschew the “polished” and tightly formatted character of most mainstream corporate media, opting instead for an informal, flexible approach that allows for free-form conversation and embraces a range of Black vernaculars and regional accents.” [ ((Florini, p. 210))] For the listeners of these podcasts, Florini argues, the familiarity and diversity of the accents and vernacular used and topics, along with the intimacy that comes with listening to the podcasts creates a cocoon of sorts, sonically insulating them from their surroundings. [ ((Florini, p. 210))] It is precisely because of the Blackness of the hosts and the podcasts that the listeners are attracted to these podcasts that stand in opposition to the more “traditional” or White podcasts.

An example of this kind of podcast is The Read, hosted by queer Black friends Kid Fury and Crissle. It debuted in 2013 to immediate success and popularity. The show’s format is as follows: Black Excellence, Hot Topics, Listener Letters and The Read. During the Black Excellence segment, the hosts highlight Black individuals who have done noteworthy things, such as a pair of  teenage siblings creating a medical emergency app, and the first Black woman to own a NASCAR team. Next, in Hot Topics, the pair discuss celebrity happenings within Black culture. Many of the celebrities have success within Black popular culture, but not necessarily within mainstream culture. Next is the Listener Letter segment. Listeners write in letters to the show, and Crissle and Kid Fury respond. The letters range from relationship questions to questions about dealing with racist colleagues to how to navigate the political climate post-Trump’s election. Lastly, is The Read [ ((The act of reading someone, a term that originated with Black and Brown LGBTQ folks, nvolves pointing out flaws or insulting someone.))] segment, in which the two take turns expressing their displeasure, anger, frustration at various people and topics.

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Logo for the podcast The Read, which is considered one of the most successful Black podcasts

The read is a racialized, sexualized and gendered space. It is here where Kid Fury and Crissle theorize about their locations as Black, queer people existing within a political landscape that calls for the dismissal and refusal to accept their humanity. In this space, they speak to each other but they also speak to a larger system, and the beauty of the podcast is that within this space, they are not interrupted or denied voice or agency. In addition, sound is spatial. Unlike the NPR voice, the voices of Kid Fury and Crissle are distinct. Both of them are Southern, and this comes out in almost every episode. Kid Fury is a native of Miami, and Crissle is from Oklahoma, with roots in Louisiana and Texas. Though these spaces are very different, they are both uniquely Southern and place the hosts in very specific locations and cultures. There is no flattening of their accents, no hiding of their Southern roots, which adds to the spatialization of the sound of the podcast. Not only is this podcast Black, but it is very Southern, as well. The Blackness is signified through the cultural references, and even in the opening music, which is a hip-hop inspired remix of “Oh, Happy Day” a gospel song featured in the movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).

Not only are their accents very distinctly Southern, but they both have distinct laughs. The hosts both have very unique, boisterous laughs—when the two of them find something genuinely hilarious, it makes for a loud few seconds. This may be alarming for a listener who isn’t familiar with the show, but it has become one of the signature things that make the show endearing. It also shows their friendship and that they genuinely enjoy being around one another. It is not enough solely to call out the podcast as a White space. It is important to distinguish what makes the Black podcast Black. In analyzing The Read, I have shown how it signifies Blackness through its various segments, cultural references and its political space in the read segment.This project has sought to first identify the podcast and public radio space as one where Whiteness dominates, and then to present an example of a space where this is challenged and where erasure is addressed and then resolved. [ ((For a detailed list of podcasts hosted by people of color, see the Podcasts In Color directory, compiled by Danielle Berry. The directory contains over 1,000 podcasts and is constantly being updated.))]

Image Credits:

1. Podcast research must expand who the imagined podcast listener is.
2. Chenjerai Kumanyika caused a panic when he reflected on using his authentic voice during a radio piece.
3. Tweet using the #pubradio hashtag, which circulated during the discussions about Whiteness and public radio. (Author’s screen grab)
4. Logo for the podcast The Read, which is considered one of the most successful Black podcasts.

Please feel free to comment.

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

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

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

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

Monday Night Football

NFL programming has consistently thrived as appointment viewing

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

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

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

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

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

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NFL cheerleaders have filed discrimination cases against their teams

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

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

Image Credits:

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

Please feel free to comment.

