To Each Their Own Ad: Nielsen and the Addressable Future of Linear TV
Jennifer hessler / Bucknell university

Nielsen at #AWNewYork 2019
Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.

Few companies have emblematized the perplexed ontology of television’s internet-convergence as well as Nielsen has. Throughout the last two decades, Nielsen’s corporate identity has occupied a disjunctive space between broadcasting’s legacy and the aggregative, big data logics of the digital landscape. All in all, throughout the past decade—partly due to the uncertain future of television itself—Nielsen’s identity has been decidedly incohesive. But following David Kenny’s recent promotion to CEO, and after undergoing months of strategic review, Nielsen hit the convention circuit this past spring with a new corporate mission—to be the industry’s “single source of media truth”—that foregrounds their move to entirely cloud-based software; their innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning; and perhaps most centrally, a more cohesive vision for how these innovations will converge with their legacy broadcast roots through a number of specific initiatives. A top priority is the initiative to incorporate addressable advertising into linear broadcasting, ultimately moving toward 100% addressability across all connected-TV. In simple terms, addressability is the ability to air different ads in the same ad spot to different viewers/households, targeted uniquely to each viewers’ identities and consumer habits (or, rather, to what their stored data indicates about their identities and habits).

Addressability has been the hot topic at industry conventions like CES, Consumer Marketing, and Ad Week this year. Since early trials in 2003, addressable advertising has been steadily incorporated into OTT services and streaming platforms. Currently ~40% of the ad-supported television landscape is addressable. A very small portion of this already occurs on linear TV through, for example, Direct TV set-top boxes. What’s new, is the initiative to scale this—to unlock “the whole 16 minutes,” as Nielsen’s Kelly Abcarian puts it.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))]

Multiple factors contribute to the push to “unlock” the addressability of linear TV. First, despite ever-dwindling ratings, broadcast television still has the largest audience reach. The American public watches around 36 billion hours of television a month, and 70% of it is linear and ad supported. In addition to currently bringing in the most ad revenue, linear has latent potential for growth. According to Tracey Scheppach, C.E.O. of Matter More Media, May’s upfronts actually left money on the table from advertisers who were wanting to place more dollars but simply couldn’t because there wasn’t enough (impressions) to sell.[ (( “Unlocking the Power of Addressability for All” panel. Advertising Week Conference. New York. September 24. 2019. ))] Addressability will enable broadcasters to splice their (already comparatively large) audience pie into infinitely more sellable units, resulting in a larger quantity of impressions up for sale.

Coupled with the motive, is the method. In the last four years, internet-enabled smart TV ownership has risen from 16% to 47% penetration and continues to grow.[ (( “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, ))] Throughout the past several years, Nielsen has pursued a number of strategic acquisitions—including Qterics, a smart-TV software and privacy management platform; Gracenote, an automated content recognition system; and Sorenson Media, which provides technologies for executing addressability—to build a system that takes advantage of smart TV’s census-level data collection and two-way information-sharing mechanisms to make addressability a reality.

Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.

While integrating
addressability into linear TV is ultimately an expansion of what is already
happening on OTT and streaming platforms, this move reconfigures many of the
ontological features of what we currently call “broadcasting.” More
particularly, the turn to addressability will uproot Nielsen’s current ratings
currency, change the way audiences are valuated, and further disintegrate the
remnants of broadcasting’s status as a shared cultural forum.

Nielsen’s commercial ratings, which have been
the industry’s primary currency for selling ad spots since 2007, combine the viewership
of an “average commercial minute” in a live broadcast with viewing data from three
days and seven days of its DVR playback to create C3 and C7 ratings,
respectively. Commercial ratings have enabled advertisers to micro-target their
ad loads based on minute-by-minute audience trends. But commercial ratings, as
they function now, are not suitable for an addressable environment because they
require all iterations (and playbacks) of a broadcast to carry an identical
commercial load. With the goal to bring their addressability system to the
market next year, Nielsen has a year to figure out how to reconcile C3/C7 with
addressability or derive a new ratings currency, the latter of which promises
to be a monumental task. Alternatively, with the “real time” machine learning
analytics available through internet-connected TVs, the move to addressability
could eventually mean the end of what’s left of a shared ratings currency for
the purpose of selling ads.

The incorporation of addressable ads into linear TV will also alter which demo groups or audience behaviors are considered most valuable (monetizable). For one, audiences that are “addressable”—audiences who own smart TVs, compared to unconnected TVs—will likely become exponentially more “valuable.” While smart TV ownership is rapidly increasing, owners of smart TVs still tend to be higher income and more educated as a whole, with 46% possessing a bachelor’s degree and 15% being in the top-10 percent socio-economic group.[ (( “Profiling the American Smart TV Owner,” Kantar Media, December 11, 2017, ))] Addressability could make relatively privileged early adopters of smart TVs particularly valuable audiences, motivating a shift in television content to appeal to these demos.

Among viewers who do have connected-TVs, addressability will further silo audiences into increasingly prescribed demographic categories.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press,1998); Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012). ))] The industry rhetoric around addressability spins this in a positive way, as an “opportunity for personalization.” Pointing to the fact that the spending power across Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans is poised to increase .7 trillion dollars by 2023, Nielsen’s CEO Kenny (who recently adopted the title of Chief Diversity Officer) claims that addressability can more efficiently respond to the “new multicultural viewer.”[ (( Sheryl Estrada, “Nielsen CEO David Kenny Explains His Decision to Take on the Role of Chief Diversity Officer,” Diversity Inc; “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, ))] But Nielsen’s recent diversity initiatives are also a move to preempt the significant challenges machine learning poses to diversity and cultural representation. Through ad targeting, audience demo categories will be prescribed more stringently through data determined not only by our TV viewing, but also potentially our internet browsing history, consumer purchases, political affiliations, and credit history. Moreover, because these audience valuations will be increasingly based on census level data, shared proprietarily, and scaled through machine learning, our ability to critique how demos are constituted as well as the biases that inform how they’re addressed will be diminished.

Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.

Lastly, addressability further fragments broadcasting’s ever-dwindling status as a shared cultural forum by ensuring that we increasingly only receive ads that are geared toward topics we’re already interested in, brands that cater to our social identities, messages we already agree with. Abcarian and Scheppach argue that addressability gives creatives the tools to respond to the unique, complex ways that demo groups want to be spoken to. They point to Under Amour’s “I Will, What I Want” and Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ads as examples of the progressive opportunities of “relevant” targeting. But while these ads speak effectively to young women in search of inspiring feminist role models, in an addressable environment these ads miss the opportunity to expose these ideals to (or challenge the mindsets of) other viewers. As algorithmic distributed media increasingly silos us into “gated communities” and “filter bubbles”—further entrenching us each within the perspectives we already hold while polarizing alternative viewpoints—the deleterious effects of this on social progress are already apparent.[ (( Joseph Turow, Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (University of Chicago Press, 1998); Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin Books, 2012) ))] The unique connection that broadcasting still garners with audiences, addressing us in the comfort of our living rooms, makes the further disintegration of the cultural forum all the more impactful.

Ultimately, these machine learning initiatives
mark a substantial divergence for Nielsen from their historical role as
currency. Nielsen is now also providing the mechanisms for media distributors
to execute (in real-time) against the audience data
they produce. Just as Nielsen’s disjunctive identity thus far in the new
millennium has emblematized the transitional ontology of television, their rebranding in this way forecasts how the conflation
of machine learning and creative decision making will shape television’s future.

Image Credits:

  1. Nielsen tweet from Sept. 20th, 2019 publicizing their panel on the evolution of television advertising measurement at 2019’s Advertising Week in New York City.
  2. Kelly Abcarian, General Manager for Nielsen’s Advanced Video Advertising Group, discusses Nielsen’s addressability initiatives.
  3. Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny explains his adoption of the role of Chief Diversity Officer.


Winning Over La La Land: Prestige and Promotional Media Labor
Jesse Balzer / Indiana University

Clio Awards

Winners at the Clio Awards

For many critics, contemporary movie trailers have lost their voice. Following the deaths of prominent voice actors Don La Fontaine and Hal Davis in 2008 and 2014, respectively, many covering the film and media industries used their deaths to bemoan the “lost art” of the modern movie trailer. Even Lake Bell’s In a World… (2013), which tells the story of a female voice actor trying to break into a field dominated by men, seems similarly nostalgic for an old-fashioned movie trailer business.

Yet, unlike the somewhat anachronistic world of In a World…, the promotional media para-industries have largely moved away from all caps pronouncements of “IN A WORLD…” or “THIS SUMMER…” Like much of film and media marketing history, stylistic trends like this one remain incredibly difficult to periodize with any certainty, given a tendency, replicated too often, to treat promotional material as subordinate, in-between, and/or ephemeral. [ (( For more, see: Paul Grainge, ed., Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube (London: British Film Institute, 2011).))] Thankfully, this trend is changing with recent scholarly, and archival, attention. [ (( For example, see: Patrick Vondereau, Bo Florin, and Nico de Klerk, eds., Films That Sell: Moving Pictures and Advertising (London: British Film Institute, 2017). Additionally, Fred Greene, Keith Johnston, and Ed Vollans have produced fantastic work on film trailers through their Watching the Trailer project.))]

