“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Christmas Classics Old and New
Kathleen Loock / University of Flensburg

Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.

In Germany, Christmas is not Christmas unless one has watched Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Wishes for Cinderella), an East German/Czechoslovakian co-production from 1973 directed by Václav Vorlíček. Based on a variation of the familiar Grimm Brothers’ fairytale by Czech writer Božena Němcová, this movie delivers magic, memorable music (by Czech composer Karel Svoboda), and beautiful winter landscapes (filmed around Moritzburg Castle near Dresden) along with a surprisingly feminist female lead, who is not only smarter than the prince but also beats him at horse-riding and marksmanship. The popularity of Drei Haselnüsse remains unbroken. More than forty years after its first release, the movie has become an essential part of the German Christmas viewing ritual and a holiday staple in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland as well. Drei Haselnüsse is comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life in the United States. Jonathan Munby describes Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic as “a mythical text” that has assumed the status of “the Christmas movie, the Hollywood carol, the benchmark against which all other Christmas films are judged” (55, emphasis in original). If Munby argues that It’s a Wonderful Life provides “an ontological guarantee of Christmas itself” (56), the same is certainly true for Drei Haselnüsse in other parts of the world.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.

The enduring popularity of such movies raises questions about the ways in which popular culture shapes memories, experiences, and ideas of Christmas and about the desire to repeat and replay the same stories every year. Beyond the sense of comfort and reassurance that Christmas classics seem to provide, they also draw attention to a “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter) that is not only cranked out by the usual suspects Lifetime and Hallmark during their seasonal programming of made-for-TV holiday romances but also by Netflix, which began to produce its own share of original Christmas fare in 2015. How do these new Christmas movies relate to the old classics? What are they offering viewers? And do they affect the cultural logic of Christmas as both a local and a global festival?

Graphs showing an increase in Netflix original Christmas films.
There has been an increase in Netflix Christmas Originals since 2015.

While the origins of Christmas can be traced back to Roman times, Christmas traditions as we know them (with tinseled trees, filled stockings, Christmas cards, and Santa Claus) only emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when the rambunctious, carnivalesque holiday was reimagined as a family-centered, domestic affair that took place in the home, no longer in the public sphere (cf. Miller, “A Theory” and “Christmas”; Nissenbaum; Sigler). Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) fueled this “invention of tradition” (Eric Hobsbawm), which “claims links with an ancient past but is really an almost entirely new festival” (Miller, “Christmas” 13), through an emphasis on the carnival tradition of the temporary inversion of established (social) hierarchies and visitations from the dead (Mundy 164). Literary texts were important for the construction of modern Christmas, but as John Mundy has pointed out, the reinvention of the holiday “relied as much, if not more, on visual imagery” (164) ranging from illustrations in books and magazines, advertisements and Christmas cards to holiday movies: “[S]ince the end of the Second World War, Hollywood films have increasingly dominated big-screen representations of Christmas and ensured that movies, including their soundtracks, have become an integral aspect of our contemporary experience of the Christmas festivities, whether at the cinema or on television and DVD” (Mundy 165).

Over the past decades, the list of Christmas classics has kept growing with movies such as Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947; remade in 1994 by director Les Mayfield), Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988), Home Alone (Columbus, 1990), The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992), or the improbable Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003). Christmas movies attain their status as classics through regular repetition, which encourages and sustains ritualized consumption practices. Television plays a crucial role in canonizing these films after their theatrical releases and in endowing them with a timeless, festive quality. In Germany, the Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse is published well in advance each year, creating excitement for the holiday and the prospect of ample opportunities to (re)watch the familiar movie on television. In addition, Drei Haselnüsse is also available on Netflix, along with the streaming service’s Christmas originals.

The 2019 programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.

In recent years, Hollywood has grown reluctant to produce new Christmas movies due to “the constraints of release windows and limited marketing opportunities” (Snart). Netflix, the “catch-all disrupter” (Heritage), has occupied the niche with “a series of original films operating somewhere between the Hallmark channel and the multiplex in terms of production values” (Snart). Unlike Hallmark or Lifetime, however, Netflix produces Christmas movies for global audiences. A Christmas Prince (Zamm, 2017) and co. all contain essentially the same ingredients that made It’s a Wonderful Life or Drei Haselnüsse Christmas classics in their respective countries (from the carnivalesque de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, to miraculous interventions, and a festive winter atmosphere) without trying very hard to replace or compete with their precursors. If Christmas classics tend to have dark, serious, or sad undertones, Netflix’s original movies are their shallow, feel-good counterparts. They postulate postfeminist ideas of domesticity and family life, painting Christmas as a holiday which emphasizes “the continuity of home and tradition” (Miller, “Christmas” 437).

Netflix tweeted about users watching the movie A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row.
Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.

Netflix’s creepy tweet exposing repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince in 2017 seems to indicate that the streaming giant is not interested in the kind of repetition that would transform its originals into timeless Christmas classics. Instead, Netflix wants to create new, serialized content based on its most successful formulas, such as the annually released sequels A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding (Schultz, 2018) and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (Schultz, 2019). In times of “peak TV,” Netflix employs Christmas as an algorithmic keyword that promises a global viewership both familiarity and novelty. The “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter), which was recently ridiculed on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, generates an upbeat, sugary, harmless Christmas spirit. These films are all about getting viewers into a cozy, seasonal mood, and they stand out among the season’s timeless classics, which, like Drei Haselnüsse and It’s a Wonderful Life, always also contain critical comments about class, gender, and how we live together.

Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.

Image Credits:

  1. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.
  3. Table and graph by author.
  4. The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.
  5. Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.
  6. Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.


Alter, Rebecca. “The
Definitive Guide to 2019’s Deluge of New Christmas Movies.” Vulture 25
October 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/81-christmas-movies-on-hallmark-lifetime-netflix-and-more.html

Heritage, Stuart. “Why Does netflix Keep Making So Many Cheap TV Movies?” The Guardian, 10 July 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/10/netflix-secret-obsession-tv-movies

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction: Inventing Traditions.” The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 1-14.

Miller, Daniel. “A Theory of Christmas. Unwrapping Christmas. Ed. Daniel Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 3-37.

Daniel. “Christmas: An Anthropological Lens.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7.3 (2017): 409-442.

Munby, Jonathan. “A
Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life.” Christmas at the Movies: Images of
Christmas in American, British and European Cinema.
Connelly. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000. 39–58.

Mundy, John. “Christmas
at the Movies: Frames of Mind.” Christmas,
Ideology and Popular Culture
. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. Edinburgh: EUP, 2008.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The
Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas
. New York:
Knopf, 1996.

Snart, Stephen. “The Christmas Chronicles Review: Kurt Russell’s Santa Can’t Save Netflix Turkey.” The Guardian, 21 November 2018. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/21/the-christmas-chronicles-review-kurt-russells-santa-cantsave-netflix-turkey

Sigler, Carolyn. “‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’: Misrule and the Paradox of Gender in World War II-Era Christmas Films.” The Journal of American Culture 28.4 (December 2005): 345-356.

In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror
Cáel m. Keegan / Grand Valley State University

Image 1: Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.
Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne.

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I will explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media.

Let’s be honest: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) is a bad transgender film. 

Despite America’s ongoing cultural fascination with Rocky Horror, which continues its run as the longest theatrical release in US history (Schwab), the 1975 cult classic is much-maligned in current transgender politics. As the transgender community has gained a new cultural voice in the past decade, we have also taken issue with the legacy of media purporting to represent our identities and experiences: Transgender activists and audiences have rejected earlier modes of story-telling that pigeonhole us as murderous villains or tragic victims, and we have demanded greater authenticity in writing, casting, and direction. The emergence of mainstream transgender identity politics has resulted in a new set of conditions that must be met for transgender media to be considered “good.” 

“Good” transgender media is media that casts transgender actors as transgender characters. It is media that is written and directed by transgender creators. It is media that allows transgender characters to be more than just narrative or political tokens. “Good” transgender media is authentic, progressive, and diverse. Good transgender media is Pose (FX, 2018-present), not Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999). It is Tangerine (Baker, 2015), not Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983). Good transgender media is media that makes us visible, but in the right ways—specifically because they are not the bad, old ways we endured during the bad, old days, before we had a marginal amount of control over how we were represented.

And yet, as “good” transgender visibility has risen, so too has the violence directed against transgender bodies: Five years after Time magazine heralded Laverne Cox’s role on Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) as a transgender civil rights “tipping point” (Steinmetz), anti-transgender murder and hate crimes are on the rise. Rights and protections that were provisionally extended to us during the Obama era have been dramatically and intentionally rescinded. Transgender people have become the new (old) gender scapegoats of a whiplash conservative retrenchment, carried out at a dizzying pace. 

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014.
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, 2014.

In this context, one has to wonder about the relative value of media visibility: Of what value is cultural recognition, when it can so easily be weaponized against us? Or, as transgender studies scholar Eric Stanley puts it, “What are the stakes of familiarity, when familiarity breeds contempt?” (p. 609). The bad, old days are back, with a vengeance: Welcome to the New Bad Era.

By the standards of “good” transgender media, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is most certainly bad. Not only does the 1975 film feature a cisgender actor (Tim Curry) as the transgender/cross-dressed Dr. Frank N. Furter, but it represents that character as deranged, sexually manipulative, and violent. Although the film has become a staple of 21st century pop nostalgia, Rocky Horror is often excoriated in transgender communities for its seeming citation of these stereotypes, which by the late 1970s had become entrenched in American popular culture as well as in certain strains of feminist discourse. 

Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter.

Janice Raymond’s infamous claim in The Transsexual Empire (1979) that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies” (104) comes four years after Rocky Horror’s release, but the elevation of anti-transgender feminist discourse in our current moment makes it difficult to not view Rocky Horror as a citation of those attitudes. Richard O’Brien, the genderqueer/non-binary creator of the original Rocky Horror stage musical, recently intensified this suspicion of the film when he stated that he agreed with feminist Germain Greer that transgender women could not become women, but were instead “an idea of a woman” (Duffy). 

The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”
The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.”

All of this means that Rocky Horror epically fails the current representational and political standards of “good” transgender media. The critiques of Rocky Horror and O’Brien that transgender women have made and continue to make are justified and necessary. But still, there is something about this film that exceeds its apparently transphobic address.

As a transgender person, I’m not supposed to appreciate Rocky Horror. And yet, I do. Why? 