#Save: NBC’s The Voice and Live Social Television
Maggie Steinhauer / University of Texas at Austin

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NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster

In recent years, Twitter has noticeably intertwined itself with live television as an interactive tool through its clever integrated hashtags and corresponding custom emojis. Live performance-based reality competition shows such as America’s Got Talent (NBC), The Voice (NBC), American Idol (ABC, and the former FOX series), and So You Think You Can Dance (FOX) all utilize some form of Twitter voting, either as an alternative to calling in your vote or through a #Save promotion. Social media integration is typically hailed as an exciting, interactive feature for audiences, yet the real beneficiaries of these Twitter tactics, from an industry studies perspective, are the producers and networks. Twitter integration, in that respect, is a producer-fueled trend to encourage live viewing and boost advertising revenue by incorporating viewer and fan labor into the process of production. The ways that these features are marketed to audiences and the implications of their standardization warrant further academic attention, and The Voice ‘s success with social media integration makes it a prime example.

Time-shifted television and online streaming can spell disaster for live reality programs like The Voice, as both viewing methods allow for commercial skipping. Event television, which Idol ‘s original run used to qualify as, can be a deterrent against non-linear viewing as it creates an impetus to watch live. But as the dominant scheduling conventions of these kinds of reality programs become ingrained for viewers, the necessity to even turn on the television before the final moments’ reveal begin to fade. For example, the fixed format of FOX’s Idol eventually became unnecessary and amid falling ratings, it eliminated the results-only episode in 2014. With popularity waning all around, there was less impulse to watch live rather than catch up on DVR. Or better yet, just browse headlines on social media without ever watching.

In 2013, The Voice (and Twitter) introduced their “Instant Save,” or #VoiceSave, during season five and ushered in a new live interactive component to the genre, reminiscent of the QUBE TV in the late 70s, as discussed by Amanda Lotz. [ ((Lotz, Amanda D. “Interactive TV Too Early: The False Start of QUBE.” Velvet Light Trap. no. 64 (Fall 2009):106-107. As Lotz links to in her article, check out this unofficial “nostalgia website” for QUBE TV. ))] Previous iterations of Twitter voting on reality competition shows were surely entertaining, but they failed to achieve interactivity in the same manner as The Voice ’s #VoiceSave. With the #Save feature, viewers were “in control” for a small portion of the episode, and as a key component, they had to follow along with the live broadcast in order to participate and likely stay tuned through those commercial breaks.

Image 2
Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode

Two years prior to The Voice ‘s version, Simon Cowell’s cancelled X-Factor became “the first-ever TV series to allow voting by Twitter,” but instead of using hashtags as the other current programs do, X-Factor asked viewers to vote by private Direct Messages to the show’s official Twitter account. [ (( Hibberd, James. “‘X-Factor’ to allow voting by Twitter.” Entertainment Weekly. October 25, 2011. ))] And although not performance-based, it is noteworthy that Big Brother on CBS also experimented with Twitter as early as 2012. AGT may not have been the first reality competition program to use Twitter voting, but they were the first in this wave of Twitter-integrated programs that allowed audiences to vote by hashtag in order to save a contestant. Essentially, this method was the next logical step in television voting’s evolution, from calling in, to texting, to web votes, and then to Twitter, but without the live component. The following year after The Voice began using the #VoiceSave, Idol (on FOX) and SYTYCD instituted similar measures.

With the addition of the #VoiceSave, The Voice ‘s results segments now invite the audience to determine which contestants will be eliminated in real time. During the last minutes of the live broadcast, host Carson Daly bring ups the bottom two or three contestants previously determined by conventional overnight voting methods. He proclaims the #VoiceSave open for five minutes only and cuts to commercial. The power, supposedly, rests solely in the hands of live viewers and they are only able to take part in the decision-making on Twitter. In The Voice ‘s recent seasons, the #VoiceSave has become more streamlined through their official Twitter account, @NBCTheVoice. Daly still reminds the viewing audience about the #VoiceSave throughout the broadcast, but the instructions are relayed through Twitter simultaneously to the point where Twitter users (and non-east coast viewers) can follow the live broadcast without actually tuning in. I’ve compiled several screenshots of and links to the @NBCTheVoice account from the November 28, 2017 episode (all on EST) to illustrate how the #VoiceSave functions. Around the halfway point of the episode, before the bottom two contestants are announced, @NBCTheVoice tweets:

Image 3
8:29 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

Ten minutes later, @NBCTheVoice announces the bottom two contestants. In this episode, contestants Janice Freeman and Adam Cunningham are up for elimination and will give final performances before the live Twitter vote. After the first performance, a second reminder goes out:

Image 4
8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

At 8:50 P.M., twenty-one minutes after the process was initiated online, the five-minute voting window is officially opened via Twitter. @NBCTheVoice tweets out identical messages using the hashtags #VoiceSaveAdam and #VoiceSaveJanice that quickly begin to rack up retweets which Twitter adds up live. By 8:55 P.M., @NBCTheVoice tweets “The #VoiceSave window is now CLOSED!” and at 8:58 P.M., it announces, “YOUR TWEETS just sent @adam_cunningham to the #VoiceTop10.”