Promotional media discourse, in its trade journals and rituals, treat stylistic change, like the loss of the trailer voice over, as evolutionary: in the seemingly inexorable march of progress, advertising techniques throw off anything which could hold it back from becoming ever more successful, sophisticated, supple, and artistic. So, while popular opinion may occasionally pine for the return of familiar, hand-holding Voice of God narrators in movie trailers, the promotional media para-industries have largely left this technique behind as a hackneyed device of a bygone era.

These industry-sponsored discussions and evaluations of promotional media have been vastly undertheorized in popular and scholarly analyses of the subject. [ (( Though Paul Grainge and Catherine Johnson devote some time to the subject of promotional media award shows in their excellent book, Promotional Screen Industries (New York: Routledge, 2015), this is not their primary focus.))] Award shows, such as the annual Clio Entertainment Awards, promote the value of promotional media, augur future developments in the field, canonize key promotional (para-) texts and laborers, and establish the promotional viability and best practices of new commercial media platforms. The Clio Entertainment Awards provide structure for the labor of promotional media as the field keeps pace with broader technological and cultural shifts. As a key prize-granting institution, the Clio Entertainment’s authorize, to a significant degree, what is considered to be valuable promotional media work. [ (( James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005) remains one of the few scholarly explorations of prize-granting institutions like the Clio Entertainment Awards and the cultural capital they yield.))]

Clio Awards Matinee
The Theatre at teh Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles hosts the Clio Awards

Formerly run under the auspices of The Hollywood Reporter, the Clio Entertainment Awards (née Key Art Awards) take place each year in Los Angeles. While untelevised, the Clios mimic televised award shows like the Oscars or Emmys, especially in their tendency to run over their allotted time and in their proclivity for insider humor. Much like previous ceremonies, the 2017 event was performed in a fairly ornate setting, the Theatre at the Ace Hotel (the former United Artists Building) in downtown Los Angeles; and featured a celebrity host (the now-disgraced Jeffrey Tambor). In this association with Hollywood as a space of glamor and creativity, the Clio Entertainment Awards seek to associate the work of trailer producers, editors and copywriters with directors, screenwriters, actors, and the other above-the-line creative talent honored at similar events like the Oscars. The Clios, then, function as one of the few sites where the generally unseen or otherwise taken-for-granted laborers in media promotion ascend, even if only for a moment, to the privileged status (and spaces) of media authorship.

Clio Awards Show
Inside the Theatre at the Ace Hotel for the Clio Awards

Since their inception as the Key Art Awards in 1972, the Clio Entertainment Awards have kept pace with the broader convergence and conglomeration of the media industries, shifting and growing categories to bestow prestige upon new media platforms and strategies. No longer focused exclusively on the film industry, the Clio Entertainment Awards instead cover promotional media in the broad categories of theatrical, home entertainment, television/streaming, and video games; and award prestigious Grand, Gold, Silver, and Bronze statues for the best trailers, posters, packaging, press kits, social media campaigns, and partnerships. In shifting or creating new award categories, the Clio Entertainment Awards help to catalyze the potential of new and cross-media promotion, setting standards of evaluation for work within this field; work which is valued, simultaneously, for its “effectiveness” (box office performance, impressions, reach, hits, likes) and its “creative excellence.” Trailer boutiques or agencies, as well as individual promotional media laborers, display these awards prominently in their offices, on their websites, and in resumes, attesting to the use-value of the Clios as symbolic capital, crucial to sustaining and acquiring new work within the field. [ (( See, for example, this news post from Trailer Park, one of this para-industries’ most prominent agencies.))]

LaLaLand ad Campaign
Example of the La La Land Integrated Campaign

The Integrated Campaign Award perhaps most transparently illustrates how the value of promotional media is calculated. Like many other entries in the category, Lionsgate’s Integrated Campaign for La La Land (2016), winner of a Clio Grand award in 2017, consists of a short video which proves (to a jury of peers working in the field) the scope, reach, and artistic merit of a promotional strategy carefully managed across time, space, and media platforms. Essentially a trailer for an entire marketing campaign, La La Land’s Integrated Campaign video chronicles the execution of a promotional campaign from beginning to end: from the rollout of early teaser trailers, to the use of social media, to the orchestration of pre-release publicity for stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Furthermore, it does so by describing the four “movements” of the marketing campaign, inspired, the video claims, “by classical symphony structure,” drawing comparisons in this instance between media promotion and the formal structure of a classical art form.

Curiously, a male narrator guides viewers (and, most importantly, judges) through these movements, illustrating the continuities between promotion and the film. For media para-industries which have almost entirely moved away from voice-over narration in trailers, for instance, it’s intriguing that these videos so often rely on the anachronistic Voice of God narration as a structuring device, ushering viewers through an entire campaign, all in order to argue for the successful maintenance of key marketing messages. Crucially, however, the video is also careful to put that campaign in its proper, hierarchical place as media labor: ultimately, as the narrator explains, the campaign is serving the needs, or following the lead, of a parent text, and the integrated campaign for La La Land is, ultimately, only excellent insofar as it draws upon and supports the film La La Land.

As a semi-public trade ritual, then, the Clio Entertainment Awards afford us the opportunity to other sides of promotional media: how evaluation by its award-granting institutions is endemic to how these para-industries function as media labor; how these evaluations are not straightforward calculations of economic value, but dense negotiations of economic and cultural or artistic value; and how, despite being temporarily assigned the prestigious label of authorship, promotional media labor remains part of para- or support industries, labor whose value can be understood, ultimately in service of parent films, shows, franchises, or properties. How we think about promotional media, particularly as para-industries of media labor, needs to take into account the role played by prize-granting institutions like the Clio Entertainment Awards in structuring what work is considerable valuable.

Image Credits:

1. Winners at the Clio Awards
2. The Theatre at teh Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles hosts the Clio Awards
3. Inside the Theatre at the Ace Hotel for the Clio Awards
4. Example of the La La Land Integrated Campaign (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

:30 Spot on Life Support?: Considering Media Advertising Options
Justin Wyatt / University of Rhode Island

:30 Spot on Life Support?

When viewers are asked about their sources of awareness for a new TV show, almost without fail, ‘television commercials on the network’ emerge as the leading response. Intuitively, it makes sense: viewers of a particular network are ‘captive audiences’ to be exposed to promos for new shows, and, with any luck, the like-minded show being advertised fits with the show being watched. In 2014, reviewing results from an audience questionnaire, I found that ‘social media’ had supplanted TV promos as the key source of awareness for a particular new show. Suddenly even one of the most trusted adages of television marketing needed to be thrown out the window. Of course, the exciting – and terrifying – aspect of the period was how many other truisms of television marketing were being revised, reformed, and sometimes simply rejected by the new variety of options for TV consumption. I want to consider one specific battleground from this arena: the role of digital vs. television advertising. [ ((Brian Steinberg, “Do TV and Advertising Belong Together,” Variety, September 18, 2014,] Rather than push to conclusions on the relative merits and liabilities of each, I am interested in the ways through which the media industries have negotiated a dialogue over these advertising forms. This dialogue enacts certain strategies of resistance against the encroachment of digital advertising, but, over time, even this resistance has become frayed. More recently, some industry leaders have made a larger argument that is probably more relevant: what role does advertising play at all for consumers, viewers, and audience members?

Markers in the Timeline

Going back to 2007, Ryan McConnell’s Advertising Age article, ‘How the Ad World Is Dealing with the Decline of the :30,’ focuses on the financial accommodations being made in TV advertising to create spots at a lower cost. [ (( Ryan McConnell, “How the Ad World’s Dealing with the Decline of the :30,” Advertising Age, 78.45, November 12, 2007: 14.))] This shift toward online video and alternate platforms paralleled the economic downturn at that time to privilege more cost effective ways to connect with consumers. Digital ad spending grew year-by-year until, by 2017, it finally outstripped TV advertising ($209 billion for digital and $178 billion for TV). [ (( Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, “2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV,” Recode, December 4, 2017, ))] Looking solely at the US market, eMarketer forecast that the percentage of TV ad spend would be topped by digital ad spend in 2017, with increases leading to a 12% gap by 2020. [ (( “Digital Ad Spending to Surpass TV Next Year,”,] The death knell for television advertising is confounded by the simple fact that TV advertising is still, in fact, slowly growing. Brian Steinberg reported that the 2017 network ‘upfronts’ demonstrated a 3-4% gain for advanced advertising commitments compared to 2016. [ (( Brian Steinberg, “How TV Tuned in More Ad Dollars: Digital Doubts, Drugs and Desperation,” Variety, July 13, 2017,] Further, the pace of digital advertising growth has slowed, making the ‘threat’ less of an immediate concern.

US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total) — Projection

Strategies of Resistance

The trajectory of revenues for digital and television ads is only so interesting. In our consumer society, goods are there to be sold and bolstering awareness, image, and consideration through advertising and communication, of any form, remains absolutely central. More thought-provoking are the ways through which the industry has attempted to shape the image for TV vs. digital advertising. The model of television advertising has been crucial to commercial television since the days of single show sponsorships. It is hardly surprising that the industry has marshaled a robust ‘campaign’ on multiple fronts to protect TV advertising as a form.