The film was perhaps my first encounter with anything that might be called “transgender” representation, and even today I find myself returning to it over and over again, trying to grasp its strange politics. If we look closely, we find that what at first glance looks like a nonsensical film about an insane cannibalistic transgender scientist who tortures innocent people is simultaneously a story about a transgender alien (Dr. Frank N. Furter) who has left his home planet looking for a place where his queer desires will be accepted. He travels from planet to planet, but they are all the same, and he is consistently rejected. Finally, he lands on Earth and discovers how to create life. He uses these powers to create a human companion for himself, Rocky Horror, but this cross-species relationship offends the aliens from his home planet, who kill him. The film ends with a lament about how Earth, without the transgender figure of Frank N. Furter, is “lost in time, and lost in space/and meaning.”

If we set aside our modern instincts that Rocky Horror is representationally “bad” and examine these deeper features of its narrative, we find that the film ingeniously inverts the medical discourses of transgender pathology that were developing in the mid-1970s: In the film, Dr. Frank N. Furter has seized the means of gender production from the hands of the medical industry, and has produced his own “monster”—the ideal, white cisgender body of Rocky. This is a reversal of the classic story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, which has often been used to symbolize the relationship of surgeons to transgender people. In Rocky Horror, the transgender creator is granted the power of scientific knowledge, while the cisgender body is reduced to the speechless object of his desire.

Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.
Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed.

This reversal is indeed terrifying and revolting, precisely because it places the transgender subject in control of gender and sexuality. We witness the resulting mayhem through the perspective of the chaste, heteronormative couple—Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon)—who fall under Dr. Frank N. Further’s thrall and are “transduced” into gender non-normativity, queerness, and sexual liberation. Rocky Horror thus reverses the process of gender transition, producing trans bodies (Brad and Janet become copies of Frank N. Furter) from cisgender ones.

Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.
Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline.

This very radical transgender politics often goes unrecognized by audiences, I would argue, precisely because the film’s representational address appears to be transphobic.

Is Rocky Horror bad? If we wish to limit the archive of transgender media to objects that primarily uphold the standards of positive representation, then yes, it’s pretty bad. But if we’re willing to consider a less comforting and more confusing archive, then we might find room for The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a film with a now-alien politics that looks very unlike our recent efforts to make transgender life normal, included, respected.

Perhaps the actual question is, do we want to be good?

Image Credits:

  1. Dr. Frank N. Furter takes the throne. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, 2014. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Sweet transvestite: A signed photo of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien, who identifies as “third sex.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Rocky Horror’s monstrous cisgender body is revealed. (author’s screen grab)
  6. Wild and untamed things: Frank N. Furter copies in the film’s ending kickline. (author’s screen grab)


Duffy, Nick. “Rocky Horror Star Richard O’Brien: Trans Women Can’t be Women.” Pinknews, 8 March 2016. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/03/08/rocky-horror-star-richard-obrien-trans-women-cant-be-women/

Raymond, Janice. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. MIT Press, 1979.

Schwab, Katherine. “After 40 Years, Rocky Horror Has Become Mainstream.” The Atlantic, 26 September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/after-40-years-rocky-horror-has-become-mainstream/407491/

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611.

Steinmetz, Kathy. “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Time, 29 May 2014. https://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/

Section 230 as American Tech’s “Soft Power” Secret Weapon
Sarah T. Roberts / University of California, Los Angeles

The October 16th, 2019 Hearing.

The Hearing

On Wednesday, October 16th, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce convened for a joint hearing of said committees in the Rayburn House Office Building, where most such hearings take place.[ ((The official web page for the hearing can be found here, and includes video: https://energycommerce.house.gov/committee-activity/hearings/hearing-on-fostering-a-healthier-internet-to-protect-consumers.))] Largely unremarkable to the general public, particularly against such other governmental high proceedings as the building impeachment case against President Trump dominating the news, it likely went unnoticed by you, the reader. This is no surprise: despite its expansive and perhaps overly optimistic title, “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers,” the conceit of the event was actually much narrower in scope and of interest to a much more specialist, if not wonkier, crowd. The focus of the hearing was primarily on the specificities of a particular portion of legislation from the 1996 Communications Decency Act known as Section 230. Accordingly, those assembled as witnesses to the committee on the morning of October 16th were, to those who follow the barometer of public opinion toward Section 230 (as do I), recognized as a cavalcade of stars—for and against altering or elimination of 230 altogether, which quickly became the theme of the day.[ ((Present at the hearing were the following individuals, with links to their written testimony: Steve Huffman, Co-Founder & CEO of Reddit, Inc.(Testimony); Danielle Keats Citron, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law (Testimony);  Corynne McSherry, Legal Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation (Testimony); Hany Farid, Professor, University of California, Berkeley (Testimony); Katherine Oyama, Global Head of Intellectual Property Policy, Google, Inc. (Testimony); Gretchen S. Peters, Executive Director, Alliance to Counter Crime Online (Testimony).))]

Despite the fact that this event, and others like it (carried, if it merits enough interest on a channel like CSPAN, but more likely accessible primarily via a government live stream and through written testimony) must assuredly constitute what stands for the phrase “inside baseball,” when it is derisively levied against conversation so esoteric as to shut others out, I am using this occasion of my FlowTV column debut to argue that few portions of legislation are so key to the nature of the internet as we currently know it: commercial, opaque, global and controlled by few. If you take me at my word, it would therefore stand to reason that any change to the legislation would undoubtedly yield in a status quo shift that, depending on where you sit in your relation to Section 230, would either free the internet from an American corporatist stranglehold, irrevocably destroy it as it devolved into a useless cesspool of unfettered “free expression,” or…something else. For this reason, what may, at first blush, appear to be a case of nothing more than D.C. wonk inside baseball is actually incredibly important, and more of us should be engaged in understanding what Section 230 is, what it has been, and what changes to it might mean. For something that most Americans may have never heard of, its power is immense, and it is now being wielded in new ways.

Section 230: A(n Extremely) Brief Overview

In 1996, as Congress hurried to respond to the moral and technological panics being wrought by the widescale adoption of internet service to the masses (and the concomitant and probably realistic suspicion that hardcore pornography was its primary engine), it passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, believing that it was not possible to rely on extant telecommunications legislation to contend with these new media forms. Yet arguably its most enduring legacy (after its indecency mandates later faced, and lost, court challenges) came in the form of an addition to it, Section 230, which, in 1996, gave so-called “internet service providers” (or ISPs) largely total immunity in terms of being held responsible for material transmitted through their services. In the late 20th century, when ISPs were primarily and quite literally banks of modems that one dialed up from home to connect to a larger internet offering a variety of user experiences bounded mostly by technology, first, and imagination, second, this provision made good sense. Few could have conceived of an internet landscape dominated by a handful of powerful American companies who not only transmitted user-generated content, or UGC, but actually solicited it at a scale unimaginable to those of one generation earlier. And so Section 230 became a powerful mechanism by which the internet, dominated by private companies and their new services, and enhanced by those firms’ ingenuity and technological prowess, as well as a cozy relationship with the federal government, exploded. Since that time, the firms themselves and those who support them, as well as a host of lobbying groups from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union, have actively and vociferously resisted any encroachment on Section 230 that might change the firms’ immunity, the very thing that has largely afforded them absolute discretion to decide what stays up and what must come down on their platforms. The resulting regime—the policies, practices and people actually implementing that discretion—is what is known as commercial content moderation, itself the subject of constant and polarized debate.[ (( The background and history of Section 230 certainly cannot be done justice here, nor by me, and are therefore best taken up by legal scholars, of which I am not one. I point readers to the work of those who are, including but not limited to: Kate Klonick, Jeff Kosseff, Frank Pasquale, Danielle Citron (herself a witness at the October Congressional hearing), and others to learn more about Section 230 and its relationship to the contemporary internet. If you are interested in reading more about commercial content moderation’s people and practices, the politics inherent in it, and Section 230 as it relates to those things, I humbly recommend my own book, Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press 2019).))]

screen grab of the electronic frontier foundation's CDA page
EFF’s feelings about Section 230 are clear.

With this background in mind, it may now seem more critical than ever to understand it in order to better understand the contemporary American-dominated commercial internet ecosystem, how it has come to be, and under what logics (legal and otherwise) it is constituted and reconstituted. It also therefore becomes key to understand where various players invested in debates around the control of the internet sit, particularly with regard to its status quo as relatively underregulated in the American context, and in the endurance of an unmolested Section 230. To this end, the October 16th hearing was fascinating.

Section 230 as American Soft Power’s Secret Weapon

Upon a recent visit to Australia, I had occasion to speak to tech reporter and radio host Ariel Bogle about my work on the commercial content moderation of social media. She asked me, rightly, if the sum total of platforms’ content moderation rules, use policies, engagement in markets, and so on, constituted a form of American “soft power”[ ((First coined by Joseph Nye in Foreign Policy: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580; an interesting study that offers an expanded description of what might constitute “soft power,” albeit “developed in collaboration with Facebook,” can be found here: https://softpower30.com/what-is-soft-power/))] being meted out around the globe. I agreed, and described how the resulting patchwork of rules, affordances, operations and policies—not to mention the siting of commercial content moderation call centers around the globe—could fairly be considered as an example of American hegemony, tightly wrapped up and packaged, then exported seamlessly, in the form of technological platforms that rarely easily betray the politics embedded in their functionality and affordances, never mind in their prohibitions and constraints.

As I watched the House Subcomittee hearing on October 16th,
hearing Boston University legal scholar Danielle Citron and Berkeley computer
scientist and creator of PhotoDNA technology Hany Farid argue for sensible
rethinking of Section 230, I was fascinated to hear the pushback. It came,
predictably, from EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry, whose organization has
long been resistant to the notion of any tampering with Section 230. And it
also came, no surprise, from Google’s representative, Global Head of
Intellectual Property Policy Katherine Oyama. And yet, even an old cynic such
as myself was surprised by what I heard.

In her statement, Oyama wasted no time in mentioning the positive economic impact to the United States that the tech (internet content) industry brings, with the both overt and latent suggestion being that it is Section 230 itself that fosters this incredible remunerative benefit—a powerful reminder to lawmakers who go to Congress and stay there largely on their ability to generate a healthy economy for the country.[ ((Indeed, Google’s Ms. Oyama makes this point again on page 2 of her written testimony, saying, “This creativity and innovation continues to yield enormous economic benefits for the United States. Digital platforms help millions of consumers find legitimate content across the internet, facilitating almost $29 trillion USD in online commerce each year. In 2018, the internet sector contributed $2.1 trillion to the U.S. economy and created 6 million jobs.”))]

Google's Katherine Oyama testifies
Google’s Katherine Oyama testifies before a Congressional Subcommittee, October 16th, 2019.

But it was in the subsequent back-and-forth questioning of the assembled experts by the Committee that took me by surprise, when, at a number of points in their dialog, Oyama made it clear that while Section 230 was under discussion and even ostensibly up for debate and review in this very House panel, Google and others were lobbying powerfully for section 230-like language to be included in trade agreements with countries like Japan and Mexico—trade agreements that largely remain secret and certainly that the American public, nor the citizens of their trading partners, have very little ability to intervene upon.