Compared to previous voting methods, The Voice ‘s iteration was a shift because it capitalized on the second screen experience and in doing so found a means to motivate viewers to watch live TV. Where the other programs had developed a “feature,” The Voice had gone interactive, in a move noted by Variety editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein as the “gamification” of reality TV. [ (( Wallenstein, Andrew. “‘Gamification’: The Way to Revive Reality TV.” Variety. January 30, 2014. ))] Wallenstein posits that such practices directly involve audiences in the action of the live programming, essentially turning segments of the program into a game for audiences, and that process may be the key to “revive” reality TV. The term is also associated with video game design researcher and scholar Sebastian Deterding. As part of a conference presentation in 2011, Deterding, et al. defined the concept as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” [ ((Sebastian Detering, et al., “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification,'” (paper presented at MindTrek. Tampere, Finland, September 28-30 2011, 13. ))] In the case of #VoiceSave and other #Save’s, the closer these processes are to games through their structure, rules, and real-time effects, the more they represent an interactivity as opposed to participation enabled by convergence culture.

Image 5
2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

There is still debate as to the effectiveness of social TV, as Todd Spangler writes. Although, Spangler does offer that the Nielsen’s social television ratings are “designed to show the total Twitter activity relating to specific shows, to help networks and advertisers figure out how to better use the social service to drive awareness and tune-in,” not necessarily to increase ratings. [ ((Todd Spangler, “Nielsen and Twitter Unveil Social TV Metrics, Showing How Little Tweets Line Up with Ratings” Variety. October 7, 2013. ))] Yet, Twitter and Nielsen released various reports detailing increased ratings, higher audience engagement, and better brand retention. For example, the first night AGT enabled Twitter voting in 2013, the show witnessed an “8x increase in overall tweets” during that episode compared to the previous week, with a total of 117,000 tweets. [ ((Liz Myers (@thisbeliz), “America’s Got Talent Viewers Vote via Twitter,” Twitter Blog. July 26, 2013. ))] And approximately a year after The Voice instituted their #Save, it aired the “most-tweeted about TV series episode since Nielsen Social began measuring Twitter TV conversation in 2011” with 1.92 million tweets reported during the May 13, 2014 episode. [ ((Adam Flomenbaum. “How Telescope-Powered Voting Helps ‘The Voice’ Set Twitter Records.” Lost Remote. May 21, 2014, “ ))] And Nielsen Social data shows that in 29% of programs, a spike in tweets influenced changes in ratings, and the effect rose to a 44% increase in ratings for competitive reality programs, specifically. [ ((The Nielsen Company. “The Follow-Back: Understanding the Two-Way Causal Influence Between Twitter Activity and TV Viewership.” Newswire. August 6, 2013. “–understanding-the-two-way-causal-influence-betw.html. ))]

Whether viewed as the last-ditch strategic maneuver of a fading industry or rather as a shrewd reflexive adaptation to existing user behaviors, interactive Twitter voting in live performance based reality competitions is becoming a norm for the genre. It opens up worthy discussions of the rise of TV’s gameificiation, interactivity, fan labor, and the connection between social TV and liveness. The specific use of Twitter for live voting in its various iterations has ushered in noticeable format changes in primetime reality tv. All this increases the stickiness of results-only episodes, and remodels the audience’s viewing labor. To these mass ephemeral programs dependent on high viewership and advertising, their ability to promote liveness and engagement remains paramount, but is continually challenged by the current post-network era. In this post-network moment, a portion of programming power shifts toward audiences as part of a larger initiative to combat a less engaged mass audience. The central question for contemporary broadcasters, especially for their prime-time reality tentpoles, is how to continue providing their product, that highly engaged mass audience, to their advertisers.

Image Credits:
1. NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster
2. Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode
3. 8:29 PM Screenshot of@NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
4. 8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
5. 2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

Please feel free to comment.