One of the fronts for this resistance has been quantification. The standards for evaluating and counting the experience of watching an online video ad have been in process, with several purveyors offering ways to understand volume, sentiment and engagement with online video. Given that Nielsen ratings are the accepted currency for TV ratings among content providers, agencies, and consumer brands, this monopolization makes for an easy and reliable way to understand audience, even if there are serious and ongoing debates on how Nielsen has accounted for quantifying cross-screen viewing. The multiple options for online measurement, with Nielsen just one of many players at the table, encourage questions on the efficacy of digital advertising: how long do people watch? What’s the context of their viewing? How does engagement differ compared to encountering :30 spots on TV?

These question underline a recurring theme of resistance: to suggest that the online video ad experience is qualitatively different than the TV ad experience. In 2016, Geri Wang, then ABC Sales President, offered a vigorous examination of digital advertising. [ (( David Lieberman, “ ABC Tells Advertisers That TV Spots Sell Better Than Digital Ones,” Deadline, May 17, 2016,] Her position was that the concept of prime time equals a ‘promise of quality.’ So, in effect, the television advertising experience is bolstered by this preferential screen. The pitch was accompanied by a report from Accenture, a high-profile consulting and strategy firm. The benefits of multiplatform advertising were proclaimed, with the distinct ‘halo effect’ of television spots over the rest of the advertising package. For digital, marginal rates declined quickly and the value of long-form (=TV) vs. short-form (=online) video were identified. The bottom line was that ‘TV drives sales,’ digital was seen as a useful, but secondary, augment. Separate from the ABC position, a variety of limitations have been leveled against digital advertising: click fraud, ad blocking, and the placement of video next to objectionable content to name just a few of the complaints.

Steve Whittington (Executive Director, Consumer Data & Analytics, Disney/ABC TV Group) Discusses the Accenture Study

The other broadcast networks also have made a spirited defense of TV advertising. NBCUniversal Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships Chairman Linda Yaccarino presented evidence that premium video delivers 4 times the brand awareness as social media and 11 times more than short-form video. The message is that premium video is essentially a different product than digital advertising. The value and engagement levels make digital a much less appealing prospect. [ (( David Lieberman, “NBCU Ad Chief Blasts Digital Platforms For Links To “Objectionable” Content,” Deadline, May 15, 2017,] CBS Research chief David Poltrack in December 2017 offered an even stronger position by asserting that TV is in a growth period, arguing for the health of TV advertising. [ (( Dade Hayes, “CBS Research Guru David Poltrack Sees “Bright Future Ahead” For Broadcast TV,” Deadline, December 4, 2017,] Admitting that measuring audience is still a challenge, Poltrack argued that ‘digital powerhouses’ (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix) are still placing their marketing money in television. [ (( Jeanine Poggi, “CBS Has a Much Different Forecast for TV Advertising Than Agencies Do,” AdAge, December 4, 2017,] Vouching for the value of TV advertising, Poltrack commented, “Why would you fund your new experimental work with money from the element of your marketing program that has proven to lift return on investment higher than other parts?” [ (( Brian Steinberg, “CBS Makes Pitch To Keep TV Advertising Dollars From Moving To Digital,” Variety, December 8, 2014,] The point is a valid one, but swipes aside a set of other issues: how has cross platform viewing impacted engagement and brand recall of TV advertising? What are the demographic differences (especially among millennials) present in consuming TV advertising? How do ‘cord nevers’ even expect TV advertising to be part of their entertainment equation?

David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television

‘That’s (TV Advertising) Entertainment!’

Being loyal to their company or optimistic about the future of a medium which has shaped multiple generations is, of course, entirely acceptable. And perhaps the issues surrounding digital advertising are warranted. The real argument may not be digital vs. television advertising, but rather how our contemporary society engages with advertising as part of their media consumption. The days of considering how DVRs impact ad recall and viewership seem quaint in comparison. Speaking at a forum in December 2017, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt offered a harsher assessment of television advertising: “Consumers hate advertising. People are running away from advertising in droves, and so that, to me, is the crux of the problem. How do we stop that from happening?…We have to figure out a ways to make those interruptions a lot more palatable, a lot more entertaining, a lot more relational, or they’re going to keep going. And going and going and going.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “NBC’s Bob Greenblatt: “People Are Running Away From Advertising In Droves,” Deadline, November 28, 2017,]

NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Greenblatt’s call-to-action is inspiring since it renews the proposition that advertising, television or digital, needs to have an entertainment quotient as well as a communicative one. What are the implications of this? Clearly, advertising should be compelling on the level of storytelling and emotional engagement. Those are just points of entry for any advertising. Even more persuasive are those moments when advertising can break free of the formal qualities, TV or digital. Experimenting with single show sponsorships, in-show sponsor-related content, and limited commercial interruptions illustrate the ways through which a network can balance internal brand building and alignment of the entertainment brand with the commercial brand. These kinds of formal experiments with program, advertising, and venue may at least lead toward shifting the model of viewer, advertiser, and program content. Perhaps they will also enhance advertising effectiveness beyond the silos of television and digital advertising.

In some limited ways, these experiments in the model of viewer, advertiser and program are already ongoing. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, for instance, focuses on the long-term brand building of network through its shows rather than on Nielsen ratings. As Landgraf comments on his strategy, “I don’t have to measure success based on who watched it today but rather what it meant to people.” [ (( Dade Hayes, “FX Chief John Landgraf: ‘I Remain Skeptical About Social Media’ Driving TV Viewing,” Deadline, September 28, 2017,] FX launched FX+, through Comcast, in September 2017 allowing viewers to watch commercial free versions of FX shows at the same time the shows are airing on FX. In addition, FX’s past series are also available as part of the service. [ (( Josef Adalian, “FX’s Subscription Service FX+ Is a Big Step Toward TV’s Unbundled Future,” Vulture, August 7, 2017,] Following an earlier experiment by AMC (AMC Premium), FX+ offers consumers an alternative to commercial entertainment without any delays or dilution to the brand. The FX/FX+ example is offered not as a prescription to solve the issues with advertising consumption, but just as one strategy to reconsider how viewers interact with content and advertising within media. Further trials in the form and structure of advertising are needed to ensure the development of media advertising. The scuffle of television vs. digital advertising should not replace the more global issue of how advertising will function in the context of mass media entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. eMarketer’s Projection: US Total Media Ad Spending Share, by Media, 2014-2020 (% of total)
2. BeetTV: Project By ABC, Accenture Sees Understatement Of Multiplatform TV ROI
3. David Poltrack, Chief Research Officer, CBS Corporation, Positive About the Future of Television
4. NBCU’s Bob Greenblatt Offers Harsh Words on Advertising

Please feel free to comment.

Tumblr’s GIF Economy: The Promotional Function of Industrially Gifted Gifsets
Lesley Willard / University of Texas at Austin


Traditionally, fandom has operated on a gift economy. Rather than money, fans exchange gifts – time, effort, creative works – to express affection, solidify social bonds, and reciprocate previous presents. As Lewis Hyde notes, such an economy is characterized by reciprocity, effectively creating and maintaining a cohesive communal structure through social obligation. [ (( Hyde, Lewis. “The Bond.” The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. 66-67. ))] Much like the commercial economy, fandom’s gift economy has migrated online in recent decades. With Tumblr serving as fandom’s de facto online hub, the platform’s technological affordances have encouraged a different iteration of the gift economy. On Tumblr, gifts are often graphics based and shared through posting and reblogging. Tumblr’s iteration has also afforded the television industry an opportunity to easily (and in some senses, organically) infiltrate and participate in fandom’s gift economy – most recently through Tumblr’s ubiquitous GIF.

GIFs have long been popular with fan communities on Tumblr. Fans create them, share them, and remix them, for a variety of purposes and contexts. Some fans use GIFs to “relive the best moments of that week’s episode or to closely analyze a sequence,” while others use them as comic reactions or to create fanworks. [ (( Warner, Kristen. “ABC’s Scandal and Black Women’s Fandom.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. Ed. Elana Levine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 43. ))] Fans even create GIF fics, in which individual GIFs are combined to imply narrative causality. As Louisa Stein demonstrated in a recent issue of Flow, fans utilize vidding conventions to compile and combine GIFs in various ways to highlight characters, demonstrate themes, and/or illustrate relevant songs. These gifsets – carefully curated and purposefully arranged collections of GIFs – can be arranged in a grid for thematic and aesthetic reasons or posted in chronological order for narrative purposes.

While fan scholars such as Paul Booth, Nistasha Perez, and Louisa Stein have studied gifsets primarily as fan phenomena, we must also consider their provenance: fans are no longer the only parties creating gifsets. [ (( For more information on GIFs as fan practice, see Paul Booth’s Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, Nistasha Perez’s piece in Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who, and Louisa Stein’s Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age. ))] In recent years, the social media promotional teams supporting millennial-focused networks like CW, MTV, and Freeform have begun creating GIFs from excerpted television footage and posting them synchronously with the episode’s broadcast. This practice is called live-giffing, a term coined by MTV’s off-air creative team in 2012. Rather than being solely created by fans, for fans, via torrented episodes, gifsets are now also created by the networks and shared via their official Tumblr accounts. This small change marks a significant shift in Tumblr’s gift economy: as advertising materials, the official GIFs that circulate through Tumblr fandom now connote both communal and commercial value.

