“Forever Young:” Digital De-Aging, Memory, and Nostalgia
Kathleen Loock / Europa-Universität Flensburg


Digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.
In The Irishman, digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.

Digital de-aging, the process of making actors appear younger on screen than they actually are, is becoming the new normal in Hollywood. After first experimentations with computer-generated youthfulness in a flashback scene of X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner) in 2006, and—already much more refined—in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher), TRON: Legacy (Kosinski), which was released in 2010, had 60-year-old actor Jeff Bridges play opposite his digitally rejuvenated self, who looked like the 32-year-old Bridges from 1982’s TRON (Lisberger). Having an older character interact with his younger self in this manner pushed the boundaries of digital de-aging, which has since further advanced and become an increasingly more convincing and, overall, more common visual effect in Hollywood cinema. From Orlando Bloom as unaging elf Legolas in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013) to Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018), from Robert Downey Jr., who plays a young version of Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016), to the de-aged Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Rønning & Sandberg, 2017), and Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn, 2017)—(mostly male) actors are getting a digital facelift that erases their real age and chronology.


Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.
Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.

The practice has finally become so prevalent that 2019 has variously been called “a monumental year for de-aging in film” (Kemp), “a year haunted by the digital phantoms of movie stars as they once looked” (Dowd), and the year when “Hollywood has become unstuck in time” (Breznican). A total of six blockbusters—Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck), Avengers: Endgame (Russo & Russo), It Chapter Two (Muschietti), Gemini Man (Lee), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams), and The Irishman (Scorsese)—de-aged their stars with the help of visual effects companies like Lola VFX, Weta Digital, and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). These companies have perfected their different techniques over the last few years, which involves “digital cosmetics” to smooth out wrinkles and remove blemishes with patches, blurs, glows, and digital paint, as well as tracking markers, scans, CGI models, performance capture technology, and reference material from past performances that is combined with the new footage. Considering the digitally edited faces of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese expressed worries about what he calls the “youthification” of actors he has known and worked with all his life (Rose). Digital de-aging is supposed to be an invisible effect in the service of unprecedented realism. But, as Scorsese’s misgivings and many critics’ voices show, it still remains a controversial filmmaking tool and one, I argue, that enters into competition with memory and nostalgia for the past.


Martin Scorsese relied on the digital de-aging of actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to tell his character-driven, decades-spanning mob epic, The Irishman.

To be sure, the increasingly realist aesthetic of digital de-aging has been lauded as a breakthrough for visual effects technology and storytelling. It has proven to solve problems with the rules about time and time travel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and made it possible to realize the science-fiction premises of movies like TRON: Legacy, Terminator: Genisys (Taylor, 2015), and Gemini Man, where time warps and cloning drive the plots, as well as decades-spanning epics such as The Irishman, that center on the long-term development of (aging) characters, without layers of make-up, prosthetics, or casting different (i.e., younger) actors in the same roles. Advocates of the practice have pointed out how de-aging supports the suspension of disbelief as it allows filmmakers to create less disruptive links between the past and the present. “Youthified” actors have also commented on how de-aging might impact the longevity of their careers. In The Irishman: In Conversation, the Netflix special feature that has Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci talking about the production of The Irishman, De Niro weighs in on the de-aging technology, predicting that, “We’ll all be able to act for another 30 years.” At a screening of Gemini Man, Will Smith joked about the future use of his data and how he will no longer need to stay in shape: “There’s a completely digital 23-year-old version of myself that I can make movies with now. … I’m gonna get really fat and really overweight” (King).


In Gemini Man, 51-year-old Will Smith plays opposite a 23-year-old version of himself.

More skeptical observers of the trend have expressed their fears about the legal implications of digital de-aging technology and the data it amasses and about the diminishing prospects for young actors to land a breakout role. They are also worried about the gray area in which Hollywood’s de-aging efforts and inexpensive, accessible deepfake software seem to converge, arguing that “the drive to fool the viewer is the same” (King). Most notably, however, there is disagreement about whether the technology has sufficiently advanced so that de-aging does not have an “uncanny valley” effect (Masahiro). Despite the high degree of verisimilitude digitally rejuvenated faces have achieved in Hollywood, something seems to be off with “youthified” versions of familiar actors on screen that threatens to disturb audiences and cause discomfort. The uncanniness of a de-aged Will Smith or Robert De Niro can be located in the occasional weird sheen on their altered features as well as in the unnatural movements that either seem inhumanly fast and smooth (in the case of Gemini Man) or belong to an elderly, less intense actor rather than the one that digital de-aging technology has created. “You can make a seventy-something Robert De Niro look young (or at least, come somewhat close to it),” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, “but you can’t really make him act young. Especially for an audience that remembers what a young Robert De Niro did look like, and sound like, and move like.” This observation is as important as the fact that Gemini Man’s young, muscular Will Smith is nothing like the lanky, mustache-wearing Will Smith audiences know from the 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC, 1990-1996).

I suggest that there is an alienating disconnect that has ultimately less to do with the technical perfection and realist aesthetic of de-aging and more to do with the ways in which the digital doppelgänger interferes with a star’s intertextuality (i.e., the ways in which an actor’s previous films and—aging—star persona determine readings of his or her performances) and, above all, with the memories, desires, and nostalgic longings that audiences associate with a familiar actor’s actual younger self. A de-aged Will Smith or Robert De Niro, in other words, may serve Hollywood’s storytelling purposes, yet the discrepancy between what audiences recall and what they see onscreen may pose an existential threat to how people understand (and remember) themselves and the world in which they live in relation to popular culture. By following an actor’s work over many years and decades, audiences synchronize their own memories and lived experiences with movies, TV shows, and career trajectories, often with a nostalgic glance backwards that helps to construct and maintain a coherent, consistent sense of identity in the present. If digital de-aging produces “youthified” versions of familiar actors as it helps aging performers to stay “forever young,” it produces alternate realities that threaten to overwrite audience memory and eventually detract from the illusion that de-aging technology seeks to create.



Image Credits:

  1. In The Irishman, digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.
  2. Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.
  3. Martin Scorsese relied on the digital de-aging of actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to tell his character-driven, decades-spanning mob epic The Irishman.
  4. In Gemini Man, 51-year-old Will Smith plays opposite a 23-year-old version of himself.


References:

Breznican, Anthony. “The Irishman, Avengers: Endgame, and the De-aging Technology That Could Change Acting Forever.” Vanity Fair 9 Dec. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/12/the-de-aging-technology-that-could-change-acting-forever

Dowd, A. A. “Gemini Man Uses De-Aging Technology to Make a Case against De-Aging Technology.” AV Club 15 Oct. 2019 Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://film.avclub.com/gemini-man-uses-de-aging-technology-to-make-a-case-agai-1839041610

Ebiri, Bilge. “So, How Is the De-Aging in The Irishman? Incredibly Impressive.” Vulture 27 Sept. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2019/09/the-de-aging-in-the-irishman-how-bad-is-it.html

Kemp, Matt. “‘Holy
Grail’ Digital Effects Rewinding the Clock for Actors.” AP News 12 Jan.
2020. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://apnews.com/43f8ed7e9a753c2191c9af7f4754bd6c

King, Darryn. “The Game-Changing Tech Behind Gemini Man’s ‘Young’ Will Smith.” Wired 24 Sept. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/game-changing-tech-gemini-man-will-smith/

Masahiro, Mori. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine (June 2012): 98-100. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6213238

Rose, Steve. “Will Hollywood’s New Youthifying Tech Keep Old Actors in Work for Ever?” The Guardian 10 June 2019. Web. 10 Mar. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/10/will-hollywoods-new-youthifying-tech-keep-old-actors-in-work-for-ever




At the scene of the crime: podcasting and placemaking
Helen morgan parmett / university of vermont


crime scene photo overlain with Serial's logo
Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo in this promotional image.

…we have to drive back out to Woodlawn drive, turn onto Security Boulevard, which does have some big intersections you have to get through. Again, we’re trying to get to Best Buy, it’s still there today, in twenty-one minutes… We’re at seventeen minutes, we’re just crossing under the beltway… (Serial, Season 1, Episode 5: “Route Talk”)

Perhaps this quote reads familiar, if you, like me, are one of the 175 million listeners of the world’s most popular podcast, Serial. It is the episode where Sarah Koenig, Serial’s narrator, and her producer, Dana, drive the suspected route of Adnan Syed drove on the day he is accused of supposedly murderinged his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah and Dana drive the route to determine if the state’s timeline is possible. As listeners, we move through Baltimore County along with them, listening to the sounds of traffic and the hum of the car’s engine, as they make the turns necessary to arrive at their final destination—a Best Buy parking lot where Syed is suspected of committing the murder. Although I have not personally driven the route, apparently lots of other people have, and not just on their daily commutes, but in a purposeful attempt to recreate the route themselves as amateur sleuths or as tourists looking for a Baltimore excursion off-the-beaten-path.


Best Buy parking lot
The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.

Like Serial, many podcasts, especially (but certainly not limited to) the true crime genre, have a strong sense of and connection to place. The Gimlet produced Crimetown podcast, for example, has dedicated its two seasons to Providence and Detroit respectively. Studio recordings are supplemented with on-location work that details in multisensory fashion not only the stories of the cities’ crime histories, but also the cultural and social geographies that provide the contexts for those crimes. In the Dark’s second season takes us to Winona, Mississippi to investigate the possible innocence of Curtis Flowers, exploring a racist and classist criminal justice system inasmuch as how race and class biases manifest in the places essential to life in small-town America.[ (( Interestingly, in Episode 2, listeners are enjoined to explore the route, much like in Serial, Flowers allegedly walked the morning of the murders. ))] Similarly, the wildly popular S-Town, from the makers of Serial and This American Life, is ostensibly a character study of John B. McLemore, but undoubtedly the “shit town” for which the podcast is named, Woodstock, Alabama, is as much under study as McLemore.

I could name many other podcasts, both within and beyond the true crime genre, that work to produce a very specific and intimate sense of place for listeners. Yet little scholarship has addressed podcasting’s production of place. Instead, most scholars emphasize the space- and time-shifting capabilities of the medium, as it enables listeners to download and listen when and where they want.[ (( See, for example, Berry, Richard. “Will the IPod Kill the Radio Star? Profiling Podcasting as Radio.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 12, no. 2 (May 2006): 143–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856506066522; Funk, Marcus. “Decoding the Podaissance: Identifying Community Journalism Practices in Newsroom and Avocational Podcasts.” International Symposium on Online Journalism 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 67–87; Llinares, Dario, Neil I. Fox, and Richard Berry. Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, 2018. Jan Lauren Boyles case study of digital news in post-Katrina New Orleans created fields of care that facilitated urban attachment is an exception here, as they explore various podcasts that connect people of New Orleans to each other and who use podcasting as a means of digitally connecting to place and constituting place identities. However, Boyles exploration here is less about podcasting per se and more about digital journalism more broadly, though I am interested in how these insights about urban attachment might speak to the specificity of podcasting’s spatial practices. See  Boyles, Jan Lauren. “Building an Audience, Bonding a City: Digital News Production as a Field of Care.” Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 7 (October 2017): 945–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443716682073. ))] A core component of this discourse ties podcasting’s mobility to its potentially democratizing and empowering capabilities, as it “puts the onus on the listener, whose jurisdiction over the when, where and how of podcast engagement…suggests a highly liberated, even democratized consumer experience.”[ (( Llinares, Dario. “Podcasting as Limited Praxis: Aural Mediation, Sound Writing and Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 127. ))]

This understanding of podcasting’s relationship to space and place follows a well-trodden discourse of media space, which overwhelmingly theorizes media as a space-compressing or despatializing technology.[ (( See, for example, Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford [England]; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1989. ))] However, as I have argued elsewhere, this view of obscures the ways media produces both symbolic and material spatialities. Although podcasting does produce space- and time-shifting, these shifts are less a matter of compressing space or evacuating place than they are a means of creating new relationships to place and new forms of emplacement.


maps of the locations in Baltimore Country central to Serial
Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.

Podcast emplacement is especially constituted through its sensorial, affective intimacy in conjunction with its multiplatform convergences. For example, while Serial’s popularity demonstrated some of the core aspects of the time- and space -shifting potentials of the medium, the podcast was also inconceivable without its deep ties to the spaces and places of Baltimore County, giving listeners an intimate feeling of “being there.” As Sarah and Dana drive the route, the on-location recording affectively connects the past of the crime to Sarah’s and Dana’s present through a soundscape that brings listeners to the site of the crime. Aural cues are accompanied by other sensibilities of place that can be accessed through multi-modal, interactive, and convergent media, whether through social media and endless Reddit threads that meticulously map and annotate the crime scene, Serial’s website’s maps and documents, YouTube videos of fans driving the infamous route, taking your own tour or following someone else who did, amongst many, many other intermediations of the podcast. Some scholars have argued that podcasting’s intimate and deep listening creates a detachment from the place of listening, arguing, for example, “It would be difficult to navigate city streets, or busy traffic, and not fall into ‘rabbit holes.’”[ (( Hancock, Danielle, and Leslie McMurtry. “‘I Know What a Podcast Is’: Post-Serial Fiction and Podcast Media Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 90. ))] But listening to the podcast at the place of production and at the site of the narrative—a kind of media pilgrimage[ (( Couldry, Nick. The Place of Media Power Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2001. ))] —can actually increase intensity in ways that further connect the listener to place, rather than disconnecting them. The podcast is the map that guides the listener’s navigation of the city street rather than the rabbit hole.

