Beyond Journal Articles: Navigating the NTRO (Non-Traditional Research Outcome)
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong, Australia

WARNING: This article contains names and images of Aboriginal people who have died.

McHughinterview

Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016.

I am walking around the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendemu, in the Australian desert, when a pack of fierce dogs appears. I tentatively record their loud barking.

Later, a procession of Aboriginal women emerges from the art centre, their dark bodies painted with white ochre in ceremonial markings. They are talking and laughing. They begin a slow dance, their singing rising and ebbing as I record.

At the art centre, I interview Alma Nungarrayi Granites, a renowned painter. Alma draws her ancient Star Dreaming, a celestial formation. But she’s absorbing Western art thinking too. “Nothing is a mistake in painting,” her friend Gloria told her. “Just work with the mistake: that’s how I learned,” says Alma. Gloria comes from Chile. She is an art conservator, a martial arts enthusiast and an animal lover. She’s organised vaccinations and adoptions to improve the health of the local dogs. “There were about 700 dogs to 1000 people when I came,” she says. She personally looks after about fifty of them.

Alma

Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia.

Gloria introduced over 200 colors to the artists, who previously used only red, white, black and yellow ochres from the land. She and her co-manager, Cecilia Alfonso, also from Chile, have ramped up sales from about 300 artworks a year in 2001 to about 8,000 now. Tourists are surprised to hear the artists take the market into account, she tells me. “Are they working for money?” one asked. “I work for money,” Gloria shot back. “Don’t you?” Her voice shows her annoyance. It’s patronising Aboriginal women to suggest they don’t think about earnings.

All of these audio “scenes” will build depth and character for a story I’m telling as part of a research project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), Australia’s main academic research body. [ ((McHugh, S, McLean, I, Neale, M (2018), Heart of Artness podcast series Season One: Five episodes, viewed at http://artness.net.au/about/))] It’s led by an art historian, Professor Ian McLean, in partnership with Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia. We’re seeking to document the significant but little known cross-cultural relationships that influence the production of Aboriginal art today—an important economic and cultural activity. This research will first be published, not as a refereed journal article, but as a crafted audio storytelling documentary, The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, broadcast on national radio (ABC 2018) and as a podcast. [ ((McHugh, S (2018). The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 18 May 2018, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/the-conquistador,-the-warlpiri-and-the-dog-whisperer/9617950))]

Alma2

Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016.

In the podcast, sound, as well as speech, expresses aspects of the community: the culture of singing and dancing, Gloria’s closeness to the ubiquitous dogs, the affection and respect the two women share, children speaking their Warlpiri language. The holistic audio artifact allows us to appreciate at many levels, including the sensory, the cross-cultural dimensions of Indigenous art production—and in choreographing these sound recordings into a layered, affective, creative work, I am creating not just an engaging and accessible documentary, but a scholarly “non-traditional research output” (NTRO).



CRAFTED AUDIO STORYTELLING as a NTRO

Since 2010, NTROs have been classified by the ARC and audited alongside traditional books, book chapters, journal articles and full conference proceedings in periodic assessments of Australian universities’ Excellence in Research Australia (ERA). The ERA reports provide “a nationwide stocktake of discipline strengths and areas for development” and are a crucial indicator of a university’s standing. I’ve had two NTROs processed by ERA: a two-hour radio documentary/podcast, Marrying Out (ABC 2009), [ ((McHugh S, (2009). Marrying Out: Part One – Not in Front of the Altar. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, October 2009, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/marrying-out—-part-one-not-in-front-of-the-altar/3068558))] about religious bigotry and interfaith marriage, and a one-hour radio documentary, Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta, made with an anthropologist, Dr. Jacqui Baker, about extrajudicial police killings in Indonesia (ABC 2013). [ ((Baker, J and McHugh S, (2013). Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, April 2013, 55mins
Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026))]

To approve a NTRO, ERA applies rigorous standards of peer review—crucial for the evaluation of any academic research. Applicants submit a research statement, which describes the background, contribution, and significance of the particular work. ERA defines research as: “the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings.” NTROs are admissible in six categories: live performance of creative works, original creative works, recorded/rendered creative works (such as my crafted audio works), curated or produced substantial public exhibitions and events, research reports for an external body, and portfolio.

Far from being an easy option, NTROs receive even closer scrutiny than conventional research outputs, as Professor Ross Woodrow (2016) notes.

They have been scrutinised by editorial or peer-review selection processes by publishers, gallery directors, curators, and selection panels before publication. Post-publication, the outputs have undergone verification and evaluation by Research Deans and Officers in each university and, finally, by external ERA reviewers. In addition to this, a number of universities, such as the University of Sydney, also appoint external peer assessors to oversee all creative research outputs collected in its research data repository. [ ((Woodrow, R (2016), “NTRO: A Model for Change,” NITRO, August 11 2016. Viewed at https://nitro.edu.au/articles/edition-2/ntro-a-model-for-change?rq=Woodrow))]

Thus, having my documentaries accepted by the national broadcaster (a competitive process with generally under 20% acceptance rate, similar to major research grants in Australia) and/or winning endorsements such as prestigious awards (e.g. Marrying Out and Eat Pray Mourn won gold and bronze at the New York Radio Festival) constitute tiers of peer review.

I argued to ERA that Marrying Out created new understandings of existing knowledge. For the series, I interviewed 50 people about marrying across the bitter Catholic-Protestant divide that bedevilled Australia, an echo of the troubled colonial history between largely Catholic Ireland and Protestant England that dated back centuries. Those tensions were documented.

What was new in my synthesis was the visceral experience for listeners of sharing the pain of family feuds and societal bigotry: it was carried affectively in the interviewees’ voices and in their non-verbal sighs and tears. [ ((See McHugh, S. A. “The affective power of sound: oral history on radio.” The Oral History Review 39, 2 (2012): 187-206. Viewed at https://ro.uow.edu.au/creartspapers/345/. NOTE: it is essential to listen to the audio clips in conjunction with reading the article. Audio at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1jesv_GhLcpVrdi4rwDet4SGM))] It was amplified by specially composed music and historical references powerfully evoked by the archival recordings and actuality I selected—verite recordings of church weddings, funerals, family scenes, royal visits invoking old Empire worship, sectarian taunts performed with vicious gusto by actors and with blithe unconcern by today’s children, for whom they held no currency. This effect on listeners was maximized by the relational way I mixed these sounds in order to heighten their affective power: e.g. having the taunts float over an ethereal boy soprano singing a Catholic hymn, in an emotive evocation of the conflict between prejudice and spirituality. Finally, the original oral history interviews were archived at the National Library of Australia, open to scrutiny and further research.

Protestant Couple

After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out.

In a similar way, in Eat Pray Mourn, Baker and I argued to ERA that hearing the personal responses of a wife, a mother and a sister to the deaths of their loved ones, shot summarily by police, could give listeners a deeper, felt understanding of the extrajudicial killings than would a lengthy journal article. Once I found myself defending the finer points of audio narrative craft to the university’s Ethics Committee (IRB), who wanted us to protectively anonymise the crusading sister of Yusli, a young man killed on a trumped-up charge of motorbike theft. When we first meet Yusli’s mother, she rattles off the names of her six children, including his sister, Yeni. “Everyone is Y,” the mother says with a laugh. Yeni adds: “We gave Yusli five letters, more than the others…more posh. We never thought he was fated to die.”

If we were to remove the names of Yusli and Yeni, we would have to lose that poignant scene. Stories depend on character and voice as well as plot, I told the sceptical social science academics on the committee. And this scene is setting up Yusli’s mother and sister as characters we care about: it’s crucial to getting listeners to engage with the documentary’s underlying purpose, of examining police behavior. Further, far from endangering Yeni, using her name affords her the protection of Western media attention. In the end, the committee approved the original segment.

Yusili

Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside.



NEW DIRECTIONS for NTROs

Australia was an early adopter of NTROs; my own University of Wollongong graduated the first practice-based Doctor of Creative Arts in Australia, in Visual Arts, in 1988. Practice-based and practice-led PhDs are now increasingly common in the humanities. Australian scholar Mia Lindgren has examined how radio journalism offers a model, but they are also common in creative writing, film and media studies, visual arts and theatre.

Some scholars use podcasts not as NTROs but as a way of increasing their non-scholarly engagement with the broader community: US philosopher Professor Barry Lam was an early adopter, with Hi-Phi Nation, “a show about philosophy that turns ideas into stories,” while Australian historian Dr. Tamson Pietsch hosts the popular History Lab podcast, whose tagline, “Australia’s only investigative history podcast,” indicates its role in examining the historical process as well as showcasing new understandings of history.

The episode itself does not represent new research…it is more a communication or interpretation (by the producer) of existing work. …Our commitment is to doing the work of thinking and making meaning, not for our listeners, but with them. [ ((Pietsch, T (2019), personal communication to the author, 5 February 2019.))]

History Lab is a finalist in the 2019 Australian Podcast Awards in the documentary/storytelling category, a testament to the collaboration of its academic hosts with their university radio station, 2-SER. Academics increasingly seek out skilled audio producers to co-create conversational podcasts on academic themes: Stuart Hall: In Conversation, produced by KUT journalist Rebecca McInroy and hosted by University of Texas sociology professor, Ben Carrington, celebrates the life and achievements of the late cultural studies theorist.

A Canadian scholar is testing the podcast NTRO further, as a form of non-traditional scholarly publishing. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is “in the midst of a collaborative research project with Wilfrid Laurier University Press in which we’ve subjected my podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, to peer review.” [ ((McGregor, H (2019), personal communication to the author, 16 February 2019))]

In Secret Feminist Agenda, McGregor interviews a broad range of feminists and reflects on “the insidious, nefarious, insurgent, and mundane ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives.” Four lengthy peer reviews, by digital humanities, social justice and literature scholars, analyse the first two seasons and are published online. The reviews provide a valuable assessment of many aspects of the podcast, but neglect to appraise the use of an audio format: a bit like having a review of a journal article fail to address the clarity, correctness and style of the writing—an integral aspect of its ability to communicate research. If podcasts are to be put forward as research outputs, they need to be evaluated by someone who is also audio-literate.