Teen Wolf Screencap

The official Teen Wolf Tumblr introduces live-giffing on July 30, 2012

Like the contemporary practice of livetweeting, live-giffing involves posting GIFs in real-time via the show’s official social media account. Unlike livetweeting, however, live-giffing evolved out of and largely operates within the established fan practices on Tumblr. By posting high-quality gifsets on their official Tumblrs (essentially gifting them to fans and followers), networks are effectively co-opting fandom’s gift economy. These gifted GIFs are often branded with the networks’ logo so, as they circulate through Tumblr fandom, they function simultaneously as fanwork fodder and promotional material. Enabling and encouraging the dissemination of these GIFs allows for a more targeted circulation of advertising materials than traditional top-down promotional practices could achieve. Not to mention it’s free.

MTV’s Teen Wolf may have been the first show to embrace live-giffing, but others soon followed. In fact, most of the shows on the CW, MTV, and Freeform post GIFs occasionally on various social media platforms; some even post them in time with their episodes, though they usually reblog GIFs and gifsets originally created by fans. [ (( The shows that post GIFs sporadically tend to do so through Twitter, which allows for circulation but forecloses further fan practices. Unlike Tumblr, Twitter does not allow users to save posted GIF files to their hard drive, a necessary step in the creation of fan gifsets ))] Of the twenty-eight currently airing shows on these networks, thirteen engaged in live-giffing practices during the 2015-2016 season. [ (( My research was limited to these millennial-focused broadcast and cable networks because their target demographics most commonly overlap with Tumblr’s user-base. ))] Freeform, more so than any other network, has embraced this emerging practice: their promotional teams currently live-gif eight of their nine scripted shows. One of their newest shows, Shadowhunters, is emblematic of both the industrial logics and fannish consequences of these industrially gifted gifsets.

Shadowhunters Screencap

The official Shadowhunters Tumblr kicks off their series premiere with live-giffing

While shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf adopted live-giffing practices mid-run (sometimes mid-season), Shadowhunters episodes and gifsets premiered simultaneously on January 12, 2016 – the same day ABC Family officially dropped “family” from both its moniker and target audience. Freeform’s rebranding was spurred by President Tom Ascheim’s desire to reach “Becomers,” a network-coined term for the 12-to-34 year old demographic that covers the younger swath of millennial viewers. According to Ascheim, the name was chosen to reflect the digital literacies of “Becomers”:

Media is oozing onto all sorts of different screens and platforms and it feels kind of free form in the way that people find it. Our audience doesn’t see themselves as consumers, but as makers so we wanted a name that felt participatory — they would be part of the process. [ (( Tom Ascheim in Wagmeister, Elizabeth. “ABC Family to Rebrand Network ‘Freeform’ in January.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 6 Oct. 2015. ))]

Freeform, like the other millennial-focused networks, is cultivating a participatory, collaborative relationship between producers and consumers. By live-giffing their episodes on Tumblr, Freeform can leverage their multiplatform promotional efforts to encourage and direct, if not control, fan engagement.

Essentially, the industrially gifted gifsets function as native advertisements for potential audiences. As fans repurpose and reblog the official GIFs, their followers – who may or may not be aware of the show – will be introduced to Shadowhunters via the branded, network-provided GIFs. Creating and distributing gifsets on Tumblr increases market penetration with desirable demographics (the “Becomers”) while decreasing advertising costs. Networks are able to leverage digital technologies and the portability of television to collapse production hierarchies and outsource advertising labor to fans. Co-opting the extant fan practice of freely circulating GIFs allows promotional teams to tap into their fandom’s established distribution channels at little-to-no cost. While these practices don’t preclude fans from creating and using their own GIFs, they are indicative of industry’s increasingly active and influential participation in fan spaces and practices, as well as the eroding boundaries between commercial and gift economies.

Stavos-hale’s post illustrates the incorporation of official GIFs into extant fan practices

For example, here a Tumblr fan has posted two GIFs (from Teen Wolf and Shadowhunters, respectively) to celebrate and support their favorite TV (relation)ships across fandoms. Under each GIF, attribution is given to the source from which they were reblogged. Notably, neither mentions the official Teen Wolf or Shadowhunters Tumblr. With each reuse and reblog, the provenance of the GIF is further obscured – unlike the network’s branding, which can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the Shadowhunters GIF. [ (( It is worth noting that, unlike Freeform and the CW, MTV does not brand their GIFs with network or show logos. As such, it is more difficult and less conclusive to trace their diffusion through Tumblr fandom. This choice, however difficult logistically, does hint at a fannish literacy that its competitors have yet to develop. ))] As this post demonstrates, Tumblr’s rhizomatic reblogging allows these industrially gifted GIFs to circulate ever further from their industrial origin while maintaining their promotional potential. As fans continue to express their affection through gifts and GIFs, networks continue to benefit financially.

Providing industrially gifted gifsets is neither universal nor obligatory for television networks. However, the practice is gaining traction among millennial-focused networks, both broadcast and cable. As these viral marketing strategies continue to collapse production workflows, textual boundaries, and industrial authority, we must consider how they also collapse fan-producer boundaries and blend commercial and communal value. Just a year after they began live-giffing on Tumblr, Teen Wolf began directly outsourcing their gifsets to fans like qhuinn and Neptunepirate – a model of professionalization that has only spread in the interim. Fandom has, by nature and by necessity, functioned via a gift economy. As television fandom is increasingly monetized and its fans are subsequently professionalized, we must consider how industry’s incursion into fannish spaces imbalances the gift economy and complicates the fan ecology.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s GIF
2. Post from the official Teen Wolf Tumblr announcing live-giffing (author’s screen grab)
3. First GIF from Shadowhunters’ maiden live-GIF session, posted on Tumblr during the premiere (author’s screen grab)
4. Stavos-Hale’s Tumblr post

Please feel free to comment.

“Why 2008 Won’t Be Like 1984:” Viral Videos and Presidential Politics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

As a media studies scholar and an incurable political junkie, I watched with fascination this week as the drama surrounding the (initially) anonymously posted “Vote Different” advertisement unfolded. In my previous article for Flow, I addressed some reservations about the hype regarding participatory culture, while the 2006 elections clearly depicted the potential for online videos to shape political discourse.

The “Vote Different” video, in my reading, raises further questions regarding the potential of the internet to shape the political process, questions I’m not entirely sure I can answer. These questions grow out of the following dilemma: While I remain unconvinced that the “Vote Different” advertisement significantly altered the current political discourse, I still find the underlying message of citizen empowerment irresistible.

“Vote Different,” a mashup of the highly-regarded 1984 Apple Macintosh Super Bowl advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, replaces the IBM-style Big Brother figure in the Apple advertisement with footage of Hillary Clinton’s “Conversation with America” speech. The ad famously depicts a dreary world in which workers wearing identical grey clothing move listlessly through their workday while passively absorbing the messages delivered from the giant screen that hovers above them. As Senator Clinton speaks to the inert audience, an athletic woman sprints through the crowd, throwing a hammer through the screen, and by implication shattering the “politics-as-usual” she has come to represent. Edited onto the woman’s t-shirt is a modified Apple logo made to resemble an O, identifying her with rival presidential candidate Barack Obama. The original advertisement, an allegory of the Macintosh user fighting against a conformist establishment, maps neatly onto cultural desires for a more participatory political system.

The mashup is one of the first truly viral videos to emerge from the 2008 presidential election. The original “Vote Different” video had been viewed over two million times on YouTube alone, but its real online audience would be almost impossible to measure. The video has also inspired a number of imitations, including this clumsily assembled anti-Obama mashup of the same Macintosh advertisement with the Illinois Senator’s popular Monday Night Football appearance.

Of course, one of the reasons the advertisement is so successful is its creative reinterpretation of Ridley Scott’s original Macintosh advertisement, which aired only once during the 1984 Super Bowl. While the mashup attempts to align Senator Clinton with “politics-as-usual,” through the reference to Apple’s “revolutionary” brand, it has the added bonus of bringing the legendary Apple advertisement back into public consciousness (in fact, I’m not sure that I had even seen the original Macintosh ad since its 1984 broadcast).

Much of the controversy surrounding the video can be attributed to the fact that it was originally posted anonymously on YouTube several weeks ago under the pseudonym, ParkRidge47 (Hilary Clinton was born in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1947). Because the video was posted anonymously and because it explicitly identified Clinton with Big Brother, a number of readings emerged on the web attributing the video not only to Obama supporters but also to Republican activists. While the anonymity initially posed a number of interpretive difficulties, Jeff Jarvis argued in The Washington Post that the anonymously posted advertisement betrayed an important trust within political discourse, representing the possibility that attack ads could come from “anywhere.” The video’s creator, Phil de Vellis, eventually stepped forward, taking credit for the ad when it became clear that his work on it might reflect poorly on his employer, Blue State Digital, which had worked on the Obama campaign. De Vellis’s involvement with Blue State Digital certainly raises questions about whether the advertisement is genuinely the product of a “political outsider;” however, the repeated viewings certainly suggest that the advertisement has struck a chord with the groups who have been closely following the 2008 election.