This was a fascinating new bit of information for me: outside of a
fairly small group of specialists, many legal scholars and policy advocates who
work in the social media or tech space have indicated a certain disinterest in
conversations about 230 because they rightly point out that it is an American
statute and therefore only pertinent in the context of the United States. Given
that social media firms emanating from the United States are, more and more,
subject to jurisdictional demands from outside the country, they have
argued to me that the impact of Section 230 is destined to lessen as the
demands from elsewhere ramp up.

Yet, as this testimony unequivocally proved, we learn that it is not simply a de facto and waning exporting of the US legal norm but it is indeed a literal exporting of it—codified in trade agreements that are developed and ratified far beyond the reach of citizens who are ultimately subject to them. The soft power of United States-based tech and social media firms therefore goes far beyond just what is seen on the user-facing side and, in fact, must now be tracked and traced through its extensive lobbying practices, as it urges representatives of the United States in trade and commerce agreements to force “partners” to adopt Section 230-like measures in their own countries. If this does not constitute the soft power of American tech firms, I am certain I do not know what does.

Image Credits:

  1. The October 16th, 2019 Hearing.
  2. EFF’s feelings about Section 230 are clear. (author’s screengrab from the EFF CDA page)
  3. Google’s Katherine Oyama testifies before a Congressional Subcommittee, October 16th, 2019. (author’s screengrab)


Advocating On behalf of independent musicians: copyright reform and corporate consolidation
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta

Spotify banner outside NYSE on opening day
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.

Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority (infinite choices, new avenues of “discovery,” low prices). 

This narrative routinely makes its way into popular writing on streaming music. A recent Pitchfork column about the fusion of indie and pop in the 2010s describes streaming music listening as “detached, fully and finally, from the Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it.” This recalls the concept of remediation, made evident by these popular assessments of our digital-musical-ecosystem whereby new media are “presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, pp. 14-15). In a more blunt and messianic expression, Spotify is “the savior” of the music business.

In this introductory column (the first of three on issues of equity in the streaming music industry), I describe the process of participating in Canada’s copyright review process. In September of last year, Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg) and I appeared before The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage: Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries on behalf of The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project that investigates issues of fair payment for creators (which also includes Andrew deWaard, UCSD). The purpose of our appearance, and subsequent written brief, was to argue that in an industry characterized by market consolidation, an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists.

Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Reumneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.

Canadian musicians are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business; SiriusXM dictates the satellite radio market and has purchased Pandora; and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Further, the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income (Thompson 2014), and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars (Craven McGinty 2018). 

In light of these trends, our submission advanced recommendations that sought to rethink copyright and the role of the public domain in the Canadian music industries. A few of these recommendations include: an increase of public funding dedicated to independent artists; to recognize that user rights and the creative commons have value for Canadian creativity and that these should be protected; and to consider automatic rights reversions as a way to mitigate the ill effects of copyright term extensions. At this time, Canada had signed on to the USMCA, which includes a copyright term extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years, an extension that industry representatives were collectively in favor of.

More specifically, we suggest that the federal government should prioritize relationships with provincial and municipal governments, particularly when it comes to policies and initiatives that fund and support live music venues, small record labels, do-it-yourself and artist-run spaces, and campus and community radio stations. Our submission argues that a more thorough consideration of public domain principles in our thinking around the digital music industries and copyright/cultural policies is essential if we are to take issues of equity and sustainability in the music industries seriously. This is an issue made all the more pertinent as conservative provincial governments in Canada have been slashing funding to their investment to arts and culture. In Ontario, funding for the Ontario Music Fund was reduced from $15 million to $7 million by the province’s Progressive Conservative government budget. More recently in Alberta, a budget rife with cuts to essential public services projects that over 50% of the province’s Arts and Creative Industries budget will be gone by the year 2023. 

With respect to rights reversions, we argue that copyright term extensions do not hold up to scrutiny in cultural economic theory (Giblin 2018) and that most of the commercial value of a sound recording is extracted in the first 10 years; so a 70 years after death term provides no real additional incentive for creators (Gowers Review of Intellectual Property 2018, p. 52). To mitigate the ill effects of the term extension we encourage a careful consideration of automatic rights reversions, with rights reverting back to authors after a period of no greater than 25 years. This echoes other arguments that have been put forth, including Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) advocating for rights reversions with the ability of creators to reclaim ownership of creations 25 years after they have been given away (see also Rebecca Giblin’s Conversation post on Adams’s appearance). This recommendation offers some balance to the historically imbalanced relationship between artists and record labels, where creators are often pressured to sign away their rights for life.

Musician Bryan Adams before standing committee on Canadian Heritage
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Reflecting on this process, it felt as though our ideas were heard and that the Committee was in support of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of Canadian musicians. However, the report published by the Committee that followed the meetings and briefs, “Shifting Paradigms,” advanced a status quo narrative of continued copyright protection that was pushed by industry representatives.

Music industry representatives and lobbyists were collectively in favor of extending the copyright term (these can be read in our summaries of their briefs and presentations). On a positive note, the report did make recommendations that urge tech companies and streaming companies to support the work of Canadian creators, but there is very little in the way of tangible policy suggestions that provide an indication that these corporations will comply. Much of this discussion fell within an emphasis on the “Value Gap” in Canada’s music industries. 

Music Canada, a non-profit “trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators,” defines the Value Gap as “the result of the marked disparity between the value returned to those artists creating and developing artistic content, and the online sources and telecommunications corporations who benefit greatly from the distribution of said content” (Bambrick 2019). Further, “Shifting Paradigms” did indicate support for an artist protection provision (in its Recommendation 14) and this is one area in which our submission and brief is represented. However, we recommended a Copyright Act amendment that would make a rights reversion automatic, so it will remain to be seen how this recommendation is applied. We are concerned that if the rights reversion is not properly enforced, the situation will be one in which artist contracts are restructured to avoid this protection provision.  

Just as there are issues with concentration in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, as the “Value Gap” report indicates, the same can be said for the record industry (Music Canada lists its three members as the Canadian subsidiaries of the Big 3 record labels: Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc., Universal Music Canada Inc., and Warner Music Canada Co.). More substantial copyright reform would advance a digital-musical ecosystem that provides fair compensation to artists and acknowledges listening norms and practices of everyday users.

Streaming music services are now the dominant music providers in Canada as in much of the world, and at the same time, the record industry’s increasing concentration has meant the continued persistence of a power dynamic that marginalizes independent musicians. Our hope is that our research may help to protect a vibrant and diverse Canadian music industry and that more space can be occupied by artists and non-industry representatives in the policy-making process as well as in the reporting on issues of equity in the music industries. 

Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, and William Northlich.

Media Credits:

  1. People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.
  2. Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Remuneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.
  3. Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.


Bambrick, H. (2019). Foreward. Closing the value gap: How to fix safe harbours and save the creative middle class. Music Canada. Retrieved from https://musiccanada.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Closing-the-Value-Gap-Music-Canada-2019.pdf

Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Giblin, R. (2018). A new copyright bargain? Reclaiming lost culture and getting authors paid. Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, 41, 369-411.

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. (2006). December. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228849/0118404830.pdf 

Craven McGinty, J. (2018). Superstars are hogging Billboard’s Hot 100. The Wall Street Journal. 14 December. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/superstars-are-hogging-billboards-hot-100-11544788801

Thompson, D. (2014). The Shazam effect. The Atlantic. December. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-shazam-effect/382237/ 

Gender, Place, and Nostalgia in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Maisel promo
Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.

“It’s interesting. My father pointed out that my favorite part about a newspaper is the ads for shoes. And I felt bad about that, but now I think maybe they just put those ads in newspapers to distract us. Because if women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they won’t step in and fix it. Because they will fix it- And accessorize it!” (Midge Maisel, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Disappointment of the Dionne Quintuplets”)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017-present) is a dramedy set in late 1950s New York City about a Jewish housewife (Miriam (Midge) Maisel) from the Upper West Side who stumbles into a nascent career in stand-up comedy after her husband cheats on her with his secretary, and, subsequently, leaves her. In the series’ fourth episode, Midge accidentally ends up at a protest in Washington Square Park. As she strolls through the park with her son, someone is playing the piano as children, mothers, strollers, and passerby meander. Disrupting her reverie, she is bumped by another woman, who apologizes before running off, declaring, “I hope she hasn’t spoken yet!” We soon learn “she” is Jane Jacobs[ (( Jacobs is best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her efforts at grassroots organizing to protect Greenwich Village, her neighborhood, from Robert Moses’ “slum clearance” plans in the 1950s that were to make way for the building of the interstate highway system. See Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. ))], the real-life activist who critiqued and fought 1950s urban renewal policy for its privileging of industry, cars, and capital over people, culture, and experience. Midge makes her way to the rally and finds it is a protest of Robert Moses’ plan to demolish the park to make way for the interstate highway.[ (( The scene is based on an actual event, where activists protesting Moses’ plan organized a rally that has become memorialized in a photo of the “Last Car thru Washington Square” (although it would not be until April 1959 that the Square was actually closed to traffic. http://www.washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2013/04/05/54-years-since-washington-square-park-officially-closed-to-traffic/. ))] Before she knows it, Midge is called to the microphone, much in the same coincidental manner she finds her way to the microphone at the Gaslight Café in the season’s pilot. Ever the performer, Midge works the crowd, declaring that now that she, and other women, are aware of the harms being done to their city, not only will they not stand for it, but they “will fix it, and accessorize it.”

Midge speaking at rally
Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.

Midge and protestors
Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.

1958 rally and filming
Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.

The rally is so
far Midge’s only entry into any kind of formal political activism. Instead, her
comedy routine, largely pushing boundaries against 1950s gender norms, becomes
the primary focus of her (coincidental) politics. Still, the rally is a notable
scene for what it intimates about the show’s commentary on New York City, both
then and now, and, perhaps especially, what women might do about it.

Much like the beleaguered New York of Jane Jacobs’ era, New York City has again become subject to a discourse of urban crisis—not because it is faltering, as in Jacobs’ day, but because it is prospering. As the city becomes an urban playground for the rich, and iconic neighborhood establishments close to make way for luxury condos no one will ever occupy, lamentations over a lost New York abound. Consider, Jeremiah Moss’ popular blog and book, Vanishing New York[ (( Moss, Jeremiah. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. New York: Dey Street Books, 2017. ))], dedicated to cataloging the disappearance of a New York both iconic and mundane. As a July 2007 post ominously notes, “Now I wait, hiding inside these bricks, blighted and condemned, for the wrecking ball to come for me as it will eventually come for you. In the end, we will all be lost in the pile of this vanishing city.”