Although emplacement might be an unintended effect of most podcasts, there are also more explicit attempts to use the sensorial, affective, and convergent capabilities of podcasting as a purposeful means for connecting listeners to place. In the case of the performative podcast Wandercast, artist Robbie Z. Wilson “invites listeners to take it on a wander. It employs podcasts’ portability and aural intimacy to unearth playful affordances inherent in our surroundings and to encourage enaction of those affordances as a means of rediscovering one’s environment.”[ (( Wilson, Robbie Z. “Welcome to the World of Wandercast: Podcast as Participatory Performance and Environmental Exploration.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 274. There are numerous other examples of podcasts aiming to either connect listeners to their surroundings, direct them to senses of place as tourists, or the explore the idea of the sense of place. ))] This performative playfulness depends on a lack of site-specificity on the part of the narrator, but their displacement is aimed to provide an embodied and site-specific experience for the listener.


logo for Vermont Public Radio's Brave Little State podcast
Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, connects listeners to a sense of local community.

In addition to performance art, community journalism is an area ripe with podcasts whose explicit aim is to connect listeners with place-based communities. Brave Little State, a podcast produced by Vermont Public Radio in my own place in the state of Vermont, enjoins listeners to pose topics related to Vermont that they are interested in investigating, and all listeners get to vote on what topic they want the podcast to explore.[ (( Brave Little State was influenced by a very similar podcast out of Chicago, titled Curious City. ))] The listener who posted the question then joins with the host to investigate, on-location, the answers to their question. Topics include questions like “Why is Vermont so white?” and “Those aging hippies who moved to Vermont…where are they now?”

I contend podcasting produces a kind of “atlas of emotion,” what Guiliana Bruno refers to as a haptic mapping and a “phantasmatic structure of lived space and lived narrative; a narrativized space that is intersubjective.”[ (( Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2011, 65. ))] Bruno is referring to cinematic mapping, but there is much to be gleaned about podcasting from her groundbreaking work on cinematic history and its production of new forms of “emotive, embodied and visceral engagement with space.”[ (( Mazumdar, Ranjani. “The Mumbai Slum: Aerial Views and Embodied Memories,” Mediapolis, Vol 4(3), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2019/11/the-mumbai-slum/. ))] While podcasting’s intimacy and connectivity is often theorized as an effect of its space compressing or mobile practices that collapse distances between producer and listener, I suggest we might instead consider how podcasting’s connectivities and intimacies are forged out of the production of emplacement in a variety of forms. We then might explore how podcasts, in their multisensorial, convergent engagements produce new forms of interacting with, embodying, living, understanding, and navigating the spaces and places of our everyday, mediated lives.



Image Credits:

  1. Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo in this promotional image.
  2. The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.
  3. Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.
  4. Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, connects listeners to a sense of local community.


References:




Gay Democratic Socialist Disruption on Television in 1971
Finley Freibert / University of Louisville


watching tv
Gay disruption on Chicago TV, 1971

Consider the following quote:

Because capitalism in America is proven to be exploitative on a vast and growing scale
(the 1% of American families at the top get twice the income of all 20% at the bottom), I
advocate making America socialist and redistributing the national wealth equitably. I
advocate democratic socialism.[ (( Tip Hillan, “Letter to the Editor,” Vector, February 1972, 7. ))]

The quote seems contemporary.[ (( That is, aside from the exponential increase in the wealth gap represented by this quote’s percentages, which reflected the 1970s. ))] It sounds like someone talking about current economic inequalities exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continuing to spiral out of control. It uses “the 1%” in the sense that it was employed by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. It identifies and condemns the grotesque consolidation of wealth by the few at the expense of the rest of us. It sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.

The quote is from a gay democratic socialist speaking nearly fifty years ago. It is representative of a gay democratic socialist branch of gay liberation that expanded across the US from 1969 to the mid-1970s. While the nuances of the definition of democratic socialism depend on the contexts of its use, its associated rhetoric and emphasis on egalitarianism—precisely antithetical to authoritarian socialism—remain strikingly constant.

Reverberating the critical sentiment in the quote is the above image, a contemporaneous televised moment of chaos.[ (( The presence of sporadic circular banding, blurred movement, rounded rectangular masking, and slight non-rectilinear perspective typical of a convex screen all suggest the image is not a photograph of the scene, but a still capture of a televisual image and meant to be understood as such. ))] In the image, an alleged gay democratic socialist (the bespectacled youth with a mop top) confronts Dr. David Reuben, an author (the central foreground figure) who grossly misrepresented gay men for monetary gain. Thinking through this gay democratic socialist disruption of televisual flow provides a historical avenue for approaching recent considerations of what constitutes a gay politics.

Dr. David Reuben’s bestselling non-fiction book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) was first published in 1969. The book capitalized on the sexual revolution and was intended for the mass market in the vein of popular texts on sexuality from the time.[ (( The focus on pathology and sensationalism in Reuben’s chapter on homosexuality is more in line with the phobic and conformist position of popular psychology. For a differentiation between the popular psychological and sociological mass market genres see Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 86–93. ))] Feminists criticized the book for the author’s sexist discussions of women’s bodies and sexualities; gay men criticized it for outrageous speculations on gay male sexual experiences.[ (( Representative reviews in the feminist and gay press respectively include “Amazon’s Eye View,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 11; E.L. Sutton, “Mailbag: Reuben Peddles Baloney,” Advocate, February 3, 1971, 23. ))] The book’s popularity and Reuben’s frequent presence on talk shows to promote the book were indicative of an emergent monetizable form of self-help that Elena Gorfinkel calls “a developing literature of sex-help” wherein “the private sphere of sexuality could be accessed and become an object of consumption.”[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 170. ))] Gay liberation activists were not solely outraged by his false claims about gay life but above all the profit-oriented capitalization on those claims.


Howard Miller and Chicago
Howard Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971.

While Reuben was promoting the book during a taping of Howard Miller’s Chicago on February 14, 1971, a group of approximately fifteen gay activists interrupted Reuben him to contest his bizarre and bigoted claims about gay men. Gay activist Murray Edelman escalated the confrontation by storming the stage, demanding that Reuben answer. Edelman was intercepted by security, and the show’s host condemned Edelman as a member of the Red Butterfly, “a group of homosexuals with Marxist influence in politics.”[ (( William B. Kelley, “Gays Protest Reuben ‘Book,’” Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, February 1971, 1. The article went on to state, “Miller’s comment was the first hint that one [Red Butterfly group] might exist in Chicago.” In other words, given that the Red Butterfly was based in New York, even the gay press expressed surprise over the possibility that a new group had formed in Chicago. Indeed, by January 1972 the New York Gay Activists Alliance was listing chapters of Red Butterfly in both Chicago and Delray Beach. ))]

It is unclear if Edelman was actually a Red Butterfly, so it is plausible that Miller’s statement was anti-left red-baiting given Miller’s right wing affiliation.[ (( For the quintessential historical account of the lavender scare see, David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). ))] Yet rather than alleging Edelman was simply a gay communist, Miller’s statement displayed a surprising level of specificity and relative accuracy; the Red Butterfly was a gay Marxist group, which also self-identified as democratic socialist.[ (( See Image 3 for one of several places where the Red Butterfly self-identified as democratic socialist. “Red Butterfly,” Come Out, December 1970, 5. ))] Regardless of whether Edelman was a member of the group, the public identification of the disruption with the Red Butterfly and the action’s political and economic purpose align it with a gay democratic socialist imprint on its public resonance.

This protest on Chicago television was part of a tradition of gay liberationist zaps—confrontational direct action toward a public figure or institution with the aim of generating publicity. Gay zaps and other forms of gay media intervention and advocacy have been well-documented.[ (( Some key texts include Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995), 181–245; Stephen Tropiano, The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV (New York: Applause Books, 2002); Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2000); Matt Connolly, “Liberating the Screen: Gay and Lesbian Protests of LGBT Cinematic Representation, 1969–1974,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 66–88. ))] While there has been acknowledgement of the economic interventions of gay zaps with tactics like boycotting, much of the literature centralizes representational concerns as the primary focus of gay media activism of the 1970s. While clearly part of gay liberationists’ quarrel with Reuben was his fabricated claims about gay men, I’d like to adjust the lens on this moment of gay liberation media activism to consider the possibility of socio-economic critique offered by groups like the Red Butterfly.

Rather than read this protest as exclusively a representational quarrel over what constitutes “authentic” gay cultural and sexual practices, what if we view it as a critique of media industries’ collusion with—and embeddedness in—fundamentally inequitable economic infrastructures? A reading of this action as informed by sexuality and political economy is in line with what Heather Berg writes of different yet intersecting contexts of feminist sex-work activism: “the point is not that there is an antipathy between radical sexual and radical anticapitalist politics—the battles are the same: capital despises both workers and sexual minorities who refuse to assimilate to the nuclear family it requires in order to reproduce labor.”[ (( Heather Berg, “Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-Work Activism,” Feminist Studies 40, no. 3 (2014): 711. ))]


gay youth red butterfly pamphlet
A fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R.

Congruent with democratic socialist emphases on collectivity and socio-economic critique, Edelman urged that his action should not be recognized because of the publicity that it garnered—i.e., the newspapers that sold it as a front-page story—but rather because it was a call to solidarity as “an action directly out of our felt oppression.”[ (( Murray Edelman, “The ‘Heavy-Set, Bearded Youth’ Responds,” Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter, February 1971, 11. ))] Reflecting on his intentions for the spontaneous storming of the stage, Edelman, as he silently sat in the studio audience, envisioned Reuben’s books being sold as he silently sat in the studio audience, and with the book’s circulation, he imagined the exposure of millions to Reuben’s ideas.[ (( Ibid. ))]

Edelman’s emphasis on solidarity in opposition to mass market product circulation is key to understanding how the zap was an economic intervention. While there is no doubt that public attention to the gay liberation cause was one objective of zaps, gay direct actions—rooted in the tradition of labor organizing and often themselves referred to as “gay strikes”—were nearly always intended to intervene in the flow of capital.[ (( [1] Examples include the gay strike of May 1969 initiated in the Bay Area to protest the police killing of Frank Bartley in Berkeley, and the National Gay Strike Day planned by the Gay Liberation Front at the 1970 meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. ))] Producers of the talk show invited members of the University of Chicago Gay Liberation group to the show’s taping of the interview with David Reuben because homosexuality was considered a “lucrative topic.”[ (( James Coates, “Miller Talk Show Ends in a Big Flap,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1971, 14. ))] However, upon learning of their invitation, Reuben refused to discuss the subject of homosexuality on the show for fear that it would diminish book sales.[ (( Ibid. ))] Following the confrontation, Reuben walked off the program and cancelled a future guest appearance on WLS. In sum, the Edelman-led zap disrupted both the local promotion of Reuben’s book and threw a wrench in the scheduling of two WLS shows. Further reflecting on the zap, Edelman linked the action to a broader gay liberation campaign in Chicago to prevent all advertising and sale of the book in the area.[ (( Fred Winston, “Gay Lib Member Confronts Sex Book Author on TV,” The Chicago Maroon, January 22, 1971, 4. ))]

Why does this matter?

This column was written during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, wherein popular candidates included a gay man and a Democratic Socialist. Through his policies as a mayor the gay candidate enacted class war against the homeless and working classes. He has also red-baited the Democratic Socialist and enthusiastically displayed contempt for postwar activism. Concurrently, everyday people actively confronting their own conditions of impoverishment, such as graduate students in the University of California system, have been fired from their jobs and threatened with deportation. It is also a time when political affiliation with Democratic Socialism can lead to disciplinary career actions, such as for David Wright of ABC News, or even one’s personal information being cataloged on a public blacklist intended to incite harassment.

While certainly there have been conservative groups across the gay political spectrum, socialism has been a formative component to gay activist cultures and historiography.[ (( Numerous folks have contributed to the progressive historiography of gay politics including John D’Emilio, Lisa Duggan, Jeffrey Escoffier, Jonathan Ned Katz, Gayle Rubin, and Barbara Smith, among numerous others. For a general overview see, Jeffrey Escoffier, “Left-Wing Homosexuality: Emancipation, Sexual Liberation, and Identity Politics,” New Politics, Summer 2008, 38–43. ))] Revisiting televised gay democratic socialist outrage underscores how central socio-economic considerations have been to the gay liberation project.[ (( While liberationists diverged from the conservative ethic of sexual identity privacy generally ascribed to the earlier homophile movement, the dual commitment of both groups to socialist critique provides a throughline from the early communist-inspired homophile cells, into the gay Marxism of the Red Butterfly, and through to the intersectional, anti-racist, and internationalist coalitions expansively documented by Emily K. Hobson. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016). For a key analysis of the radical left tendencies of early homophile groups, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 78–116. ))] Reflecting on where gay politics has been can help us imagine an equitable horizon for its future.



Image Credits:

  1. Gay
    disruption on Chicago TV, 1971 (clipping from Mattachine Midwest Newsletter,
    February 1971, 18.)
  2. Howard
    Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971 (author’s screen
    grabs).
  3. A
    fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key
    liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R. (clipping from Come Out,
    December 1970, 5.)