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

The debate about the advertisement also managed to attract the attention of newspaper and cable news analysts who typically argued that its popularity marked a historic shift where anyone could participate in the election process. In fact, the advertisement has prompted a number of observers to describe the advertisement as “revolutionary,” with Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, arguing in the San Francisco Chronicle, that the ad is “about the end of the broadcast era.” However, while the ad is no doubt powerful and illustrates the potential of citizen media, I can’t help but find myself feeling skeptical when I hear phrases like “revolutionary” and “end of the broadcast era” being thrown around. Instead, it’s worth emphasizing that the ad’s popularity actually depends in part on the broadcast media that it supposedly threatens. De Vellis himself promoted this reading on The Huffington Post, commenting that “the specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton’s ‘conversation’ is disingenuous. And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power.”

Whether de Vellis’s specific point about the Clinton campaign is true, I remain somewhat uncertain regarding the role of voter-generated content in shaping political discourse. The advertisement does little, in my opinion, to change popular perception of the two Democratic frontrunners. Clinton will continue to be perceived as the Washington insider identified with traditional political campaigns while Obama’s image as someone who will reinvigorate the political process remains unchanged. It is clear, however, that these videos are attracting audiences because they tap into larger cultural desires regarding the election process. As David Weinberger pointed out in the Washington Post article, “expressing frustration and unhappiness with the level of control that her campaign is exerting.” I certainly recognize the degree to which the “Vote Different” advertisement and its popularity is an expression of the desire to open up the election process to greater participation. And the expression of this desire may be the great contribution of “Vote Different” to our ongoing conversations about democracy and participation.

Image Credits:
1. Clinton Still from Summary
2. Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

Video Credits:
1. “Vote Different” (Anti-Clinton)
2. “Vote Different” (Anti-Obama)

Please feel free to comment.

Merging With Diversity, or, Got MLK?

the cast of Seventh Heaven

the cast of Seventh Heaven

On Monday, January 23rd, the WB Network’s Seventh Heaven tackled An Important Issue in an episode called “Got MLK?” Previews suggested a civil rights riot of sorts, and so, ever keen to see how to solve racial intolerance in forty-five minutes, I made a date to watch it. A new African-American boy, Alex (played by Sam Jones III), moves to town, and his zeal to write a report on Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and wooden character Martin’s dismay that Alex finds the memory of King more important than baseball) inspires a teacher to make the students rewrite their reports on famous African-Americans. From there, all goes awry — hate crimes directed at Martin’s prominently placed Honda Element (yes, even Important Issues need product placement, so it seems), fights, corny dialogue, and painfully patronizing speeches to the camera. But after Alex wins over the town by relating the sad story of his grandpa’s death at Hurricane Katrina’s hands, the father-daughter minister team and the show end on the note that there is still a lot to be done for the African-American community, and that King’s dream must live on. To prove their inspirational commitment, they enact a ritual cleansing of all the town’s cars (perhaps because, following Marcuse’s fears of a “one-dimensional society,” “they find their soul in their automobile”?).

The next day, on Tuesday, January 24th, WB and UPN announced that they would merge, forming a new network called CW. Both networks have struggled individually, rarely pulling in more than a fraction of the total audience that their Big Four competition manage, even if garnering enviable Nielsen ratings with young women and girls, in the case of WB, and with African-Americans in the case of UPN (UPN regularly places 4 or 5 times on the Nielsens Top 10 for African-American audiences). WB has had two profitable years, UPN none. Starting next TV year, therefore, CW’s newly anointed head Dawn Ostroff will aim to bring the network’s two constituents’ schedules together into one. In this column, I ask what would Alex think? Inspired by John Hartley’s recent knighting of me as a Ghost of Television Future, here I try to peer into the channel’s future, to see if it’s “got MLK.”

It would be nice to think that this episode of Seventh Heaven was WB CEO Barry Meyer’s cute way of telling WB viewers to prepare for their own African-American transfer students. After all, the WB is pretty darned white: trying to spot the Black kid in Everwood, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Charmed, Related, Reba, or Smallville is a hard task (though, in fairness it should be said that Smallville used to have a semi-regular African-American character … played by Sam Jones III, no less). With several critical and ratings successes like Everybody Hates Chris and the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model likely to make the transfer, loyal WB viewers will find more African-Americans on their screens than they’ve seen since vampire-with-a-soul Angel found a Black sidekick in an L.A. street gang.

However, rather than see this cute message, I instead see irony. Sad irony. After giving us a well-meaning (even if poorly delivered) message about King’s dream, the next morning, WB and UPN woke us up and cancelled the car wash. While Everybody Hates Chris and maybe a couple of other UPN shows with African-American casts (Eve? Girlfriends?) will make the cut, many won’t … or, look for a politically correct CW to keep them around for half a season just for appearances. Ostroff has already confirmed CW’s interest in keeping Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Reba, Beauty and the Geek, America’s Next Top Model, em>Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars, and WWE, which adds up to 9 of her 13 primetime hours. Add two of Charmed, Everwood, and One Tree Hill, and a few new shows, and there’s no room left on the ark.

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Certainly, if, as is claimed, CW wants to become a successful rival to the Big Four, it won’t do so by being an odd combination of two niche audiences — teen girls, and African-Americans. But in the commercial faceoff between the youth market and the African-American market, history tells us who wins: the kids have it. By combining the best of WB and UPN, CW seems quite well poised to challenge Fox as the network of America’s youth, a title that would promise it lucrative ad dollars from an industry yearning to find ways to reach the often broadcast-weary teens. Meanwhile, given CW half-owner CBS’ success with older audiences, a youth channel would be ideal for this corporate parent to widen its portfolio. In other words, it seems fairly certain that CW will jettison more than just a few shows that are popular with African-American audiences, and more than just a few African-American above-the-line cast and crew. Gone, too, will be a programming interest in and dedication to African-Americans. Call it the Follow in Fox’s Foot-Steps Plan.

Such is the sad state of diversity in the industry that CW will still no doubt be one of the more diverse networks. After all, this is the same business where ABC’s commissioning of The George Lopez Show literally doubled the total number of Latino/a characters in primetime across all networks (other than Univision). ABC will likely keep the mantle of most diverse programmer, given Lopez, Freddie, and mixed-cast wonderkids Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. And CBS, FOX, and NBC are all slowly, slowly edging towards mixed casts. But even if only, say, Everybody Hates Chris, Eve, and America’s Next Top Model make the cut, that still represents more African-American primary roles than in CBS’s entire primetime schedule.

But what kind of characters are there? Here, we reach a dilemma in discussing hopes for CW’s future. Either they drop UPN’s commitment to programming for and with African-Americans completely, or they mix it with WB’s commitment to young, urban, and funky youth, and in the process give us a very tired stereotypical image of African-American life. As is, UPN has African-American cast members of many ages, but if CW heads in the direction of WB, the majority of its African-Americans left on primetime will be young and hip. What about the older African-Americans, and what about those who aren’t paragons of cool? I worry that African-Americans will be welcomed to CW only if they conform to the stereotypes of the guy who’ll bring the cool music to the party, the sassy supermodel who knows how to strut down the catwalk with ‘tude, or the bur-in-his-saddle jock wanting another Black History Month.

Ultimately, though, CW is only half of the equation here, since we also need to ask after the affiliates left behind. Here my crystal ball grows opaque. And a final, overarching concern regards what this merger does to the media landscape more generally. But the prospects at this time seem grim for a step forward in racial diversity in American primetime. No car wash, no MLK: just An Important Episode every once in a while starring Sam Jones III and a Honda Element.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of Seventh Heaven

2. the cast of Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.

“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI


More and more frequently the networks are scheduling encore presentations of certain television programs on nights other than when they are normally scheduled. Although it makes some sense to do this with heavily serialized programs that require repetitive viewing patterns so that the overriding story arcs can become coherent, this phenomenon is not relegated to these types of programs. In fact, it seems more common to implement this strategy with programs that are not serialized.

In order to illustrate this claim, a quick survey of the scheduling grid from shows us that the networks have largely abandoned Saturday night programming. NBC has scheduled a repeat of each of the three variations of its Law & Order series. CBS responds by counterprogramming repeats of Cold Case and Numb3rs. ABC shows a movie of the week and FOX has relegated itself to providing Cops and America’s Most Wanted–two shows that are very inexpensive to create. In terms of content, this night of television viewing seems to share crime and justice as a common semantic thread. Furthermore, these shows are not heavily serialized. In fact, the Law & Orders are arguably some of the least complex shows — at least in terms of a serialized narrative structure — currently on the air. Viewers do not need to concern themselves with missing episodes because they can always revisit them later in syndication. Furthermore, they simply do not need to keep up with an ongoing storyline in order to comprehend them.

More importantly, the Saturday night programming grid illustrates the networks’ unwillingness to invest in this night of the week. This unwillingness emphasizes the industry’s reliance on a specific demographic category of viewers — 18-35 year-olds. These viewers are presumed to be involved in other activities on Saturday nights. This also indicates that the industry prefers urban viewers who have more options for Saturday night activities than their rural counterparts. In short, the networks’ nearly complete abandonment of Saturday night is a strong indicator of the disappearance of the mass audience in favor of niche audiences. Cable television’s wide acceptance and presence has permanently altered the televisual landscape signaling the end of the networks’ Golden Age. The networks are quickly becoming just one more channel option among cable and satellite television’s much larger complex of offerings.