Moss is neither the first nor last to decry that New York just isn’t what it used to be. In 1967, Joan Didion’s now famous essay, “Goodbye to All That,” kicked off a whole genre of writing about a New York loved and lost. Although Didion’s essay is more about a longing for a lost youth than for Moss’ vanishing New York, the current mode of “Goodbye New York” is much more along the lines of the latter, where everyone from celebrities to unknown struggling artists wonder if New York is really worth it anymore. For David Byrne, New York is becoming a city for the 1% that no longer makes things and is especially hostile to the social and economic conditions that foster art, creativity, and culture. For Ann Friedman, whose essay, “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24,” went viral, New York is “that guy”—you know the one—“the prom king. He knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Friedman is just one of a number of women penning such essays, leading the feminist blog Jezebel to query, “Is Dumping New York City ‘A Girl Thing?’”

Amidst this longing for a lost New York, it is little wonder that some of the most popular recent television series set in the city are period pieces, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  In its fastidious set design, aimed to transform today’s city streets into the sites, scents, sounds, and experience of 1950s New York, the series produces affects of nostalgia. As production designer, Bill Groom noted, “It’s nice sometimes to capture a little bit of the New York that’s disappearing.” The series imagines a New York that was more gritty and “authentic” than the one of today, but also a past in which women were at the cusp of a movement and leading the charge to create a city that responded to their needs. Undoubtedly, this nostalgia is as much about the present and future as the past, responding to gendered discourses of urban crisis in present-day New York City while reminding us of a past in which New York women were poised to create change.[ (( Eichhorn, Kate. “Feminism’s There : On Post-Ness and Nostalgia.” Feminist Theory 16, no. 3 (December 2015): 251–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700115604127. See also Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic books, 2001. ))]

What are we to make of this nostalgic longing, especially as it becomes pegged to Jane Jacobs and her influential work on gender and the city? As Jacobs makes her way into contemporary popular culture, her theories of women’s importance in creating vital and vibrant cities is also seeing a revival in urban planning and renewal strategies. Marguerite Van Den Berg suggests Jacobs’ appeal is precisely because of her emphasis on gender—“femininity is here associated with the imagined future city: a city of creativity and spontaneity…Jacobs is mobilized because she symbolizes this non-modern spontaneity, but also because she is a woman.”[ (( Van Den Berg, Marguerite. Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 2019, 25. ))] Yet, unlike Midge, the women of today’s New York, especially women of color and working class women, are not only fighting new Robert Moses figures—real estate developers and tycoons who want to clear the city to make way for new high rises and highways. They are also, in a sense, fighting today’s Jane Jacobs, whose ideals have been adapted by real estate developers and bureaucrats alike to preserve and reinvent the city’s “authenticity,” driving up rents and displacing the poor as much as those strategies more Moses-like.[ (( Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ))] While Midge joins arms with other women calling for the preservation of Washington Square Park, if she were transported to today, would she be protesting yet another coffee chop, Edison lightbulb decorated craft beer pub, cat café, or axe-throwing range?

One can only wonder.

Nostalgia is a
powerful affect. It remains to be seen how Mrs. Maisel exactly imagines
Midge and other women will ultimately “fix” and “accessorize” the city. I guess
we will just have to keep watching.

Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.
  2. Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.
  3. Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.
  4. Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.


Finding the ‘TV’ in TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University

image description
PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast.

There’s a classic moment in The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) that goes something like this.  Grivo, a depressed, chest-baring aggro rocker, looks out onto his audience and softly declares, “I wanna talk about drugs.”  A lone voice in the crowd yells, “Heroin!”  Grivo replies, “No, not heroin.”  “Speed!” the crowd offers.  “No, not speed.”  Undeterred, the crowd excitedly tries again: “Hashish!”  “No, not even hashish.”  Stumped, the crowd pauses for a moment and finally asks, “Horse tranquilizers?”  “No, not horse tranquilizers.” 

is how I feel about TV news in the academy. 
Stay with me now.

a moody and naturally lethargic TV scholar, say to anyone who will listen, “I
wanna talk about TV news.”  A loud voice
says, “Like journalists do?”  No, not
like journalists do.  Another voice
chimes in, “Oh, like in political communication!”  No, not like in political communication.  “Rhetoric!” 
No, not even rhetoric.  “Media
Effects?”  No, not media effects.

wanna talk about TV news as television.

image description
All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.

I began writing my dissertation on cable news war coverage in 2005, I was
indebted to the small slice of television scholarship that existed on the
subject of news.  Not communication
scholarship or journalism scholarship, but television scholarship.  The work of Margaret Morse showed me there
was thoughtful analysis of television news as a genre of storytelling and
meaning-making within the culture industries.  John Caldwell’s discussion of television news
as a vessel for televisuality treated the fusion of style and industry in this
neglected genre with great clarity. 
Thankfully, we have since seen more studies that have analyzed images,
sounds, discourse, and industry structure to explain how television news has
shaped certain historical moments.  And
research on television news parodies has
reminded us that news is a television genre. 
Yet, significant gaps remain in our research and in our teaching.

One persistent problem is the vastness and ephemerality of the artifact.  Studying TV news is hard because there’s just so much of it, and it’s not meant to be repackaged and rewatched.  It’s local, it’s national, it’s all day, it’s everyday.  Some is archived (thank you, Texas Archive of the Moving Image), some is not.  Where do you start?  What is the unit of analysis?  To that sense of helplessness, I point to radio scholars who face tremendous odds as they hunt for recordings and scripts.  I also point to scholars like Elana Levine who study soap operas with thousands upon thousands of episodes.  So, what is the issue, really?  Do we really believe it’s not TV?  It’s News?  

image description
NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs.

vast repository of research on television news is available to pick through,
but very little of it takes up the concerns of the field of Television
Studies.  In short, the majority of
television news research is on television
—not on television news.  I’m not arguing that one approach is superior
to the other; I am simply saying that the diversification of research on this
topic will similarly diversify the conversation about how the news exists and
has existed within the television landscape, with an eye to all of the
intersecting axes that concern television scholars. 

Now, I’m going to veer into some scholarly territory for a moment, so please bear with me.  In a 2018 article, Robinson, Zeng, and Holbert found that while political communication scholarship has de-emphasized the role of television in delivering political information, television remains a dominant source of political news in the face of online and mobile competition (287, 297).  Moreover, this dominance is not confined to the U.S.; the authors find that it “transcends national borders and class divisions” (296). In addressing the lack of attention paid to television news by political communication scholars, the authors posit that the prevailing theoretical frameworks used to study political media—“framing, priming, and agenda setting”—are medium agnostic and thus render a medium-specific analysis “unnecessary” (297).

image description
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news.

There you go.  The dominance of news media analysis informed by these frameworks makes it seem as though (1) these theories hold universal explanatory power; (2) television is interchangeable with any other medium; (3) television is not a complex, historically determined intermixture of technology, industry, culture, stylistic influences, and viewer behaviors; and (4) news is not just one type of television program sitting adjacent to and opposite other types of programs, being influenced by them and competing against them in a landscape shaped by decades-old broadcasting companies, advertisers, and regulations.  But here’s another (related) part of the problem.  The fields that dominate news research have not excluded others.  We just haven’t jumped in with both feet.

Studies is a vibrant field that, for reasons well known to all of us, keeps
having to fight for legitimacy in the academy. 
As we watch scholars from other fields dip into TV, claim the so-called
“good” bits for their courses, treat those bits as literature or film, and then
get praise in the press for turning TV into something worthy of study, why
don’t we make the most of the name of our field and imprint our expertise on all of television?  Sports media scholars are the latest to make
this case successfully.  The recent
creation of the Sports Media Scholarly Interest Group at SCMS is an encouraging
sign, not just for the study of televised sports, but for the study of the
overlap between sports and TV news.  Yes,
I just inserted myself into their glory, but I do see it as a win for anyone
who veers away from the dominant script. 

image description
The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars.

my remaining columns for Flow I’ll
continue to sing this news tune in a few different ways, hopefully offering
something positive to the field’s ongoing conversations about how we study TV and
why we study it in the ways we do.

Image Credits:

  1. PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast (author’s screengrab)
  2. All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.
  3. NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs (author’s screengrab)
  4. CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news (author’s screengrab)
  5. The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars (author’s screengrab)


Robinson, Nicholas W., Chen Zeng, and R. Lance Holbert. 2018. “The Stubborn Pervasiveness of Television News in the Digital Age and the Field’s Attention to the Medium, 2010-2014.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 62(2): 287-301.

A Public Records Request Rabbit Hole in the Study of Nontheatrical Distribution
Finley Freibert / Independent Scholar

Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.

In June 2017, as I was researching the history of Californian gay media industries I came across a curious article in a January 1961 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Entitled “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies,” the article detailed the arrest of an individual named John Samuel Bridges whose station wagon was loaded with films apparently intended for distribution to gay male consumers.[ (( “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12. ))] The report noted there was evidence that sailors stationed at Treasure Island appeared in the films, a fascinating historical revelation given the island’s important place in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured popular amusements on its so-called “Gayway” that pushed the envelope on sexual propriety in the postwar era.[ (( Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, Citywide Historical Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, October 2015, Planning Department, City and County of San Francisco, CA, 55. ))] Treasure Island was also the location of a notorious military brig where gay men of the navy were incarcerated and abused before being discharged.[ (( Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 149-50, 221; Joan Crowell, Fort Dix Stockade: Our Prison Camp Next Door (New York: Links, 1974), 137; Susan Stryker and Jim van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), 30. ))] According to the Chronicle article, Bridges was involved with both the making and distribution of these movies, and officers allegedly recovered a list of potential gay customers.

Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

This incident is notable for a number of reasons. Gay nontheatrical distribution is generally an under-researched field that could uniquely contribute to ongoing debates in nontheatrical film history.[ (( “Nontheatrical” is an industry term covering a wide range of production-distribution modes—including educational, private, institutional, nonprofit, adult, and amateur film among others—outside of public-facing for-profit exhibition industries. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Scholarly Interest Group on Nontheatrical Film and Media was founded in 2007. Since the 2000s journal special issues and books have expanded the field internationally. For examples see, Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Allyson Nadia Field, Marsha Gordon, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, eds., Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Dan Streible, Martina Roepke, and Anke Mebold, eds., Film History Special Issue 19, no. 4 (2007). ))] The date, 1961, precedes the famed advent of West Coast gay theater policies, namely the operations of the Haight in San Francisco starting in 1964 and the Park in Los Angeles commencing in 1968. Given the date and description, Bridges’ movies would have been either physique posing films or hardcore stag films, reproduced on small-gauge and distributed to nontheatrical gay consumers. As Elena Gorfinkel has detailed of the larger industry, small-gauge nontheatrical producers and distributors were industrially at odds with the 35mm theatrical adult film industry, who attempted to distance their work from small-gauge workers and also bar such workers from entry into the adult film trade organization.[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 89-95. ))] Thomas Waugh estimates that in comparison to the massive gay photography industry, the much smaller international market for gay nontheatrical film “allowed at most a dozen producers in 1960.”[ (( Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 255. ))] This estimate—and the allegation that Bridges’ car was packed with gay films—potentially places Bridges among the ranks of Bob Mizer and Dick Fontaine, the most prolific gay film producer-distributors in the state (and perhaps the country) before 1968. Furthermore, histories of the production and distribution of nontheatrical (and theatrical) gay films in San Francisco often begin with discussions of J. Brian or Hal Call, but include little information on the period before 1967.[ (( Besides Waugh’s important book on the subject, other key histories include Jeffrey Escoffier, Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009); Lucas Hilderbrand, “The Uncut Version: The Mattachine Society’s Pornographic Epilogue,” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (2016): 449–64; Ryan Powell, Coming Together: The Cinematic Elaboration of Gay Male Life, 1945-1979 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). ))] Finally, given the difficulty of recovering distribution history due to gay nontheatrical films’ clandestine circulation, records produced by an in-transit arrest could include significant revelations.

For these reasons,
I was fascinated to know more about this incident. Searches through available
historical newspaper digital archives turned up no other results on either
Bridges or the outcome of his arrest. Because of this scarcity of information,
I decided to file a public records request with the San Francisco Police
Department (SFPD) to see if a police report or other ephemera pertaining to
this incident might still exist. California Government Code §6254 (f) (1) provides that
under certain circumstances law enforcement bodies must make public:

The full name and occupation of every individual arrested by the agency, the individual’s physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight, the time and date of arrest, the time and date of booking, the location of the arrest, the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held, and all charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.[ (( “Cal. Government Code  §6254,” California Legislative Information, accessed November 1, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&sectionNum=6254. ))]

On October 9, 2018, I submitted a
request to the SFPD for all the above listed information relating to John
Samuel Bridges’ arrest on January 20, 1961.

On October 10, I received a response from SFPD asserting that the information I requested would not be disclosed because it was criminal history information protected from public disclosure under Penal Code §11105.[ (( Lt. Waaland, letter to author, October 10, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005835-100918. ))] I found that response confusing because an almost identical request to the Los Angeles Police Department for 1970s records received a response that did not refuse record disclosure, stating that “in order for Records and Identification to even try to search for arrest reports that old, they need the booking numbers.”[ (( LAPD Discovery Section, CPRA Unit, email to author, October 10, 2018. ))] Because of this discrepancy, I decided to look further into the SFPD’s reasoning for refusing to disclose records in the case of Bridges.

After reading the Penal Code section cited by SFPD, I believed the information I saught may have been misunderstood as “criminal history information,” a specific phrase in the Penal Code §11105 defined as a compilation of data from an individual’s overall criminal record.[ (( “Penal Code  §11105,” California Legislative Information, accessed October 11, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN&sectionNum=11105. ))] Because of this possible misunderstanding, I submitted a second request on October 12 specifying that I did not want a compilation of criminal history on Bridges, but only arrest information on the June 20, 1961 incident. The second request for disclosure was denied by SFPD on October 18, with a different rationale. This time the response stated that due to an appellate court decision in 1993, the California Public Records Act “only requires the Department to provide information relating to current or ‘contemporaneous’ police activity.”[ (( Sgt. Sullivan, letter to author, October 18, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005874-101218, 2. The appellate case cited was County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar) 18 Cal.App.4th 588 (1993). ))] Confused by this second unsuccessful public records request that cited a 25-year-old case, I searched and found a later 2015 appellate court decision that appeared to contradict the “current” argument in the 1993 case cited by the SFPD. The 2015 decision I found stated, “Section 6254, subdivision (f)(2) must be read according to its plain terms, and these terms do not include an express time limitation on production of only ‘contemporaneous’ or ‘current’ records.”[ (( Fredericks v. Superior Court, 233 Cal.App.4th 209 (2015), 531. ))]

With this finding, on November 2, 2018, I submitted a petition for review of my two public records requests to the Supervisor of Records at the San Francisco Office of the City Attorney.[ (( F. Freibert, “Request to Review a CPRA Withholding of Records,” email to B. Russi, November 2, 2018. ))] In my petition I cited the 2015 decision, included copies of my original requests, and attached the SFPD responses. On December 3, 2018, I received a response from the Supervisor of Records that provided an interpretation and detailed legislative history of the “contemporaneous” and “current” §6254 language in the Fredericks and Kusar decisions.[ (( B. Russi, “Re: Petition to Supervisor of Records,” email to author, December 3, 2018, Reference ID: n:\govern\as2018\0100505\01321866.doc. ))] In the response, the Supervisor of Records ultimately affirmed the SFPD’s refusal to disclose records on Bridges.

This process
proved to be a learning experience, but it also speaks to the larger subject of
the viability of accessing public records for historical research. At present,
completing historical research using federal public records requests (via the
Freedom of Information Act) can be feasible. However, my experiences attest to
a current lack of feasibility in using California Public Records Act requests
to research historical arrests by city police departments in Los Angeles and
San Francisco.

Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In the year following my unsuccessful public records requests, I’ve uncovered additional information that reveals a larger picture of John Bridges’ business operations. Beyond transporting nontheatrical gay movies, the original article noted that Bridges produced several other adult films confiscated the previous day from small-gauge entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs apparently had some business connection with Bridges, but had previously founded a studio for “legitimate” nontheatrical endeavors (one individual later explicitly identified himself as an “educational film maker”).[ (( “S.F. Cops Smash Lewd Film Ring,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1961, 3; Novella O’Hara, “Question Man,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1968, 13. ))] However, when the studio went bankrupt they transitioned to the production of nontheatrical adult films. I am hopeful that pursuing further leads will result in developments on this unique case of clandestine gay-oriented nontheatrical distribution. Distribution remains a crucial yet exceptionally difficult sector to investigate, but media industry studies scholars continue to propose and apply creative approaches to researching distribution that emphasize critical, archival, and interview-based methods.[ (( Recent inspiring examples include: Peter Alilunas, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016); Lynn Comella, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Kevin Heffernan, “Seen as a Business: Adult Film’s Historical Framework and Foundations,” in New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, ed. Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015), 37–56; Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 165–71. ))]

Image Credits:

  1. Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.
  2. Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  3. Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


OVER*FLOW: Millennial Angst and the Bad Mother from the News to Netflix
Miranda brady / Carleton university

Lori Loughlin with daughters
Lori Loughlin with daughters Bella and Olivia Jade

In the spring of 2019, stories about the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin gained wide attention. That these two mothers had tried to bribe their children’s way into prestigious universities outraged some, while others were not at all surprised that this is the way it works for the very rich. Out of many possible stories about which to be outraged in 2019, why did these two women stick in the craw of so many? Was it because this was such an egregious departure from Loughlin’s wholesome onscreen persona as Aunt Becky on Full House (ABC, 1987-1995) and Netflix’s reboot Fuller House (2016-)? Or was this story so appealing because it involved a crime committed by famous, rich white women?[ (( Hiltz, Emily. (2018). The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation. (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). https://curve.carleton.ca/037b3ef0-69db-49da-9a6a-fb5d79558e2b))]

Perhaps more interesting, the story aligned with a growing disdain for hovering mothers, especially amongst millennials who are eager to establish their independence in an economy that categorically disallows it. Picking up on this Zeit Geist, the story evokes the tried and true tropes of mother blame and the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary.[ ((See Blum, Linda. (2007). Mother Blame in the Prozac Nation: Raising Kids with Invisible Disabilities. Gender and Society, 21(2): 202-226. and Caplan, Paula J. (2010). Mother Blame, Encyclopedia of Motherhood.))] Regardless of the fact that 50 people were accused in the case, like several recent forms of popular entertainment, the news media and authorities could not resist comparisons between the two ‘types’ of women even though they were both implicated.

Huffman pled guilty to a single charge, admitting her guilt in paying $15k to enhance her daughter’s SAT scores, and subsequently spent 14 days in prison. Loughlin and husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli pled not guilty to charges related to paying $500,000 to have two daughters admitted to university on fake crew scholarships – an affront to fairness and crew. They now face additional charges and potentially much longer sentences resulting from their failure to cooperate.

The news media and authorities clearly privileged Huffman for her admission of guilt, lesser crimes, and demeanor. The New York Times pointed out the women’s “Diverging Paths,” and CNN identified them as the “contrasting faces” of the scandal. Huffman, described as “Tearful and Stoic,” was compared with Loughlin, who seemed to treat her appearances in federal court “with an affect more common on the red carpet,” smiling, waving, and autograph signing; she was even blamed for tarnishing the brand equity of her daughter, Olivia Jade, beauty blogger.

Huffman looking contrite
Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy

These kinds of stories about women have been told before, but Huffman and Loughlin illustrate millennials’ particular tensions with their mothers, and popular culture is more than happy to play with this variation on a theme, even when recycling the same old tropes.

Generation Gaps and
Popular Fantasies

There have, for many years, been generational gaps and tensions which are exacerbated by popular culture because driving a wedge between target markets is profitable: from Elvis and rock n’ roll to Tipper Gore and gangsta rap. In the 1980s, the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper respectively complained that their parents infringed on their “right to party” and “have fun.”

In an era where young adults live with their parents longer than previous generations and often rely on them financially if they do move out, it is not hard to see why Loughlin and Huffman became media examples. Perhaps the helicopter mom represents the parent on whom millennials simultaneously depend but who stands in the way of their self-actualization with her misguided meddling or reluctant financial support that comes intact with strings. Huffman and Loughlin represent this mother – they try, without success, to control their children and their futures.

In popular culture, we see rejection of such figures and fantasies of super-wealthy youth who maintain privilege while breaking away from their parents as exemplified in Netflix’s The Politician (2019).[ (( This comes out of an attention economy where millennials are told to brand themselves and that reputation management matters above all so that their data may be properly slotted into marketable packages (See Draper,Nora. (2019). The Identity Trade: Selling Privacy and Identity Online. New York: NYU Press. and Steyerl, Hito. (2018). A Sea of Data: Pattern Recognition and Corporate Animism (Forked Version) in Apprich, Clemens, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl (eds). Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Meson Press and University of Minnesota Press.) Netflix perpetuates its own flexible entrepreneurial American dream by picking up YouTube shows (eg. Haters Back Off (2016-2017).))]