References:




Digital Humanity: Social Media Content Moderation and the Global Tech Workforce in the COVID-19 Era
Sarah T. Roberts / University of California, Los Angeles

Author’s Note: Over the past days, I have fielded many questions
asking about commercial content moderation work during the global coronavirus
(COVID-19) crisis. There are many aspects to consider, including location,
logistics and infrastructure, legal worker protections, and state-level
actions. As I have written and rewritten this article, I have needed to
repeatedly come back to update this article based on changing circumstances. At
this point, the evening of March 17, I will not fundamentally change it but
will continue to update it until it goes to press. My heart goes out to all of
those around the world who are touched by this disease: all of us

A small gathering at UCLA last week, in what we could not know at the time was likely to be the last of its kind for most of us for the foreseeable future, a group of scholars at all levels of career and life gathered with community activists, artists and others to respond to a conversation curated by Professor Patrik Svensson under the aegis of Humane Infrastructures, an appropriate context for what we were about to collectively experience, despite assuredly not having been on the horizon during the event’s planning.

For the purposes of this event I was asked, in what I have now come to regard as an uncanny bit of timing, to discuss technology labor forces dedicated to social media content moderation and/as infrastructure, prompting me to open my remarks with a nod to “human infrastructure” more generally. It is an exercise I find useful to my work but a metaphor or description that has serious limitations. And so I use it, while also applying to it various caveats, the first of which is simply that humans are humans. They are not pipe. They are not fiber. They are not, despite all attempts of management theorists of the early 20th century and gigwork proponents of the 21st, cogs to be replaced when one becomes worn, reducible to their motion study-documented singular movements, or blips on a delivery map.

Yet because the approach to provisioning labor for large-scale technology operations often takes on these overtones, it bears discussing labor forces as infrastructure, if for no other reason than to accurately account for them in the production chain of things like, in my case, social media, or manufactured goods, or textiles, or whatever the product or output may be. I also believe that gaining insight into corporate orientations toward such labor forces is helpful to develop a more thorough and sound critique of said orientations and the concomitant practices that emerge from characterizing workforce as infrastructure in the first place. In other words, we need to see how the firms see to make the most salient and effective critiques of their practices and credos.

I will cut to the chase of what many readers want to know: how is the pandemic of COVID-19, the coronavirus that is sweeping around the globe, impacting the moderation of social media. More to the point, your question may be, “Why is corona having an impact on moderation at all?” Let me give the briefest of overviews that I can to say that the practice of social media moderation happens at industrial scale with many of the transnational service outsourcing firms now involved, and with countless other players of lesser size at the table. It is a global system that involves labor pools at great geographic and cultural distance, as well as jurisdictional and legal remove, from where we might imagine the center of social media action is: Menlo Park, or Mountain View, or Cupertino or another Silicon Valley enclave.

The second thing to bear in mind is that there is a vast human workforce doing an incredible amount of high-impact content moderation for firms; my typical estimate (that I consider to be extremely conservative) is that the global moderation workforce is in the six figures at any given time, and I likely need to try to revise this number significantly. Yes, there are AI and computational tools that also conduct this work, but it is important to keep in mind that it is exceedingly difficult for those systems to work without human oversight or in the absence of humans vetting and doing manual removals, too.


Facebook's Announcement on March 16, 2020
Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.

This particular fragility has been seen most acutely today at Facebook, which announced yesterday evening that it would shut down as much of its operations as it could and have workers work from home when possible. In the case of their commercial content moderators, Facebook has explained that there are many cases in which workers cannot do their work effectively from home and the company is therefore moving to a much greater reliance on its AI tools and automated moderation systems. The switch in reliance upon automated removal appears to have occurred today, when vast numbers of users began reporting the deletion of benign and sometimes even newsworthy content (in many cases, about COVID-19). Confirmed by some representatives from Facebook is that there was a “bug” with some of the automated content removal systems that has now been corrected.[ ((It bears mentioning that there was some debate on Twitter about whether or not this bug was related to the letting go of human content moderators, with Guy Rosen of Facebook stating that it was not and former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos expressing skepticism. My guess is that the new widespread reliance on AI tools has already revealed and will continue to reveal a variety of hits a human would not make.))]


Professor Vaidhyanathan's Tweet
Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.

To understand this better, I will describe the general status quo for much of the top-tier American social media firms and their content moderation ecosystem.[ ((The operative phrase here is “top-tier”; many smaller firms have considerably fewer resources to put on moderation and may have devised other systems entirely to manage the bulk of their moderation needs. Two important examples of alternative systems are Reddit and Wikipedia, both of which rely on a huge network of volunteer community moderators whose interventions are user-facing and who are typically themselves close to the communities they moderate.))] The characteristics of the ecosystem is that it tends to be arranged with contract labor through third-party companies and has a global footprint. The firms have created their own network of call center-like facilities that form a web across the globe, and cover a massive array of linguistic, cultural, regional and other competencies and knowledge (although there are inevitable gaps and gaffes).

The distributed nature of the contract commercial content moderation system indeed allows for some degree of redundancy when it comes to issues of natural disaster or other catastrophic events that could take a center, a city or even a region offline. That said, most firms are at capacity when it comes to their screening needs, and the loss of a major site could very well impact quality. That appears to have happened in the last 72 hours, when Metro Manila and, indeed, much of the island upon which it is located, Luzon—a part of the Philippine archipelago that is home to 57 million people—went into quarantine. Reports the Singaporean Straits Times, “Police began closing off access to the Philippines’ sprawling and densely populated capital Manila, a city of some 12 million people, imposing a month-long quarantine that officials hope will curb the nation’s rising number of coronavirus cases.”

The Philippines is also the call center capital of the
world, and competes with India for the vast outsourced business of commercial
content moderation for the so-called Global North. In short, the Philippines is
where social media content goes to be screened.

Eleven days ago, I communicated with a reporter colleague to give my sense of how a virus-related shutdown in the Philippines could affect American social media giants. I told him that while a lot of the most irritating and highest-volume unwanted content (as deemed by the platforms) can be found and removed by automated tools—here I refer to spam, pornographic content, copyright violations, and other already known-bad material—they tend to be imperfect and blunt instruments whose interventions can be calibrated to be more sophisticated or to cast a wider net.[ ((See the work of Safiya U. Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Cathy O’Neill, Frank Pasquale, Joan Donovan and others who demonstrate that algorithmic interventions are deeply imbued with and shaped by a host of values, manipulation and bias, following key critiques of the politics of software by Wendy HK Chun, of computation by David Golumbia, after the fundamental question posed and answered by Langdon Winner that artifacts, indeed, have politics.))] But the loss of a major moderation site that would mean a switchover to reliance on these tools would invariably cause disruption in social media’s production chain, and could even potentially lead to quality issues perceived by users.

That appears to be the very case we saw today, where we see users become frustrated by false positives: cases where overzealous and undersophisticated AI tools aggressively remove reasonable content, because its judgment is too rudimentary. The alternative is also no alternative at all, for if the AI tools were turned off altogether, the result would be an unusable social media platform flooded with unbearable garbage, spam and irrelevant or disturbing content. One moderator interviewed in my book described the internet without workers like him as “a cesspool.”

Which, then, is the lesser of two evils, an overpoliced automated AI-moderated internet, or a “hole of filth” (as another Silicon Valley-based worker described it) of unbearable human self-expression? Ultimately, the firms will decide for the former, as it is powerful matter of brand protection and legal mandates (most from outside the United States) that will drive their choice in this matter. I suspect that it will be much of the public’s first contact to both the contours of content moderation on its platform, as well as how the disappearance virtually overnight of legions of humans doing this work has led to marked and immediate quality decline.

I return to the most important question, perhaps, that has been asked about this issue, which is why the work cannot simply be done by the workers from home. The answer, like everything about this issue, is complex. In many cases, such work can and is done at home. In the case of AAA social media firms, however, constraints like privacy agreements and data protection policies in various jurisdictions may preclude this. There is also a nontrivial infrastructure that goes into setting up a computing center with requisite hardware, software (internally developed and maintained systems) and routing of data. The call center locations themselves are often highly secure, with nothing allowed on the floor where workers are logged in. Working from home eliminates the ability for oversight and surveillance of workers and their practices, both what they are doing and what they are not, to the extent that can be achieved on-site. This alone is possibly a deal-breaker for moving the work home. In a moment of dark humor, one rightly cynical colleague pointed out that this is an event that, while likely wholly unimagined and unplanned, is allowing for a certain amount of stress testing of these tools at scale.

Bringing the work consisting of the rapid review of thousands of images and videos, many of which can be psychologically difficult and taxing, into the home also may be considered too much to ask of workers in a time of crisis. Workers in call centers rely on each other and their teams for support doing commercial content moderation, and may have access to an on-site or on-call therapist, counselor or other mental health professionals.[ ((Even when counselors are available, it is not always the panacea it may seem. Some workers contracted by Accenture discovered that what they presumed were private sessions with workplace therapists were actually reporting on those sessions to Accenture’s management, according to The Intercept.))] But it is also worth mentioning that many people already do this kind of work at home, whether as contractors or on microtask sites from anywhere in the world.[ ((See this report released just yesterday on the state of microwork in Canada, from the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group (TWIG), or an interview with sociologist Antonio Casilli on microwork in France.))]

Further, infrastructure differences will play into the picture locally. For example, European tech hub the Republic of Ireland has widespread penetration of at-home fixed broadband, whereas in the Philippines the story looks different. Here is where we return to the way the firms themselves view the matter of outsourced labor in what we can consider the production chain of social media: as a component in a production cycle characterized by the East to West flow of supply-chain logistics for manufactured goods. The model is one of just-in-time, in which all aspects of the process, from putting up a site to hiring in workers to the actual moderation itself, takes place as quickly and as “leanly” as possible, particularly for functions such as content moderation that are seen as a “cost center” rather than a “value-add” site of revenue generation.

Just-in-time supply-chain logistics may be being tested in other parts of the tech industry and in industries reliant on other types of manufactured products, when we consider the goods’ origin point (frequently East Asia, in general, and China, specifically, particularly for textile, tech and other material goods). Consider the recent shuttering of numerous retail chains (e.g., Apple Stores; Lululemon; Victoria’s Secret) not only as issues of lack of clientele or safety of employees, but one that may reflect a significant gap in the availability of goods making their way out of factories and across oceans: “Just how extensive the crisis is can be seen in data released by Resilinc, a supply-chain-mapping and risk-monitoring company, which shows the number of sites of industries located in the quarantined areas of China, South Korea, and Italy, and the number of items sourced from the quarantined regions of China,” reports the Harvard Business Review.

When we consider a social media production chain that is less material, perhaps, in terms of the product (user-facing content on a social media site) than an H&M fast fashion jacket or a pair of Apple AirPod Pros, the essential nature of the presence of humans in that chain is just as apparent as when a production line goes down for a month and no goods leave the factory. Here, where content moderators are both the product (in the form of their cultural and linguistic sense-making ability upon which their labor is frequently valued and sold) and the producer (in the form of the work they undertake), their impact of their loss in the production chain must be considered profound.


Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm
Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer.

In essence, what is supposed to be a resilient just-in-time chain of goods and services making their way from production to retail may, in fact, be a much more fragile ecosystem in which some aspects of manufacture, parts provision, and/or labor are reliant upon a single supplier, factory, or location. Just as it is in manufacturing, where a firm discovers that a part is made only in one factory and its going offline affects everything downstream, such is it decidedly the case for the fragile ecosystem of outsourced commercial content moderation and its concentration in areas of the world such as the Philippines. The reliance on global networks of human labor is revealing cracks and fissures in a host of supply-chain ecosystems. In the case of human moderators who screen social media, their absence is likely to give many users a glimpse, quite possibly for the first time, of the digital humanity that goes into crafting a usable and relatively hospitable online place for them to be. In the face of their loss, perhaps just when we need them the most—to combat the flood of misinformation, hate speech, and racism inspired by the global pandemic that is COVID-19 now circulating online—they are gone. Will we learn to finally collectively value this aspect of the human infrastructure just a little bit more than not at all?



Image Credits:

  1. Facebook’s announcement on March 16th indicated to many that a new experiment in content moderation was forthcoming.
  2. Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of UVA expresses frustration with Facebook’s moderation under all-AI, March 17, 2020.
  3. Microsourcing, a Manila-based commercial content moderation outsourcing firm, advertised their laborforce as having specialized linguistic and cultural “skills.” In this way, these “skills” were the commodity on offer. Source: Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press, 2019)


References:




“Streaming Wars and the Future of Video,” It’s Not What You Think…
Siobhan O’Flynn / University of Toronto


The Mandalorian premiered with the launch of Disney+ on November 12, 2019
The Mandalorian premiered with the launch of Disney+ on November 12, 2019.

Recent and current discussions of the “streaming wars” have tended to focus on two data points: the number of subscribers a given OTT platform has quarterly and the fragmentation or distribution of content for consumers across streaming platforms.

To the first point, discussions typically cite numbers for US domestic or US/Canada North American subscribers, where Canada accounts for roughly 10% of the total, and with the launch of Disney+, how Netflix has been impacted (rise/fall). A contributing factor since Disney’s 2017 announcement has been Disney’s pulling content from Netflix as licensing agreements ended. So, with the launch of Disney+, all Pixar, Lucas Film/Star Wars, Disney Studio titles are gone and as this content appears on Disney+, that data stream of organic user behavior will now be Disney’s. Where pre-existing licensing (2012) and co-production agreements gives Netflix streaming rights to a number of Marvel MCU movie titles and the Marvel Defenders series (Daredevil to The Punisher ), Disney+ is pitching to fans with original MCU series, WandaVision (2020), Loki (2021), and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2020).