The potential of the podcast medium to deliver innovative research opportunities is being harnessed in highly imaginative ways. In the UK, for instance, the BBC has teamed up with three universities to develop an absorbing audio “eco-thriller” or sci-fi story, Forest 404, which incorporates sounds of the natural world as plot elements. These sounds are developed as accompanying tracks, along with short talks by a PhD researcher, who uses listener feedback to study how natural sounds can impact mental health. I look forward to seeing many more interdisciplinary research collaborations that tap into the awesome power of audio and the new medium of podcasting in fresh and exciting ways.

Image Credits:

1. Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
2. Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia (Author’s personal collection).
3. Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
4. After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out (Susan Timmins).
5. Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside (Jacqui Baker).

Please feel free to comment.




No More Room for You: Reading Between the Lines of Netflix’s Claims of Inclusivity
Jacinta Yanders / The Ohio State University

Avenge the Fallen

Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo)

In a recently published edited collection on Netflix and nostalgia, I wrote about how Netflix’s current interest in nostalgia allowed for the production of the One Day at a Time (ODAAT) reimagining. Unlike other reimaginings that have changed elements of characters’ identities strictly on the surface level, ODAAT attends to how such changes should necessarily influence characterizations and storytelling. Despite positive responses from viewers and critics, ODAAT has always existed in a sphere of uncertainty. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the series currently holds a 98% overall rating from critics and a 90% overall rating from viewers. [ (( “One Day at a Time.” Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/one_day_at_a_time. Accessed 26 Apr. 2019. ))] Yet, the series perpetually teetered on the edge of cancellation. Additionally, when it comes to matters of media representation, viewers have been let down more often than not. My chapter poses this question about Netflix in the end: “Will it continue to provide spaces to shows like One Day at a Time that both provide the comfort Netflix seeks to capitalize upon while also challenging dominant ideologies and providing space for underrepresented narratives?” [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “‘We can’t have two white boys trying to tell a Latina story’: Nostalgia, Identity and Cultural Specificity.” Netflix Nostalgia: Streaming the Past on Demand, edited by Kathryn Pallister, Lexington Books, 2019, 137-152. p. 148. ))]

Netflix essentially answered this question on March 14th by announcing the cancellation of ODAAT:

Netflix cancels ODAAT

Netflix cancels ODAAT part 2

Netflix cancels One Day at a Time

This announcement was quickly met with displeased reactions. Because the series was regularly on the bubble, the fact that it was canceled was not surprising in and of itself. What seemed to be most off-putting, however, was the reasoning Netflix used to explain the cancellation, and in particular, the continued insistence that Netflix is invested in representation. This insistence in the cancellation notice—in addition to several promotional campaigns Netflix has produced—is presumably meant to entice viewers and lessen any blowback that might be incurred. However, because Netflix’s words in these assurances have so noticeably conflicted with their actions, the good faith that the streaming service is hoping to cultivate is rendered nearly nonexistent.

Taking Netflix at their word is difficult for a variety of reasons. In the cancellation tweets, Netflix claims that “simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Two factors cast doubt on this statement. First, Netflix rarely shares any sort of viewership metrics. There’s no way to know how many people watched the show or what “enough” would even look like. Additionally, Netflix seemed to do very little to promote the series. In recent years, Netflix’s promotional toolkit has expanded beyond in-app notifications to include billboards, and perhaps most importantly, extensive social media engagement. [ (( Beer, Jeff. “Inside the Secretly Effective—and Underrated—Way Netflix Keeps Its Shows and Movies at the Forefront of Pop Culture.” https://www.fastcompany.com/90309308/by-any-memes-necessary-inside-netflixs-winning-social-media-strategy. ))] At the time of writing, the official Netflix Twitter account has made nearly 28,000 tweets. In conducting a basic search of the account’s tweets, I found that only seventeen directly referred to ODAAT. Of those seventeen, eight occurred in 2019, which is curious for a series that began in January 2017. Admittedly, Netflix produces an exceptional amount of content, which might limit promotional efforts for individual products. However, one might expect to see a program that has gotten the sort of critical and commercial acclaim ODAAT has received as more of a focal point.

Limited promotion extends beyond Netflix’s social media audience. Latinx media critic Yolanda Machado noted that she was unable to secure screeners for the show or set up interviews with cast, despite persistent efforts (@SassyMamainLA):

Yolanda Machado

Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA)

Given the lack of social media promotion and critical engagement, the task of promoting the series often fell to the cast and crew, and ultimately extended to fans, who engaged in the labor of renewal campaigns, viewing sprees, and sharing personal connections, often highlighting the importance of seeing well-developed portrayals of narratives featuring Latinx, LGBTQ, disabled, and working class experiences.

Like several other corporate social media accounts, Netflix has recognized that many fans enjoy when accounts tweet with some measure of personality as opposed to maintaining a sterile distance. This can foster a sense of “authentic” connection, which I’ve argued elsewhere doesn’t necessarily need to be proven, but instead only needs to feel real. [ (( Yanders, Jacinta. “Interactions, Emotions, and Earpers: ‘Wynonna Earp,’ the Best Fandom Ever.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 26, Mar. 2018. doi:10.3983/twc.2018.1129. ))] But there’s a catch here. Media entities can cultivate feelings of care with viewers, but this amplifies the likelihood of engendering negative sentiment when viewers feel lied to, manipulated, and/or cast aside. The final tweet in the ODAAT cancellation reads as follows: “And to anyone who felt seen or represented — possibly for the first time — by ODAAT, please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important. The outpouring of love for this show is a firm reminder to us that we must continue finding ways to tell these stories.” Every component of this purposefully-crafted message scans as disingenuous, as “an attempt to soften the blow, to make the company look better even while it twists the knife.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” Vulture, 14 Mar. 2019, https://www.vulture.com/2019/03/netflix-one-day-at-a-time-cancellation-twitter.html. ))] Netflix—not unlike many other institutions—grasps that the language of diversity and inclusion can be used as a cover. They parrot language often utilized by fans about feeling “seen” or “represented” and commit to continuing to tell such stories while eliminating an already-existing story that was accomplishing this goal. They note the “outpouring of love” the show has received just after claiming the audience wasn’t there.

Ultimately, the use of this language comes across as little more than a marketing ploy. To be clear, I’m not arguing that one should expect a business to operate altruistically, but rather that Netflix’s attempts to paint themselves as altruistic are so blatantly unbelievable that they’re fostering more resentment than would likely occur if they simply said their decisions were about money. In the recent “Make Room” ad, Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba travels through various Netflix properties which might be deemed inclusive, such as Glow and Roma, while highlighting the lack of representation in media. The video begins with Aduba asking, “Have you ever been in a room and didn’t see anyone else like you?” Ultimately, she delivers a call to action (“Let’s make room”) followed by saying, “We’re making room for you to find them and for them to find you.” The ad ends with text that reads “More room. More stories. More voices.” followed by the Netflix logo. Through Aduba, Netflix asserts that it is already and will continue to be inclusive. Notably, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has previously indicated that ODAAT had a “unique value” because of groups of viewers it drew in, including women, LGBTQ viewers, and Latinx viewers. But this knowledge ultimately offered little protection. [ (( Adalian, Josef. “Inside Netflix’s TV-Swallowing, Market-Dominating Binge Factory.” Vulture, 10 June 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/06/how-netflix-swallowed-tv-industry.html. ))]

Of course, Netflix isn’t the only network attempting to capitalize on such language. The CW’s ongoing “Open to All” campaign provides another example of the operationalization of representational discourse to shore up a network’s public persona. For the record, ODAAT is not featured in the “Make Room” ad, despite having just released a new season a few weeks prior. ODAAT’s cancellation came two weeks after the ad’s release. Netflix is still purportedly blocking other entities from picking up ODAAT, which curiously does not seem like an action that correlates with “making room.” [ (( Andreeva, Nellie. “Sony Pictures TV Chiefs On ‘One Day At a Time’ Future, Selling ‘Suites’ Of Series & Competing For Talent.” Deadline, 12 Apr. 2019, https://deadline.com/2019/04/sony-pictures-tv-chiefs-one-day-at-a-time-future-selling-suites-series-competing-talent-1202593532/. ))] After the cancellation, creator of the original ODAAT Norman Lear asked, “Is there really so little room in business for love and laughter?” (@TheNormanLear):

Norman Lear

Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

On one hand, this might seem like an absurd question to ask a billion-dollar corporation, but it’s a question that Netflix invites via its own choices, with ODAAT and beyond. As VanArendonk notes about the end result of the cancellation, “Thanks to Netflix’s extensive social media efforts, it felt insulting, tin-eared, and greedy. It felt personal.” [ (( VanArendonk, Kathryn. “Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal.” ))]

So is it still worthwhile to viewers that care about representation to become invested in Netflix properties? If Netflix isn’t going to promote these works and it’s going to limit the sustainability of such projects, seemingly just to turn over to the next new thing, all the while paying lip service to inclusivity, what’s the long term value of what Netflix offers? Industrial upheaval appears to be on the horizon, particularly with an onslaught of new streamers. Rather that taking Netflix’s words at face value, its actions certainly need to remain in the foreground of conversations about what sort of change, if any, is actually being enacted.

Image Credits:

1. Avenge the Fallen image from Tri Vo (@tribranchvo).
2. Netflix cancels One Day at a Time.
3. Yolanda Machado (@SassyMamainLA).
4. Norman Lear (@TheNormanLear)

Please feel free to comment.