Variations on a Theme: the Bad Mother in Netflix’s The Politician

The Politician plays with the Good Mother/Bad Mother archetypes via the puritanical Gwyneth Paltrow (playing Georgina Hobart) vs. Jessica Lang (playing Dusty Jackson). It even includes a cameo by the newer mother caricature, ‘Karen,’ a popular Reddit archetype of an irritating and entitled white, middle-aged mother who is usually complaining or requesting to speak to a manager. Karen is to millennials as Archie Bunker was to hippies in All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). As with celebrity women in the college scandal, these archetypal mothers illustrate some broader social and economic tensions.

Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician
Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician

Georgina is the archetypal good mother – altruistic, elegant, and cool. She is totally self-sacrificing when it comes to her adopted son, Payton (played by Ben Platt), even willing to give up her one chance at love and wealth for him. By contrast, Lang is the monstrous mother[ ((See Francus, Marilyn. (1994). The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Johns Hopkins University Press 61(4): 829-851. and Riggs, Elizabeth E. (2018). Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out. Film Matters, 9(1): 30-38.))] – slowly poisoning her daughter to death and doing the same to her granddaughter, who she is left to raise, for free trips and attention. Munchhausen by proxy is named as the culprit.

Where reproductive failure looms, chosen adopted family emerges as the millennial solution. Georgina has failed to reproduce worthwhile sons biologically – her birth sons, Payton’s twin brothers, are caricatures of rich, spoiled assholes who hearken back to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Georgina’s maternal dreams are fulfilled with Payton, so much so that she doesn’t know who she is without him. Even in this perfection of found motherhood, Georgina is aimless without her son. This juxtaposes well with the murderous monster that Lang’s performance embodies so well, and the annoying entitled archetype of Karen, who appears in the last episode of Season 1, in a scene that opens with the lines:

I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. I have a very influential mommy blog. So, I want to speak to your manager.
– “Karen” in “Vienna.” The Politician. Netflix. 27 September 2019.

Astrid, the wealthy snob turned chain restaurant server rolls her eyes at this Karen figure with flock of embarrassed children in tow. Astrid (played by Lucy Boynton) has left her parents and wealthy lifestyle behind – having her father arrested for fraud and refusing her submissive mother (played by January Jones) who earnestly asks if she can come too, with a short “No.”[ ((It is worth noting the intertextuality in both Jones’ character on AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and Lang’s character on FX’s first season of American Horror Story (2011-). While Jones played a submissive 1950s house wife in the first seasons of the show, Lang played another version of a monstrous mother.))] She has asserted her independence and chosen to serve people like Karen and her children rather than live a life of privilege under the control of her parents. But there is an escape hatch from both – like several of her cohort from high school (a chosen family), Astrid will follow her once-rival, Payton Hobart, a young, ambitious male politician. She has come to understand that her true enemy is not Payton, but the parents.

After a failed attempt at high school politics, Hobart is positioned at the end of Season I to make a run for New York senate and upset successful female incumbent Dede Standish (played by Judith Light) and her lackey chief of staff (played by Bette Midler). Standish, an established politician who seems to be pretty good at her job otherwise, is apparently unaware that Payton is coming for her, and that his team of millennials has identified her Achilles heel – gross technological incompetence (her team is running Windows 99, just like Grandma). Therefore, Standish is a prime target for the ambitious white male millennial and his super-team of attractive and sexually fluid youths. They are ready to take on the establishment, but despite their progressive facade, they actually reproduce the establishment in many ways, namely through deeply entrenched misogyny.

Ironically, attempts to reflect millennial sentiment back to millennials in The Politician were met with lukewarm responses and only a 56 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Where the News and Netflix Meet

So, are Loughlin and Huffman the monstrous mothers or Karens of Netflix? Maybe not exactly, but their appearances in the popular imaginary pander to the millennial fantasy that, unlike their parents, the youth have the path forward figured out. And, if they could just cut the umbilical cord, they could change the world. Who’s to say they’re wrong? But if Netflix is any indicator, they most certainly have not escaped the sins of their parents.


Many thanks to Emily Hiltz and Erika Christiansen for introducing me to Karen.

Image Credits:

  1. Lori Loughlin with Daughters Bella and Olivia Jade
  2. Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy
  3. Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician


From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Movie Poster
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of the romantic comedy film. In this series, I will be tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a smaller-budget Netflix and digital streaming genre.

The romantic comedy is back! At least, that’s what many critics have declared, following the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) and the media buzz around Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018). Apparently, the rom-com had been dead and is now reborn. The reality, however, is more complicated. The supposed death of the rom-com was less a death and more a morphing and rebranding. Since the 1990s, romantic and comedic story elements have been mobilized across a number of different films and categories that critics, industry, and audiences are reluctant to label romantic comedies.

Why this reluctance to notice the changing shape of romantic comedy? For industry, the issue remains, in part, a marketing issue. Calling something a rom-com comes with risks and threatens the product’s ability to attract mixed-gender audiences. For media scholars, the issue is twofold. First, we are still dealing with resistance to investigating (or enjoying) feminized and supposedly middlebrow popular media. Second, and perhaps more important, many scholars are trained to police the boundaries of genre taxonomies. As such, many look for the most normative examples of a genre and overlook the outliers. For the past 15 years, romantic comedy has been appearing in all sorts of places. However, these romantic comedies do not always fit the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy mold that dominated in Hollywood over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.

Recent shifts in the content and distribution patterns for romantic comedy can only be fully understood when we also consider two important factors: One, the rom-com’s historic role in shoring up white middleclass heterosexuals as the default for romance. Two, the technological, industrial, and economic changes that began unfolding in Hollywood over the course of the late-90s and continue to affect Hollywood production and distribution patterns today.

Where did it go? Distribution Patterns and Neo-Traditional Rom-Coms

Over the course of the 80s and 90s, romantic comedies were widely viewed as a reliable bet at the box office. This was due, in part, to their lower production costs. Romantic comedies didn’t earn as much as the major Hollywood blockbusters. However, as “medium budget” films, they also cost significantly less to produce and had solid domestic and international returns. Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999), with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, cost $70 million and earned $309 million worldwide (“Runaway Bride (1999)”). Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) are examples of what Tamar Jeffers McDonald calls the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy (2007). These films overwhelmingly feature white, straight, cis-gender, and middle-class protagonists. They also emphasize “imprecise nostalgia,” tend to intertextually reference past romantic comedies and dramas, and deemphasize sex (McDonald 136).

You've Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride (Marshall, 1999)
You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
(Marshall, 1999)

These market-safe neo-traditional stories served as industry counterprogramming in the 1980s and 90s. These were “films that would appeal to that segment of the audience not usually attracted to the male-oriented ‘tentpole’ films” (Radner 117). Rom-coms in the late 20th century were a useful pallet cleanser, counterprogramming to entice audiences not explicitly hailed by the bigger blockbusters.

However, between 2000 and 2009, there were significant economic shifts in Hollywood and the ownership of major studios.[ (( For more see “New Hollywood, New Millennium” by Thomas Schatz (2009) and Hollywood in the New Millennium by Tino Balio (2013). ))] More emphasis was placed on large-scale media franchises spread out across the various production/entertainment arms of media conglomerates. This left much less room in studio budgets for stand-alone medium-budget “chick flicks.” The films that survived were crafted to appeal to more mixed-gender audiences. For example, a cycle of more bro-friendly, raunchy, kinda romantic-comedy films followed the success of the Farrelly Brother’s There’s Something About Mary (1998). Examples of this cycle include The 40-Year- Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007). These films reflect an effort at rebranding and eschewing the “chick-flick” label more than they do a radical departure in rom-com content.

The “Other” Rom-Coms

A quieter and more significant morphing in the rom-com genre began in the 1980s and 90s. During this period, the romantic comedy was being “remodeled for (and appropriated by) niche audiences defined by ethnicity, sexual orientation or age” (Krutnik 130). Frank Krutnik tracks a series of innovations in the genre, including an increasing number of romantic comedy films focused on African-American characters and same-sex relationships (2002). Many of the films Krutnik identifies were not marketed as romantic comedies. Instead, they tended to be positioned as African-American, Black or urban comedies. Or, they might be labeled queer, art, or independent cinema. (For example, Booty Call [Pollack, 1997] or The Best Man [Lee, 1999] and The Wedding Banquet [Lee, 1993] or Better Than Chocolate [Wheeler, 1999].) Were these films romantic comedies? I say yes. Would everyone in the audience or industry want to call these films rom-coms? I doubt it.

The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)
The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)

In 2013, Tatiana Siegel at The Hollywood Reporter declared that the rom-com was, essentially, dead. And, in terms of the neo-traditional rom-coms that  audiences became accustomed to in the late 20th century, that certainly seems to have been true. However, just because one dominant type of romantic comedy faded from view, that doesn’t mean romantic comedy film actually died. In 2014, Vanity Fair reporter Kate Erbland issued a correction. The rom-com was not dead, it just was “no longer the playground of big studios.” Erbland points out two things: 1) the genre was alive and well in the indie film market and 2) when major studios did make rom-coms they were typically “aimed at black audiences.” Think Like a Man (Story, 2012) and About Last Night (Pink, 2014) are two examples of successful romantic comedies featuring predominantly black casts from the 2010s.

These titles are just a few examples of a less recognized but important strain of romantic comedy films that has been steadily remodeling the romantic comedy format since the 1990s. Romantic comedy films were made in the 2000s and 2010s, but they weren’t always fitting into the neo-traditional rom-com mold. Industry, critics, scholars, and audiences seem to struggle with explicitly labelling these films romantic comedy. I suspect this reluctance to label has a lot to do with what we expect the people in a romantic comedy to look like and the audiences we assume a rom-com will cater to.

In my next column, I’ll talk about two films that have been hailed as marking the “rebirth” of romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ll focus on why these two films were hailed as the return of the rom-com and use these films to trace an ongoing transition in the rom-com’s form and in its distribution patterns.

Image Credits:

  1. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  2. You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999)
  3. The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)


Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. 2013 edition, British Film Institute, 2013.

Krutnik, Frank. “Conforming Passions?: Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, edited by Steve Neale, British Film Institute, 2002, pp. 130–47.

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Wallflower, 2007.

Radner, Hilary. Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture. Routledge, 2011.

“Runaway Bride (1999).” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=runawaybride.htm. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Schatz, Thomas. “New Hollywood, New Millenium.” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, Routledge, 2009, pp. 19–46.

The Gamification of Television? Bandersnatch, Video Games, and Human-Machine Interaction
Ryan Stoldt / The University of Iowa

Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity
Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see.

Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to create a choose-your-own-adventure video game, in which “choices come up on the screen and you pick one against the clock.”[ (( Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, directed by David Slade. (London: Netflix, 2018). ))] This fictional video game, also entitled Bandersnatch, serves as a meta-commentary for the format of the television episode, which allows audiences to interact with the episode by choosing between binary options that result in narrative variations. Through this meta-comparison of the episodic format to the narrative world’s video game, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch argues for the gamic nature of interactive television and raises direct opportunities for the episode to be compared to modern video games like Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn (2015), which similarly employs branching choice narratives.

Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn
Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

As the narratives, technology, and personnel involved in the creation of interactive television and video games converge, media scholars need to continue noting formal differences that affect the types of engagement offered to audiences by different delivery technologies. Although tempting to equate interactive television and video games, this column highlights how interactive television functions similarly and differently than video games, ultimately speaking to the different types of engagement each medium offers.

Personnel converging across media: Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters
Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.

Television studies is intricately linked to the active audience theory of media, which states that audiences are not passive media consumers but actively make meaning from media messages through their social contexts. As television becomes more interactive, the theoretical approaches scholars use to make sense of the medium need to expand. Digital media scholar Alexander Galloway argues that interactive media moves beyond active audience theory because the physical actions of the user affect the material of the interactive medium itself.[ (( Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 3. ))] While bodies may respond to media messages in active audience theory, they do not intercede in how narratives progress or how machines input and output information. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and other forms of interactive television ask audiences to bring their body into the narrative by physically engaging with the story by scrolling between choices and pressing buttons. Galloway’s inclusion of both the narrative and the machine in his conception of interactivity provides a useful distinction from other types of physical interactions audiences have with television—such as audiences using their phones to vote in reality television competitions like American Idol (Fox, 2002-2016 and ABC, 2018–) and the physical acts involved in turning on and off technology. From this perspective, interactive television is defined through the relationship between human and machine actions which cooperatively generate a narrative.

While Galloway’s conception of interactivity provides a useful analysis of how interactive television theoretically functions differently from past engagements with television, it does not fully provide a way of distinguishing between interactive television and video games. To help accomplish this, Galloway’s typology of four gamic moments further breaks down the interactions between humans and machines. These moments span across two axes: diegetic/non-diegetic, or whether the action is taking place inside the story or outside the narrative world; and human/machine, whether the actions are being generated by the input of the user or the machine. By using this typology to compare Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and a video game built around similar player choices like Until Dawn, these gamic moments help distinguish what each medium offers audiences in terms of engagement.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))]

Galloway’s four moments of gamic action
Galloway’s four moments of gamic action are broken up along two axes.

Galloway’s first gamic moment is the diegetic-operator action.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))] This moment occurs in a video game when the player directly interacts with the world of the story and prompts machinic reactions. Video games have a long history of varied diegetic operator acts, like the ability for players to control how playable characters move, interact with, and see the gamic world. Until Dawn offers players the ability to freely move their characters around the world and engage with the world based on a limited number of preset choices. These actions create branches of machinic reactions that shape which narrative is told in the game. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers operators a similar type of expression through its use of binary choices to trigger which narrative will play next. Although they offer a drastically different number of diegetic operator acts, this gamic moment functions similarly in interactive television and video games.

Operators are not just constrained to actions that take place within the narrative world though. Galloway’s second gamic moment is the non-diegetic operator act, which focuses on operator actions that take place outside of the narrative world but still function as play. These moments are built around operator actions involving information and configuration. Once again, interactive television and video games share basic similarities in this moment, like the pause button and the ability to toggle the usage of captions with audio. Video games typically offer more non-diegetic operator actions through their pause menus than interactive television. Until Dawn offers players a variety of menu options when paused, like the ability to see stats about the relationship levels between characters in game and look at collectible items from the story.

The two previously mentioned moments focus on how the operator acts on the machine. Galloway argues that machines also act on players though. The third gamic moment, non-diegetic machine acts, occurs similarly in video games and interactive television. These moments take place outside of the narrative world but occur within the machine. Lag, crashes, and other machinic errors may occur regardless of medium and function as disabling acts.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 3. ))]

Galloway’s final gamic moment, diegetic machine acts, take place in the narrative world through pure machinic process, meaning the machine acts without input from an operator. This moment encompasses a range of actions common in video games, like the ambient acts of the non-playable characters, the game world, and playable characters that are not receiving operator input as well as cutscenes that continue unaffected by operator actions.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 10. ))] For instance, if a person walks away from Until Dawn without pausing, the character continues to exist in a moving narrative world in a moment of machinic ambience. This type of ambient action does not exist in interactive television because, to date, television streaming technology does not algorithmically generate content. It streams the pre-recorded footage available within the database. While moments of ambience denote one area where interactive television and video games differ, the machinic deployment of cutscenes truly highlights the need to understand interactive television and video games differently.

Cutscenes occur at the intersection of player input and
machinic response. The cutscene itself is a diegetic machine act, but the
trigger is a diegetic operator act. However, the interaction between human and
machine does not need to occur for cutscenes to play in Black Mirror:
. Netflix will automatically play the next scene whether or not
a viewer interacts with a choice. Because of this, current forms of interactive
television can be consumed without interaction between human and machine, where
audiences engage with the program actively instead of interactively.
This denotes a key difference between video games and interactive television
currently—to consume a narrative, video games require interactions between
humans and machines while interactive television provides the option for
interaction without the necessity.

While interactive television and video games share many of Galloway’s gamic moments, the moments they do not fully share, mainly the relationship between diegetic machine and operator acts, highlight the importance of distinguishing how the formal elements of different media can result in different types of audience engagement. Interactive television like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch allows audiences to consume stories either actively or interactively, a choice unavailable in video games. Active audience theory applies to both groups, but the narratives that active and interactive consumers see will likely differ based on their level of engagement. More interactive audiences have a broader range of possible narrative outcomes, which also broadens the number of potential ideological interpretations a text may provide.

Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.
  4. Galloway’s four moments on gamic action are broken up along two axes. (author’s image; adaptation of Galloway’s quadrants of four gamic moments)


Getting in Synch with Music Videos
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los angeles

Gloria Screen Grab from Author
Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.”

On September 8, 2019, The Lumineers’ III[ (( Album: Dualtone Records and Decca Records, 2019. ))] premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Kevin Phillips, the film is comprised of ten music videos—one for each track on the album—and like the album, it tells the dark, multi-generational tale of a family destroyed by addiction. As such, we might call III a visual album, though each of the videos has also been released online in a standalone capacity.[ (( All ten videos are available, along with a trailer for the project, on The Lumineers’ YouTube channel. ))] One of the lead videos released on YouTube, “Gloria” is especially grim. It introduces us to alcoholic mother Gloria Sparks, who loves her baby but wreaks havoc on her family. The sad, elliptical story in this installment of III culminates in a horrible car crash with uncertain repercussions. “Gloria” features the type of loosely sketched, socially conscious narrative that is on trend in current music videos but is by no means new.[ (( Aerosmith’s 1989 video for “Janie’s Got a Gun” would be right at home in the #MeToo era, though its rape-revenge narrative might feel regressive. Recent examples that I’ll return to in a later column are Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” and Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls.” ))] A far cry from the glitz and glam of some pop videos, “Gloria” is both moving and serious (as signaled by a plug for Alcoholics Anonymous in the credits below the video). This kind of seriousness (not to mention film festival premieres) sometimes earns music videos a “cinematic” label, but I would argue that “Gloria” is still a music video at heart, and that its music video qualities are as compelling as its narrative.

What are these qualities, though? Defining music video has proven an elusive task. Recent scholars have often dodged the question, settling on something like Steven Shaviro’s “I know it when I see it.”[ (( Steven Shaviro, Digital Music Videos (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 4. The quotation is a nod to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous non-definition of pornography. ))] Carol Vernallis suggests that the radical expansion of music videos, now no longer tethered to MTV or televisual limitations, means that we can no longer rely on the definition we once had, which was something like “a product of the record company in which images are put to a recorded pop song in order to sell the song.”[ (( Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 208. ))] This definition certainly feels dated to us now, but its emphasis on commerce was always too limiting. Think of Bruce Conner’s experimental films inspired by Ray Charles and Devo,[ (( Conner is often referred to as the grandfather of music videos, and J. Hoberman has elsewhere called his music films “art-world music videos.” ))] or Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos. Can’t we recognize something music video-esque in these non-commercial (or anti-commercial) works? Perhaps we don’t need a definition that delimits music video according to promotional function, medium (film, video, digital), or means of exhibition. Rather than policing the boundaries, can we ask what’s quintessential to this form?

The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drives Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).

If it’s true that we know a music video when we see it (and, importantly, hear it), how do we recognize it? When I ask students in my music video seminars this question, they usually begin by articulating a relationship between music and moving images, and ultimately clarify that music must drive the images in order for us to call this relationship music video.[ (( A big thanks to the students in my music video seminars past, present, and future. They have inspired many of my insights and examples here and elsewhere. Thanks also to Paul N. Reinsch, fellow music video aficionado and generous interlocutor. ))] This doesn’t mean that the images are merely supplemental, though, students point out. Nor does it foreclose the possibility of dialogue, sound effects, silence, or other music.

Giulia Gabrielli suggests that one of the constitutive ways that music and images “get in touch with each other” in music videos is through “synchronization points,” a term she draws from Michel Chion’s extensive work on audiovisual relations.[ (( Giulia Gabrielli, “An Analysis of the Relation between Music and Image: The Contribution of Michel Gondry,” in Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present and Future of the Music Video, ed. Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena (Piscataway, NJ: Transcript, 2010), 96. ))] Synch points provide consonance between musical and visual qualities. They can arise when editing, camera movement, or on screen movement matches a rhythm, or when a lyric is visualized, to give just a couple examples. Gabrielli valorizes the kind of tight synchronization we find in Michel Gondry’s video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” where each of five character types is tightly choreographed to match one musical “voice” (bass, guitar, drums, synthesizers, or vocoder).

Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”

This emphasis on audiovisual synchronization is not new, of course. It features regularly in the long history of artworks loosely labeled visual music. Purists will tell you that visual music is not a sound art—rather, it is visual art that draws upon musical structures, feelings, or languages.[ (( See, for instance, the work of visual music scholar William Moritz. ))] But visual music artists as diverse as Oskar Fischinger and John Whitney have paired their visual compositions with music to form compositions that we might recognize as music videos. There is clear continuity between this work and more recent music videos such as Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi,” Half•alive’s “still feel,” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” These videos, like their visual music predecessors, translate musical qualities into colors, shapes, and movements.

Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s
Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013).