Marvel Studios previews three of its upcoming Disney+ series during Super Bowl LIV.

The Walt Disney Company’s (TWDC) purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019 now makes it the juggernaut of streaming content, as assets include multiple studios and beloved TV series, from The Simpsons (now streaming all 30 seasons ad-free) to The X-Files (1993-18), Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-03), Modern Family (2009-20), Arrested Development (2003-present), 24 (2001-14), and Family Guy (1999-present), and more.


Revenue of the Walt Disney Company in different geographic regions from 2010 to 2019
Revenue of the Walt Disney Company in different geographic regions from 2010 to 2019 (in million US dollars).

As of early Feb. 2020, Disney+ has 28.6 million subscribers, and subscribers are up to 30.7 million on subsidiary Hulu. The Star Wars spin-off, The Mandalorian (2019-present), has been a key factor, though a Dec. 2019 survey revealed that viewers preferred Disney Classics slightly ahead of Star Wars content (22%/21%), with Marvel at 15%. A survey in Jan. 2020 saw that preference for Disney Classics rose to 54%. Critically, though, even with Netflix’s rocky 2019 numbers in the US, data shows that the streaming war is not a zero-sum game, as the trend is for subscribers to have multiple accounts, with 60% of people surveyed keeping Netflix vs. Disney, and 80% of Disney+ subscribers having Netflix accounts. Amazon Prime’s numbers (high) are skewed as Prime Video is bundled with other Prime services. Projections that Netflix’s “salad days may be over” in the US market because it has reached “subscriber peak” fundamentally misunderstand Netflix’ business model.


Netflix streaming subscribers by quarter
Netflix streaming subscribers by quarter.

Since its Jan. 6, 2016 launch in 130 countries (excluding China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea), Netflix has invested heavily in its global reach via local content development, including local language original series being filmed and produced in 13 countries in 2017 (including Mexico/Narcos, India/Lust Stories and Sacred Games, and Japan/Terrace House and Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, and original anime titles). Netflix’s global expansion strategies have included hiring what it claims is the best cadre of colloquial translators worldwide: “Our desire [is] to delight members in “their” language, while staying true to creative intent and being mindful of cultural nuances is important to ensure quality.” Seamless dubbing in addition to subtitles have contributed to Netflix’s consolidation of global dominance, evident from July 2017, when Netflix’s international subscribers surpassed US subscribers in the 2nd quarter with 52 million and 51.9, respectively. Netflix is now available in over 190 countries, with data for 2019 reporting that “[i]nternational markets accounted for about 90% of Netflix’s growth” and worldwide subscribers are 167 million with 60 million in the US.

CEO Reed Hastings has been blunt about dominating internationally, stating in Feb. 2018, “The next 100 million users of Netflix will come from India.” As of Dec. 2019, Netflix committed a 30 billion INR investment in local content in India. This global market goal impacts content development in other ways, as Netflix has taken a mobile-first approach to leverage the Indian market, having launched a 199 INR mobile plan to expand subscribers in Sept. 2019. As of Feb. 2020, now ex-CEO Bob Iger signaled Disney’s intent for international expansion, aiming for the Indian subscriber market & European countries, putting expansion plans for Hulu on hold. Notably, though, Disney is not yet producing local content nor has it signaled a “mobile-only” model for subscribers, which Netflix is now also offering in Malaysia.

To focus on a perceived agonistic struggle for viewers in the US between Disney+ and Netflix further misunderstands the function that content plays in each distinct media “scape” (to borrow Arjun Appadurai’s term). Netflix’s strategies relies on a small listing of top-tier, attention grabbing content (Scorcese’s The Irishman), potential breakouts (Stranger Things), beloved titles such as just licensed Studio Ghibli films (to all markets except the US, Canada, and Japan), and then thousands of good-enough titles that will keep you watching once your intentional viewing ends. In 2020, Netflix straddles multiple different content domains, from Oscar contenders, to family, child-directed live and animated series, and locally produced films and series.

Netflix’s titles are exportable across national markets, particularly with animated series, and again, production can be quick and at a much cheaper scale, as they are not drivers of franchise expansion at the Disney scale. As Andy Yeatman, Netflix’s director of global kids content, made explicit in 2016, kids are “a captive audience” and, “We have a ton of data on what they watch, so we know what properties resonate and when they don’t—when (viewers) have had enough of a franchise and when they can’t get enough of it,” and further, “We always try to feed that demand so they always want more.” Note too that, unlike broadcast, because Netflix remains committed to being ad-free, (1) viewer data remains in-house (no third-party sharing) and (2) content decisions are not concerned with potential advertisers. As such, Netflix technically skirts data privacy violations that have dogged Alphabet’s subsidiary companies, YouTube, YouTube Kids, and Google’s Android/Play store.

Reframing the streaming wars from a global perspective, the distinction between Netflix and Disney+ is ants and elephants. Clearly a further benefit of Disney+ for TWDC is that organic user behavior data that used to be inaccessible in Netflix’ black-box recommendation AI, now exists in-House-Mouse. Viewer data can be integrated with insights from other market segments (online websites, games, purchases, apps, and theme parks) as The Walt Disney Company has a radically different business model with four operating segments (parks, experiences and products, media networks, studio entertainment, and direct to consumer international). (See my article on “Data Science, Disney, and the Future of Children’s Entertainment.”) Here, studio films and story world spin-offs function as marketing in franchise storyworlds, whereby each new film or series drives consumer activity across other segments. You can play in Andy’s Back Yard in Toy Story Land at Disney World AND keep your toddler dry in Buzz and Woody branded Huggies Pull-Ups.


Huggies Pull-Ups are available in a variety of Disney brands, including Toy Story
Huggies Pull-Ups are available in a variety of Disney brands, including Pixar’s Toy Story.

Viewer data will complete TWDC’s business model vertical integration, as data intelligence will fuel future content development. While branded movie merchandising has been around since George Lucas savvily retained the rights to Star Wars merch, Disney’s development and production of multi-million dollar feature films function in a media franchising business model that CEO Bob Iger shared when he was appointed in 2006: “The case I laid out was that by creating and then supporting franchises, it could impact the bottom line of the whole company in a very profound way and everybody would benefit from that.” From Marvel, to Frozen, to Star Wars, Pixar and beyond, one can trace the logic of franchise media expansion across all of TWDC’s decisions. If Disney+ remains ad-free, data presumably will not be shared with third parties for ad generation.

With multiple Star Wars storyworld extensions in the works, The Mandalorian is the tip of the iceberg that potentially leads to a holiday at Galaxy’s Edge, Disney World, where you can fly the Millennium Falcon, or have your first legal drink in the Cantina, as a student of mine just did.


Photo of the 1 millionth rider on the Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy's Edge
Photo of the 1 millionth rider on the Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge.

Iger’s multi-year strategy to consolidate TWDC’s control over all verticals in its market offerings, cable, content, and theme parks, means that each film functions as the first wave of a juggernaut of merchandise, theme park attractions, and new streaming offerings. TWDC’s control of the box office market share globally this past year was an astonishing 7 out of 10 top grossing films worldwide, and 8 out of 10 domestically, with 38.2% of the American box office (33.2% Disney produced and 5% 20th Century Fox). The revenue total for box offices worldwide shattered $11.13 billion, which sounds like a lot, and is comparatively. In 2019, the parks, experiences, and products segment finally surpassed media networks (cable) at $26.23 billion vs. $24.83 billion, with direct-to-consumer & international at $9.35 billion.

Ants and elephants. Where TWDC invests in blockbusters that can extend story world franchises endlessly (see two? three? possible Star Wars trilogies, and multiple serial spin-offs glutting screens for the next decade), Netflix is now famous for not renewing multiple popular, lauded series beyond a second season because their data shows that these rarely attract new subscribers past Season 2 (see The OA, Sense8). There are of course exceptions (Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things). More good-enough content, with the occasional binge hit or premiere auteur title segmented across 190+ national markets, makes Netflix enormously flexible, agile, and responsive, to borrow tech innovator/industry terms. Disney is the opposite. What new CEO Bob Chapek (ex-Chairman of Disney Parks) and TWDC will do developing content for Hulu and Disney+ is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we will see more experimental, non-mainstream content. Perhaps. Currently, 20th Century Fox/James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) will be rebooting with four sequels running between 2021 to 2027. At least we stand a good chance of being entertained while this “streaming war” unfolds.



Image Credits:

  1. The Mandalorian premiered with the launch of Disney+ on November 12, 2019.
  2. Marvel Studios previews three of its upcoming Disney+ series during Super Bowl LIV.
  3. Revenue of the Walt Disney Company in different geographic regions from 2010 to 2019 (in million US dollars).
  4. Netflix streaming subscribers by quarter.
  5. Huggies Pull-Ups are available in a variety of Disney brands, including Pixar’s Toy Story.
  6. Photo of the 1 millionth rider on the Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge.




Network(ed) Spectatorship: Nation, Nostalgia, and Broadcast Streaming on CBS All Access
Cara Dickason / Northwestern University


CBS All Access showcases familiar faces in this promotional banner
CBS All Access showcases familiar faces in this promotional banner.

In 2014, CBS became the first broadcast network to launch its own online streaming service, CBS All Access. Three years later, the service began streaming original scripted content only available online. CBS All Access is what Amanda Lotz has termed a “studio portal,” a vertically-integrated distribution platform that only streams proprietary content.[ (( Lotz, Amanda D. Portals: A Treatise on Internet-Distributed Television. Michigan University Publishing Services, 2017. ))] CBS has regularly been the highest-rated network, so its early foray into over-the-top subscription service illuminates how the rise of streaming may not represent a break with TV’s past but an adaptation of its conventions for new technological affordances. Turning to the network’s programming allows us to examine different conceptions of television spectatorship at play in the shift from an advertiser-based mass media model to a subscriber model reliant on the surveillance of individual users. As a spinoff of the successful CBS series The Good Wife (2009-2016), the CBS All Access series The Good Fight (2017-present) proves a uniquely fruitful case study for considering what happens to network narratives and their networked audiences as they enter the streaming wars. In its nostalgia for mass media and the unified nation it was imagined to address, The Good Fight demonstrates the ambivalent adaptation of broadcast traditions for streaming technology.


A promotional image for The Good Fight
A promotional image for The Good Fight hails audiences to join the side of reason in our increasingly chaotic and irrational world.

The broadcast era of the mid-20th century embraced what Anna McCarthy calls “the ‘cozy functionalist fantasy’ equating the television audience and the nation.”[ ((McCarthy, Anna. The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America​. The New Press, 2010, 9.))] The TV audience constituted a national public, engaged in civil discourse through the cultural forum of broadcast.[ (( Newcomb, Horace M., and Paul M. Hirsch. “Television as a cultural forum: Implications for research.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 8, no. 3 (1983): 45-55. ))] Today, the idea that any one television show or network is addressing anything close to the entire nation simply does not apply the way it did fifty years ago, but if anything constitutes mass media these days, it is CBS. CBS’s consistent ranking as the highest-rated broadcast network recalls that imagined national audience as opposed to the niche audiences of cable or streaming. 


A 2014 press release for CBS All Access
A 2014 press release for CBS All Access emphasizes the “direct-to-consumer” nature of the new service.

But the launch of CBS All Access changes the valence of that mass audience. When the platform was first announced, CBS emphasized its new “direct-to-consumer” relationship. Streaming technology allows CBS to engage less in the mass broadcast strategies of its traditional television stations, and more in what Lotz calls “mass customization.”[ ((Lotz, 9.))] Not only is content time-shifted, but different viewers have different experiences of the portal as ads and recommendations are tailored to each individual user. In this model, television audiences ostensibly shift from members of a demographic group sold to advertisers to individual users grouped and micro-targeted by interest.

The data surveillance afforded by streaming allows those “interests” to be meticulously and individually tracked, through clicks, views, likes, purchases, or retweets. Individual interests thus come to replace the notion of the public interest. The public interest standard of broadcast television—the idea that broadcast uses public airwaves and so must operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity—still exists, though it has only been very loosely interpreted and enforced for much of television history. However vague, though, the public interest implies the presence of a public addressed by network television, a collective body to be collectively engaged. So what happens to this national public when broadcast adopts a streaming model of individualized experience and address? What happens when you go from mass media to mass customization?

Well, according to The Good Fight, all hell breaks loose. The streaming series formally and narratively theorizes these changes in television technology, delineating a new model of television spectatorship in the streaming age. In fact, it directly critiques the use of micro-targeted content and bemoans the state of media today—in particular, the deleterious effect of the internet on public discourse. The streaming series looks nostalgically back to that “cozy functionalist fantasy” of a national public hailed by television, expressing a deep ambivalence about its own industrial and technological context.

One major character arc is lawyer protagonist Diane Lockhart’s (Christine Baranski) slow descent into madness brought on by the election of Donald Trump and the havoc he wreaks on the nation. This descent into cultural and political chaos is closely tied, in this series, to a rapidly changing media landscape characterized by ubiquitous data surveillance, the anonymity of the internet, and the isolation characteristic of digital spectatorship. The show suggests that the proliferation of digital networks in our lives has made us unable to participate in anything like a functioning national public. Our communication has broken down completely despite our many digital connections.