Undisciplined and Beyond Content: Teaching Fan Studies to the Academy
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)


Supernatural

Fanon Meets Canon: Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S 10, e05, November 11, 2014)

In a recent piece for Flow, I drew what may initially seem an unlikely connection between fans, fan studies and Cathy Davidson’s timely and compelling call for the reinvention of American higher education in order “to prepare students for a world in flux.”[ ((Cathy N Davidson. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).))] More specifically, I made the case that fan studies enacts several efficacious ways of working toward this goal, and has a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities to reexamine, perhaps even relinquish, some of the entrenched norms and practices that tend, however unintentionally, to hinder curricular innovation, pedagogical experimentation, and/or institutional reorganization.

To be fair, the scope of the important work that must be undertaken inside higher education is such that the ideas, input, and participation of each and every academic discipline, department, and program of study will be crucial. Insofar as this is the case, fan studies may seem an unlikely candidate to single out for inspiration or direction. After all, it’s not a discipline, but an interdisciplinary field of study shaped by other interdisciplinary fields of study such as cultural studies, film studies, media studies, and the like. In part because of its genealogy, one needn’t spend time looking a Department of Fan Studies or even a fan studies major on any college or university campus; there are none. However counterintuitive it may seem, though, these are also among the reasons fan studies can serve as a model for change within higher education generally, and within academic disciplines, departments, majors, and learning spaces more specifically.

Historically, the academy has categorized knowledge by discipline. There were and are compelling reasons to do so, but this has never been a purely epistemological distinction. On the contrary, it has significant pedagogical and methodological ramifications as well, effectively circumscribing what, when, where, how, and from whom students learn. Such an approach is increasingly, at times glaringly, antithetical to how people actually encounter, acquire, use, and transmit knowledge in the so-called “real world”. The problem is compounded by the fact that the academy has, by turns, either actively promoted or passively tolerated an erroneous equivalency between disciplinary expertise and the mastery of specialized content qua knowledge. This has left it rather clumsily positioned to explain the value of higher education in a world in which anyone with an Internet connection can easily and freely access more content than they could hope to read, view, or listen to in a single lifetime.

In what follows, I continue to make the case that although it is not alone either in facilitating change within higher education or in preparing undergraduates for academic and/or professional success, fan studies offers the academy a unique example of active, distributed, and integrative learning through an approach I describe, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as undisciplined and beyond content.

To call a fan studies approach to learning “undisciplined” is not to suggest that it lacks rigor, but rather to note that within the context of most fan studies courses, classrooms, assignments, materials, etc., rigor has nothing to do with the ability to recall accurately an arbitrary body of information, as one might in a Vulcan “skill dome”. Rigor may, but certainly need not be demonstrated through the mastery of discipline-specific knowledge. An “undisciplined” approach to learning leaves room for but is not reducible to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and in the undergraduate fan studies classroom, it allows students to engage in forms of academic rigor and to develop identities as intellectuals that needn’t conform to or demonstrate mastery of established disciplinary conventions and/or boundaries.

Vulcan skill dome

Not disciplinary, but disciplined: The Vulcan Learning Center’s “skill domes” in Star Trek (2009)

This concept of “undisciplined” learning merits a conversation with students. It not only invites them to reflect on the fact that “discipline” and “disciplinary” mobilize dual meanings – a branch of knowledge along one register, a form of punitive or corrective action along another – but to consider the ways academic institutions rely on the latter to enforce the former, as in the ubiquitous ‘checklist’ of major and general education requirements that structure discipline-based pathways students must take through the curriculum to earn a diploma. In my experience, once students begin to recognize some of the ways in which their relationship to knowledge and learning has been, is, and is expected to be “disciplined”, they often become intentionally and actively “undisciplined” in ways that make them more agile, provocative, and syncretic thinkers. This may not be a desirable outcome in all areas of study, granted, but it surely is in many, if not most.

One of the most daunting yet rewarding aspects of teaching fan studies is that unless the course topic is atypically specific, there is little to no chance for any one person – perhaps the instructor least of all – to match the aggregate knowledge that students bring to the table. Further, each student brings their own expertise and distinct form of fannishness to the room, all but ensuring there is no substantial body of shared prior knowledge. Add to this that time constraints make watching or reading an entire series or franchise, much less studying an entire fandom, a logistical impossibility. In each of these ways, we might say that the fan studies classroom exists in a realm beyond content. This is not a realm without content, but rather one with so much that whatever content does make it into the syllabus functions primarily as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Put differently, the focus quickly moves away from the content and toward the students’ ability to develop and/or strengthen skills and strategies that will enable them to responsibly and efficiently locate, identify, organize, summarize, synthesize, analyze, interrogate, and transform content. Within the learning space of a fan studies class, it is a virtual certainty that students will bring these skills and strategies to bear on specific content and in specific ways based less on what is important to a discipline and more on what is important to them and their learning.

description of image

Keanu Reeves’s Neo “learning” kung fu in The Matrix (1999)

Lurking just beneath the surface of every conversation in the fan studies classroom is an unfathomable volume of media content and fannish knowledge. There is little value in expecting each student to ever know what other students know, but there is tremendous value in students learning (to learn) from their classmates in purposeful, intentional ways. We may not be able to download ‘knowledge’ directly into our brains a la The Matrix (1999); however, we absolutely can leverage the community’s collective intelligence to everyone’s benefit.

The concept of collective intelligence has enjoyed considerable purchase since the advent of Web 2.0.[ ((See Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software” (Sept. 30, 2005, https://mediaedu.typepad.com/info_society/files/web2.pdf)))] It is, however, worth taking a moment to recall how Pierre Lévy first defined it:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. I’ll add the following indispensable characteristic to this definition: The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.”[ ((Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Helix Books, 1997), 13.))]

Lévy envisions collective intelligence not as an abstraction, but as a real and potentially emancipatory humanizing force. He does not lament the impossibility of knowing everything; he celebrates it as the basis for individuality, and as the impetus for a model of community that enriches its own knowledge by enriching others’. This is distinctly at odds with what Peter Walsh identifies as the “expert paradigm.” Henry Jenkins explains the tension between these two views of knowledge by noting that “the expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 52.))]

The expert paradigm is, for all intents and purposes, the academy’s paradigm: in addition to emphasizing “bounded bodies of knowledge;” both use those boundaries to distinguish between who is inside and outside of the knowledge community; both endow disciplines with the authority to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge, as well as to enforce protocols for how it is acquired and shared; and finally, both emphasize the importance of credentials to verify one’s expertise.[ ((Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 53-54.))] It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that both of these seem increasingly out of step in a world full of smart, engaged, and engaging ‘amateurs’ who create original content and knowledge, then share it freely with anyone interested.

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Fan studies does not eschew the value or importance of expertise outright, but neither does it consider expertise to be the only form of valuable knowledge. By inviting students to create knowledge that is meaningful to them and others rather than requiring students to demonstrate competency in a subject area, I would argue that those who teach fan studies model a reality that many in higher education seem reluctant to acknowledge: namely, that our value is not defined by disciplinary expertise, but by a relationship to learning that we inculcate in our students. By doing this in learning spaces that are undisciplined and beyond content, moreover, fan studies offers one example (for surely there are others) of a “new kind of teaching” that Cathy Davidson sees as crucial to the future of higher education, “one that focuses on learning how to learn – the single most important skill anyone can master.”[ ((Davidson, The New Education, 14.))]

Image Credits:
1. Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S10, e05, November 11, 2014), author’s screenshot
2. Star Trek (2009), author’s screenshot
3. The Matrix (1999), author’s screenshot
4. Alana King, “FANDOM Q&A | YouTube, Supernatural, Conventions, College & More!” (February 18, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnV569I8Z6k), author’s screenshot




There are Black People in the Future: Digital Technology and Black Prescience
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University

The Last Billboard

Artist Alisha Wormsley’s contribution to The Last Billboard project.

In spring 2018, artist Alisha Wormsley erected a billboard in Philadelphia reading, “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Originally a playful jab at speculative fiction, which tends to imagine a future that is overwhelming white, the phrase has come to be an Afrofuturist mantra, representing not only the presence of Black people in the future but their role in shaping it. As I have participated in Black digital networks over the last decade, this phrase has become my shorthand for a consistent cycle. Practices that emerge from and develop in Black networks often become de rigueur internet culture a few years later. Here I outline three moments that revealed how networks of Black users – their practices and challenges – are often always already in the future.

The network that has since come to be known as “Black Twitter” pioneered networked co-viewing, i.e., live tweeting television. In the early days of Twitter, Black users created a more homophilic network and used the platform in a more conversational manner. Black users created reciprocal networks and engaged in discussion, verbal games and humor, and eventually began watching television together. As early as the 2009 BET Awards, Black users were using Twitter to create a networked watch-party. The following year, Black Twitter created so much traffic that the Trending Topics, Twitter’s algorithmically produced list of most tweeted about phrases or hashtags, was dominated by names and phrases from the award show. Black Twitter users could be found on Sunday nights watching The Boondocks, but not before sending out the call to participate. “Time for the Boondocks” would regularly appear in the U.S. trending topics, and by the end of the 2010 season 3, the Trending Topics were dominated with Boondocks related phrases every Sunday night. After which, it seemed as if everyone turned the channel simultaneously to MSNBC for To Catch A Predator and was cracking jokes about Chris Hanson and iced tea pitchers. Before many even knew what Twitter was, Black users had established the practice of live tweeting as a strategy for a collective viewing experience.

Twitter Trending Topics

All but #NowPlaying, #ibetyou5dollars, #WillGetYouKilled, and #icouldnever date are related to The Boondocks.