If the tradition of visual music opens various avenues of audio-to-visual translation, though, it also raises questions about how tightly image should be synchronized to music. Fischinger told fellow filmmaker Hans Richter, who was critical of his work, “I never tried to translate sound into visual expressions.”[ (( Quoted in Cindy Keefer, “Optical Expression: Oskar Fischinger, William Moritz and Visual Music: An Edited Guide to the Key Concerns,” in Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, ed. Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: EYE Filmmuseum; Los Angeles: Center for Visual Music, 2012), 165. ))] Rather, Fischinger saw the kind of tight synchronization implied by translation as just one of many resources available to visual music artists. Using the metaphor of a river as the music and a person strolling along that river as the images, he suggests that “The film is in some parts perfectly synchronized with the music, but in other parts it runs free … sometimes we even go a little bit away from the river and later come back to it and love it so much more—because we were away from it.”[ (( Quoted in Keefer, “Optical Expression,” 166. Whitney similarly avoided exact translation of music to image. Bill Alves writes, “Although Whitney wrote of musical harmony being ‘matched’ in the visual domain, he resisted automatically mapping one characteristic to another across media, instead referring to this connection as a ‘complementarity.’” Bill Alves, “Consonance and Dissonance in Visual Music,” Organised Sound 17, no. 02 (August 2012): 116, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355771812000039. ))] Audiovisual synchronization in music videos often works this way.

Take “Gloria,” for instance. During significant stretches of the video, the image track attends more closely to the story than the music, and we could easily be watching a short film with musical score. But the video also includes many moments where images reinforce musical elements. The video begins with a ticking sound from a watch, which is quickly echoed on the guitar, and this sound is matched not only by several images of a watch, but by a visual ticking as we cut back and forth between the watch and a bottle cap being unscrewed. From there, long zooming takes of Gloria tilting a bottle to drink correspond with four consecutive bass drum kicks, which usher in the first lyrics. These shots introduce the character and her addiction, but just as importantly, they match the agitated quality of the music. Throughout the video, the images stray some from the river of music, but they always return to translate a lyric (“found you on the floor”) or accentuate a musical element (the collision of drumsticks becomes a bottle glancing off of logs). Synchronization points remind us that both music and image are integral to our experience, and it’s this delicate audiovisual dance that makes “Gloria” a music video.

“Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.

Not all music videos strike this balance, though. Carol Vernallis proposes that in music videos, music and image function like a couple who must constantly negotiate each other’s needs. “We can assume,” she says, “there are issues of dominance and subservience, passivity and aggression.”[ (( Vernallis, Unruly Media, 210. ))] The same might be said of the artistic and industrial forces at play in the making of music videos. What happens, for instance, when a musician’s vision and a director’s vision are not in synch? Can music and image still “get in touch”? In my next column, I’ll turn to the question of how music videos work.

Image Credits:

  1. Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drivers Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).
  3. Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”
  4. Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013). (author’s screen grabs)
  5. “Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.


Cord-Cutting Here, Untethering There: One Social Consequence of Cord-Cutting
Matthew Dewey / University of California, San Diego

Funds from San Diego's cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA
Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.

A strange and overarching metaphor for cord-cutting—the practice of dropping a cable TV subscription in favor of streaming video platforms through an internet only subscription—is the social/medical ritual of cutting the umbilical cord during the process of child-birth that separates the anatomies of the mother and child. Traditionally, the cutting is performed by a parent, or someone who is significantly tied to the child or the mother in some way rather than an anonymous attending doctor or medical staff. However, if we take the child-birth metaphor even farther, we would have to picture broadcast TV and the internet in the throes of digital copulation at some point. This is an awkward way to say that in their convergence, television discourses like choice, diversity, and national identity mix seamlessly with a “new world of the Mind” untethered from the governments of the industrial world (per John Perry Barlow’s 1996 cyberspace manifesto). But whether or not cord-cutting ushers in streaming’s promises, TV is still predominately delivered through wires strewn over or sunk beneath our city streets. This means wires have very material consequences, one of which is that cord-cutting undermines local cable franchise agreements.

To “cut the cord” is a common figurative way to suggest that something or someone gains independence or, in a slightly different light, loses their dependence. The use of parturition as a metaphor for embracing streaming represents the birth of a new consumer freedom and a separation from the umbilical tethers of big corporate media machines that have dominated TV distribution in the twentieth century. Cord-cutting is emboldening the reinvention of television’s commercial practices and interpellating a new consumer, one ready to take the first breaths of its new life in televisual humanity in a new world of streamism.

The metaphor is far more corporeal than the last great transformation of TV— the move from broadcast television to the multichannel environment of cable TV. Cable TV’s metaphors were expansive. The “blue sky” and “wired city” discourses promised choice, diversity and individualism, but also a national communications infrastructure and the shrinking of informational and cultural disparities between rural and urban and between rich and poor.[ (( Parsons, Patrick R. 2008. Blues skies: A history of cable television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Streeter, Thomas. 1997. “Blue skies and strange bedfellows: The discourse of cable television.” In The revolution wasn’t televised: Sixties television and social conflict, edited by Lynn Spigel and Martin Curtin. New York: Routledge. 221-44. ))] These metaphors were more environmental or geographic than carnal ones. The promise of diversity in television consumption came from physically connecting people to wires across vast distances. Cable’s multichannel capabilities may have been a more fragmented viewing experience for audiences in the 1970s who were used to receiving three or four broadcast channels from either California or New York, but cable TV created a far more concrete relationship with one’s local community through the establishment of the local cable franchise agreement. And this is where I start to get to my point.

Industry sponsored sites like Cord Cutters News and business sites like Fast Company tend to treat cord-cutting as a life hack. Their commentary, like most, is attractive in the ways it focuses almost entirely on how much money a household can save by cord-cutting. And those who choose to remain tethered to pay-TV schemes do so because they are duped by ignorance, habit, and laziness.[ (( Newman, Jared. 2019. The 6 dumbest cases against cord-cutting (and why they’re so wrong). Fast Company. Accessed on March 4, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90314272/the-6-dumbest-cases-against-cord-cutting-and-why-theyre-so-wrong. March 4, 2019. ))] Cord Cutters News founder, Luke Bouma, is especially hawkish when it comes to picking apart any arguments that suggest that exclusivity packages that large conglomerates like WarnerMedia and Disney are set to unveil in the next year will eventually become just as expensive as cable TV subscriptions.[ (( Bouma, Luke. 2019. Our rebuttal to the Atlantic’s anti-cord cutting story. Cord Cutters News. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.cordcuttersnews.com/our-rebuttal-to-the-atlantics-anti-cord-cutting-story/. June 12, 2019. ))] But rather than delve into whether or not households will save money by cord-cutting, I want to discuss a very material fact that cord-cutting does affect: your city’s cable franchise fee.

Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years
Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.

A cable franchise fee was institutionalized by the FCC in late 1960s and is the money a cable TV operator pays every year for running wires through public space. It is essentially rent for using city property. Franchise fees, which top out at five percent of the cable operators gross receipts from local subscribers, can put millions if not tens of millions of dollars into a city’s general fund. The city can then use these funds to pay for things like roads, schools and firefighters. While the history of the cable franchise is fraught with battles between cities and operators over who sets the terms of the agreement, in the last fifteen years federal policy has allowed states to remove cable franchise authority from municipal control and has narrowed the definition of what qualifies as a franchise fee.[ (( Federal Communications Commission. Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – MB Docket No. 05-311. ))] In particular, California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act only requires cable operators to pay fees on “cable TV services.”[ (( AB 2987. 2006. The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act. Accessed August 2011. from, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/05-06/bill/asm/ab_2951-3000/ab_2987_bill_20060929_chaptered.html ))] Simultaneously, corporations like AT&T lobbied state legislatures around the country in an effort to convince lawmakers that they were not a cable company, but a “broadband” company that offered “broadband services.” This recharacterization of services today means that streaming television is not considered a service that cable operators pay rent for—even if streaming TV uses the same wires as cable TV. The point: cord-cutting actually reduces the amount of money your provider pays to the city to make money off you.

This should matter for a very specific reason. The cable franchise agreement and fees have traditionally been one mechanism through which cities have been able to control the development of their telecommunications infrastructures in ways that are accessible and equitable to all residents. For instance, some of the programs the city of San Diego has tried to implement using franchise fees are the creation of “idea labs” built in public libraries in neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Diego. These labs are designed to provide low-income residents and students with access to production technology. Rick Bollinger, Cable Television Administrator at the San Diego Department of Technology, warns that it is these types of programs, as well as public, education, and government access channels that depend on franchise fees, that could be in jeopardy if funds dry up.[ (( Rick Bollinger, Department of Technology, City of San Diego, personal communication, June 2019. ))]

San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA
San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.

And they are drying up. From June 2015 to June 2017, the city of San Diego, California lost just over twelve percent in cable franchise fees, from almost nineteen million dollars to sixteen and a half million dollars.[ (( Garrick, David. 2017. Cities face revenue losses as cord cutting trend shrinks cable franchise fees. San Diego Tribune. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/politics/sd-me-cord-cuttiing-20171201-story.html. December 1, 2017. ))] Across the country in Tennessee, a May 2019 advisory report on the effects of cord-cutting on local revenue advised municipal governments to no longer consider cable franchise fees as revenue for funding government services.[ (( Lippard, Cliff. 2019. Memorandum: Cord-cutting and local revenue—Draft report for review and comment. Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. May 30, 2019. Accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/tacir/commission-meetings/2019may/2019May_Tab9CordCuttingMemo.pdf ))] But cord-cutting is simply one element in a broader attack upon local authority of city space by cable/broadband corporations. The loss of municipal jurisdiction, a reduction in services that require franchise fees, and cord-cutting are all contributing to an ever-growing consolidation and deterritorialization of local telecommunications infrastructures. Without such mechanisms like franchise agreements and fees, corporations are increasingly less obligated to respond to the needs, services, and issues of accessibility of individual communities.

In this sense, freedom,
choice, and opposition to large media conglomerates symbolized in the umbilical
cord-cutting metaphor feels less emancipatory or oppositional. Instead, with each cord cut, AT&T, Comcast, or
Spectrum pull farther and farther from any obligation to public good. Though a
cable franchise fee accounts for roughly one to two percent of an average
cities budget, that is still millions of dollars of revenue that large cable
and broadband corporations keep while they continue to pit cable TV and Netflix
against each other and against you. In the end, the natal freedom promised by
cord-cutting might just be Comcast’s.

Image Credits:

  1. Funds from San Diego’s cable franchise helped to fund the Legler Benbough Teen IDEA Lab at the Malcolm X Library in San Diego, CA.
  2. Consumers have turned to streaming content and digital television services to save money in recent years.
  3. San Diego teens can record and produce their own music using equipment at the IDEA Lab at Malcolm X Library, San Diego, CA.