Law and Order

Law and Order

Are increased channel and program offerings enough to cause this programming strategy? The short answer is no. Commercial television always has been and will be about the commercials not the shows. It seems logical to assume that the program offerings on Saturday night are more indicative of a lack of advertising dollars than a change in programming strategies. In other words, the advertising is the cause to the programming’s effect. If this were a matter of programming, then the networks would have chosen to schedule serialized shows during these times. This would make logical sense because then the networks could help to ensure that they continue attracting a stable and consistent audience to shows that require more dedication from the viewing public than those they have chosen. The networks’ choices to not do this may also tell us something about the changing technological landscape and viewing behaviors.

Beginning with video-cassette recorders and extending with the fairly rapid acceptance of black box technologies, like TiVo, viewers have begun to wield more control over their individual or even family viewing situations. The viewers have always been in control of the vertical axis of the programming grid (schedule) with their abilities to change channels on a moment’s notice, but these newer technologies have allowed viewers to step into the domain once controlled by the industry — the horizontal axis of the grid. In short, the viewer can alter time by skipping commercials or recording programs for viewing at more convenient times. This may be particularly important to families living in time zones that have been often ignored by programmers. Shows, like CSI or My Name Is Earl, that parents might have avoided in the past because their kids were in the room at 7 or 8 p.m. CST can now easily be shifted to later in the evening when the kids have been put to bed.

This level of viewer control represents a double-edged sword for the networks. Although these technologies may allow an increase in the cumulative audience size, they also allow viewers to avoid the networks’ primary revenue source — the commercials. In effect the potential advertisers must consider whether the various ratings reports they are presented by advertising sales people actually equate to increased viewers for the spots they purchase.

This means that other advertising opportunities, like product placement or outright program sponsorship, may become more enticing opportunities for advertisers, both now and in the future. We do not have to look much further than the overt sponsorships of programs like Extreme Home Makeover and The Apprentice to see this tactic coming to fruition. If the programs that rely heavily on these tactics begin to pop up on the Saturday night schedule in the near future, then we will begin to realize that time slots for programming, like most everything else on commercial television, can easily be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. More than anything, Saturday night programming can be used as a barometer for the industry — even if it seems unimportant or currently ignored. The bottom line for critics is that we should regularly emphasize the commercial in commercial television. This is aspect that steers the industrial ship. The scheduling grid is the destination to where we, as critics and audience members, were driven to in the process.

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

Please feel free to comment.

“AZN Television: The Network for Asian America”

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz



In March 2005, a new American television network launched. It was a quiet affair, announced mostly word-of-mouth and through the Asian American independent film festival circuit. AZN — “The Network for Asian America” — currently broadcasts in a handful of major markets including Los Angeles, The Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and Houston. It’s too early to know how the network is doing and who is watching it, but it’s a good time to consider the emergence, significance, and implications of television targeted towards Asian Americans.

What is Asian American television? As in defining ‘what is television’ more generally, we begin with the level of the text, include a consideration of the production context, and of course, emphasize the level of the reader or audience. At the same time, the concept of Asian American television floats as an open signifier, filled in by various parties and perspectives. For example, some non-Asian Americans might assume it means Asian product, and indeed, AZN regularly airs films (subtitled) from Asia; likewise, advertisers might not be clear about how to market to Asian Americans as distinct from Asian immigrants; and Asian American viewers themselves are newly discovering what Asian American television is, simply for the fact that it has never existed before.

So does it come down to the producers and programmers at ethnic networks to define “ethnic programming?” Is carving out a niche for the vastly diverse Asian and Asian American populations viable? How might looking at other ethnic networks (BET, Univision) inform the development of Asian American television, in terms of content as well as business structure? There are philosophical questions too. Following the observation/criticism that the television landscape might be gaining in diversity but in a way that amounts to segregated programming, is racial programming like racial profiling?

It Speaks Your Language

I do believe that Asian American programs — and at the least, programs with rich Asian American characters — are important and needed. How such programs are programmed (i.e., on a niche channel, basic cable channel, or major network channel) is a separate though related question. The promo for the niche network, AZN, is a quickly-paced montage of images and personalities from shows on the network which announces in a hip, young, male voiceover:

“It’s television that speaks to you, by you, for you. It’s AZN prime, redefined. Prime-time programming in English, you know, your language. Every night starting at 7 p.m. … Only on AZN Television, the Network for Asian America.”

The “you” is clearly an Asian American person. The address and appeal are direct, forging an affirmation of Asian American viewers — as consumers and citizens. Moreover, it announces the concept of ‘Asian America’ (we haven’t heard the term African America, or Native America). This emphasizes a declaration of belonging, that Asians are located here, in America. The following are statements from the promo for the New York-based ImagineAsianTV, which also declares a sense of place (both promos can be viewed at the respective network’s website):

“What does it mean to have an all-Asian network?
It’s a place where I can relate, where I can call home. …
On general TV, there’s nothing I can relate to. We never get to see people like us on TV — unless it’s the computer geek, grocery owner, Chinese delivery boy. imagineasiantv has the potential to make us feel worthy and proud.”{emphasis mine}

The promo ends with actors repeating the name “imagineasiantv!” in a victorious tone. First, both names of networks are clever: “AZN” are like call letters, or a sorority/fraternity organization — a club — for those who identify as azn; “imagineasian” of course, sounds like “imagination,” connoting creative, innovative programming for those in the know. Second, both networks carry the theme of being able to ‘see myself’ — one’s reflection, or people like us — thus asserting a subjectivity for Asian Americans, one that hardly exists in mainstream film and television stories; these are stories about (and “for”) Asian Americans. Third, the programs are created “by you,” meaning by Asian Americans, in a way that does not humiliate or dismiss and instead makes you/us feel worthy and proud; there is a sense that trust is fostered based on authorship because the writers/producers know where the viewers are coming from — and visa-versa. And fourth, both networks indirectly express that the need for Asian American television networks stems from a deficiency in “general TV” which does not seem to be a hospitable realm where Asian Americans matter or register in any significant way. AZN and ImagineAsianTV give Asian Americans priority.


The AZN Network has its roots in the International Channel. The former, ichannel, has been re-branded as AZN Television. The channel now targets the fast-growing, young, affluent and English-speaking Asian American community with original programming produced in the U.S. I also read the following line in a recent article about ANZ being picked up by a large Houston cable operator:

“Programs are in various Asian languages, with many of them subtitled in English to accommodate more acculturated Asian American and non-Asian viewers.”

On one hand, part of the discourse surrounding AZN flatters Asian Americans as a desirable demographic. But another part of the discourse reminds Asian Americans of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) foreign status as some are more “acculturated” than others, and moreover, as they stand apart from the “non-Asian” viewer, i.e., American and white. Is this a schizophrenia linked to the larger social and discursive struggle to define Asian American — as ‘American’ or ‘Asian’? There are both Asian American (U.S. produced in English) and Asian programs (Asian-produced in other languages) on AZN and imagineasiantv. Why and how does this constitute Asian American programming?

The program line-ups on the AZN schedule are organized according to broad, somewhat loosely defined genres, and the days of the week: AZN MOVIES, ANIME, ORIGINALS (“Fresh, new original programs from leading Asian American talent”), which to me, is the most significant form of programming in that it unequivocally fits the category of Asian American television. Noticeably, many of the original shows are about Asian Americans in the media and popular culture. Programs such as POPCORN ZEN, CINEMA AZN, THE BRIDGE, and STIR TV feature Asian Americans working in the film, music, and fashion industries. Continuing during the week: DRAMAS, VARIETY, specifically music-related programs (“Asian recording artists are now among the creative forces in the worldwide music scene”), NEWS (the news programming that I saw was in Korean, and was not subtitled), and MASALA, a diverse mix of programming produced in India and/or geared towards a South Asian audience.

Speaking of masala and a mixing of elements, not only is there a dual address in terms of the U.S. produced-English and imported-Asian language programming, but also in terms of the shows’ making an appeal to young, hip viewers while the advertisements jump suddenly to topics of home equity loans and life insurance. Examples of the numerous 1800-ads that fill the commercial spots are for Ditech lenders, CreditGuard of America, SMC start-your-own-business, and dental insurance. Also consistent are the advertisements for the U.S. Army; along with the commercials for Devry, these could be seen as being aimed at twenty-something people of color and/or immigrants or children of immigrants. This, however, is a different path to upward-mobility than that which is connoted in AZN’s own advertisements.

From the Ford Fusion Website

From the Ford Fusion Website

The one sponsor that stands out as not discordant is Ford Fusion, whose style of advertisement is similar to the way-cool Mitsubishi ad campaign (you’d recognize the tune upon hearing it, and might even begin to bob your head in rhythm). Moreover, you can visit a special Ford Fusion website which features a kind of television show, with pseudo characters all of whom are Asian/Asian American. What is fascinating about this ad campaign and its employment of what I identify as ‘Asianess,’ is that the origin and location of these characters in their cool cars is transparent and moveable: when you enter the website, you choose a language — English, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese — and only the printed words change, all the images of faces, fashion, cityscapes, and streets remain the same. This signifies, literally and figuratively, the Pan-Asian disposition that I think AZN is taking. Moreover, it expands the notion of Pan-Asian beyond Asia, indicating a fluidity between Asia and the United States.