Instead of traditional shot-reverse-shot dialogues, The Good Fight frequently uses head-on medium close-ups, isolating and decontextualizing the speakers, to visualize our failure to communicate meaningfully. The same technique is employed to visualize internet trolls’ hateful online comments and to capture the spirit of an in-person political catfight. We understand that people are not really speaking to each other, but confrontationally shouting opinions into a void—a void occupied by us, the streaming television viewer, who has no way to participate (except, perhaps, to yell back at our screens). In an episode that features a case resembling the story of Aziz Ansari’s sexual misconduct, for instance, the camera cuts back and forth between characters looking into the camera, yelling about whether it was just a bad date or something more sinister. The editing makes clear that no one is listening to each other. There are no reaction shots, no civil discourse.


An internet troll in The Good Fight
An internet troll delivers his hateful comments to the screen in The Good Fight

The series explicitly ties this version of (mis)communication to television culture. When another lead character, Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo), is a guest on a news talk show, he appears as a talking head via satellite. He sits in an empty room to film his part, and we cut between this view of him alone and a closeup on the camera lens trained on him. We know he is looking at nothing, not knowing who he is speaking to. We see the whole interview only hearing Adrian’s side, hearing his responses to questions but not the questions themselves. It all unfolds in a decontextualized rush, and only later do we learn that his interview has gone viral, being taken up in ways he never anticipated. Television itself is contributing, then, to this isolating mode of address, dangerously exacerbated by a meme culture characterized by decontextualization. Adrian’s TV interview looks just like the internet trolls’ comments, even if the content of their speech is different.


Adrian Boseman's talking head interview screenshot
Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) films his talking head interview for a news program alone in The Good Fight.

The mirror image of Adrian alone in a room filming a TV interview is the individualized television spectator, consuming media on her mobile screen. And the series emphasizes the dangerous effects of the individual targeting and consumption of media. Throughout the series, we see Diane watching television alone, often in her darkened bedroom with a glass of wine, or sometimes at work on her laptop screen. In multiple scenes, Diane flips from channel to channel, unable to escape the chaos of America’s political and entertainment systems as she encounters increasingly absurd news items, narrative television, and even weather reports. In one instance, she flips from news that Trump has tweeted something childish at a Middle Eastern leader, to a warning for Tropical Storm Don Jr., to a nature documentary identifying a plant as covfefe originalis—a reference to one of Trump’s most notoriously incomprehensible tweets. Another time, she has to ask coworkers if they heard the news about the pot-bellied pig Trump is keeping in the oval office, checking whether or not she has literally gone insane.


Diane Lockhart watches TV in her room screenshot
In The Good Fight, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) watches TV alone in her room, encountering increasingly absurd news items.

Her inability to tell what is real and what isn’t comes from the fact that she is watching alone, with no guarantee that anyone else is watching the same thing. Similarly, micro-targeted content, based on pervasive data surveillance, reaches only those people it may be able to convince, and so my experience of CBS All Access might be totally different from my neighbor’s. We may be digitally networked together by our access to the streaming platform, but with no common media ground, we don’t exist in the same public. The nation addressed by CBS, the broadcast network, has disintegrated into “dividuals,”[ ((Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October, vol. 59 (Winter 1992): 3-7.))] defined and divided by our data.

The Good Fight seems to want to remedy this problem, as it stages dialogues about social issues, thematizing and critiquing people’s inability to communicate across lines of party, age, or gender. The Good Fight thus expresses a deep nostalgia for the mass audience imagined by the broadcast television of old. That fantasy of audience-as-nation, however, always served as an excuse to ignore and erase the complex differences that nation contained—a sort of inverse to the problem of algorithms creating divisions we can’t see past. Trapped between the fantasy of broadcast’s mass media past and the dystopia of mass customization, The Good Fight struggles to identify a way forward while CBS All Access works to have it both ways. As spinoffs, reboots, and franchise IP continue to overpopulate streaming platforms like CBS All Access, Disney+, and Peacock, we’ll have to keep looking longingly backward to understand the future of streaming.



Image Credits:

  1. CBS All Access showcases familiar faces in this promotional banner. Promotional image for CBS All Access. Variety, “CBS All Access on the Streaming Wars to Come: ‘We Don’t Fear These Changes.’” 1 Aug, 2019.
  2. A promotional image for The Good Fight on CBS All Access hails audiences to join the side of reason in our increasingly chaotic and irrational world.
  3. A 2014 press release for CBS All Access emphasizes the “direct-to-consumer” nature of the new service.
  4. An internet troll delivers his hateful comments to the screen in The Good Fight. Still from “Social Media and its Discontents,” The Good Fight (author’s screenshot)
  5. Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) films his talking head interview for a news program alone in The Good Fight. Still from “Day 443” The Good Fight (author’s screenshot)
  6. In The Good Fight, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) watches TV alone in her room, encountering increasingly absurd news items. Still from “Day 422,” The Good Fight (author’s screenshot)


References:




Rethinking the Legacy of MVPDs Through Content Aggregation
Mike Van Esler / University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh


Amazon Channels juxtaposes Amazon Original content with hubs to cooperating SVOD services
Amazon Channels juxtaposes Amazon Original content with hubs to cooperating SVOD services.

With the recent launch of Disney+ in November 2019, AppleTV+
in December 2019, and the forthcoming releases of HBO Max and Peacock in 2020,
the subscription video on demand (SVOD) market has reached a point of
saturation. All of these are in addition to existing services from Netflix,
Amazon, Hulu, Pluto TV, and numerous other niche platforms. With a surfeit of
digital video offerings, consumer eyeballs (and dollars!) will be jockeyed for
by numerous media conglomerates, as research has found the average American
consumer is willing to pay between $17 and $27 for SVOD services (Bond).

Such a relatively small amount of money to split between streaming services suggests competition will be fierce, and academic and popular press coverage of SVOD often focuses on this competition in terms of subscriber growth and the financial health of each platform. There is an alternative way to consider the economic and cultural impact of SVODs, however, one that looks backwards to a previous era of televisual “disruption.” Using Amazon Channels as a case study, I consider the economic opportunities offered by content aggregating services like Amazon Channels, The Roku Channel, and Apple TV. Put simply, content aggregation services allow users to subscribe to a wide variety of cooperating SVOD services through the connected device’s parent company, rather than subscribing to each service and then accessing it through their Roku, FireTV Stick, or Apple TV, for example. The benefit to consumers is that it simplifies billing and subscription processes, letting Amazon or Roku handle the subscription procedure and consolidating the monthly bill. Some SVOD services also offer slight discounts to those who subscribe through content aggregators, although that is not the norm.

One ongoing debate within the streaming media industry is whether content is king or if it is more lucrative to own a distribution platform. Rather than dwell in the content/platform ownership binary, I believe content aggregation is a third component, a component that sits on top of (to use digital television lingo) the platforms and content to which users are subscribing and watching. Functioning as content aggregators offers supraplatforms the opportunity to augment their parent companies’ revenue streams by collecting rent from users who subscribe to SVOD services through the content aggregation service.[ (( I use supraplatform to describe the software environment that runs on connected devices. I prefer the supraplatform distinction because it differentiates the interface and software from the device itself. ))] In other words, aggregators like Amazon Channels function as emergent manifestations of the residual industrial logics of multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs, i.e. cable and satellite providers). Considered holistically, content aggregation services offer three benefits to their owners: they provide an ancillary revenue stream with minimal overhead, they help build the parent company’s brand by offering multiple sources of premium content alongside natively-branded content, and they embed users in the supraplatform’s ecosystem by tying all subscriptions to one platform.


List of cooperating SVODs available for subscription on Amazon Channels
List of cooperating SVODs available for subscription on Amazon Channels.

The first beneficial aspect of content aggregation for owners of supraplatforms is the ancillary revenue stream. While Amazon draws a significant amount of revenue from its Amazon Prime subscriptions, those subscriptions also provide users with free 2 day shipping and access to Prime Video, functioning essentially as a loss-leader. With Amazon Channels, however, there is minimal overhead and each cut Amazon takes from handling the outside subscription is mostly net revenue. In 2018, Amazon Channels generated $1.8B in revenue, while in 2019 the service is estimated to have earned $2.6B (Frankel 2018; Patel 2019). With Amazon taking 30% of each subscription, Amazon generated $500M from serving as an SVOD clearinghouse. Similarly, Roku’s advertising and subscription revenue is projected to be around $433M in 2019 (Benes 2019).[ (( Roku does not separate its advertising and subscription revenue for reports. ))] While this revenue is dwarfed by Amazon’s total portfolio, in the context of the streaming landscape it is noteworthy, as companies like Netflix continue to operate in the red while aggressively expanding their operations internationally and spending lavishly on original productions. In other words, content aggregation services offer supraplatforms a stable revenue flow without the costly expenditures of content production/acquisition, marketing, and platform build-out.

The second advantage content aggregation offers
supraplatforms is brand enhancement. While a company like Amazon already has a
very strong brand, their SVOD brand is muddled in comparison to Netflix or
Disney+’s. This is partly due to Amazon’s strong retail branding, its relative
lack of noteworthy original productions, and an overwhelmingly large library of
movies that lack a cohesive ordering (Schomer 2019). What Channels offers Prime
Video as a brand is a shift towards serving as a hub of premium content from
services like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, BritBox, and MUBI among many others. In
this way, users will now see and have access to high profile programming like Game
of Thrones
(2011-2019), Homeland (2011-2020), Succession
(2018- ), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and Midsomer Murders (1997- )
alongside critically-acclaimed native programming like Transparent (2014-2019)
and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017- ). Put another way, Prime Video
benefits from prestigious programming sitting alongside its House content
without having to pay for production or marketing. There is a risk of brand
confusion among consumers, but with Prime Video’s already-muddled brand, the
tradeoff is worthwhile (a company like Apple may be more at risk with their nascent
SVOD service).

Keeping users sutured into the supraplatform’s ecosystem is the final opportunity offered by content aggregation, combining the first two benefits by potentially increasing revenue via increased advertising sales and individual purchases (Amazon regularly intersperses titles available for rental or purchase among Prime content), as well increasing brand awareness by confining the user to the supraplatform. When accessing an SVOD platform like Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Now via a standalone subscription, users will be transported to a different environment, one not controlled by the supraplatform. Supraplatforms thus lose out on potential sales and advertising revenue. However, if users consolidate their subscriptions via one aggregator, they are then much less likely to leave the supraplatform for the standalone SVOD channel. Thus, for SVODs whose original productions lag in terms of brand power, content aggregation can provide a subtle but meaningful boost.


Amazon's aptly named Channels service parallels the industrial logics of MVPDs
Amazon’s aptly named Channels service parallels the industrial logics of MVPDs.

Furthermore, by consolidating the bill and different SVOD services, content aggregators are adapting the legacy industry logic of MVPDs. While there are not set packages like those of MVPDs, the creation of an á la carte bill with individual channels is functionally similar, as is the disbursal of revenue collected from subscribers (essentially carriage fees, although there are important differences). Drawing from Raymond Williams (1977), these are residual manifestations of past dominant practices in an emergent technomedia system. This is of relevance to media scholars because the constant refrain from popular and industry press has been the ongoing “death of television,” or at the very least, the death of cable and satellite. While it is true MVPDs have been hemorrhaging subscriptions in the past five years, this narrative ignores the shift to broadband as the cable industry’s major revenue stream (and associated media properties in an era of extreme consolidation), as well as the resilience of dominant industry logics to adapt to contemporary technological, cultural, and economic conditions. Indeed, content aggregation is a perfect example of this adaptation (Amazon even calls its service Channels!) and it should complicate the narrative of cultural and economic disruption caused by streaming writ large.

As Amanda D. Lotz has argued, television distributed via the Internet should not be expected to totally replace legacy forms of distribution (2017, 16); rather, the affordances of Internet distribution will build on existing industry logic and norms. Content aggregation services are one form of emergent practice that nevertheless have stark parallels with past MVPD packaging practices. By offering ancillary revenue streams with minimal costs, enhancing the supraplatform’s brand by intermingling prestigious televisual and filmic content with the parent company’s own productions, and embedding users into a single digital media ecosystem, content aggregation offers an attractive third position in the traditional distribution/content ownership binary.



Image Credits:

  1. Amazon Channels juxtaposes Amazon Original content with hubs to cooperating SVOD services. (author’s screen grab)
  2. List of cooperating SVODs available for subscription on Amazon Channels. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Amazon’s aptly named Channels service parallels the industrial logics of MVPDs. (author’s screen grab)


References:

Benes, Ross. “10 Ways Roku is Growing Its Ad Business.” eMarketer,16 Jan. 2019.

Bond, Paul. “Americans Want to Pay $21 for All Their
Streaming Services Combined, Poll Finds.” The Hollywood Reporter, 24 July
2019.

Frankel, Daniel. “Amazon’s Channels to Generated Estimated
$1.7B in 2018.” Multichannel News, 10 Dec 2018.

Patel, Sahil. “Video Briefing: Amazon and Other OTT Channel Resellers Want Percentage of Revenue, Not Costs.” Digiday, 13 Feb. 2019.