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

Families Belong Together Protesters in Austin, TX

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

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

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

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

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

One Day at a Time
Schneider in Patriotic Clothing

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

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

OneVidaAtaTime participants
The Participants in the #OneVidaAtATime challenge

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.

In Memoriam: Black Twitter and TV Cancellations
Jacqueline Johnson / University of Texas at Austin

promo photo for survivor's remorse

Promotional Photo of Cancelled Series Survivor’s Remorse

Throughout 2017, black audiences grappled with news that black produced and black led shows were being cancelled one by one. Survivor’s Remorse, Pitch, Underground, and The Get Down were just some of the television series that met their ends in 2017. Though many television fans experience relief or dismay when networks announce which shows they are moving forward with, black audiences have demonstrated that their investment in keeping black shows on the air extends past their positive affective relationship to the program; there are ideological stakes. Because black viewers have had to navigate the absence of representation as well as images steeped in racist stereotypes, black audiences’ commitment to black shows (which I define here as shows with black creators or producers and/or black lead actors) frequently extends past other groups. This commitment has been illustrated in black media outlets, however, black adoption of the micro-blogging platform Twitter has demonstrated the myriad ways black viewers discuss issues related to on-screen representation, especially show cancellation.

This article takes Rebecca Wanzo’s assertion that “African American fans make hypervisible the ways in which fandom is expected or demanded of some disadvantaged groups as a show of economic force or ideological combat” and applies it to black viewers’ response to TV cancellations on Twitter. [ (( Wanzo, Rebecca. “African American Fandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20, 2015, n.p.” ))] Frequently deploying the language of mourning or utilizing existing hashtags concerned with diversity in Hollywood—like #RepresentationMatters—black viewers illustrate a deep investment in black shows. Though black viewers are not the only groups to use Twitter to save television series, many of the reasons viewers stated for the necessity or importance of black programs that appeared on the chopping block last year were rooted in raced considerations.

tweet about cancelled black tv shows

Tweet from Filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry’s tweet (which has over 2,700 retweets and 4,000 likes) acts as a virtual funeral for the black shows cancelled in 2017. In the over 200 replies to Cherry’s tweet, several black twitter users add more television series to his list, share grief over unfinished story lines, relay their favorite moments, and argue about various causes for the cancellations. These replies include several critiques of the networks that cancelled the shows and bemoan the loss of characters that they believe portray black experiences with appropriate nuance. In a similar vein, Catherine Squire writing in the early 2000s noted,

“in providing a venue and support for alternative visions and critiques, Black-owned media can provide important loci for critiques of mainstream media and foster Black efforts to define and redefine Black images that circulate in wider public spheres” [ (( Squires, Catherine. “Black Audiences, Past and Present: Commonsense Media Critics and Activists.” Say It Loud! African-American Audiences, Media, and Identity, Edited by Robin R. Means Coleman, Routledge, 2002, pp. 45-76 ))]

To be sure, this still holds true over fifteen years after the publication of Squire’s work, however, adoption of Twitter by black users, especially between the ages of 18-29, has helped migrate many of these discussions to the platform. This phenomenon provides further evidence for the designation of “Black Twitter” as a counterpublic space. [ (( See, Graham, Roderick and Smith, Shawn. “The Content of Our #Characters: Black Twitter as Counterpublic.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 2, no. 4, 2016, pp. 433-449 and Jackson, Sarah J. and Foucault Welles, Brooke. “#Ferguson is Everywhere: Initiators in Emerging Counterpublic Networks.” Information, Communication & Society, vol. 19, no. 3, 2016, pp. 297-418.” ))] Black users’ engagement in Twitter discussions about the cancellation of a slate of black television shows illustrates both the creation and circulation of counterhegemonic discourses about television; specifically, that white television shows are not the only relatable narratives and that there is an audience for black cast dramas.

tweet from underground fan

Tweet from an Underground Fan

In addition to expressing grief, black viewers use Twitter to attempt to fight show cancellation; most notably through circulating petitions and collectively using hashtags like #SaveUnderground and #RenewPitch. The platform conventions and design of Twitter make black challenges to white helmed studios and networks more visible and easily identifiable. #SaveUnderground was started by John Legend (one of the executive producers of Underground) after Sinclair Broadcast Group bought out WGN America, the network that aired the series, and decided to scrap the entire network’s slate of original programming in favor of cheaper to produce procedurals. Fans of Underground quickly latched on to the hashtag and used other media like gifs and memes (which are easily integrated into tweets) to convey their disappointment with the news that the network was abandoning one of its most successful programs. In addition to using the hashtag, several fans created petitions and tweeted at several other outlets to pick up the show for its third season, including black owned networks like Oprah Winfrey’s OWN as well as streaming platforms Hulu and Netflix. The calls to #SaveUnderground or #RenewPitch were frequently paired with calls for greater diversity in Hollywood or emphasis that these stories were especially needed for the current times.