Similarly, independent Black podcasters were at least two years ahead of the current podcast boom. Between 2012 and 2014, Black podcasts flourished. By the time Serial, the podcast that is credited with kicking of the resurgence of podcasts, debuted in October 2014, Black podcasters were already well ahead of the trend. As podcasts began to proliferate in 2015, independent Black podcasters had already established a robust presence, anticipating both the value and the popularity of the medium.

Most recently, Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, announced that its future development will focus more on facilitating smaller and more closed social interactions. While the plans announced will have relatively small ramifications for current user practices, the discourse used represents a marked shift from Facebook’s original stated purpose of “making the world more open and connected.” Mark Zuckerberg wrote of the change saying:

Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.

He goes on to outline the rationale for this assertion, and for the future trajectory of the company, by pointing to users’ desire to gain greater control of their audience (which Zuckerberg equates with “privacy”) and for more ephemerality, preventing older posts from coming back to haunt users later.

Photo of Mark Zuckerberg, Guardian Article

Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in 2018.

Siva Vaidhyanatha has argued that this move is likely motivated by Facebook’s desire to solidify its dominance in the same manner as WeChat, a mobile phone app so popular in China that it is embedded into almost every aspect of life. The changes Zuckerberg describes would do much to undermine Facebook’s competitors and shape Facebook in WeChat’s image. However, Zuckerberg’s rhetoric of moving from digital “town square” to “digital living room” reaffirms a conceptual shift that began in Black digital networks several years prior.

Beginning in 2015 and through the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Black users began making increased use of formal and informal barriers that insulated their interactions from outsiders. Black users, especially Black women, have long been the targets of harassment and abuse online, and this vitriol intensified and coalesced into a coordinated political effort in 2014, continuing to do so through the 2016 election. Both Imani Gandy and Terrell Starr wrote pieces in 2014 detailing years of harassment and abuse that women, particularly Black women, endured online and Twitter’s steadfast unwillingness to curb the hostility. That same year, attacks became more coordinated and sustained. Users from message boards like 4Chan began creating fake accounts in attempts to impersonate, infiltrate, and “sow discord” among those they termed “SJWs,” social justice warriors. As the 2016 election approached, anti-SJW internet trolls, white supremacists (who had rebranded themselves the “alt-right”), and misogynist movements like GamerGate and the Men’s Rights Movement had well-worn strategies for making public and semi-public social media platforms nearly unusable for marginalized people. Added to this were the over-zealous Bernie Sanders supporters, who exacerbated the historic tensions between class and race in leftist movements, and the Russian bots and sock puppet accounts who imitated and amplified each of these existing social conflicts. Black users, who were a primary target, were forced to carve out spaces where they could interact without such hostilities.

Toxic Twitter

Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign.

Now, this kind of abuse has increasingly become the norm. Though Zuckerberg (unsurprisingly) never directly mentions the problem of harassment and abuse, the desires he attributes to users – controlling one’s audience and the permanence of posts – are intertwined with strategies users employ to avoid the hostility that can result from public or semi-public internet sharing. This discursive shift from Facebook, a platform used by 68% of Americans, signals that mainstream discussion of social media now presupposes a desire among the broader population for more sequestered digital spaces.

Yet again, Black users have anticipated digital trends, engaging in and developing practices that are becoming the norm. So often, academics only value Black knowledge and perspectives for understanding race and racism. But, when you critically and earnestly engage Black people and Black thought, your understanding of our digital landscape increases exponentially. There are Black people in the future, and they have beaten us there.

Image Credits:
1. Alisha Wormsley
2. Twitter Trending Topics (author’s screen grab)
3. Mark Zuckerberg
4. Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign

Please feel free to comment.




Doing Nothing: The Pleasure and Power of Idle Media
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

A man slouches on a stylish grey sofa, looking at his phone. A woman enters the spacious living room and asks him if he’s eaten. Awhile later they and a few others congregate in a modern white kitchen to eat curry and discuss whether they are working the next day. In the evening some of them sit on the same couch, drinking, napping, and talking a little about their days before shuffling off to bed. This riveting content is the norm for the Japanese reality television franchise Terrace House, co-produced by Netflix with four seasons in and another in the works, where three women and three men cohabitate while going about their everyday working and personal lives in a distinctly undramatic fashion.

Terrace House has been lauded as a fix and an antidote to contemporary reality TV. While it follows many of the conceits and conventions of the genre—casting is primarily focused on attractive young single people with aspirations for or jobs in creative industries such as fashion design, music, modelling, acting, and dance for instance—it breaks with some of the most routinized customs related to maximizing conflict and confrontation. Instead, the pleasures taken in watching the show—its tranquillity and slow burning emotional tension, its meditative and muted style, its mundanity and relatability and politeness and nothing too much of anything—give its designation as a sleeper hit a double meaning.

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

With these attributes in mind, Terrace House is reminiscent not so much of other reality programming such as The Hills and The Bachelor but of an entirely different divergence from media-specific conventions, the ‘idle’ video game genre. Also known as incremental or clicker games, this type of play experience differs dramatically from the frenetic action and speed of the first-person shooters and battle royale games that make up the mainstream fare of contemporary digital gaming. Instead, in titles such as Cookie Clicker and Clicker Heroes 2 the player is asked to occasionally interact with the virtual environment via the act of a click, but for the most part to leave the game running to play itself. In other words, players progress by allowing the game to idle. The minimal interactivity of these titles, particularly within the subgenre of ‘background games’ entailing zero input from the player, sit uneasily alongside the conventional understanding of what constitutes a game [ ((Purkiss, Blair & Khaliq, Imran. (2015.) “A Study of Interaction in Idle Games and Perceptions on the Definition of a Game.” Proceedings of IEEE Games, Entertainment, Media Conference, pp. 1-6.))] . Popular reception of this genre describes such play experiences as “dumb”, “weird”, and “addictive” but also “intoxicating”, “alluring”, and “delightful”, a “progress treadmill without the accompanying nastiness” of prompts for microtransactions or push notifications bombarding your social networks. Idle games challenge the emphasis in not only games but many of the forms of participatory culture on user interactivity and agency [ ((Fizek, Sonia. (2018.) “Interpassivity and the Joy of Delegated Play in Idle Games.” Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, 3(3), pp. 137-163.))], and the normalized valuation within the culture of digital play on meritocratic challenge and achievement, typically via combat. And yet these games have also been surprisingly popular, indicating that they fulfill a desire for slowed-down, less active play experiences.

How might we conceptualize this desire? The mediated pleasures of these unique media types are not passive per se—idle games do require player action, however minimal, while framing the viewing of Terrace House as passive evokes troubling and unwanted associations with media effects traditions. And though they engage their audiences in more languid experiences than their rapidly edited and highly reactive associates, they do not quite fit with the mindful and sustainable practices Jennifer Raugh explores under the umbrella of Slow Media. Idle games, including Ian Bogost’s massively successful parodic 2011 title Cow Clicker, originated as a critique of the exploitative practices of social networking games, but despite their decelerated pace they do not offer a straightforward challenge to the vicissitudes of fast capitalism.

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

This is because at their core neither Terrace House nor games in the idle genre offer a challenge to capitalist logics. Cast members come to their shared living situations in pursuit of a goal, which as frequently entails launching a brand as it does finding a romantic partner. They encourage each other with warm calls to “do your best” and earnest injunctions to “work hard”. Arman, a cast member in the second season, is the subject of confusion with his relaxed Hawaiian ‘go with the flow’ ethos, though he is ultimately praised for embracing his unique self. Idle games in turn operate on logics of ravenous accumulation and expansion, with infinite progress the result of a player’s minimal input and the ultimate objective of the genre, which some have interpreted as a way for players to optimize their time in multitasking. There is therefore on one hand valuation of a highly disciplined and goal-oriented work ethic and on the other a simulated embrace of the growth imperative.

But what is both pleasurable and ultimately powerful about these mediated experiences is how they extricate these aims completely from the ethos of competition. Terrace House contains no challenges or games and has no ultimate winner; it ends as it begins with warm conversations between housemates in a peaceable setting. Idle games have no ending at all. In the elimination of the competitive impetus as the core driver of action, these media create something unique—spaces of leisure for their audiences. Idle media ask you only to sit back, relax, and take it easy, an enjoyment that Fizek (2018) describes as a “delegated pleasure… lead[ing] to a momentary escape from the responsibility of active play” [ ((Fizek, 2018, 6))], which we can also extrapolate to spectating idleness. The joy of idle media harkens not to its synonymous associations with laziness or pointlessness but in the act of doing nothing, ticking along, resting on your oars, and twiddling your thumbs, calm experiences increasingly rare in the escalating intensities of contemporary life.

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

The leisurely approach to engagement that these playing and viewing experiences share is quite distinct from that elicited by the hyper-visible high-achieving practices normalized across the activities of neoliberal capitalism and digital culture. In contrast to the increasingly performative practices of self-care online—advanced yoga poses in luxury sportswear, beautifully made-up faces blissfully meditating—these media create spaces for audiences to loaf, let go, and escape the fetishization of working, playing, and self-actualizing hard. Their power lies with this atmosphere of ease. As Alharthi et. al (2018) [ ((Alharthi, Sultan A., Alsaedi, Olaa, Toups, Zachary O., Tanenbaum, Joshua, & Hammer, Jessica. (2018.) “Playing to Wait: A Taxonomy of Idle Games.” CHI 2018. DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3174195))] suggest, idle games provoke different approaches to what activities are valued in the design of play experiences as well as the ecological and human resources demanded by digital games. What might this entail when we look at the idling entailed in other media? Its popularity—and the pockets of quiet, slow, and sedate experiences designed into the most mainstream of games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Uncharted 2, however contentious—suggest the need to take seriously the possibilities of doing nothing or very little with media.

Image Credits:

1. Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada
2. Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State
3. Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker (author’s screen grab)
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

Please feel free to comment.