Schomer, Audrey. “Amazon Prime Video is Suffering from a
Diluted Brand Identity.” Business Insider, 31 July 2019.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press, 1977.




Can Television Diversity Overcome the Rise of Algorithmic Recommendations?
Mark D. Pepper / Utah Valley University


Infographic portraying many factors feeding into Netflix's algorithm.
Infographic showing Netflix’s data collection types.

From their inception, streaming platforms have offered recommendations based on complex intersections of user data. Netflix doesn’t even hide the basics of the process. First, the streaming giant puts everyone who watches similar shows/movies into a “taste community.” All this media has content descriptive meta-tags affixed by freelance staff (the people who ultimately create categories like: Psychic Murder Mysteries with a Strong Female Lead). Your community peers and these descriptive tags then combine with account data: how fast you watched a show, how many times you pressed pause, even how late you stayed up binging. Yes, Netflix is studying you, and the results seemingly answer the ultimate question: “What do I like?”

Admittedly, these suggestions prove useful when faced with a deluge of streaming content. Anything helps narrow the options, especially when Netflix itself streams over 700 original series. However, these algorithms are not neutral, consequence free suggestions. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offered perhaps the best known take on how taste is a complicated manifestation of social positioning, economic class, and cultural capital.[ (( Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge, 2013.))] Taste always reveals magnitudes about individual upbringing and social influence. Therefore, as our cultural taste is increasingly guided by market research, it’s worth asking how these streaming algorithms are affecting television consumption, especially at a time when television is currently more diverse than ever. Do algorithms lead us towards the industry’s hard won diversity (motivating it towards the work that still needs to be done)? Or does diversity get buried and cancelled under an avalanche of normalized preferences and choices?

Every TV viewer maintains a mental category of “TV Shows I Like,” and thinking about categories is a useful way to start answering these questions. Some of the most exhaustive (and, frankly, dry) thought on categorization comes from Aristotle. Aristotle argues that categories are logical tools that name reality, organize entities, and form wholes. These clearly defined and well delineated categorical types (so much so, Aristotle claims there are only ten) exist independently of our observation.[ (( Aristotle. The Organon. Translated by Harold Percy Cooke and Hugh Tredennick. Harvard UP, 1938.))] Merely look at a person or thing in the world, list its traits, and compare these to the qualifications for membership in a pre-existing categorical distinction. Does eating those mushrooms kill people? Place them in the “poisonous mushrooms” category. This category already has members (for comparison) and would exist even without human knowledge (i.e., the mushrooms would be poisonous regardless of their properties being discovered). Simple and tidy.


Man organizing shapes by shared traits.
Organizing shapes by shared traits.

The category “TV Shows Someone Likes” doesn’t match this conception perfectly; such a category cannot exist without a subjectivity to experience or confirm the liking. However, the notion that simply cross-referencing a user’s preferences/traits with already known members of a category is Aristotelian to its core. For example, the subscriber seems to like The Vampire Diaries (The CW, 2009-17), Charmed (The WB, 1998-2006), and The Magicians (Syfy, 2015-present)? Then, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2018-present) is a safe, categorical bet based on similar traits of impossibly attractive people with mystical powers fighting supernatural threats. Additionally, this approach to categorical taste has many implicit assumptions about how taste works. Taste is fairly consistent and rarely broadens. There’s comfort and pleasure in the familiar, with surprising deviations deemed too risky (both for corporate profit and personal time). Finally, knowing your tastes (therefore, to some extent, knowing yourself) is relatively easy—just tick-all-the-boxes of something you’ve enjoyed in the past and your relatively assured path is set.

But what if categories don’t reflect objective reality? What if, instead, they’re on the fly, problem solving heuristics? Dave Berreby suggests this interpretation in his book Us & Them: The Science of Identity. Berreby writes, “Each category you can think of . . . is a solution to some particular person’s problem. You could think of any category, in fact, as the answer to a person’s question. They’re thoughts; mental actions that you take to cope with your current circumstances” (68).[ ((Berreby, David. Us and Them: The Science of Identity. U of Chicago P, 2005.))] After all, there’s really no imperative to categorize poisonous mushrooms until you find yourself faced with the dilemma of wanting to eat a mysterious fungus. Likewise, why have a category of TV shows you like if it doesn’t help you in ways grander than making lists for lists’ sake?

So, if the shows inside the category “TV Shows I Like” represents a solution, as Berreby suggests, what problem(s) does its existence help alleviate? What question(s) does it answer? I suggest categorizing shows by enjoyment primarily answers the questions: what kinds of narrative matter and whose stories are worth telling? Put differently, the content that qualifies for “TV Shows I Like” is one measure of someone’s attunement to narrative diversity and identity representation. Turns out though, algorithms aren’t designed with those qualities in mind—a human design decision that perfectly reflects Bourdieu’s suggestion of cultural influence on taste.

To help illustrate, look at the actual process of picking favorites. When we note a preference, we’re gleaning information within the overwhelming pool of options (as opposed to scrolling Netflix’s options but never picking anything). Gregory Bateson (and other scholars who study complex systems) considers such a distinction as noting a “difference that makes a difference” (453).[ ((Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. E.P. Dutton, 1979.))] This is a key distinction about, well, distinctions. I once watched an episode of Netflix’s Fuller House (2016-20), more out of curiosity than an actual recommendation. I quickly noted how different it was from my usual tastes. I also never watched another episode because difference is not enough. The difference must make a difference, and that’s a process of noting the difference matters to me.

Algorithms assume shows make a difference by having the right kind of similarities. Sure, there are people who seek out novelty, but, far more likely, we’ll deem something as mattering if it reflects what we’re accustomed to. Suppose some users really enjoy Tim Allen’s sitcom, Last Man Standing (ABC, 2011-17; FOX, 2018-present), and its reflection on a Caucasian, 60-something man’s struggle to maintain hyper-masculinity in the suburbs of Denver. Would an algorithm recommend them Nahnatchka Khan’s Fresh Off the Boat (ABC, 2015-20), which follows a Taiwanese-American family’s culture shock as they move from D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando Florida (spotlighting issues of immigration, citizenship, and assimilation along the way)? Would they even enjoy such a show?


Promotional picture featuring the cast of Fresh Off The Boat
Fresh Off the Boat cast promo shot.

I don’t know—the answer obviously depends on the individual in question. It’s certainly not impossible to like both shows, but I struggle to imagine the trait list they would share in a database beyond “shows about family.” Though, if categories answer value questions instead of tallying traits, the real question becomes: if a fan thinks Allen’s narrative is worth telling, will they also think Khan’s deserves attention? There’s no need to choose which narrative matters more, but it’s worth asking if algorithms would ever encourage someone to experience the narrative more unfamiliar to their actual life circumstances? After all, streaming recommendations function as if the user has already figured out everything that personally matters—the algorithm is just trying to learn and reflect. The notion of value as a continuing journey of self-discovery is abandoned for the promise of convenience. The algorithm’s suggestions effectively shape our sense of what matters into a self-gratifying mirror of previously validated ideas, tropes, and identities.

Recommendations are seductive. Streaming services offer the allure of accurate, qualitative data made through the unambiguous, cold calculations of computational logic. Plus, every time someone likes a suggested (and likely very familiar) show, the algorithm’s use value grows more trustworthy. The most disturbing implication here is that, with a history of purposeful and blatant discrimination in the television industry, now something as seemingly innocuous and inconsequential as recommendation systems can unknowingly build discrimination into our preferences. The sheen of scientific validity and hard numbers shapes what kinds of narrative matter and gets dismissed as merely reflecting reality.

I won’t argue (at least here) there’s some moral imperative to consume diverse media. However, television is still the place we spend the most time with long-developed characters. Television still most often represents the family homes and workplaces so familiar to our daily lives. Despite modern, on-the-go viewing, television still retains the intimacy of a medium that originally beamed directly (and only) into our living rooms. Maybe there’s no moral imperative, but there is certainly an abundance of opportunity. Who ends up represented on our television screens matters and plays a powerful role in shaping real world attitudes and behaviors towards people and cultures—especially ones historically marginalized on our culture’s validating screens. However, the importance of diversity and representation in media will never be reflected in a recommended percentage “match.” Even if, under the current computational models, every followed recommendation puts that truth at risk.



Image Credits:

  1. Infographic showing Netflix’s data collection types.
  2. A man organizes shapes by shared traits.
  3. Fresh Off the Boat cast promo shot (ABC/Andrew Eccles/Getty Images).


References:




A Streaming Comes Across the Sky: Peak TV and the Fate of Nostalgia
Siobhan Lyons / Macquarie University


Magazine covers of Twin Peaks and X-Files in the '90s
Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide promoting Twin Peaks and The X-Files in the ‘90s

The last decade witnessed an obsession with nostalgia unseen in previous decades. A seemingly infinite list of reboots and revivals of ’80s and ’90s television, from Dallas to Full House, Roseanne to Twin Peaks, as well as ’80s-themed shows including Stranger Things and American Horror Story: 1984, have been enormously popular not only for their novelty, but also due to the ease of access that streaming platforms have afforded contemporary audiences. This longing for the past has become symptomatic of the “presentless” landscape of contemporary culture. No other culture has been able to archive itself so swiftly or had so much access to older films and television shows via Youtube and internet streaming.

Yet ironically, the very act of streaming—a paragon of binge-watching—has had an unprecedented impact on the very nature of nostalgia itself; the plethora of options given to audiences today through streaming, what has come to be known as “peak TV,” has in turn reframed the media landscape to focus on tailored entertainment, which has, in effect, destabilized the experience and formation of nostalgia.


From Twin Peaks to Peak TV

“Peak TV” was termed by FX Chief John Landgraf in 2015 to describe the saturation of television shows that were “drowning us in content.”[ ((Joy Press, “Peak TV Is Still Drowning Us in Content, Says TV Prophet John Landgraf,” Vanity Fair, August 3, 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/08/peak-tv-fx-john-landgraf-tca-donald-glover-chris-rock))] This trend skyrocketed in the ensuing years. In November 2019 alone, Apple TV+ released four drama television shows (For All Mankind, The Morning Show, See and Servant) followed by a fifth in December (Truth Be Told). Twenty more original programs have since been ordered. As an over-the-top (OTT) service, Apple TV+ bypasses broadcasting, cable, and satellite and operates exclusively through the internet, creating a viewing experience that also bypasses time and space, fragmenting audiences as a result.


Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiling new lineup of shows for Apple TV+
Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiling new lineup of shows for Apple TV+

Although both Netflix and Apple TV+ emphasize “original programming,” the sheer number of shows has had a troubling impact on the nature of viewing itself. As Catherine Bouris puts it: “Every week brings new TV shows you ‘have to’ watch, every day brings more hype on social media for yet another show you’ve just got to add to your list.”[ ((“There Are Too Many ‘Must-Watch’ TV Shows And We Need To Start Being More Picky,” Goat, May 27, 2019
https://goat.com.au/tv/there-are-too-many-must-watch-tv-shows-and-we-need-to-start-being-more-picky/))] She describes her television viewing experience today as less a form of entertainment or relaxation and more of a “job”: “I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of TV shows being produced, I’m overwhelmed by the pressure I’m placing on myself to watch every ‘must see’ TV show.”

Kelly Lawler of USA Today writes that Apple TV+ and Netflix are in effect “ruining” TV:

There’s just too much TV. There was too much in 2018 and 2017, too, and probably even before 2015, when FX chief John Landgraf, coined the term “Peak TV” to describe the then-400+ scripted TV shows on the air. This year, there are more than 500. And that doesn’t count reality shows, talk shows, documentaries and everything else.[ ((“Too much: Why the streaming wars between Apple, Disney, HBO and more are ruining TV,” USA Today, November 14, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2019/11/14/disney-plus-apple-tv-plus-streaming-wars-ruining-tv/2516655001/))]

In contrast, television programming in the mid to late twentieth century was confined to a set number of television shows that allowed audiences and fan bases to form more organically, allowing shows from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones to distinguish themselves. While a few streaming programs have managed to secure notable fan bases in the last few years, such as Stranger Things and BoJack Horseman, the influx of television shows is such that it makes it difficult—if not impossible—to replicate the kind of “golden era” television viewing of previous decades, in which fewer shows were embraced by larger audiences.

The effect is twofold, with the inundation of television shows leading to a more fragmented viewership, which, in turn, is diminishing the formation of nostalgia as something directly related to the shared experience of watching television.


From Communal to “Niche Nostalgia”

Nostalgia—first termed by Johannes Hoffer in 1688 and described as a psychological “disease”[ (( Julie Beck, “When Nostalgia was a Disease,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/when-nostalgia-was-a-disease/278648/))]—is both a personal and shared phenomenon. The kind of nostalgia culture witnessed throughout the 2010s was fostered by the shared viewing of the rebooted shows in their heyday, from The X-Files to Twin Peaks. The broadcast medium—which inculcated both patience and longing—ensured the formation of a substantial audience and fan base from which nostalgia could successfully grow. Cliffhangers and mysteries from “Who Shot J.R.?” to “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” were embraced as communal narratives. As John Hartley points out:

Broadcast TV proved to be better than the press, cinema or even radio at riveting everyone to the same spot, at the same time—in fear, laughter, wonderment, thrill or desire. Television’s emblematic moments—the shooting of J.R. Ewing in Dallas or J.F. Kennedy in Dallas; the moon landings; the twin towers; Princess Diana’s wedding and funeral; the Olympics and football World Cup finals—the cliffhangers, weddings, departures and finales gathered populations from across all demographic and hierarchical boundaries into fleetingly attained but nevertheless real moments of “we-dom.”