Brautwurst and Wasabi

So the “open signifier” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is filled with Pan-Asianess, which comes to signify Asian American television on AZN. One of AZN’s most frequently run promos reveals this message. In it, Eugene Lee the host of POPCORN ZEN says “when two things collide — like brautwurst and wasabi,” Holly who hosts XBYTES and is of mixed Asian heritage from Hawai’i, says, “if you have two different ideas,” an Asian American man adds, “two different things,” and an Indian American woman says, “bam! they come together”…”You’ve got to check this out.” The historical goal of cable television was to promote and enable diversity. Many agree that this hasn’t necessarily happened. AZN is filling at least one empty frequency on the (proverbial!) dial.

Some may criticize the existence of ethnic-specific cable channels that provide content “for and by” specific ethnic groups as essentialist, but at this racial-historical juncture, the need for ethnic-specific networks and programming is acute. A new African American cable channel has recently come on to the scene. TV One is a joint venture between Radio One, the nation’s largest black-oriented radio broadcaster, and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Kristal Brent Zook has written that TV One acknowledges an eclectic group of urban and upscale viewers, and “represents a welcome change for an industry plagued by UPN sitcoms like HOMEBOYS FROM OUTERSPACE.” While she argues that some in the industry “just don’t get it” that Black people are not monolithic, AZN seems to pitch its programming fare to a single Asian America. According to Nielsen estimates, Asian Americans represent 3.8% of all American TV households, though this number increases dramatically in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the figure is 11.4%, and San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 19.6% of the television audience. Whether ethnic niche cable networks like AZN have decided to acknowledge, affirm, and attract Asian Americans as a matter of politics or a matter of profit is inconsequential to the fact that it answers a similar call MTV viewers shouted out 20 years ago: I want my A(ZN)TV!

MTV Desi

Image Credits:

1. AZN TV Logo

2. From the Ford Fusion Website

Please feel free to comment.

The August Audience

The axed Invasion

The axed Invasion

With September behind us, American television is once more culling its young, as the least successful of the Fall 2005 class of new programs are sent to the chopping block to appease Madison Avenue. For all the advertising dollars spent and promotional appearances booked, channels that have spent the last four months insisting that this or that show will be the next great thing are now all too easily sending this or that show away for summary execution. The whole process would seem very Greek if it wasn’t so American.

What is perhaps even more interesting is the mass of either eulogies or expressions of thanks being voiced by viewers across the nation. If such pronouncements followed the death of longer-lived shows, we would more easily understand the built-up sentiment behind them. But maybe mourning or cheering the death of a newly minted show isn’t all that strange. Life between seasons, after all, involves a great deal of pre-viewing: watching ads for a show, reading interviews or sneak preview reviews, seeing stars appear on latenight television, visiting innovative advertising websites (such as Invasion’s, which poses as a conspiracy theory blog written by one of the characters), and engaging in tentative discussion about what to expect and what is hoped for. By the time a “new” show begins, it is often quite “old.” Pre-viewing television has become a major part of being a television viewer, and “watching television” also means talking about what to watch, being enticed to watch some shows, and deciding not to watch others. This talk is particularly active in-between seasons, but is truly a yearlong activity (“Did you see this? No? You must!”, “Is that any good?”, “That show looks awful!”, “I can’t wait for that to begin,” etc.).

But if this is true, many of television studies’ established models of reading and interpretation would seem to need some work. Take, for instance, Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model (1980), whereby a text is produced, imbued with meaning, but then readers are exposed to it and interpret it, sometimes creating their own meaning, sometimes following the producers’ meaning. This would seem intuitive enough. Except, when we pre-view, there is no official text for us to interact with. We may have textual fragments or shards of textual information, but no actual program. If we were all “good” readers, and refused to interpret the text at this point, encoding/decoding may still apply. But many of us are “bad” readers, and we feel quite happy and qualified to judge the text and to interpret it before actually being given the text. Encoding/pre-decoding, in other words.

For instance, I have not liked Fox’s new The War at Home for several months now. The mixture of its star and the show’s obvious allusions to Married with Children combined two (for me) odious intertexts. I have only seen a few clips of the show in previews, but never the actual show, and I have every intent of avoiding the program. Nevertheless, I have decoded it already, and thus could comment on and react to its overall aesthetic, its political values, and its proposed appeals.

The War at Home

The War at Home

Some Flow readers may well bemoan what they see as my ignorant reading of the text. That misses the sociological point: poor or astute, it is my reading. And being the kind of person I am, I will likely try to convince others of my reading, so that my reading (poor, astute, or otherwise) will “infect” others’ readings. I am playing the pre-viewing game.

I offer this as only one example, but the world of television offers many such examples. There are simply too many shows to watch all of them, much less to watch all of all of them. So we pre-decode, with relish and with wild abandon.

Yet, while “we” as viewers act this way, “we” as analysts frequently forget this point. If we want to measure an audience’s reaction to a text, we like to show them the program; if we want to see what a text means, we watch that program closely. We might decode, or consult others for their decodings — and yet ignore pre-decodings. Which means, by default, that we think of a text largely in terms of how it speaks to those who invest significant time with the text. All of those whose engagement with the text is brief, or those who actively despise a text, fear it, and want it off the air — these are the viewers our methods tend to ignore.

The sociological problem here is significant. For any program could well mean something not just to those who watch, but also to those who don’t, and, as I am arguing here, to those who don’t yet.

Returning, though, to the Fall culling of shows, this seemingly strange and cruel act reveals the industry’s own realization of the primacy of pre-viewing. After all, if a studio head feels comfortable axing a show after two episodes, it is not really because s/he feels that viewers have failed to engage with the characters and plot: it is because the previews failed to connect with enough viewers to bring in critical mass for the first two episodes.

So my humble suggestion (other than to avoid The War at Home) would be for us to go after the pre-viewer. The industry certainly wants to know about this figure, for s/he is the key to securing high advertising rates. But we should too, since s/he is also the key to understanding how viewers choose what (and how) to watch — a decision that precedes any and all decoding. Where is the pre-viewer addressed? How? By whom, and/or by what? Rather than pick up the audience in September or October, in other words, how can we study the audience in August?

Hall, Stuart (1980). “Encoding, Decoding,” in Hall et al. (eds) Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979. London: Unwin Hyman, 128-38.

Image Credits:

1. The axed Invasion

2. The War at Home

Please feel free to comment.

Television’s Gated Communities

by: Megan Mullen / University of Wisconsin-Parkside

WealthTV Logo
WealthTV Logo

In 1989 James Carey wrote, “Communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.” Nearly every communication scholar, from undergraduate to tenured professor, knows this passage. Surveying the 2005 scenario of rapidly converging and relatively unregulated media industries in the United States sheds a thought-provoking light on this seminal statement. At a time when U.S. television was still dominated by three broadcast networks, people from different backgrounds had something to share, even if it only revolved around a previous evening’s television programs. Today, people are moving away from any kind of shared cultural experience — moving both literally and symbolically into segregated or “gated” communities, from prisons to housing projects to singles condos to suburban subdivisions. Literal gated communities, though, are more a symptom than a cause of social separation and stratification. We cannot be fully part of the physical communities we inhabit if we do not also feel addressed (interpellated) as members of those communities. This should not be surprising to anyone familiar with those contemporary market research strategies that “know” more about us than we know about ourselves.

Recent experiences have made me ponder the near future of consumer targeting and segregation. First, some Business colleagues at my university contacted me, seeking input on a project related to targeted cable advertising. Though greatly flattered to have been asked to share my expertise, I left with some troubling thoughts about the erosion of even the most vestigial notion of universal television service. While I was still thinking about this, an article appeared in the New York Times on “The Future of the 30-Second Spot.” Writer Lorne Manly identifies several specific firms actively pursuing technologies that “behave like a smarter version of direct mail.” He explains that, increasingly, “ads can be customized, not just by neighborhood, but ultimately by household and perhaps by viewing habits.” Clearly, my colleagues are not alone in their ambitions!

I wonder, since the technologies enabling such a refined level of targeting are still in the expensive trial stages, isn’t it likely that the first uses of the technology will be for high-end products aimed at affluent consumers? Doesn’t it therefore also seem likely that these technologies will reach upscale niche cable networks long before they reach broadcast television or even cable’s more affordable basic tier(s)? And then, when these technologies allow niche services to generate whatever levels of profits their owners desire, what quality of television programming and services will be available to the rest of us?

Shortly after reading Manly’s article, I attended the National Cable Television Association’s annual convention (“The Cable Show”) in San Francisco. There I observed the scenario I was concerned about actually coming to pass. Several of the higher-end programming services being touted involved pay-per-view and pay-per-download technologies that would eliminate traditional commercials. The programming they offer (“lifestyle” shows, in many instances) is well suited to product placement and even covert infomercials. The content will be tailored to the perceived tastes of high-end consumers (or at least people aspiring to those lifestyles). The newly launched digital and pay-per-view service Wealth TV both symbolizes and epitomizes this, with the slogan, “It’s your life … Spend it well.”