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

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

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

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

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

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

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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




The Devil in the Details: User Tracking Is Hurting More Than Our Privacy, It’s Doing Serious Damage to Public-Interest Media, Too.
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst

With the attention economy in full swing, behavioral targeting—tracking and assembling data about users in the service of online advertising—is giving rise to practices and infrastructures that threaten personal privacy, disrupt civic journalism, and incentivize the spread of disinformation.

As I write this, my social media feeds are consumed by the furor resulting from Jeff Bezos’s open letter accusing The National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, of attempting to extort him over leaked photographs from his affair. While much of the commentary rightly focuses on issues of digitally-enabled blackmail, Slate tech reporter April Glaser simultaneously muses at the irony of a privacy scandal befalling a tech CEO who’s garnered notoriety for “actively building a surveillance state.”

A few weeks on from “Data Privacy Day,” the international holiday aimed at promoting better protection for consumers’ data, the Bezos story is just one of many to raise questions about the individual right to privacy in the digital era. It follows closely on the heels of Facebook’s latest scandal—Apple pulled the company’s services from its app store after the revelation Facebook was paying teenagers to install tracking software on their phones—and years after a ProPublica report that Google had quietly abandoned its ban on collecting personally identifiable tracking data on its users. [ (( Particularly when it comes to Facebook, the hits just keep on coming, fast enough that I decided it’d be unwise to try to keep updating this piece during the proofing process. Editorial: Facebook, Zuckerberg’s sins now include preying on teens. (2019, February 5). The Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/02/05/editorial-facebook-2/; Angwin, J. (2016, October 21). Google has quietly dropped ban on personally identifiable web tracking. ProPublica. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking.))] Other recent reporting discusses how location information collected from our phones has found its way into the hands third parties ranging from robocallers to bounty hunters, raising deep concerns about individual privacy, personal safety, and even national security. [ (( Vogt, P.J., Goldman, A., Marchetti, D., and Bennin, P. (Hosts.) (2019, January 31). Robocall: Bang bang [Podcast episode]. Reply All. Retrieved from https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/135-the-robocall-conundrum#episode-player; Cox, Joseph. (2019, February 6). Hundreds of bounty hunters had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data for years. Motherboard. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43z3dn/hundreds-bounty-hunters-att-tmobile-sprint-customer-location-data-years; Valentino-DeVries, J., Singer, N., Keller, M.H., and Krolik, A. (2018, December 10). Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html))]

EverythingMe

A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app, EverythingMe, which was downloaded 20 million times and eventually found to have been co-opted into a multi-million dollar ad fraud scheme. Co-opted apps tracked phone users’ behavior as a template on which to base convincing automated traffic, which could then be used to defraud advertisers by faking ad views. [ ((Silverman, C. (2018, October 23). Apps installed on millions of Android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multimillion-dollar ad fraud scheme. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-a-massive-ad-fraud-scheme-exploited-android-phones-to))] Ad fraud schemes siphon massive amounts of revenue out of the advertising market.

As data privacy (or lack thereof) has begun to take on the dimensions of a crisis, another much-discussed emergency has been unfolding in parallel: the economic collapse of ad-supported digital journalism. Following a series of layoffs at news organizations ranging from TechCrunch to HuffPo to BuzzFeed and Gannett, respected tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times, “it would be a mistake to regard these cuts as the ordinary chop of a long-roiling digital media sea. Instead, they are a devastation. The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.” Two days later, Vice cut 250 more journalism jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce.

This rash of cuts is especially painful, given that “digital-native newsrooms” were only recently celebrated as one of the few areas in American journalism to have added jobs over the course of a decade-long 25 percent decline in employment led by steady layoffs at traditional newspapers. [ (( Grieco, E. (2018, July 30). Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/30/newsroom-employment-dropped-nearly-a-quarter-in-less-than-10-years-with-greatest-decline-at-newspapers))]

These two crucial problems—the erosion of digital privacy and the revenue crisis in American journalism—have tended to be discussed as distinct issues. They are not. [ (( Ryan, J. (2019). The adtech crisis and disinformation [Lecture video]. Vimeo. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/317245633.))] Rather, they spring from a common origin and, to paraphrase Thoreau, in solving them we would do better to strike at the root than to hack at the branches. [ (( Thoreau, H.D. (1910/1854). Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., p.98))]

It is a commonplace that advertising pays for most of the free services we use on the the internet. The viral quotation from Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” sums up much about the direction online business models have taken. And the solution that has been settled upon is programmatic advertising.

Brave

Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave (the company behind a privacy-oriented Web browser) showing some of the sensitive categories that ad tech firms attach to your persona as you browse the web. It’s a selective excerpt of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) “Content Taxonomy v2” list.

Programmatic advertising takes a number of forms, but generally speaking, in the fraction of a second that it takes a webpage or an app to load on your screen, an automated auction is being held for your attention based on tracking data that has been collected about you. The publisher puts up ad space for sale, brands put in competing bids to place an ad in the space, and intermediaries called ad tech firms handle all the transaction details. By the time the content you requested finishes loading, the auction winner’s ad appears on your screen alongside it.

While the most prominent news organizations, like The New York Times or The Economist, may still do a brisk business directly with branded advertisers, a vast number of other news organizations rely far more heavily on programmatic advertising exchanges to sell their inventory, competing not just with other news organizations, but with blogs, web forums, recipe sites, online games, and any other website or app that sells ad space in programmatic exchanges. This dramatically drives down the cost of ads and hence the revenue going to publishers.

Moreover, these transactions are often focused tightly around reaching particular consumers to the near exclusion of editorial context. To give one example, all of us have experienced “retargeted” advertising—view a suitcase on a retailer’s website and ads for the same piece of luggage follow you across the web for days or weeks.

As Malthouse, Maslowska, and Franks put it, programmatic advertising separates “the value of the content product from the audience product.” [ (( Malthouse, E.C., Maslowska, E., and Franks, J. (2018). The role of big data in programmatic TV advertising. In V. Cauberghe, L. Hudders, and M. Eisend (Eds.), Advances in Advertising Research IX . (pp. 29–42). Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer. p. 32.))] Couldry and Turow argue that for traditionally ad-supported news organizations, continuing to chase down advertising revenue in this new environment is thoroughly corrupting. [ (( Couldry, N. and Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm. International Journal of Communication, 8, 1710–1726.))] As advertisers begin pursuing users with particular behavioral profiles, while paying less and less attention to the actual publications they’re visiting, publishers can no longer rely as they once did on the quality of their work. Rather, they must increasingly play the role of data brokers, participating in user surveillance and producing increasingly personalized and/or shopper-friendly content that bins visitors neatly into behavioral profiles that will better draw the bids of advertisers—advertisers that now, at least in comparison to days past, pay scant attention to the name on a site’s masthead.

In the days of contextual advertising, ads for suitcases might best be placed in travel magazines. Under the user-tracking paradigm, not only do brands no longer need to rely on particular publications to reach the consumers they’ve identified as desirable, there is now a perverse incentive to place ads on the least reputable sites, since these are the locations where users’ attention can be bought most cheaply. This has led to a boom in clickbait-driven webpages, selling cheap ad space against vapid or plagiarized content focused around miracle diets and strange cosmetic trends. During the 2016 U.S. election, “fake news” did particularly well as a variant of clickbait and thus became a profit-center for scammers.

Originally from The Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article titled, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” that, according to an expose in The Washington Post, was viewed by 6 million people and generated $22,000 in programmatic advertising revenue. Moreover, at the height of this influx of traffic, the web domain where the hoax was posted was appraised for a six-figure sum. [ (( Shane, S. (2017, January 18). From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html.))]

I don’t use the term “scammers” loosely here—Jessica Eklund and I recently published a study in which we examined disfunction in the programmatic advertising industry. [ (( Braun, J.A. and Eklund, J.L. (2019) Fake news, real money: Ad tech platforms, profit-driven hoaxes, and the business of journalism. Digital Journalism, 7(1), 1–21.))] Industry executives explained that many hoax news sites were fronts for outright fraud, ginning up page views with bots and click workers and selling them to advertisers for a profit. Legitimate visitors to these sites were welcome, of course, but often their main value was confusing fraud-detection mechanisms by pushing down the ratio of automated to human traffic.

In short, it might be fair to expect news organizations to endure stiffer competition from new corners—not simply blogs or Craigslist, but gaming apps and recipe sites. However, in the current market, legitimate journalism is competing for ad dollars with sites engaged in aggressive fraud, sometimes with the assistance of ad tech companies themselves. Along with related enterprises like fake traffic generation, these siphon billions of dollars out of the advertising market annually [ (( Fulgoni, G. (2016). Fraud in digital advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 56(2): 122–125.))], contributing to the larger problem of market failure [ (( Pickard, V. (2015). America’s battle for media democracy. New York: Cambridge.))] in contemporary journalism.

To review, then, the massive system of commercial surveillance we see online not only impacts us in terms of privacy, safety, and security, it has dramatically increased the amount of information pollution [ (( Wardle, C., and Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information disorder. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PREMS-162317-GBR-2018-Report-de%CC%81sinformation-1.pdf))] in the public sphere, gutting news budgets—and hence newsrooms—by driving down the amount paid for ads, turning trusted news organizations into data brokers that produce less civically valuable content, dramatically incentivizing the creation of clickbait and outright disinformation, and kindling remarkable volumes of fraudulent activity that simultaneously fleeces advertisers and diverts hefty amounts of money away from public-interest media.

One recent survey indicated that a sizable majority of the American public already sees the collection of their data in the service of targeted advertising as unethical. [ (( RSA. (2019). RSA data privacy & security survey [Report]. Bedford, MA: Author.))] I imagine they might feel even more strongly about the issue were it more commonly linked with dramatic declines in the health of public-interest media. As we witness the introduction of digital privacy policy conversations and frameworks, whether the GDPR in Europe or bills proposed in individual states here in the U.S., it’s time to begin examining commercial surveillance not just as a privacy issue, but as a notable threat to our media institutions and public discourse.