Time and People Magazine speculating on J.R.’s shooter in Dallas
Time and People Magazine speculating on J.R.’s shooter in Dallas

Dhiraj Murthy argues that “these events were discussed for days and months afterwards and became part of the cultural memory for a generation of American television watchers.”[ ((Dhiraj Murthy, Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2013) 35.))] These moments have considerably lessened with the advent of streaming platforms, which have radically altered the experiential nature of television to the point where there is no longer the same sense of communal nostalgia.

In the late twentieth century, broadcast television was defined by a significant sense of community, by the limitations of the broadcast medium that forced audiences to be in a certain place at a certain time. Reruns and videos became the only means of watching a missed episode, which often meant that families or friends would be watching a finite number of programs together.

The 2010s and 20s, in contrast, have such an overabundance of content that the ability for communal nostalgia to form in the first place is in a state of flux since tastes and choices are so divided. While this may mean that tastes are much less homogenous than they used to be, it also potentially signals the demise of the nostalgic experience in television as facilitated by group fandom. As Paul Hiebert argues, it’s conceivable that “for coming generations the feeling of nostalgia might eventually disappear—not due to over-exposure or diminished effect, but because of its inability to form in the first place.”[ (( Paul Hiebert, “Will the Web Kill Nostalgia?,” Pacific Standard, March 31, 2015 https://psmag.com/environment/not-unless-we-invent-a-time-machine))]

While many contemporary viewers are, of course, watching and bonding over similar shows, there is nothing that guarantees our viewership experiences are entirely shared like they used to be since there is a lower concentration of viewers for any one show. As Brian Raferty asks: “Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in same direction?”[ ((Brian Raferty, “Enjoy the Early-’00s Nostalgia Wave—It Might Be the Last Revival,” Wired, May 24, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/05/the-future-of-nostalgia/))] He claims that “future waves of nostalgia will focus less on specific pop-cultural explosions, and more on the technologies that allowed them to spread. That’s partly because it’s never been easier to tune out the mass culture, making shared moments all the more rare.”

Streaming culture has encouraged fragmented, isolated consumer habits that limit the ability for a decade to formulate its own zeitgeist in the same way as the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s did. As Dev Allen argues: “The mainstream has split into a thousand different subcultures which is practically impossible to track.”[ ((Dev Allen, “Why Nostalgia Could End with the ’90s,” Now This Nerd, August 28, 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCvzfOj8spk&list=LLCbbhgGkmTNgJm9VrBT_8DA&index=42&t=0s))] Discussing the 2010s, he says: “What would a 2010s throwbacks even look like?,” further observing that “there’s no such thing as a zeitgeist anymore.”

Amanda D. Lotz observes that while television retains significance, it does so by “aggregating a collection of niche audiences.”[ (( Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2014) 34.))] By extension, television also creates and promotes niche nostalgia, whereby nostalgia increasingly becomes an isolated, tailored experience. Not only does this mean that there will be fewer moments of “we-dom,” as Hartley puts it, but the absence of this sense of “we-dom” will have a corresponding effect on our ability to formulate a distinct cultural character that would form the basis of future nostalgia.



Image Credits:

  1. Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide promoting Twin Peaks and The X-Files in the ‘90s
  2. Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiling new lineup of shows for Apple TV+
  3. Time and People Magazine speculating on J.R.’s shooter in Dallas


References:




Confronting the Swarm: Streaming Platform Strategy in an Uncertain Age
Jake Pitre / Concordia University


FilmStruck shuts down in November 2018
FilmStruck shuts down in November 2018.

FilmStruck died on November 29, 2018, a little more than two years after launching. Owned by the Turner Broadcasting System and operated by Turner Classic Movies, it quickly became a beloved source of cinephilic pleasure and discovery, particularly as it was in partnership with The Criterion Collection. Turner, which merged with TimeWarner in 1996, was acquired by AT&T in June of 2018, and the conglomerate was renamed WarnerMedia. Only a few months later, it was announced that FilmStruck was being discontinued due to “restructuring” at WarnerMedia, presumably as a result of what executives saw as low profits and low interest.

In 2019, The Criterion Collection launched The Criterion Channel, which has essentially replaced FilmStruck, because while it lacks the Turner library, it features Criterion titles as well as a roving roster of licensed titles from all kinds of companies. In May, WarnerMedia will launch another service called HBO Max, which will host content from HBO and plenty of other WarnerMedia programs and films—plus some Criterion Collection titles. HBO Max will join an ecosystem that includes Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+, MUBI, Shudder, The Criterion Channel, Sundance Now, Crunchyroll, Kanopy, NBCUniversal’s Peacock (which launches in April), and many other streamers vying for market value. This situation has become known as the “streaming wars,” with comparisons made to the rise of cable packages and the incoming unaffordability of the streaming glut. In such a scenario, it is natural to wonder if the smaller services with comparably niche appeal will follow the trajectory of FilmStruck.


An example of a curated collection on The Criterion Channel, with descriptive context, special features, themed films, and more
An example of a curated collection on The Criterion Channel, with descriptive context, special features, themed films, and more.

Some are owned by giant conglomerates, which may provide some safety, such as Shudder, the horror streaming service, which is owned by AMC Networks. That ownership is not a foolproof safety net—for example, AMC Networks also owns Sundance Now, which means they could combine the services to save on resources, or simply write off Shudder if it underperforms on their subscription expectations. Kanopy works with libraries and universities, using a successful “patron-driven acquisition” model where institutions pay on a per-view basis, which can be prohibitively expensive for some libraries, including the New York Public Library, which discontinued the service in July 2019.

The Criterion Channel appears to be operating with a variety of strategies, seemingly having learned some lessons from FilmStruck’s demise (although it should be noted that the majority of FilmStruck’s staff were Turner employees). They place a lot of weight on curation, taking the opposite approach to the personalization algorithms that conquer the industry, thematically programmed along with special features (another rarity in streaming). They also build the turnover of their library into part of the platform’s appeal, with sections devoted to titles leaving the service at the end of the month. Often, these films are licensed from other companies based on partnerships with WarnerMedia, Kino Lorber, or others, helping to keep their library fresh and ever-changing (while simultaneously turning a potential negative into a positive aspect of the service’s unique allure).


An example of how The Criterion Channel makes the turnovers in its library part of its appeal, rather than a limitation, by highlighting this aspect of its themed programming
An example of how The Criterion Channel makes the turnovers in its library part of its appeal, rather than a limitation, by highlighting this aspect of its themed programming.

In some ways, this follows MUBI’s approach, a boutique streamer that posts a film-per-day (which stays up for 30 days) according to a similar logic of artistic patronage. Jennifer Hessler argues that MUBI “faces an amplification of the challenges that streaming sites that prioritize mainstream content experience, including the difficulties of acquiring content streaming licenses, the unmet ideals of content ubiquity, the challenges of maintaining subscribers, and the need to manage a variety of corporate partnerships” (Hessler 13). Moreover, like the Criterion Channel, they must navigate its intermediary role as a platform, and “recast the material constraints of its distribution model as advantages” (13-14). Roderik Smits and E.W. Nikdel charted MUBI’s history and strategic shifts, particularly their move into film distribution as a promotional tool for their platform, along with an early investment in tastemaking as a business model versus audience empowerment. Smits and Nikdel compare MUBI’s approach to traditional repertory theatre exhibition, a reach for historical continuity in an environment of digital disruption. It’s not just thematic groupings, either. “Importantly, MUBI also emphasises the need to support their programming choices through the cultivation of context. For this reason, MUBI’s catalogue is accompanied by a number of curatorial features designed to supplement the content” (Smits & Nikdel 28). This dedication to refining standards of taste in the paralysis of choice in online streaming is complicated by the added pressure platforms like MUBI and The Criterion Channel bear in consistently programming titles and licensing that their audience likes, particularly as both are on the higher end of streaming platform cost, at $9.99 and $10.99 per month, respectively.


An example of the content created to promote the platform’s themed curatorial programming.

As Smits and Nikdel point out, it is this trust in and veneration of context and cultivation that builds brand loyalty for niche streamers, ultimately providing their economic integrity via familiar gatekeeping practices. Moreover, the inclusion of exclusive special features, many of which are Criterion Collection original productions, is an added incentive, particularly following the concept of historical continuity—in the streaming age, we may feel nostalgic for DVD extras, commentaries, and behind-the-scenes footage. Many themed collections also feature introductory videos featuring critics and scholars who specialize in a particular director, star, genre, or era of film history, providing motivation for users to explore and, more importantly, remain on and revisit the platform. This is typical for streamers: Netflix barely gives you a moment’s pause before launching you into another episode; Facebook Watch incorporates characters’ social media profiles into storytelling to keep users on its social media platforms; Disney+ charges only $6.99 per month with sections catered specifically at toddlers and young children to make it easier for parents to shell out and park their kids in front of the platform for as long as possible. One aspect that requires further inquiry, however, is the added labor for The Criterion Channel to maintain its special features and programming. While it seemingly has no interest in creating its own films or series (beyond some interview-focused ongoing programs like Adventures in Moviegoing), their curatorial practice necessitates greater amounts of work than simple UI decisions. Will this be a sustainable model for a niche service among a field of aggressive competitors?

As more join the fray, it will become more imperative that niche streamers find inventive strategies for maintaining their subscriber base. While The Criterion Channel and MUBI pride themselves on their specific gatekeeping and tastemaking approaches, it’s worth questioning the long-term efficacy of that style in an era of customer empowerment. Do users really want to be talked down to and told what they should watch, like a student being educated? Perhaps, though, there’s something sneakily practical and dynamic in the choice to counter the narrative provided by Netflix and other market leaders about algorithmic precision and omnipotent domination. Perhaps cinephiles are submissive, after all.



Image Credits:

  1. FilmStruck shuts down in November 2018.
  2. An example of a curated collection on The Criterion Channel, with descriptive context, special features, themed films, and more. (author’s screen grab)
  3. An example of how The Criterion Channel makes the turnovers in its library part of its appeal, rather than a limitation, by highlighting this aspect of its themed programming. (author’s screen grab)
  4. An example of the content created to promote the platform’s themed curatorial programming.


References:

Hessler, Jennifer. “Quality You Can’t Touch: Mubi Social, Platform Politics, and the Online Distribution of Art Cinema,” The Velvet Light Trap vol. 82 (Fall 2018): 3-17.

Smits, Roderik, and E.W. Nikdel. “Beyond Netflix and Amazon: MUBI and the curation of on-demand film,” Studies in European Cinema vol. 16, no. 1 (2019): 22-37.




“Rainbow Is the New Black”: Netflix’s Queer Marketing Moment
Joseph Harrison / University of Warwick


Netflix's posters on the walls of Porta Venezia station
Netflix’s posters for the “Rainbow Is the New Black” campaign adorn the Porta Venezia metro station walls.

A new front has emerged in the battle for our attention; the streaming wars have moved underground.

In anticipation of the city’s pride celebrations on the 30th of June 2018, citizens awoke to find the walls of the Porta Venezia metro station in Milan decorated with the colors of the rainbow.[ ((Falasconi, Paolo, “Rainbow is the new black. La campagna Netflix LGBT che in Italia fa discutere,” Ilas Magazine (29/06/2018) http://www.ilasmagazine.com/2018/06/29/rainbow-is-the-new-black-la-campagna-netflix-lgbt-italia-discutere/ accessed 15 March 2019.))] This was not, as might have been perceived, an underground act of guerrilla graffiti, nor was it a civic endorsement of the festivities that were about to take place above; rather it was a marketing campaign, created by the US-based international media service provider Netflix, directly engaging with Italy’s contemporary political climate, Milan’s public sphere, and a local LGBT community’s imminent pride celebration in an advertising campaign distinct from those of Netflix’s increasing number of competitors.

In the sections reserved for advertising on the platforms’ walls, posters proclaimed, in large black letters on a white background, that “Rainbow is the new black.” With the Netflix logo visible in the bottom, right-hand corner of each of the posters, this statement was a playful reworking of Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019), the title of the streaming service’s second self-commissioned original content series. Two years earlier, Madrid’s Chueca metro station was similarly adorned with rainbow decals and posters sporting the slogan “Rainbow is the new black” during that city’s pride celebrations.[ ((Somos Chueca, ‘“Rainbow is the New Black,” la campaña arcoíris de Netflix en el metro de Chueca’, Somos Chueca (28/06/2016) https://somoschueca.eldiario.es/rainbow-is-the-new-black-la-campana-arcoiris-de-netflix-en-el-metro-de-chueca/ accessed 15 March 2019.))] It is worth noting both campaigns were displayed in stations situated in their respective city’s gay village; however, unlike Madrid, Milan’s campaign explicitly engaged with the contemporary politics of its host nation.