Scannable ID badges worn by all Cable Show attendees offered a convenient (almost facile) metaphor for what I was witnessing. At a network’s exhibit booth, a delegate would scan visitors’ badges, thereby assessing their relevance to the network’s business goals. Needless to say, a college professor is greeted with far less enthusiasm than a cable operator! I wasn’t prevented from taking informational brochures and logo-emblazoned freebies. So I wasn’t exactly barred from participation, but I wasn’t being courted, either. I’d say my place there was analogous to the lower- or even average-income television viewers I envision in the near future–barraged with meaningless and annoying traditional commercials, but not particularly desired by any. The programming won’t be much better than the commercials themselves.


Such a situation points out the dramatic shift in fortunes for the cable industry over the half-century of its existence. Throughout the 1960s, policymakers — ever mindful of the FCC’s local service doctrine — “flip-flopped” considerably as to whether community antennas (early cable) were a threat or a benefit to television service in smaller communities. At this stage of cable history, the mere continuation of the cable industry depended on an ability to weather shifting conceptualizations of democracy in television service. It is all too easy to forget how, when, and why this changed. By the 1970s, most visions of cable being bandied about by policymakers and the general public involved the fabled “cornucopia” of specialty services, with relatively little mention of localism as a form of specialization. Deregulatory fervor on various fronts allowed cable to move toward the least expensive programming schemes, the most widespread appeal, and the most convenient technologies.

Although the eclectic mix of inexpensively programmed cable networks that sprang up from the late 1970s through the early 1990s caused many observers to doubt that cable would ever compete with broadcast television, much less surpass it in setting programming precedents, a look around the exhibit hall of the Cable Show reminded me that it has done just that. The modern cable industry, now flush with resources, offers a programming cornucopia more varied than anyone in the 1970s ever could have imagined. And yet the one overwhelming theme of what cable television has to offer today is the pursuit of affluence — in program content, in the selection of networks, in levels of service, and in delivery technologies.

Half a century ago television set ownership identified a family as fairly well off. Quite simply, it allowed them to receive television signals — period — whether over-the-air or via community antenna. Today, with around 99% penetration, television set ownership is no longer a symbol of prestige, nor is a cable subscription. Both now mark people as “average.” This is about to change. In the near future those of us with the means will select content tailored to the lifestyle we’re most accustomed to, watch and listen to that content through consumer technologies — ranging from large-screen televisions to cell phones — that also connote social position, and share our experiences with people deemed most similar to us by market research companies. So where once U.S. television embodied a shared popular culture, now it (and technologies poised to subsume it) is becoming the metaphor for a culture of gated communities. If the reified separation I’ve considered here increasingly is our reality, then that reality is being produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed by technologies that, each day, become more sophisticated in their ability to address and flatter us based on socio-economic attributes.

Image Credit
1. WealthTV Logo
2. WealthTV

Carey, James H. Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Manly, Lorne. “The Future of the 30-Second Spot.” New York Times 27 Mar. 2005: 1+ [2 pp.] Sec 3.

Please feel free to comment.

Why Media Scholars Should Write Corporate Histories

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

Several trade publications have received notices that last month was the tenth anniversary of the launch of WB and UPN, the fifth and sixth broadcast TV networks, dubbed by the trades in their argot as “weblets.” My quick check of Lexis-Nexis showed no mention of the anniversary by major newspapers. Why should they mention the date? No compelling news reason. UPN and WB have not amounted to much. Indeed, reading their histories showed that they were not conceived to do much either. But it is precisely this lack of performance that should draw the attention of media historians if only because no one else will write their histories. Certainly corporate historians and trade journals write for an audience who are constantly worried only about the next new thing. They neither ask the right questions nor can afford the perspective of a historian. Despite this I should pause to praise trade journals such as Variety for often having a critical analytical eye particularly when the late A.D. Murphy was still writing for them. But we cannot hope that they should do our work for us, only that they provide the data with which we can ask our questions.

Data has become increasingly hard to come by since the days of dealing with companies that do just one thing are long gone. Indeed the big headline about UPN and WB, that neither network had a profitable year, was ignored or obscured by the various tenth anniversary notices. No profits! This is in complete contrast to the fourth network, Fox, which reached profits within five years of its launch in 1987. Nonetheless it took a phone call to a former weblet topper to confirm the hints I had gathered from the reports that these networks do not earn profits. Indeed he stated that they never will which I will discuss below. Why are such basic facts hard to come by? John Sinclair reported in a previous issue of this journal, that one unintended consequence of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act was to obscure advertising revenue trends. In general, the last two decades have been bad for watching financial trends in TV and film. When the cosmic media mergers of the 1980s occurred, the annual reports became increasingly useless since the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require revenue reports on individual divisions and does not standardize the way corporations break down their divisions into filmed entertainment, broadcast and cable operations, and foreign and domestic revenue sources. The annual reports rarely divide revenue sources into royalties and distribution, which, of course, would help both insiders and outsiders to see what is really going on.

WB is a division of Time-Warner and UPN is controlled (not always owned) by Viacom. So we are left with estimates and rumors for these weblets that are not stand alone companies but are owned by shifting partnerships and conglomerates, none of whom need to break out figures for one division in their annual reports. One can read Electronic Media carefully and note estimates of losses ranging from $93 million for WB in 1999/2000 and $200 million for UPN the next year. But it is suspect to construct a year-to-year chart of estimates and rumors and therefore tracking trends in earnings becomes a matter of opinion, the bane of scholarship. The trades glossed over a failed and unprofitable record by noting the few successes. They also rationalized the lack of profits by noting that the weblets work as launching pads for the successful syndication of shows ranging from the Star Trek spin-offs to Smallville. Other media companies have benefited. For example, The News Corporation very successfully syndicated Buffy, The Vampire Slayer to both weblets and back again to its own cable channel; FX. World Wrestling Federation does well with its Smackdown series on UPN. Success for other companies is not necessarily a bad thing for the networks since they are part of an oligopolistic industry that has many interlocking relationships.

The oligopoly of co-productions, of networks having affiliations with stations that are owned by conglomerates that own other divisions that compete with the networks, and other dizzy co-relationships, is perhaps the greatest challenge to the media scholar. The language of cutthroat competitive capitalism still permeates the entertainment industry. The trades still take it seriously as do the writers of the numerous executive biographies that take space away from us poor academics in the media section of Barnes and Noble. But read carefully, competition rarely is little more than a kind of ego game that motivates executives to keep score. It rarely matters to the bottom line anymore. Time Warner and Viacom are too big to worry whether the weblets make money in their primary business. They did not even create them to make money but to merely protect themselves in the syndication market as the federal government rescinded the Finance and Syndication rules in 1993. These rules were put into effect in 1970 to keep production and distribution separate and to enhance competition. They may not have had the desired effect but their elimination certainly has not improved diversity.

It is perhaps a sign of how little vision the companies had in creating the weblets that they hired the executives trained by Barry Diller in his truly pioneering creation of Fox, the fourth network in 1987. Fox Broadcasting Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of The News Corporation, which also owns the production company, Twentieth Century Fox, pushed the legal bounds on every front, particularly in blurring the line between the network and the syndication business. A compliant federal government accommodated them as they coyly avoided the technical definition of being a network, and as the NewsCorp. CEO Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen to skirt rules on foreign nationals owning American broadcast stations. In turn, it is argued that Fox actually did create new original programming and competed with the big three networks forcing them into a different line of programming. But Fox’s originality was limited to parody and paranoia, and arguably did not extend to creating new genres or new ways of using TV.

Thus it seems purely defensive for corporations to hire Diller protégés to merely do what Diller had already done in a landscape that no longer had room for copycats. Perhaps the weblets are proof that media based solely on advertising as the single revenue stream has reached a limit. But do we know without good numbers? Do we know how to maximize the possibilities of broadcast television? There is no policy pressure for new businesses and new ideas. Diversity through the fake “competition” of late capitalism has proven to be a policy joke. There is little hope for new policies, not only because we have a regressive administration, but also because there is little analysis to support new policies. Certainly the trades and the journalists remain bound to the frames provided by the media conglomerates. It is only the academics who can provide such analyses. While the situation was profoundly different, let us remember that at the same time Fox was being created, Great Britain was creating Channel Four with guidance from academics and media historians. Of course they had the numbers and the understanding of a far more transparent broadcast system.

It is probably at this point that you are asking what about all that good stuff on American cable. Maybe there is some good stuff here and there as there was in the heyday of the big three networks. Still it is not enough to stop reflecting that on the tenth anniversary of UPN and WB, there must be a better way to allocate resources for our media. There must be some way to stop paying for “going through all these things twice.” Let’s begin the analysis.


Greppi, Michele. (2001, June 18th). “It’s Nervous Time for UPN Execs.” Electronic Media. P.3.

Freeman, Michael. (2000, July 31st). “Mergers Prove it’s a Small World.” Electronic Media. P. 3.

Littleton, Cynthia. (2005, January 11th). “A Tale of Two Networks.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.24-25, 32.

Littleton, Cynthia, and Kimberly Speight. (2005, January 11th). “Supply Line.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.26, 32.

Sinclair, John. (2005, January 21st). “Global Advertising Data SOX-ed Up.” Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1.8.

Wallenstein, Andrew. (2005, January 11th). “Creative Outlet.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.28, 32. Interview with Dean Valentine, February 8th, 2005.

UPN Homepage
WB Homepage

Please feel free to comment.

An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,


Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
International Cooking Links

Please feel free to comment.