Image Credits:

1. With the attention economy in full swing…
2. A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app…
3. Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave…
4. Originally from the Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article….




“The Game on Top of the Game”: Navigating Race, Media, and the Business of Basketball in High Flying Bird
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

High Flying Bird 1

High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg).

On the surface, it appears to be a film about basketball. Netflix’s High Flying Bird (2019) boasts the back of a jersey on its cover, the sneaker squeaks of the gym, and the voices of some of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) real-life up-and-coming stars (Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl Anthony-Towns) interspersed as vignettes with the film’s scripted SAV Management, an agency representing professional athletes. The main character, Ray Burke (played by André Holland) is an agent representing NBA rookie Erick Scott, the first pick in the previous draft who has yet to play his first game due to a league-wide lockout. At first glance, it’s a version of HBO’s Ballers meant to be taken seriously; the viewer spends time following Scott navigate the financial pitfalls of being a young millionaire-to-be who hasn’t gotten his first check, while Ray maneuvers through a firm struggling under the weight of the lockout as owners engage in battle with a players’ union fighting on behalf of its athletes.

The film tackles sport under late capitalism through slick visuals and overly-dramatic dialogue.

But close up, the film is a critical, albeit heavy-handed look at the global phenomenon of basketball and the racial and economic shifts which have shaped the game. Early in the film, old school coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells Ray, “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters’ exhibitions started going international. Control. They wanted the control of a game that we play, we played better. They invented a game on top of a game.” The game on top is an ecosystem comprised of agents, television networks, marketing execs, and team owners who profit off of the spectacle of a majority-Black sport. Even Ray, a Black agent, is positioned outside of the power circle of his own firm and the greater “game” operating above the court.

Much of the film operates through smaller screens, filled with familiar faces and voices of TV personalities such as Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, shows like TMZ, and tweets between players. The media isn’t a subplot of the film; it’s a major character. High Flying Bird focuses on the media’s role as a catalyst for both the actions of players, their families, and league representatives while simultaneously delving into the major media contracts between the NBA and TV networks, which comprise a large portion of the league’s annual revenue.

High Flying Bird 2

The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development.

Ray’s ingenuity in concocting a plan to end the lockout is rooted in creating “something that they can’t bottle up,” after his former assistant asks if they’ve “run out of story” (in the same way one could run out of money). One fabricated Twitter beef and 24-hour news cycle later, a one-on-one hoops showdown on a community court between two rookies draws in millions of views to shaky cell phone video, proving they may be out of money, but aren’t yet out of story. The exclusive nature of an untelevised one-on-one game between two players yet to take the court in the NBA takes the social media posts of those at the game viral and results in the potential to create new exclusive streetball games—”lockout ball”—while negotiations continue. Ray schedules meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of sport scholar Lawrence Wenner’s Transactional Model of Media, Sports, and Society Relationships. Wenner offered a blueprint of the “game on top of a game” in his canonical Media, Sports, and Society (1989). His visual representation of what has been called the sports-media complex (the interdependent relationship between sports and media) offers a bird’s eye view of the ties and tensions and between sports organizations, media conglomerates, and fans. [ (( Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, Sports, and Society: The Research Agenda. In Media, Sports, and Society (pp. 13–48). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. ))]

Wenner model

In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society.

During a lockout, it is particularly difficult to ascertain what’s going on within the “sports organizations” triangle, comprised of athletes, owners, league officials, and the players’ association. It is interesting that Wenner chooses to place athletes within this particular grouping rather than outside of it (a la “sports journalists” in their own triangle from “media organizations”). Sports fans may remember 2011-2012 as particularly fraught for player-league relations as three out of the “Big Four” U.S. men’s professional leagues faced lockouts across the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League. Jonothan Lewis and Jennifer M. Proffitt, in comparing coverage of a lockout in 2011 to the mid-1990s, found that the media continues to focus on many of the same major themes: a consumer focus (the fan as the ultimate loser in these labor negotiations), lockouts as a “millionaires vs. billionaires” problem (rich people’s problems), and the players as “gaming the system.” [ (( Lewis, J., & Proffitt, J. M. (2013). Sports, Labor and the Media: An Examination of Media Coverage of the 2011 NFL Lockout. Labor Studies Journal, 38(4), 300–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/0160449X14522324. ))] High Flying Bird seemingly reifies this model throughout the film, locating athletes who wish to operate outside the league’s framework as deviant, or, as Ray defines it, “disruptors.” As negotiations between the players’ union and team owners stall, the concept of players and agents joining forces to create their own league and negotiate media rights deals feels like fantasy, even when housed within the realm of a scripted film. The concept of a lockout league is shopped around to interested media factions outside of the standard ESPNs, NBCs, and FOX offerings. Ray sets up meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix. “For a second,” Ray says, “I could see an infrastructure that put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the sky box.” However radical this vision appears, the film captures how his eventual actions serve to move him socially and financially closer to sky box rather than realigning power to those on the court.

High Flying Bird 3

Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport.

In the same way, it is fascinating to consider that this film, shot by director Steven Soderbergh in two weeks on an iPhone (with a working cut available within hours of completing shooting), also represents a shift in the gatekeeping of filmmakers and production in general. While shooting a film on a smartphone is nothing new (thousands of film students do this daily), Soderbergh offers a potential disruption because of his position as an established industry figure. However, like the normalization of streaming platforms and social media networks into the entertainment industry, these technological shifts do not inherently make these spaces more egalitarian; rather, they become embedded into the system (an Oscar nod, the ability to hire and retain top talent, etc.). Ray’s desire to collapse the game on top of the game merely resulted in a regulating mechanism to stifle any potential dismantling.

Ultimately, the threat of reasserting the “control” that Coach Spence references at the beginning of the film is enough to end the lockout; Ray, in an attempt to assert himself within this game on top of a game, uses his position—along with the players as pawns—to change the power structure, if only for a moment. He, in turn, is rewarded, but once again absorbed into the larger framework. At best, he can only shift the model for his own benefit, not destroy it entirely.

Image Credits:

1. High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). (author’s screen grab)
2. The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development. (author’s screen grab)
3. In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society. (author’s screen grab)
4. Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula: Conjuring a Cult-Cult Canon, Pt. 2
Phil Oppenheim / Oppanopticom / EPIX / Brown Sugar SVOD

description of image

A glimpse at Sir Stephen in Lucifer’s Women.

“Cult” is a confrontational sensibility and set of aesthetics that “seeks to promote an alternative vision of cinematic ‘art’, aggressively attacking the established canon of ‘quality’ cinema and questioning the legitimacy of reigning aesthete discourses on movie art” [ ((Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy,” Screen 36.4 (Winter 1995): 374.))]; cultist consumption marks “a radical refusal to become associated with the anonymous mainstream.” [ ((Mathijs, Ernest and Xavier Mendik. “What Is Cult Film?” In The Cult Film Reader, Ed. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008): 4.))] Or maybe cult media appreciation amounts to only “minor subversions and assertions of individuality” that leave its viewers “feeling better about ourselves and our world … [a] simultaneously dangerous and safe trip” that results in a “pleasurable transgression” [ ((Telotte, J.P. “Beyond All Reason: The Nature of Cult.” In The Cult Film Experience, Ed: J.P. Telotte. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991): 15-16.))]; on the other hand, perhaps being a cultist is more profound, and can “save your life,” instituting a form of “therapy, self-medication, means of private escape and pragmatic material for furnishing a meaningful existence.” [ ((Hunter, I.Q. Cult Film As a Guide to Life. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016): XV.))] For some, its lauded oppositionalism is really just a “species of bourgeois aesthetics, not a challenge to it,” [ ((Jancovich, Mark. “Cult Fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital and the Production of Cultural Distinctions,” Cultural Studies 16.2 (2002): 320.))] a “conflict within (rather than against) the bourgeoisie” that serves to “reaffirm rather than challenge bourgeois taste and masculine dispositions” [ ((Jancovich, Mark, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer, and Andy Willis. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003): 2.))]; for others, cultists’ praise of abject media objects and disdain for the noxious effluence that flows from the spigots of multinational corporations signals a powerful and much-needed FU to The Culture Industry.

Cult is celebratory, performative, and oppositional, as when Rocky Horror fans throw toilet paper at the screen and sing along to the transformational anthem to “Don’t dream it, be it” [ ((… or like the Rajneeshees singing along to “We All Live in the Orange Submarine,” Jonestown members performing in skits and dance routines, Synanon members playing The Game, Manson Family members playing home invasion/furniture rearranging Creepy Crawling games, or …))]; drawing from the twin traditions of cult and camp film performative criticism as pioneered by Manny Farber and Parker Tyler, it champions “self-expression as resistance to a form of culture for which the critic had only limited respect,” wielding “pop mythos as an assault weapon.” [ ((Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999): 68-69.))] Among the most fervent features of cult media performance is its adherents’ proselytizing; cultists counter their dismissal of the perceived mediocrities of mainstream culture by pointing potential initiates towards more transcendent alternatives. Cult clerics like the staffs of independent record-stores, comic-shops, book sellers, and DVD/VHS rental shops [ ((I’m fortunate enough to live in Portland, Oregon, where these shrines to cultdom still exist; if you’ve got some of these in your neighborhood, please support them while you can!))] steer neophytes away from the junk market-tested content that populates the algorithmic “Suggestions” of Amazon and Netflix (and the remaining big box stores) and towards the dark recesses of where the good shit resides, accessible only to the enlightened, illuminated few.

Lucifer's Women on Blu-ray

Lucifer’s Women on Blu-ray.