Other posters in Milan’s Porta Venezia metro station featured same-sex couples who had appeared in a variety of Netflix original series, such as Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from the episode “San Junipero” in Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-2014 and Netflix, 2016 onwards) and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) from Sense8 (Netflix, 2015-2018). These posters included the names of the characters followed by the words “non esistono.” For example, OITNB characters, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), were shown accompanied with large black letters on a white background declaring, “Piper e Alex non esistono”:  Piper and Alex do not exist. To a visitor unacquainted with Italian politics, this statement declaring that various queer characters on Netflix no longer exist may have been considered abstruse or even sinister. However, to the informed, this message could be understood as an ironic, if ambiguous, rejoinder to Italy’s families minister, Lorenzo Fontana, who, earlier that month, had responded to a question regarding the rights of families with same-sex parents by saying, “per la legge non esistono”: under the law, they do not exist.[ ((Arachi, Alessandra, ‘Lorenzo Fontana: «Le famiglie gay? Non esistono. Ora più bambini e meno aborti» | La replica di Cirinnà’, Corriere Della Sera (02/06/2018) https://www.corriere.it/politica/18_giugno_02/lorenzo-fontana-famiglie-gay-non-esistono-ora-piu-bambini-meno-aborti-abc3cae2-65d4-11e8-b063-cd4146153181.shtml accessed 14 March 2019.))]


Poster featuring Yorkie and Kelly from the episode San Junipero
Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) “do not exist.”

Netflix’s niche marketing strategy in Milan offers a perfect microcosm illustrating the company’s complex and incongruous strategies to define its brand identity in an increasingly saturated and highly competitive market now dominated by huge conglomerates, such as Amazon, Apple and Disney, for which streaming only occupies a part of their multi-tiered business models. Netflix causes tension by aligning itself with the popular celebrations of pride and subverting the statements of a populist conservative politician. The marketing campaign appropriates Fontana’s statement by placing it alongside images depicting the most prominent queer characters in the platform’s original content. Netflix’s posters declare that queers,[ ((For the purposes of this essay the use of the word queer describes individuals who do not identify as both cis-gendered and heterosexual, while also highlighting those same individuals’ potential for disrupting ideological conceptions of normativity. Queer Television, therefore, is describing politicized content that is created by, and focused on, queer individuals and not only resists comprehensive assimilation into the social, political and televisual hegemonies but also seeks to subvert those hegemonic forces.))] even fictional ones, do in fact exist, and grants them visibility by allowing them to infiltrate and occupy a real public space.

The potential for this marketing campaign to challenge the dominant perspective of Milanese commuters is undermined by the posters’ location in a neighborhood most likely to have queer individuals passing through it, especially during the city’s annual pride. With this in mind, one can presume that many of that station’s commuters were already predisposed to the adverts’ political message, while those who were not would simply ignore it in the same way they would ignore the pride march itself. The fact that the marketing campaign was restricted to that specific station in that specific city, one of the few in Italy that hosts a pride march, is a further indication that Netflix’s controlled attempt to appeal to a niche audience through a potentially provocative campaign was unlikely to offend the sensibilities of a larger Italian public whose political views may be more aligned with those of Fontana.

Similarly, the abstruse message accompanying the images further serves to protect the company from the ire of potential subscribers that may support Fontana, as the suggestion that queer characters do not exist could conversely be interpreted as offering tacit support for Fontana’s claim. To engage with the political message of the posters, a commuter would have to be aware of the quote and the political position assumed through the iconography of the rainbow flag and also have narrative knowledge of the shows featuring the queer characters referenced. Oddly, the posters do not feature images of the characters, but, rather, a composite of two individual photos that have then been pasted together. The fact that these characters are a couple in their respective shows is only implied rather than made explicit, as the images of the characters are not presented as a couple formally. Queer visibility is suggested by the stills of the characters proximity to the rainbow colors on the walls of the metro and not through the explicit depiction of queer action, such as same-sex couples kissing, holding hands, or embracing.


Another view of the Milanese Netflix underground campaign
Another view of the Milanese Netflix underground campaign.

The posters provide another example of Netflix’s incongruous engagement with Fontana’s homophobic declaration. The use of images of specific characters to respond to a comment about the legality of families with same-sex parents makes the posters’ political point more ambiguous as none of the characters featured in the posters are, in fact, parents. Is Netflix commenting on how Fontana’s perceived policy on same-sex parenting would seek to limit the potentiality of these characters to become parents? Would audiences even think it wise for characters like Piper and Alex to become parents in the first place, especially when one considers their criminal enterprises? Both of these suggestions are unlikely. Rather, these characters in the posters are reduced to their representations as queer women; essentially stripped of their narrative specificity, as well as their moral ambiguity, they offer an approximate affirmation of queerness to those receptive to that stance, while the overall message is still too diffuse to trouble the sentiments of everyone else.

Netflix is seeking to attract audiences, queer or otherwise, that are amenable to the progressive political associations invoked by its utilization of the rainbow flag and queer characters in a response to offensively homophobic comments. This type of address may initially appear to attract only queer individuals, but by supporting these large civic celebrations with bright symbols recognized for their association with LGBT equality specifically, and socially liberal attitudes generally, Netflix is able to attract a broader range of users aligned to an increasingly mainstream message. The campaign casts its net wide to attract conscientious mainstream homosexual and heterosexual audiences who would not necessarily desire queer disruption of the hegemony but would certainly support the assimilation of queer individuals into the social fabric of a constructed multicultural and inclusive Italy, and, undoubtedly, would find Fontana’s anti-LGBT and anti-gay rights comments offensive. Inevitably, any queer subversive edge to this message is dulled by the semi-coded, abstruse nature of the campaign, which protects Netflix from potentially unfavorable and disapproving reactions a more explicitly critical campaign would bring. But, equally, this campaign’s eager utilization of the mainstream symbols of the gay-rights movement distances itself from a more obviously subversively queer interpretation.

While decorating entire metro stations in the colors of the rainbow is an ostentatiously grand gesture, it is also, as discussed above, targeted to reach specific audiences at a specific time of the year.[ ((This type of specialized advertising during pride month is not just employed by Netflix, as other companies, such as Absolut Vodka and Nike, similarly appropriate the color of the rainbow flag to capitalize on a period of increased queer visibility, aligning themselves with an increasingly marketable positive ideological stance.))] However, from its subterranean frontline, Netflix has an advantage over its competitors and their advertising, which typically side-lines queers in unfocused attempts to garner mass appeal. Intervening into Italy’s political discourse through its advertising in Milan, Netflix moves beyond the established marketing ploy of associating its brand with the rainbow flag by, instead, interacting with queers, queer politics, and queerness and situating the brand, its content and national politics into extratextual dialogue with one another, delivering a more sophisticated and distinct mode of address to its audiences.



Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s posters for the “Rainbow Is the New Black” campaign adorn the Porta Venezia metro station walls. (Author’s photograph)
  2. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) “do not exist.” (Author’s photograph)
  3. Another view of the Milanese Netflix underground campaign. (Author’s photograph)


References:




Synchronizing Creatives in Music Video Production
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los Angeles


Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017)
Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017).

Imagine you’ve created a successful music video treatment, gotten the go ahead from the label, planned a shoot… and the artist doesn’t show. This is a fairly common scenario, often resulting in cumbersome costs and delays.[ ((See Staake’s interview with Rolling Stone: Eric Ducker, “Young Thug ‘Wyclef Jean’ Director on How He Saved His Nightmare Shoot,” Rolling Stone, January 17, 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/young-thug-wyclef-jean-director-on-how-he-saved-his-nightmare-shoot-109093/. As Staake discusses, this project was somewhat anomalous from the scenario I paint above from the beginning. Staake was actually the second director on the project, and it wasn’t really his treatment driving the project (until after the shoot went south and he came up with the alternative idea that we ultimately see in the video). ))] But Ryan Staake and Young Thug’s 2017 “Wyclef Jean” video makes light of just such a disastrous shoot. Using title cards, subtitles, and minimal footage of Young Thug, Staake wittily narrates a music video that should by all rights have been an utter disaster. On the one hand, “Wyclef Jean” is a case where a music video’s director and its featured artist are wildly out of synch: as Staake narrates, “we never met each other.” And yet the video’s unique charm relies on the creative vision of both director and artist. Young Thug’s preposterous ideas and footage (video vixens in children’s hot wheels cars, the artist eating Cheetos) provide the perfect foil for Staake’s wry sense of humor. And in the end, both Staake and “Thugger” (as Staake refers to him in the video) benefitted from this unusual collaboration: Staake won an MTV Video Music Award for best editing (albeit without his “co-director’s” knowledge), and Young Thug gained additional notoriety (the video currently has over 36 million views). 


Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). Four screenshots taken by author and arranged in block per request.
Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug).

Despite its silliness, “Wyclef Jean” raises some serious questions regarding the work of music videomaking. In my previous column, I discussed audio-visual synchronization as a key aesthetic feature of music videos. But we can think about synchronization in a more industrial sense too. How do music video productions reconcile music and image, and the work of creative personnel from varying backgrounds, in the creative process?

Some musicians reject music videos as a waste of their time, while others have taken a more active role in their creation. Noel Gallagher of Oasis reportedly hated the time and energy he had to expend on music videos in his band’s heyday. In one of his characteristic rants, he denigrated the work of music video directors, painting them as pompous and overly serious about their work: “I fucking hate videos,” he railed, not least because, “I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now.”

Other artists, however, have found that taking an active role in the creation of music videos gives them another means of creative expression and control over their image. Cyndi Lauper, for instance, famously oversaw and participated in every aspect of her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music video. Drawing on Michael Shore’s “making of” account for Rolling Stone, Lisa A. Lewis wrote, “Lauper’s name appears over and over as a contributor at virtually every stage of production. It is ‘Cyndi’ who picks the video’s producer Ken Walz, and director Ed Griles…[She] suggests the video’s concept, picks location sites in New York City, brings in choreographer Mary Ellen Strom and finds extras to appear in the video.”[ ((Lisa A. Lewis, “Being Discovered: The Emergence of Female Address on MTV,” in Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg (London ; New York: Routledge, 1993), 133. Thanks to Paul N. Reinsch for reminding me of this important example, and as always for his feedback on my work. ))]

Lauper even did some of the set design and oversaw the editing and effects. As Lewis pointed out, this level of control was rare for a female artist at the time, and consequently Lauper’s contributions were all the more important. As she put it herself, “I know what I want and don’t want—I don’t want to be portrayed as just another sex symbol.”[ ((Qtd. in Ibid. ))]


Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).

In other cases, music videos are the result of true collaboration between musicians and mediamakers. Take, for instance, the high profile partnership between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and Hiro Murai. The pair have not only made five music videos together, including the much discussed “This is America,” but also several other projects, including the acclaimed TV show Atlanta (FX, 2016-). Murai told Deadline, “Regularly in music videos, I’ll write the pitch and convince the artists that this is a good idea, and then I’m having to make concessions to meet in the middle. With Donald, I always feel like we’re facing in the same direction. Of course, he’s a writer and he writes a lot of the concepts for the music videos, as well. So, I don’t know. There was something about it that felt very easy for me.” The extent of Glover and Murai’s partnership is unusual: as Murai notes, after all, Glover is not “just” a musician but also a writer and actor. Nonetheless, their collaboration points toward the fluidity between artists’ ideas and directors’ ideas in music video production.


“This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.

But to talk only about collaboration between directors and musicians is also reductive. Much has been made of Glover and Murai’s partnership, but the popular press has not focused on Larkin Seiple, the DP who not only shot “This is America,” but several of the duo’s other music videos. Key to “This is America’s” success has been the open-endedness of its imagery, which invites viewer-listeners to speculate and interpret. This openness is partly attributable to Seiple’s cinematography. As he discusses in an interview with American Cinematographer, he and Murai worked to develop an “accidental tableau” approach. He says, “we realized the camera should really be moving … so the audience can focus on the spectacle and the dance, letting the surreal elements drift in and out of frame. It’s more about the audience finding each piece.”

Collaboration is important to making music videos work financially as well as creatively. Director Isaac Ravishankara’s work with the group LANY demonstrates this. Ravishankara shot two videos for the group, “Thick and Thin” and “Malibu Nights,” on the same day in 2018. He recently told me that the concept for “Thick and Thin,” which consists of a long tracking shot where Paul Klein sings while sitting on the trunk of a car in motion, was based on an idea he had wanted to make for a long time. While Klein liked the idea, and was up for it, the label was skeptical, in part because of the costs: the video involved closing down a stretch of Southern California’s Pacific Coast Highway, in addition to renting a special rig to keep Klein on the car. Ravishankara consequently had the idea of shooting another video in the same location so that the label would get two videos for essentially the same cost.


LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.
LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.

The second video, “Malibu Nights” was based on an idea from Klein, who had acquired a transparent lucite piano and wanted to play it on the beach as waves crashed around him. Both videos are striking, and both play with stasis and motion, albeit in different ways. They speak to the creativity of both Ravishankara and Klein, not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of navigating the practicalities of music video production: label concerns, budgets, shooting schedules, etc.

I don’t mean to suggest that collaboration is somehow unique to music video production. Media Studies boasts an increasingly robust scholarship on the many forms of labor required to produce a project, from the work of executive producers to below-the-line personnel. However, I do think that music video’s characteristic integration of music and moving images requires a different kind of collaboration and creative balancing act. Music video directors, DPs, and editors are required to think musically much more than they would in other projects, and musicians are required to think visually. This kind of creative synchronization doesn’t always happen, but when it does, as in the examples featured here, the results are memorable.



Image Credits:

  1. Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017). (author’s screen grab)
  2. Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). (author’s screen grab)
  3. Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).
  4. “This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.
  5. LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s. (author’s screen grab)