tweet from underground fan about kanye

Tweet about the Necessity of Underground from a Fan

The discourses black Twitter users utilize to attempt to save shows from cancellation or to grieve the loss of black programming exude a palpable fear of losing the ground black viewers feel they have gained in the television landscape. This tangible fear is not without historical precedent. Much has been written about the “Golden Age of Television” ushered in by series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but recently many black viewers and critics believe that we are entering a Golden Age of Black TV. In an article for The Atlantic at the start of 2017, Angelica Jade Bastien declares that “2016 was a banner year for black people in front of and behind the camera” and credits showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil with opening the doors for a surge in black programming. [ (( Bastien, Angelica Jade. “Claiming the future of Black TV.” The Atlantic, 29, Jan. 2017, Accessed 16, June 2018” ))] Notably, many of the series that were a part of the boom of black television in 2016 were dramas, some of which attempted to match the aesthetics of the white prestige cable dramas that had received much critical acclaim and cultural cachet. However, as Alfred L. Martin has argued, despite attempts, the “prestige” label seems to elude many black cast dramas. [ (( Martin, Alfred L. “Notes from Underground: WGN’s Black-Cast Quality TV Experiment.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 31, May 2018. . Accessed 16, June 2018. ))] The inability of many black cast dramas to secure the label of “prestige TV” and in some cases a lack of sufficient “crossover appeal,” — both, of course, rooted in raced, gendered, and classed structures of taste — likely heavily contributed to the cancellations of many black television shows in 2017. Addressing the sustainability of black television series, Bastien argues that this surge might potentially follow the boom and bust trend of black programming from the 1970s and 1990s. For the black Twitter users that expressed grief or dismay with huge losses to black programming in 2017, they likely remember the black television shows from the 1990s and early 2000s that swiftly disappeared after the end of United Paramount Network (UPN). Recalling the absence of programming that followed periods of relative abundance, black audiences are using Twitter to intervene in a repeated trend. Unlike the 1980s and late 2000s, black audiences have a direct way to demonstrate to networks that they have a deep investment in black programming and are willing to fight to see themselves represented on screen.

Relatedly, amidst news of black shows being cancelled, black audiences have also had to contend with the rise in reboots of classic white television series like Roseanne and Murphy Brown. Despite several sitcoms with predominately white casts returning to television, the trend of television reboots has elided black television sitcoms that were immensely popular in the 1990s. In fact, after Roseanne was cancelled following the star’s racist tweet about Obama White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, many black Twitter users took to the platform to ask why ABC would greenlight the television show of a known racist, while ignoring several popular black shows from the same era. Further, it is impossible to disentangle race from television reboots and the politics of nostalgia. While shows like Will & Grace and Full House enjoy a second run, black audiences are left asking why many of their classic shows aren’t even available on Netflix.

Recent scholarship in the field has looked at Twitter to research black audience reception. [ (( See, Chatman, Dayna. “Black Twitter and the Politics of Viewing Scandal.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, New York University Press, 2017, pp. 299-314. and Gonlin, Vanessa and Williams, Apryl. “I Got All My Sister with Me (On Black Twitter): Second Screenings of How To Get Away With Murder as a Discourse on Black Womanhood.” Information, Communication & Society, col. 20, no. 7, 2017, pp. 984-1004. ” ))] However, to understand the range of black audience reception, research should extend beyond looking at live tweeting and second screen viewing to encompass the entire life course of black-oriented programming from the initial promotion of a series to news of its cancellation. Lastly, I return to Rebecca Wanzo’s assertion that black viewership has ideological stakes; mourning the loss of a show or fighting to save it are actions black audiences take to showcase their commitment to better representation on screen.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional Photo of Cancelled Series Survivor’s Remorse.
2. Tweet from Filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry
3. Tweet from Underground Fan
4. Tweet about the Necessity of Underground from Fan

Please feel free to comment.

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


Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida

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

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

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

1957 Synergy Map

Walt Disney’s 1957 “Synergy Map”

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

Synergy Map 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sceneframing The CW's Arrow in Vancouver

Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

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

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

Please feel free to comment.