And so, I proffer unto you: Lucifer’s Women. Check it out:

Lucifer’s Women was released in 1974, shortly after the verdicts were returned in the Manson Family trials (1971, with the death sentences commuted to life imprisonment when California abolished capital punishment in 1972), The Exorcist stormed the box office (it was the #1 film of 1973, earning $193 million and vomiting pea soup onto over 21 million ticket-holders), Time magazine noted Satan’s big comeback in their cover story “The Occult Revival” (June 19, 1972), and Cosmopolitan offered sexy tips on five witchy love spells to try out on unsuspecting men (May 1973). [ ((To offer a handful of moments of pop cult culture among many, many others of the era.))] Writer-director Paul Aratow surfed the wave of occult interest with his film, but Lucifer’s Women was targeting a different audience than the mainstream; his exploitationer was liberally slathered with nudity, harnessing scenes of strip-joint dance routines and “love-making” (with a variety of exotic combinations of kinds and number of partners) destined for grindhouses (versus the red carpet of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the cast, director, and writer of The Exorcist would find themselves in 1974).

One suspects that Lucifer’s Women probably hit the bull’s eye of its raincoat-crowd’s crotches, but the picture aims higher too; more than just flesh, the film delivers an entertaining, intriguing gloss on the dynamics of charismatic cult leadership. Its tawdry plot: An egomaniacal male academic—you probably know the type—writes an acclaimed biography of Svengali [ ((Svengali was, of course, a character in George du Maurier’s Gothic novel Trilby, but I’m not sure the audience for Lucifer’s Women fretted much about the seducer’s leap from fiction into reality.))], but turns out really to be his reincarnated spirit; in order to keep his newly possessed body, he must sacrifice a young woman (a burlesque performer named, you guessed it, Trilby) at “the moment of orgasm” at a Satanic mass, officiated by (and engaging in sex with) the creepily Luciferian cult leader Sir Stephen. The real Wainwright falls in love with Trilby, and battles Svengali for the possession of his own body; meanwhile, Trilby’s landlord/drug-dealer/wannabe-pimp, Roland, tries to sever her growing fascination with Wainwright and lure her into a threesome with his current obedient, long-suffering steady girlfriend.

Larry Hankin as Svengali

Larry Hankin as Svengali.

The plot of Lucifer’s Women funnels down concentric circles of charismatic power dynamics, with powerful men luring and manipulating servile women, in a pattern repeated from the (real-life) Manson Girls to the branded TV stars of Keith Raniere’s NXIVM. Sir Stephen humiliates Mary, a female initiate who resembles a hippie-chick Manson Girl down to the mark in the middle of her forehead, in the film’s most shocking scene, by having her kiss his feet while he pantomimes showering her with his urine. The film’s Alpha Males ultimately square off against each other, with Roland losing (his life) to Svengali, Svengali subordinating his will to Sir Stephen, and Sir Stephen submitting himself to Satan during a Black Mass. But the film suggests that powerful, self-assertive femininity might actually overpower fragile male dominance and cult leadership: Trilby and Mary turn the tables on the Demonic Duo of Svengali and Sir Stephen, destroying their plans for eternal malevolent life. The Satanic Cult may be seductive—during a romantic dinner-date, Trilby confesses to Wainwright/Svengali that “the kind of man that has power over women” is “everybody’s fantasy”—but is no match for a confident woman. [ ((… unless you stick around for the final ending of the film, which is a trick ending that repudiates this entire sentence.))]

Manson girl

Mary, the hippie-chick Manson Girl.

Cultist consumers enjoy connecting dots between outré artifacts; working through the networks of weirdos both to each other and to their interfaces and overlaps with the mainstream is a cultish joy of sects. Lucifer’s Women does not disappoint on this score. The film gets much of its cult-cult cred from the participation of Anton LaVey, the infamous founder of The Church of Satan (and notorious publicity hound), who supervised the film’s Black Mass sequences, lending them theatricalized, camp-adjacent (in)authenticity. The same year that Lucifer’s Women hit theaters, LaVey inducted Sammy Davis, Jr. into The Church of Satan, based in part on the actor’s 1973 busted NBC pilot about the comic travails of a demon trapped on Earth, Poor Devil. Paul Aratow, the writer and director of the film, found multiple tracks to fame after this film. Aratow bought the rights to a couple of Will Eisner’s classic comic-book characters to produce the ABC pilot for The Spirit (1987) and the schlocky Tanya Roberts vehicle Sheena (1984); he founded the Berkeley restaurant that launched “California Cuisine,” Chez Panisse [ ((Co-founder Alice Waters has been its Executive Chef since 1971; Aratow was its first chef de cuisine.))]; and he taught comp lit at UC Berkeley. But the kind of people who watch flicks like Lucifer’s Women may know him best from his highbrow-sleaze antique photography coffee-table collection, 100 Years of Erotica: A Photographic Portfolio of Mainstream American Culture from 1845 to 1945; Aratow shrewdly has Trilby flip through a copy of his recently published book and become aroused—a hilariously self-promotional, self-pleasuring moment of product placement.

Lavey Satanic Rituals

Anton Lavey’s The Satanic Rituals.

Philip Toubus, who plays the lowlife whose pimp aspirations get squashed (along with his body, under the wheels of a limo) by Svengali, began his career as Peter in Norman Jewison’s big-budget musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) but later found his talents (and his unique anatomy) more in demand in hardcore pornography; as Paul Thomas, his IMDb page is hundreds of titles long. Gangly, weird-bearded Larry Hankin plays charismatic Svengali; you’d recognize him as the guy who plays “Kramer” in the pilot-within-a-show that Jerry and George sell to NBC in the meta fourth season of Seinfeld. And a quick look below-the-line yields a familiar name as the film and sound editor; working his way slowly from sleaze to the red carpet is David Webb Peoples, whose screenplays include Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and Unforgiven.

By the middle of the 1970s, the national interest in the occult hadn’t waned; simultaneously, the cult movie phenomenon was still in its youth. Lucifer’s Women may have opened and closed in 1974, but its life as a cult-cult artifact was far from over; its remains would soon be resurrected in a different form, for a different medium. What sort of dark arts were involved in its mysterious rebirth?

Image Credits:
1. Author’s screengrab.
2. Available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
3. Author’s screengrab.
4. Author’s screengrab.
5. Available on Abe Books’ website.




Five Ways I’ve Defined Fan Studies
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

SDCC Marvel Group Shot

A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.

When you make a career in fan studies, I’ve learned that you must get used to defining it quickly at parties (and conferences, sob). Four years after reading my first fic and twentyish months after arranging for fan studies to be (part of) my job, I still haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, in part because I like the field so much it’s hard to be succinct. But here’s what I’ve got.

    1) “No, not that kind of fans.”

Sometimes people go “Fans? Like, pfft-pfft-pfft, fans?” or make spinny hand gestures at me, which usually means they knew exactly what kind of fans I was talking about and find it ridiculous that there’s a discipline for that. Fan studies scholarship often begins by defending its right to exist, and while I wish that authors didn’t need to issue such disclaimers, I can’t deny that the field comes in for its share of neglect and derision.

A recurring theme in much of fan studies is the outsider status of the communities under study—they’re women, they’re nonbinary, their tastes are weird and fringey, they’re getting queer sex all over your faves. They’re under attack from the lawyers of wealthy creators because nobody’s gay in Star Wars; they’ve been offered a place at the table, as long as they play by the rules (they won’t) and it doesn’t turn into a PR disaster for the company (it will).

As fandom moves out of the margins—as fan writers grow up and gain access to the keys of the media kingdom—it becomes harder to make the case for fannish marginality as a cornerstone of fan studies. The lines between canon and affirmational fandom and transformational fandom, never all that firm to begin with, are collapsing all over the place.

    2) “It’s the study of how people interact with things they like.”

This is my best, most common response, because it encompasses a wide range of fannish activities, from literary criticism to cosplay, and the other person does not need to ask follow-up questions in order to feel they have understood my answer. But I’m also unhappily aware that things they like is an imperfect descriptor. I like the Captain America movie trilogy enough to want more time with those characters, yet not so much that I wouldn’t prefer to spend my weekends reading fics about Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (do not @ me). If there’s one thing transformative fandom knows how to do, it’s love a thing while wanting it to be better.

Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”

Even so, this response gets at the scope of what fan studies is becoming. The differences between types of fandom don’t hold up to much scrutiny if you take the patriarchy out of the equation. (Which, can we just do that? Would it be okay to just topple it already?) As Kavita Mudan Finn and Jessica McCall note,

In a world of undead authors and readers unsure of their own critical authority, fanfiction provides a unique avenue in which to actively undercut the positivism of traditional approaches to interpretation. [ ((Finn, Kavita Mudan and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued by a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey 28, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 27–38.))]

The difference between a solid meta and a piece of literary criticism is gender, class, money, access; but both arise from the writer’s desire to engage with, grapple with, a piece of work that they like and find interesting.

    3) “It examines how people participate in the things they care about, and especially how they resist and rework those things.”

Or, the slightly more detailed version of #2. I like to follow this up with the example of pro football fans’ responses to NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem (including Eric Reid, who’s out of LSU!). I use this example because I’m from South Louisiana and we have a brand to maintain; because it’s a situation that a lot of people know a little about; and because I like to shake up the idea (that other disciplines have) that fan studies only cares about girly stuff. Or to put it the other way around, I like to get my girly-stuff-fan-studies cooties all over everything else.

Kaepernick kneeling

Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.

As with all my other answers, this one dissatisfies me. I am interested in fandom-as-resistance, but I am also aware that fannish resistance in one area is no protection against fannish prejudice in another. [ (( Do yourself a favor and follow Stitch’s Media Mix for consistently insightful critiques of fandom racism.))] To return to the Captain America example, just toddle over to AO3 dot org and you will find a wealth, a cornucopia, of fic that reimagines Captain America as queer. But if you desire to read stories starring Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (yeah, I’m doubling down on this), you will find yourself wading through a lot, a lot, of stories in which Sam Wilson is only there to provide emotional support to the white Avengers.

    4) “It’s a subdiscipline of [insert field here].”

No matter what I put inside those brackets, I can’t help feeling that I’ve told a filthy lie. At the recent Fan Studies Network–North America conference, discussion turned to making more space for fan studies within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Well and good as far as it goes, but a literary fandom scholar pointed out that they live under the umbrella of English departments, and don’t have access to SCMS events and resources. Liking things is not confined to a single academic field, not media studies or communications or literary studies, which makes it tricky to find a disciplinary definition for fan studies.

I suspect, though, that the discipline’s liminal status within the academy has given it some of the same strengths that outsiderhood has given to fandom. While literature and film and cultural studies gatekeepers weren’t watching, students who grew up in fandom crept into their departments and started chipping away at the distinctions between the serious (bell hooks, Theodor Adorno) and the decidedly unserious (Johnlock conspiracy theories, Teen Wolf ABO fanfic). Standing within fan studies and surveying the terrain, it seems impossible that fan studies won’t have its hooks into every university department in a few years’ time.

Because the true answer I want to give, when someone asks me to define fan studies, is one that I’ve never actually used:

    5) “It’s the field that’s going to remake the Humanities.”

Image Credits:
1. A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.
2. Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”
3. Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.




What Happens When Chinese and Western Podcasters Meet?
Siobhán McHugh /University of Wollongong

podcast presentation

Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017.

The success of podcasting, in the English-speaking world at least, is closely linked to its emphasis on the personal. Podcasts have hosts, not the more formal “presenters,” and these hosts, who often speak directly into our ears via our headphones, are like new friends. So how would podcasting work in a culture where “people’s sense of themselves as individuals atrophied…” That quote is from the Chinese satirical novelist, Yan Lianke, profiled recently in The New Yorker. [ ((Jiayang Fan, 2018. Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China. The New Yorker, 15 October 2018.
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/15/yan-liankes-forbidden-satires-of-china
))] Lianke, mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner, attributes the “dark, fierce realism” of contemporary China to decades of living under a highly controlling Communist government.

With the post-Mao reforms of the last four decades and recent globalization and economic growth, many Chinese are reclaiming personal space, a development that Chinese media scholars Wanning Sun and Wei Lei call the “privatisation of the self.” Sun and Lei describe in fascinating detail how the market-driven transformation and social stratification of China have had a direct impact on perceptions of intimacy. [ ((Wanning Sun and Wei Lei. In Search of Intimacy in China: The Emergence of Advice Media for the Privatized Self, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 March 2017, Pages 20–38, https://doi.org/10.1111/cccr.12150)))]

In a society where the very notion of individualism was anathema for so long, how would the promise of digital intimacy, the implicit foundation of so much of our engagement with podcasts in the West, be received?

That’s the question I asked myself in October 2017 as I prepared to give a keynote on Tuning Into the Podcast Revolution, in Chengdu, China, at the General Assembly of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), whose members broadcast to over half the world, some four billion people.

Would audio storytelling’s ability to build empathy and connection, prized by Western radio makers and podcasters over decades, resonate in a nation where, Lianke asserts, Communism had “made it impossible to express true feelings in conscious life…”

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The interest was palpable and I was subsequently invited by the ABU to run an intensive podcast training workshop for participants from China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In the run up, I held a masterclass in Sydney for delegates from China Radio International (CRI), the English language arm of the state broadcaster. Many see CRI as part of a global Chinese push to conduct soft diplomacy. But the persuasive power of podcasting appears to have largely slipped under the radar. In the class, I hesitated before playing a clip from Serial Season One, thinking it might be too old hat—it had had c.300 million listeners by then and been the subject of countless articles. “What do you know about Serial?” I asked, before bringing up the slide. A broadcaster reflected. “It’s something you have for breakfast?” He was not making a joke. That’s when I realized what cultural difference truly means.

It’s not as if podcasting does not exist in China. Far from it, but it is different from Western storytelling and long-form conversation formats. China’s commercial podcast market is worth over 7 billion US dollars a year, based largely on subscribers who pay to access self-improvement and educational content, hoping to gain an edge in a highly competitive society. Lei has documented another popular set of audio products, distributed via listening apps and online platforms, which cater to two main streams: “knowledge products,” including audio books, poetry shows, business and finance; and “healing” content, which offer advice on personal and relationship issues, love and intimacy. Offerings tend to be short (under ten minutes) and simple: constructed of voice and music, without fancy production. [ ((Wei Lei. Radio and Social Transformation in China. Routledge, forthcoming.))] The numbers are staggering: Ximalaya FM, China’s biggest platform for shared audio content, reports 400 million downloads of its app. It has recently invested in an American podcasting distribution startup, Himalaya Media, which can monetize content by having listeners “tip” small amounts.

In my residential workshop, I wanted to see how participants responded to the Western podcast canon and how they might adapt it to cultural taste. Every morning I deconstructed the theory and practice of Anglophone podcasting, playing examples, analysing formats, structure and content, and expounding the grammar and logic of podcasting as a distinct media format, capable of producing “enhanced intimacy” compared to radio. All had brought, at my request, an interview in English on the theme of “absence.” Now we began to shape these into crafted stories, considering the choreography of sound, how layering and placement and even—especially—silence can alter impact and engagement.

podcast participants and Siobhan

ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre.

The three Chinese participants from CRI had impeccable English, tertiary qualifications in arts, science and business, and over three decades’ experience between them as radio broadcasters. On Day One, I sent them out around the campus to gather sounds for a one-minute “audio postcard” from the university. The exercise showed how powerfully sound itself could evoke a place—they captured strange-sounding birds, the buzz of students in a café, the peace of a lake and its resident ducks. One, Zhi Ruo (not her real name, which she preferred not to use), scripted it as a moving note to her young daughter. The exercise convinced her, as she said later, that podcasting could function on a micro-level that allowed for content that radio could not:

Radio would not have the tolerance for you to do such family-bound things, you know, you’re pretending you’re speaking to just one person … your relative or your beloved one. So you’re taking advantage of a public platform to express your personal feeling. That is not okay … So, yeah, podcast, it gives me more “enhanced intimacy” to do that.

Luo Laiming, aged 32, who co-hosts a current affairs discussion program on CRI, also took to this style of audio crafting with alacrity. His sixty-second “postcard” (listen HERE) was a polished blend of philosophical reflection and personal commentary, including the line, “The University of Wollongong has the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen.” This simple statement carried more meaning than we first realized, as Laiming explained:

This is the first time I tried in my writing to use “I” instead of “one could expect.” I said “I have seen.” It’s always been my style on the show, when I go live on a talk show or in the movie review, that I write to hide behind the narrative, behind the language.

Laiming was not convinced it was a purely cultural factor; he said he knew a lot of people in China who were “not afraid of showing their true colours,” but that he had been raised as an only child with a father who was not easy to communicate with and so, “I kind of shut myself down.” But his early years of editing other broadcasters had taught him that authenticity was crucial to make people stay listening. “You could tell whether the hosts were being spontaneous or not, if the emotions they’re expressing are authentic or not … you could tell from their voices.” The informality of podcasting was now giving him the chance to try out a subjective tone.

But when Laiming re-voiced the audio postcard in Chinese, he found it quite different (listen HERE). “I’ve always paid attention to rhythms in English—more than the words. I’ve found this hard to represent in the Chinese language. Second thing is some of the translation. E.g. ‘on the planet that we share with many other species’: the English sounds a little modest; in the Chinese language I said it as ‘we are the owners of this planet.’ And there’s another part where I had to say the opposite of what I said in English: ‘we can’t get rid of all the material comfort mankind has so ingeniously invented’ becomes ‘we can’t go back to the traditional slash and burn.'” If Laiming does get to make a new podcast, he’d like to make one about Chinese fantasy and mythology—a topic that would surely yield rich pickings.

audio postcard script

Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script.

The vivacious Niu Honglin, the third Chinese broadcaster, aged 29, already hosts two podcasts available on Western platforms: Takeaway Chinese teaches aspects of the Chinese language and Illuminating Chinese Classics looks at Chinese literature, going back centuries.

Illuminating Chinese Classics

Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International.

In early production sessions, Honglin tended to include everything she had—ambient sounds, voice, music—just because she had it. “Like you’re a six-year-old, you’ve got a collection and you need to show all of them to your parents!” The effect was overpowering, undermining her very strong raw interview, with a man describing coming out as gay to his family, whose reactions were not all accepting. I advocated narration that does not bludgeon the listener into thinking a certain way, but invites them to reflect. We cut an overly-explicatory sentence, an intervention she appreciated. “It’s really much better, it’s [left] with the music, with the feeling, you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s just revealing.”

We finished our showreel, an eight-minute trailer for the forthcoming ABU/UOW podcast series called Stories From the Heart (listen HERE), two minutes before our workshop ended at 5pm on the Friday—as professional broadcasters, all respected the tyranny of a deadline.

It was left to Zhi Ruo to sum up how podcasting might differ from radio after all.

Doing a podcast, it’s not like a task that you go live every day on radio. Okay, I have to work now. Ding, Ding, Ding. The time is here. But for podcasting, whenever you have great ideas, you pop up your eyes and have shiny eyes, great ideas. There’s a light bulb, lighting up on the top of your head so you feel the passion to tell the story and strengthen that bond and make listeners want to come back and find you.

Will podcasting become a tool of self-expression in China? Passion is one key factor and politics is another. Perhaps, as with so much else, the market will decide.

podcast participants with Siobhan

Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia.

Image Credits:

1. Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017 (author’s personal collection)
2. ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre (author’s personal collection)
3. Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script. (author’s personal collection)
4. Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International (iTunes)
5. Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia. (author’s personal collection)